Nothing symbolizes Jerusalem more than the Old City. Most tour books dedicate more than 80 percent of their Jerusalem content to the walled city and surrounding holy basin.Indeed, most people considering a visit to Jerusalem are thinking about the Old City: the Western Wall, the churches, the mosques, the holiness felt within its walls.But recently, a shift has begun to occur in the mix of experiences for many of those visitors. While no doubt visiting the Old City remains the dominant component, a new face of Jerusalem is beginning to capture more and more of visitors’ memory of Jerusalem.
That is of Mahaneh Yehuda, simply known in Jerusalem as the shuk.Anna Sintschenko, a clinical psychologist from Munster, Germany, was on her first trip to Israel this summer. “Before we came to Israel, we looked for information about Tel Aviv and Jerusalem,” she recounts. “We read that for fun and parties, you go to Tel Aviv, and for culture and religion, to Jerusalem. We budgeted few days to Jerusalem to see the sights, but then we discovered the shuk. It was unexpected; it was magnetic. We extended our stay in the city and spent every night there.”The shuk, well beyond a market for food and goods, attracts shoppers by day – as well as restaurant-goers, coffee-sippers, tourists, artists, writers and mere flaneurs. But by night, it transforms into a compound of bars, restaurants, cafes and music performances – a bastion of vibrancy.MAHANEH YEHUDA market evolved from a turn-of-the-20th-century meeting place for farmers and local residents to an organized market in the 1920s.Significant renovations were made in the 1990s, but it was not until the 2010s that the shuk turned more of its focus to nightly activities. Its alleys, until then abandoned at nighttime, gradually started serving as venue to ad-hoc activities such as Balabasta festival.The intervening years saw the opening of more bars, cafes and restaurants, eventually morphing the shuk into the entertainment phenomenon it is today. More and more local Jerusalemites are choosing the shuk as their place of choice to go out and to socialize.Karen Brunwasser, deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, has been living near the market for the past four years and is a firsthand witness to its evolution and the changes in the people that visit it: “No doubt people are attracted to the fun and diversity in the shuk, but mostly to the authentic and real feel it has about it.”Sintschenko got attracted to the shuk for exactly those reasons: “When I reflect back on my trip to Israel, the shuk is one of the greatest experiences I had. It is the atmosphere, it is the people. We went out in Tel Aviv and had a good time, but the shuk is the best. Tel Aviv nightlife was fun, but it felt very similar to the cool bars and parties you go to in any European city: Similar music, similar superficial conversations with people, interesting as they may be.“But in Mahaneh Yehuda, people are open and very friendly. We were just sitting in different bars talking to various groups of people; we danced in the shuk’s alleys with people we did not know. We just felt very welcomed.”Brunwasser, pointing to this welcoming feel, attributes the shuk’s success to a broader trend: “There is so much in our world today that is branded and homogenized. People are actively searching for something that feels real – and the shuk is real! It is casual, it is something that you can come to and be exactly who you are.”Is the shuk’s authentic nightlife a counter-trend to the more traditional nightlife complexes such as the Tel Aviv Port or New York’s Meatpacking District? In such areas people “get in character” – the way they dress, the way they act. But in the shuk, one’s “on-stage personality” is the same as their off-stage one. There are no bouncers, no orchestration, just a celebration of life.Beyond the market’s authenticity, external factors contribute to its rise in capturing a central component of the Jerusalem experience.One such factor is the changing demographics of the capital’s visitors.In the past, the stereotypical visitor was the older Jew, aging pilgrim or classic tourist with a “to-see” list. But in recent years, that has changed: Taglit-Birthright has brought a younger audience to the city, many of them extending their trip and even returning.Similarly an influx of leadership delegations, young and old, have come to Jerusalem in recent years. More and more conferences are now held in Jerusalem.Brunwasser regularly conducts tours of Mahaneh Yehuda for such incoming leadership groups: “Everybody is stunned by the shuk. Nobody can believe the scene they are seeing,” she relates.“It is a different scene than anywhere else in the world. You cannot compare it to New York or Tel Aviv nor to nightlife in other markets around the world, which are more gentrified and much less diverse. There is no point of reference to something like this. People are astounded by the scale of it. It is not just one bar; each bar has its own story, its own shtick.”Another external factor is the recent surge of vacation-home ownership in Jerusalem, which brought in populations to the city that are different from its traditional visitors. Just like vacation homeowners in New York’s Hamptons and the South of France, Holy City vacation homeowners seek to localize their experience. They might have been drawn to Jerusalem originally by the Old City, its history and spiritual aura, but once here, they seek to consume the contemporary feel such as the one offered by the shuk.Beyond this, the effect of owning an apartment in Jerusalem trickles down to owners’ children, relatives and friends, who take advantage of the empty, free apartment and come to the city. These younger audiences typically seek less of the history and more of the dynamic nightlife of the shuk.But international visitors are not the only ones who are attracted to Mahaneh Yehuda – domestic tourists are increasingly coming to the capital’s lively epicenter as well. While the majority of such domestic visitors are still seen there in groups with a tour guide, a few have discovered the nightlife, arriving at the shuk via an evening bus from Tel Aviv.One such visitor is Debbie Battat, who made aliya last year and settled in the White City: “When I first came to Jerusalem, I did not even hear about Mahaneh Yehuda; I came for the Old City, which is an intense and emotional experience. Then I discovered the shuk – its youthful, bohemian ambiance – and fell in love.”Born in London, raised in the US and having lived in various European cities, Battat was surprised by how much she enjoyed the market: “I normally like clean establishments and chi-chi places, but in the shuk, I feel so comfortable.It is set up not as a place you come to get something and go, but somewhere you stay.”Indeed, staying in the shuk throughout the day produces different experiences.One of the fascinating times of day is the “Switching Hour” – late evening, as stores begin to close and bars begin to come to life.The shuk bars are normally nothing more than small shacks. But as the adjacent food purveyors shut down, watering hole owners bring out barstools and tables to take the place of what was minutes earlier a vegetable or fish stand. At the Switching Hour, shoppers mingle with drinkers; waiters mix with butchers; day fades into night. The shouting of the merchants, announcing the reduction of prices for their leftovers, blends into the sounds of Ma’ariv prayers emanating from the small synagogue in one of the aisles.Within hours, what was once a food market becomes a continuous string of tables sporting glasses filled with beer and wine, music performances, DJs, dancing and a lot of vitality.Battat explains why she thinks the market has become so popular: “People come to the Old City with a lot of sorrow, a lot of wishes, a lot of prayers and tears. Some of these are people who have dreamed of going to Jerusalem their entire life; dreaming for years to touch a stone. But then they can leave the Old City, go to the shuk and unload all this from their backs.”SUCH A juxtaposition of the old and the new, heavy and light, serves as a reminder that Jerusalem is still in the midst of a process of exiting from its walls, at least conceptually.It was only 150 years ago that the entire city of Jerusalem was surrounded by walls, whose gates were locked at night. Only 5 percent of city residents still live inside the gated environs, as both inside and outside, Jerusalem has become one of the world’s premier centers – not just of spirituality, but also of intellectuality, culture and diversity.Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Mahaneh Yehuda.Today’s Jerusalem is home to numerous think tanks, research institutes, NGOs, batei midrash (Torah study halls), the Hebrew University and academic centers, but the exchange of ideas is occurring primarily among its people. In the shuk, random conversations of various topics and levels of depth develop. Nearly every week, at least one of the bars hosts a debate or lecture of some kind – which continues at the tables well past the speaker’s departure.This dialogue is not only civil, but is also representative of one of Jerusalem’s cherished values: optimism. Celebration instead of complaints. Problem- solving and debate instead of delegitimization and suppression of views.This is especially visible given a growing culture of cynicism in certain circles in other parts of Israel.Such optimism is intertwined with an aura of gratitude that is keenly felt in the shuk, perhaps serving to counter a spiking sense of entitlement. Where else do people regularly raise their glasses and say a blessing before sipping their wine? The shuk’s art is also rooted in Jerusalem’s tradition. As stands shut down at night, a surprising gallery emerges: Artist Solomon Souza has partnered with stand owners to use their metal doors as canvases for his art. Door after door is covered in colored graffiti, mostly of rabbis and biblical themes.Another typically Jerusalem feature strongly reflected in the market is its diversity. On a 30-minute stroll of the city, one can wander into neighborhoods radically different from one another in character and population.Residents of these areas converge on the shuk on a daily basis; here, a rabbi sitting next to a monk in a bar is not the beginning of a joke, but a description of reality.Brunwasser notes the reaction of her leadership groups when encountering such diversity: “I see how they are shocked to see haredim, to see kippot of all kinds, Palestinians, an international crowd; anarchists and communists of all kinds. They just cannot believe all these people are sitting at the same compound, and the same time.”Battat also notices this during the day: “There is a place for everybody in the shuk. You feel it is where Jerusalem’s various people live and work, prepare for Shabbat, breathe daily life.”This diversity is also seen in the type of groups which come to celebrate in the shuk. Earlier this summer, the Genesis Prize ceremony was held at the Jerusalem Theater, honoring actor Michael Douglas. The ceremony’s official after-party was held at the upscale Mamilla Hotel, but afterward a group of friends, old and new, did not want it to end. And so around midnight, about 20 ceremony attendees made their way to the shuk. The Genesis group, clad in evening gowns and suits, comfortably sat next to revelers in shorts and T-shirts at one of the outdoor bars.Debbie Proctor of the Genesis Prize Foundation was one of those who took part. “It was unexpectedly magical,” she recalls. “I was in the market during the day, but I had no idea this could happen at night. It was like being in a dream.”Proctor, originally from Connecticut, has lived in such storied metropolises as Milan, Paris, London, Sydney, Vienna, Los Angeles and New York City. She compared the shuk experience to that she had in other places: “Whenever I visit a city, I want to sneak into the local experience. Usually, even if you are observing a local experience, you are still an outsider. Yet the shuk was completely different. It felt so welcoming; so comfortable and safe. I did not feel I was being judged in any way. It felt wonderful to be part of such inclusive experience, which made me feel part of the real Jerusalem.”But the shuk’s success is not without risk. As more and more people discover it, is there a threat to its unique character? Brunwasser believes there is: “It will be interesting to see where it goes, as it becomes increasingly popular. Recently, for the first time, I start seeing women who are dressed to kill, wearing high heels and dressed like they are going to a club. Until now, people would be dressed more casually. I wonder what this means.Maybe the simple, authentic atmosphere that has made the shuk so popular can be overcome at a certain point. Maybe the shuk will become a victim of its own success.”Brunwasser also observes a new shift in the makeup of the owners of market bars and cafes. “Originally, it was people connected to the shuk, who actually liked the shuk.The bars they owned were places inspired by the shuk, that were very much ‘shuk-esque.’ But now owners are starting to come from outside, drawn by its success. Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon.”Are we going to start seeing velvet ropes? Will the highspeed railway from Tel Aviv, scheduled for completion in 2018, bring with it party-goers who would otherwise go to that city’s clubs? Notwithstanding such risks, the shuk continues to produce fond memories of vibrant Jerusalem for those who visit it from all over world.People like Debbie Proctor remember the shuk as a highlight of their Israel visit: Every city has its own particular flair, but there is nothing like the shuk, she says. “And on top of all that, this happy, comfortable atmosphere is happening while being surrounded by so much history, culture and religion.You can visit places, see sights, but in the shuk I was not an observer – I felt I was part of the story of Jerusalem.”In this way, every glass raised is a powerful testimony to the vigor and verve of Jerusalem: A festive L’haim, to life!
The writer is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League think tank. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the AIFL.
The writer is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League think tank. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the AIFL.