As Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market celebrates its centennial, there’s one reality that’s changed in recent years: It’s becoming a lot harder to find vegetables in the shuk than when this market was first founded 100 years ago, during the Ottoman era.
“You know Etz Hachaim Street?” said Tali Friedman, the chef who chairs the market vendors association, referring to the main covered street of Mahane Yehuda. “After [passing] the middle of the street, I would like to see a tomato or a cucumber. I would love that, and there aren’t any.”
Friedman isn’t exaggerating. There’s been a significant shift in this market that was always known for its seasonal produce — along with poultry, meat and fish, small grocery stores (the shuk was the original home of the countrywide Rami Levy supermarket chain), housewares and even clothing.
Etz Hachaim, one of the market’s two main drags, once home to multiple vendors plying customers with fresh greens, is now better known for its restaurants, bars and bakeries, along with coffee bars, spice stores and even a jewelry shop.
While many of the restaurants are family-owned, offering authentic flavor and lending a piece of Jerusalem history to the shuk, there are more commercial businesses as well, including branches of various popular food chains.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a mix of businesses, said Friedman, who runs The Jerusalem Atelier, a successful market tour and culinary workshop. But that shift has to be carefully guided, finding a balance for this scene beloved by so many.
“The shuk is a museum of life,” Friedman likes to say — offering the unmatched experience of seeing an older woman picking her tomatoes and allowing visitors to imagine her life, her apartment and the smell of her cooking. “It’s an entrance to culture and history and the most inviting thing ever. If we don’t protect the cart and her tomatoes it will disappear — it will just be a place to buy an ice cream, just a coffee place or knafeh [shop], so we’re trying very, very hard to balance it.”
Friedman works closely with the municipality and is the first chairperson of the market to establish certain clear guidelines and rules, including having it cleaned every night, painting yellow lines on the cement floor to make sure that café and bar tables don’t expand too far into the lanes and handing out fines to businesses that don’t follow the rules.
“Running this shuk feels like running a small city,” she said. “There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes.”
Beyond the issues of cleanliness and regulations is the continual question of what the market should look like now, 100 years after its establishment, and beyond.
Growing up among the stalls
Friedman, now 47, has spent much of her life along the market’s Agrippas Street, the main road from which stem the two major arteries of Mahane Yehuda. Her single mother moved the family to Jerusalem from Safed when Friedman was 12, bringing them closer to their grandmother, and her cooking.
Friedman walked through the market every day, getting to know the foods and merchants, and falling in love with what she calls “a magical place.” Her mother still lives on Agrippas Street.
She eventually made her way to cooking school, first locally at Hadassah College and then in Paris, finally making her way back to Israel and Jerusalem where she opened her atelier 14 years ago, becoming the first entrepreneur to bring food tours through the market.
Friedman credits the late Eli Mizrachi, a local vendor and former market chairman whose family owned a dried goods stall, with paving the way toward a new culinary direction in the market. In 2002, Mizrachi and his daughter Merav opened Cafe Mizrachi, the first of its type in the shuk, with excellent coffee and a French-inspired breakfast menu.
Mizrachi understood what could be added to the historic market, augmenting the experience, said Friedman.
“He opened the way to the shuk for culinary-minded people, and we want that, without having it be too clichéd,” said Friedman. “We want that balance.”
It’s a tough shift to navigate, said Yaron Tzidkiyahu, who has spent 60 years in the market working and running his family’s delicatessen, first started by his grandfather 100 years ago.
Tzidkiyahu is the third generation in the business and his sons are the fourth, and he’s aware of how much the market needs to expand its offerings, along with seeking a major renovation in order to strengthen the infrastructure used by so many every day.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Tzidkiyahu. “We have to decide, we in the market and those in the municipality, what we want in the next 10 years. Will the market be over, will it just be bars? Or can we strengthen the current market with the help of the city?”
He’s well aware that he also needs the tourists who come to the market for the cooking workshops, along with his vendor colleagues who still sell fruits and vegetables. That said, he’s not even sure there’s another generation around to sell tomatoes and cucumbers.
And while he appreciates some of the pubs and taverns in the market, he’s also nervous about the noise they bring.
“The bars can’t be too noisy and they can’t bother the customers,” said Tzidkiyahu. “Otherwise, the shuk will just be about the nightlife.”
Shuk by day, and by night
The bars and the vendors have been coexisting here for the last 15 years, but it is sometimes an uneasy partnership.
Just last month, an argument broke out on a Friday afternoon as shoppers were making Shabbat purchases at fishmonger David Dagim (“David’s Fish”). Customers began singing loudly at the bar next door and the fishmonger threatened to spray water on them.
“We have to deal with this kind of thing all the time,” said Friedman.
Yet there are also bars that have been able to fit into the market atmosphere, and which feel like part of the community.
Dotan Ben-Chaim was one of the first bar proprietors in Mahane Yehuda, opening Shuka 15 years ago, originally situated next to the fishmonger.
At the time, said Ben-Chaim, the market vendors would close their stalls by 5 or 6 p.m., and “everyone went home — there was no nightlife, nothing going on.”
Ben-Chaim and his partner figured they would make use of the narrow, empty streets and opened Shuka, automatically finding a crowd that loved hanging out in the quiet, calm lanes of the market.
They weren’t the only ones. Every year another three or four bars would open, including more upscale ones like Casino de Paris, opened by the aforementioned Eli Mizrachi with Jerusalemite rapper Shaanaan Streett of Hadag Nachash.
While the nighttime vibe worked well at first, given the emptiness of the evening hours, “it got much worse,” said Ben-Chaim.
“People came who didn’t want to just bring youth and good culture, but money and a real mess,” he said.
It created a complicated situation where the old-timers didn’t want the bars there and made life difficult for the newcomers.
But, he said, “if they see that you’re there for good, like they’ve been for the last 40 or 50 years, then they accept you.”
Ben-Chaim stuck it out with Shuka, later moving it to a location on Agrippas Street and opening a hummus eatery as well, looking for a profitable business for the daytime hours. All these years later, Ben-Chaim said his business doesn’t make much of a profit, but it’s touched many lives.
“We’ve had weddings, kids, divorces, sad times,” he said. “It’s not really mine anymore, it belongs to all the people who have spent time here and we decided that even though it’s not really profitable, we believe in it, we need it.”
Like his other market colleagues, he believes the centennial offers a timely milestone, forcing the shuk to find a new equilibrium, one that works for all the various businesses located along its lanes.
“We haven’t yet found the right balance of stalls and culinary life and bars,” said Itzik Moreno, whose father, Zion Moreno, established his roasted nut stand in 1966 after immigrating to Israel from Iran, and lived in a tent camp outside of Jerusalem. “They’re different things.”
The family eventually expanded well beyond their original nut stand, with Moreno Nuts available throughout Jerusalem and in Modi’in and with two new businesses in the market opened by Itzik’s sons.
“It doesn’t really matter what you sell but it has to serve the residents and it’s a process to figure that out,” he said. “What needs to be unique about the shuk is that it should feel like an event, like a celebration of the character of Jerusalem.”
Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Harry Rubenstein whose business, Epic Israel Food Tours, includes tours in several Israeli markets including Mahane Yehuda (still one of his favorites).
“I like to call the shuk the world’s largest Jewish food court,” said Rubenstein, who grew up in the US.
He acknowledges that there can be a negative aspect to all that growth, with more vendors who have corporate interests and take advantage of tourists, “giving the rest of the market a bad name.”
Still, said Rubenstein, there are the businesses that remind visitors why they come there, the shops that relish in what they’re sharing beyond mere merchandise.
“The shuk still exists, there are still people screaming about their watermelon, it’s still there,” said Rubenstein. “It’s true that every time a vegetable place closes, another one isn’t going to go in its place. On the flip side, you have examples of Jewish cultures from around the world showing off their food in unique ways.”
It’s all familiar to Friedman, who wants to make sure the market remains standing for the next century. Mahane Yehuda welcomes 4.5 million tourists each year, equivalent to the number of visitors to the city, said Friedman.
The market is “the beating heart of Jerusalem,” said Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion, adding that the city intends to continue developing and upgrading it in the coming years — both the daytime and nighttime experiences.
As for Friedman, she hopes to get a UNESCO designation for the market, given its standing as a historical site and brand, and an engine for the city.
“This place is an anchor to this city, economically, culturally and historically,” she said.
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