Santa Clause in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: (Ammar Awad/Reuters))
As every immigrant knows, the holidays are a difficult time to be far away from
families. Israel’s foreign workers feel this particularly acutely around now,
when many miss the holiday sparkle that accompanies Christmas in most
Outside of Jerusalem’s Old City, it’s easy to forget the
holiday exists, since just a sliver of the capital’s population – around 2
percent – is Christian.
But sometimes a taste of a traditional holiday
dish in a foreign country is all it takes to be enveloped in warm memories and
David “Dudu” Ohana, who owns the Mania supermarket in the
Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market, is the Jerusalem Santa Claus of traditional food
and spices, ensuring that at least mealtime can give the foreign workers a
connection with homes across the world.
The period between Christmas Eve,
on December 24, and the Orthodox Christmas, on January 6, is his busiest time of
the year. On Thursday, tinsel stretched across the store and Santa-shaped
chocolates flew off the shelves underneath glittery signs proclaiming “Merry
“Every year, we do Christmas the same way it’s done around the
world,” said Ohana, who said he loves the idea of Christmas and likes the excuse
to celebrate. The supermarket serves primarily Russians and foreign workers, and
offers products such as caviar and pork, which are less common in local
Mania is also where many of the large churches in Jerusalem
place their orders for Christmas supplies, especially chocolates and gift
Ohana imports most of his Christmas items from Russia and
Ukraine. He said the most popular Christmas items were the Christmas Eve
traditional whole duck, champagne and, of course, the Santa
Ohana, who is Jewish, has worked in Mahaneh Yehuda for 25
years, most of them as the owner of a fish store. But 10 years ago, he noticed there was nowhere for foreign workers to buy
traditional foods from their countries.
When he opened in 2003, the store
was met with frequent, large protests by the ultra-Orthodox, who objected to its
selling pork and other non-kosher foods. But he defended the store’s role in
filling a gap for the foreign worker population in the capital, and estimated
that more than 90% of his customers were not Jewish.
“There are a lot of
foreign workers who are here to take care of old people,” he said. “So
it’s okay for them to be here to take care of our old people, but they can’t
have their own food from their homes? That’s not fair.”
Though it started
as a primarily Russian immigrant supermarket, the store has shifted to serve
mainly foreign workers.
“Russians are becoming more Israeli,” Ohana
explained. “There was a lot of nostalgia 10 or 15 years ago, but now they’re not
celebrating as much.”
He jokes that his store is “a typical American
family” that lights a menorah each night and also has a Christmas tree in the
window. But Ohana, who knows many of his customers by name, sincerely believes
that his customers are a large family.
“[Foreigners] are really happy
that I’m here,” he said as a steady stream of customers bought meats and alcohol
ahead of their holiday meals, too busy to stop and chat about their holiday
traditions and what they planned on cooking.
“I give them as much as
possible, a little feeling of home and a little warmth,” he said.