Moris Biton has been grilling meat in the historic Mahaneh Yehuda market for 50 years, but he had never stayed in one place very long. Over the years, his devoted cadre of followers kept asking “Where’s Moris?” every time he changed to another locale.

When Biton and his son finally opened their own restaurant in the middle of the alley filled with butcher stalls, they named it “Moris” to answer the perennial question.

During the slower parts of the day, when only two of the four tables are occupied, Moroccan-born Biton takes out his oud and plays an intricate melody in the traditional Arabic style. When he sits at a table with four yeshiva students and hums a song, one of them harmonizes, and the melody wafts down the alley filled with raw chicken wings and beef ribs.

A few times during the song, butchers wearing rubber boots and aprons stop by to drop off cuts of their best meats – special cutlets they’ve saved for Moris. The butchers are referred to with such epithets as “Tall Yitzhak” and “Fat Abraham.” Moris nods without breaking the rhythm, not even bothering to inspect the deliveries – everyone knows his standards.

Last year, Yediot Aharonot named Moris’s establishment one of the 10 best grilled meat restaurants in the country.

Moris isn’t alone in his culinary success in the heart of the country’s most beloved market. In the past five years, almost a dozen restaurants and even more cafes have opened in different locations around the shuk, making Mahaneh Yehuda the city’s newest culinary core.
It’s not surprising to find restaurants taking advantage of the freshest produce and bustling pedestrian market. What is surprising is that it has taken this long.

“THE SHUK changes. People change,” Itzik Tzidkiyahu shrugs as he surveys the shuk outside his cafe, part of a small empire of Tzidkiyahu stores that includes a pickle store and a humous/cheese stand started by Tzidkiyahu’s grandfather. Shuk patrons used to be mostly residents on their weekly shopping excursions, Tzidkiyahu says, but today the market hosts a mixture of locals and tourists from every part of the globe.

“The tourists have different requirements, so we decided to integrate. We call it ‘the innovation of the shuk.’ With all the tourists who visit today, there’s a demand not just for fruits and vegetables and fish and chicken but also for boutiques and restaurants and for cafes, for other places where they can really hang out,” says Tzidkiyahu.

“Not every tourist can eat Mizrahi food, which is usually fried, or felafel and shawarma,” says Yatso Nahamias, a neighborhood resident and former owner of a small cookie stall. He shocked shuk purists by opening a branch of the popular Aroma chain in the main walkway of the shuk in 2008. “I see a lot of Americans who say that they won’t look at a place if it’s not whole grain and it’s not decaf and it’s not skim milk. They’ll stay thirsty on their whole trip.”

In the beginning, the restaurants at the shuk were Azura, Mordo and Rachmu, offering Mizrahi-style home-cooked food to a small, dedicated clientele. Then in 2002, former head of the Shuk Committee Eli Mizrahi converted part of the storeroom for his dried fruit store into a trendy coffee shop called “Mizrahi.”  “Some people said it was insane,” Mizrahi recalls, sitting at the only empty table in his crowded cafe on a Tuesday afternoon, a traditionally slow time for the shuk. “Some people said it was reasonable... The shuk just needed something for people other than fresh fruits and vegetables.”

At Mizrahi cafe, clients are in the thick of the market, sitting directly across from a butcher stall with raw meat on display. A man delivering nuts to a dried fruit stall stands next to tourists sipping cappuccinos and calls out “Labriut!” (to your health). The tourists smile awkwardly, not quite sure what to make of the interaction.

After other vendors saw Mizrahi’s success, more restaurants and cafes opened. Most continue to offer traditional, ethnic, home-cooked food, such as Ochlim B’shuk (Eating in the Shuk). Others cater to a more discriminating clientele. Ha’agas, for example, a tiny restaurant decorated with cedar accents at the bottom of the former Banai family home, offers healthy, organic fare for enlightened vegetarians.

It’s possible to treat your taste buds to a worldwide culinary tour without leaving the shuk: Indian fare at Ichikidana, ravioli at the Italian Topolino, French-style quiches at Cafe Emil or Japanese sushi rolls at Osaka. The non-kosher Mahanyehuda, a new restaurant with mismatched chairs and an open kitchen, was welcomed onto the Jerusalem restaurant scene as one of the first truly boutique restaurants.  The menu, printed each day, features dishes ranging from Rocky Mountain oysters to a NIS 345 prime rib to calf’s brains deep fried in bell pepper stew.

Many cafes and restaurants offer informal music during the summer months, adding to the shuk’s growth as a cultural center. The Shuk Committee has organized successful events for the public, such as an all-night Purim party, cooking demonstrations (20,000 showed up, committee members claim, polishing off all the food samples within an hour), Tu Bishvat activities, and a concert in 2002 featuring the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on a stage decorated with vegetables.

AT THE busiest intersection, where the open shuk meets Rehov Agrippas and the incessant honking drowns out every third word of the conversation, Italian restaurant Topolino owner Yona Sasson insists she revels in the noise.

“We love the shuk. We’re old Jerusalemites,” she says. “We loved this area and always came to hang out here. We decided to open in the shuk because it seemed to really suit the shuk to have a lot of restaurants from around the world. The shuk adds something to every restaurant.”

Sasson fled the hi-tech world with her husband three years ago to open Topolino, one of the first dairy restaurants in the area. She envisions Agrippas filled with restaurants that will bring even the most discriminating Tel Avivian to make the trip to Jerusalem.

But Sasson doesn’t have to wait. The tourists are already coming.

“We wanted to experience a part of Israeli culture, to feel the spirit, the people, the culture, to sit and enjoy the day a little,” says Tel Aviv native Sol Pozailov as she relaxes after a meal on the shuk’s main drag with her husband, Yonatan. “The entire nation is caught up in the culture of the shuk,” Yonatan adds. It’s his first time in the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk, and they are spending the entire afternoon there. The Pozailovs represent exactly what restaurant owners hope to accomplish: creating an image of the shuk as a destination – not just for culture and fresh vegetables but also for sushi and cappuccinos.

However, all the shuk’s vendors and restaurant owners agree that a major stumbling block standing in the way of an explosion of eateries is the severe shortage of parking in the area. It is partly due to the ongoing construction of the light rail, but they mostly blame the municipality for not planning enough parking facilities for the center of the city. “They should finish the train and find parking, and then this place will really blossom,” says Sasson.

LACK OF space in general is another challenge facing restaurant and cafe owners in an area where everything is crammed and crowded – many restaurants in the shuk have fewer than 30 seats. The only way to make a profit is to turn over the tables as quickly as possible. “People would eat, and then we’d kick them out,” says Moshe, whose father started Azura, a traditional Iraqi restaurant, more than 60 years ago. This past year, they moved from a tiny stall with 13 seats to an expansive restaurant on the edges of the Iraqi shuk that can seat 50. “Now there’s more time to let people eat,” Moshe laughs. Azura’s hidden location adds to its allure, on a plaza in the Iraqi shuk filled with dozens of elderly Iraqi men playing backgammon on boards so old, they’re black from dirt.

Most Mahaneh Yehuda restaurants are tucked into side alleys or the peripheral streets around the main market, meaning that patrons either have to know exactly where they’re going or be willing to get totally lost in their search for lunch, wandering among the different stalls in forgotten corners. But that adds to the experience.

“That’s why we came to eat here – the noise, the smells, the color, the voices,” says Saki Dunath, visiting for the day from Tel Aviv with her friends as they sit down to a late lunch at Ha’agas.

“You come to do your shopping and get organized, and you can have a real meal,” says Shushan Ron, a Beersheba native visiting a friend in Jerusalem. They tuck into an Indian meal at Ichikidana, one of their two favorite restaurants in the shuk. “You can eat in quiet – okay, maybe not in total quiet. But you can relax and eat sitting down instead of standing. The food is also healthier because it’s fresher.”

The noise, the lack of space and the dirt are all what make this area come alive, and owners certainly appreciate their unique location. “The shuk is our storeroom. You don’t need a real storeroom, because whatever we’re missing, we can go and buy, and it’s over and done with. It’s a huge advantage,” says Eyal Vaknin, owner of the Fortuna restaurant, an upscale grilled meat restaurant that opened last year. “You don’t need to think a day before what to order, how much and for what. You get what you feel like getting. If you’re missing tomatoes, you go and get tomatoes. Everything here is closer, fresher, and you see the things with your own eyes. You don’t just call someone and what they bring is what you get. Here you see, you take. You can be a visionary.”

Restaurant owners call it “from stall to stall,” reveling in their ability to pick out their produce the same day. You’ll never find raw green beans in any restaurant in the shuk, Eli Mizrahi points out, because you can’t find good green beans here. And shuk chefs are more in tune to the seasons of the vegetables than your average chef because they’re surrounded by it every day. Most restaurants have a constantly changing menu that reflects the whims of the chefs wandering the alleys of the shuk and finding fresh produce that strikes their fancy.

There is one place in the shuk where the menu will never change. Toward the end of the open shuk, the gleaming black-and-red Aroma sign stands out from the other stores. When Aroma first opened its doors in 2008, students from Nahlaot protested outside with signs that read “CAPITALISTS, OUT!”

“These same students now come to drink coffee and say, ‘It’s good that you opened,’” says Nahamias, the branch manager. “They come at 10 at night and say, ‘I really need a hot chocolate.’”

But others are less thrilled by the march of progress and regard the entrance of Aroma as the beginning of the end of the authenticity of the shuk. What’s next – McDonald’s?

“If they have room, then why not?” laughs Yitzhak Haim, who’s worked in the shuk for 40 years and serves on the Shuk Committee.

“It would bring the tourists who love it,” adds Avraham Levy, a vegetable vendor who also serves on the committee and has worked in the shuk for 32 years.

“I always thought the best food places have the longest lines,” says Eileen Harrad, a Michigan native on a two-week guided tour of Israel. Aroma is certainly one of the busiest restaurants in the shuk, catering to a steady stream of tourists from around Israel and around the world. “I also heard this place has the one bathroom in the shuk,” she laughs. “And it was one place we could sit down. We couldn’t sit down at those places across the way, those felafel places. We haven’t had a chance to sit down at all.”

Tourists, the vendors agree, are the secret to the survival of the shuk. Rather than bemoaning the increasing gentrification, vendors are embracing trendier coffee shops, exclusive boutiques and fancy cheese shops because they know this is what draws the tourists and the shekels.

“It’s a good idea, I suppose, to mix up the market for tourists and locals. But the market should be geared to what the local people want and need, not to the tourists. We’re here to see how real people live,” says Harrad. “Seeing different things – that’s why we travel.”

“If you think it’s prettier that I should be like the Old City, that instead of having an Aroma franchise, to cut this into two stores and have a store for oranges and a store for bananas, I couldn’t make a living,” says Nahamias. “The world goes forward, and that’s okay. It’s authentic, it’s pretty, it’s a shuk. But underneath the preservation, we’re not animals in a zoo that you need to come see us and look at us sitting hawking tomatoes and at the end of the day we go home with no money, and the tourists return to their hotels. The tourists come here, so we should get their money for our livelihoods, to employ people.”

THERE ARE more than 600 independently owned stores in the shuk and its peripheral streets and alleys. The Shuk Committee has no control over who buys in the area, so the possibility that the shuk could become overrun by restaurants and cafes or even home to a new McDonald’s is not out of the question. But Tzidkiyahu believes that the sheer size of the shuk will enable it to stay a market rather than a row of coffee shops.

Today there are about 15 restaurants and 20 cafes in the area, according to unofficial estimates by vendors (after all, what in the shuk is really “official?”). Even if that number doubles, it will still hover around 10 percent of the shuk, a level Tzidkiyahu believes will still maintain the shuk’s authenticity.

“So here they opened a boutique and there they opened a cafe, here a restaurant,” he says, gesturing around his stand. They’re not changing the shuk into the midrachov [Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall]. They are simply good additions. It’s like a woman who puts on lipstick. It’s the same woman, just with lipstick.”

The shuk’s renovations in the late 1980s changed it from a dank, dirty market to a vibrant scene that was sufficiently sanitized and safe for the average tourist. The man with the vision for the shuk’s rejuvenation is Uri Amedi, a soft-spoken community organizer and manager of the Lev Ha’ir Community Center. When Amedi speaks of the magic of the shuk in his mellow, even tone, he puts into words the special draw of the shuk that visitors and patrons feel but can’t quite explain.

“The magic can guard the balance between the historical shuk and the renewed shuk,” Amedi says . “If the shuk doesn’t guard the balance, if it stops being a shuk where you can find tomatoes and onions and meat and vegetables and fruit and beans and it’s just restaurants and cafes and clothing stores, it won’t be a shuk. I think inside the shuk, people themselves and vendors themselves know how to protect this balance.”

Amedi started organizing the shuk vendors into a committee more than 25 years ago. He saw the shuk as a metaphor for Jerusalem itself.  If he could fix the problems in the shuk, he could tackle other problems in the inner city. Convincing the hardscrabble, independent vendors to work together was a Herculean challenge.

Amedi started out with nothing but a green crate in the shuk for his office and oversaw the dramatic renovations in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the downturn in the early 2000s after the terrorist attacks. He still works with the Shuk Committee and is a consultant for marketplaces in Beersheba, Tiberias and Acre about rejuvenation projects.

Amedi remains hopeful about the future of Mahaneh Yehuda, and he’s not worried about encroaching gentrification or losing the essence of the shuk to McDonald’s and other commercial chains. “The public that comes to the shuk doesn’t want the taste of McDonald’s,” he says. “The people who come to the shuk want onions and the smell of hot pita; they want the smell of cakes in the oven, they want the taste of burekas. I don’t think they want the taste of the burger. They’re ready to exchange today’s burger for the old felafel and for cakes made in the shuk’s bakeries and for sahlab that they sell, not lattés. I’m almost sure of this,” he says.

“People come to the shuk because they want to touch something different, something more authentic, something they don’t know. I also think there’s something else in the shuk,” says Amedi. “There’s an inner magic that I discovered, and I think people come to the shuk because they, in fact, also discover it. In the shuk there is simplicity and honesty. In our world today, people miss the simple and genuine.”
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