Anyone walking thorough Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yehuda Market soon learns the real meaning of “rubbing shoulders” (literally) with people from all walks of life and nationalities. On Fridays, especially, both covered and open markets are incredibly crowded – and lively. It’s exciting to hear the unceasing cries of merchants hawking their produce, and the displays of fruit, vegetables and spices in riotous color are a feast for the eyes.
Hard to believe that the market started out as an open-air Arab bazaar over a hundred years ago.
On your next visit to Jerusalem, whether tourist or Israeli, experience for yourself the exquisite sounds and sights of the marketplace. Stroll down tiny lanes whose names sound like the market itself: Shaked, Haruv, Afarsek, Shazif, Egoz, Tut, Tapuah And Agas (Almond, Carob, Peach, Plum, Walnut, Mulberry, Apple and Pear). And while you are here in the Holy City, why not wander through the picturesque Ohel Moshe neighborhood – background for a famous play – right across the road?
Master storyteller Eliyahu Banai was one of the earliest merchants to set up shop on Agas (pear) Street in Mahane Yehuda. And that’s where his famous grandson Yossi grew up, in a tiny apartment above the family’s vegetable stand. Yossi Banai, who died of cancer in 2006, inherited his grandfather’s talents: in 1998 he received the Israel Prize for his immense contribution to Israeli theater as actor, playwright and chansonnier. Many of his best comedy sketches were about his childhood in Mahane Yehuda and the surrounding neighborhoods.
A Star of David with Eliyahu’s name is carved into the lintel of the house where the Banai family lived, as they absorbed the sounds and sights of the market and the atmosphere of early New Jerusalem.
Sign of the times: the former vegetable stand has become an organic coffee shop. Nearby, the Etrog Medicine Man sells spiritual potions.
Agas Street has been renamed Eliahu Banai Street, and ends in a wide boulevard beautifully renovated by the Jerusalem Municipality. The City paved the road of this Open Market with granite, and replaced eight sad little street lights with 50 new ones. It also planted saplings, and ordered merchants to cover newly restored store fronts with colorful awnings.
One narrow alley descends down to the Iraqi Market, established in 1935; Yossi Banai called it the “little market behind the big market” in one of his songs. Here, in addition to food stands, dozens of elderly men spend hour upon hour drinking, chatting, and playing cards or backgammon.
On any given day in this very atmospheric market, you may find musicians playing their instruments, ultra-Orthodox men preaching to bystanders, or people hoping for alms. We regularly purchase hot cheese and spinach borekas in the open air market and enjoy them at tables in the middle of the action.
Both the covered and the open markets are located between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street, two of the city’s main thoroughfares. Directly across from the Agrippas side of the market stands Ohel Moshe, one of the city’s earliest neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, across the street…
Founded in 1883, the neighborhood was built by and for religious Sephardic Jews as a direct answer to the adjacent Ashkenazi neighborhood of Mazkeret Moshe. Instead of Yiddish, residents here spoke Ladino, a Spanish dialect with Hebrew elements.
There are three parts to the unusual monument that crowns the arched entrance to Ohel Moshe. A circle on top bears the name of the neighborhood and the date of its establishment. Below, “Moses Montefiore” is engraved into two square plaques in English and in Arabic. The center plaque is a larger testimonial in Hebrew to Montefiore, whose money funded the neighborhood.
Residents grew vegetables in the gardens of Ohel Moshe, a particularly lovely neighborhood due to a clause in the contract between future inhabitants and the Montefiore Fund: in order to get the money, residents had to promise that they would plant trees and gardens.
Former president and playwright Yitzhak Navon was born in Ohel Moshe, and people familiar with the neighborhood find it easy to understand why he wrote nostalgically of his childhood haunts. In fact among the first lines in Navon’s famous play Bustan Sephardi (Sephardi Orchard) are the words: “Each time I am in Jerusalem my legs take me here to the neighborhood…”
Ohel Moshe boasts the lovely Beit Avraham and Ohel Sarah, originally a house built in 1925 by Jewish immigrants from the Greek town of Yanina and later transformed into a synagogue. Yanina housed the largest Jewish community in Greece, dating back to the days of Alexander the Great. Their special language, a combination of Greek and Hebrew called Romaniote, hinted of their long history in that ancient land (as opposed to Sephardic Jews who “only “ made it to Greece after 1492). The vast majority of Yanina’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis.
A very unusual ark is found in another synagogue, called Ohel Moshe. Made of wood, it is painted in turquoise and yellow with sculpted wooden poles. Atop the ark, the orange crown is brightly lit. Because the synagogue owns so many Torah scrolls (16) there are additional arks on each side of the main ark. One scroll, dating back to 1841 and written in Iran, was a gift from Moshe Montefiore – and is so full of silver that it can barely be lifted.
Completed in 1887, Ohel Moshe Synagogue was for many years the only Sephardic house of worship in this area and was central to life in the neighborhood. On the ground floor, in addition to a cistern and the house that served the synagogue caretaker, there was a communal oven filled with Sabbath dishes whose fragrance drove worshipers crazy during prayers.
A one-room synagogue along a minuscule lane was built in 1890 by childless Yom Tov Taranto: he hoped that the contribution would result in the birth of a son. It is so small that worshipers more or less took over the lane, covering it and adding benches for women who frequently peek through the window. Old timers relate that in the evening, renowned sages studied together with simple folk. And since the synagogue was open 24 hours a day, anyone in trouble or with a special request could come in and read from the Psalms whenever he wanted.
Ohel Moshe is filled with signs (in English) relating the history of the neighborhood and offering fascinating insights into its benefactor. Some of the signs are accompanied by photos of Ohel Moshe’s 19th-century residents, Sephardic pioneers like Cohen the Dairyman, who left the safety of the Old City walls to become part of New Jerusalem.
Our favorite sign is located at Isaac Levy Square.
The strange wedding photo next to the text has bride Rivka and groom David looking as if they would rather be anywhere but under the hupa (wedding canopy) together.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. This article is adapated from chapters in the book.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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