For eight hours a day, Mazal Ahrush's fingers fly as she stands behind the tiny aluminum counter of "Jack Melech," Beersheba's most famous felafel stand. It takes 26 seconds for Mazal - known in the local shuk as "the Egyptian woman" - to assemble the gastronomic delight that for 41 years has attracted a lunchtime crowd which stands five deep.
Mazal, as she prefers to be called, takes three seconds to select and slit the top of a fresh, warm pita. In four more seconds, she's inserted four flat Egyptian felafel "bullets", still sizzling from the oil. With a quick trademark twist of the wrist, she mashes the felafel ever so slightly inside the pita. In another three seconds, she's popped in hot slices of still bubbling fried potato, and in another seven, inserted generous pinches of fresh salads - lettuce, cabbage, cucumber and marinated lemons. It takes five seconds to top the bulging creation with several hunks of fresh sweet red tomato and a few pieces of luscious fried eggplant. Another two to drizzle a special secret tehina sauce over the whole thing, then two more to nestle the creation into a piece of waxed paper to prevent the loss of a single tidbit. Handing it to the eagerly awaiting customer takes no time at all.
How long it takes someone to eat the exquisite blend of textures and flavors is anyone's guess. Some linger, savoring every bite, while others can't help but gobble it down. One thing is for sure: Nobody ever forgets their first "Jack Melech" felafel.
"Jack Melech" is a family business. "Both my parents came to Israel in 1948, my father, Jack, from Egypt, and my mother, Dita, from Turkey," Mazal says, adding that she's one of four Ahrush siblings. "My brother Moshe and I run the felafel stand. My two other brothers both went to university and are doing something else. Moshe had been in the police department, but when my father needed help, he left and came to help.
"We all still live in Beersheba where our parents first came 61 years ago," she continues. "In the early years, my father worked at other jobs and my mother was a housewife, but then my father started working with his brother who had opened Beersheba's first felafel stand. In 1968, my father took over the felafel business, and 'Jack Melech' opened for business right here in the shuk, slot # 262 - exactly where we are today."
Mazal even remembers the first day. "I was nine years old, and I remember how dirty it was, and how hard we all worked to clean it out. Moshe is nine years older than I am and he was in the army then, but we all worked to get it ready."
"IT WASN'T easy at first," Mazal recalls. "No one knew us, so we didn't have a steady group of customers. In fact, after two or three years, my father wanted to sell it. "No, we're going to stay," my mother said. "One day it will be okay - people will know us, and it will be easier." It did get easier. When my father passed away, Moshe and I took over. We've been running it ever since."
Today, "Jack Melech" felafel operates from the same stand as Jack did, but the premises have expanded to include more than a dozen tables and chairs in the general vicinity. "Everything is the same. We use my father's recipe - it was his secret way of making falafel. We use a little hand tool to make sure the flat felafel 'bullets' are the same size when they're dropped into the hot oil. I won't tell you what we put in it, but everything here is fresh every day. If there's anything left over at the end of the day, I throw it out. The next day we start with everything fresh."
There's a general division of labor. "We come at 7:30 every morning and start to make the salads. Moshe does all the shopping. Everything comes from right here, the shuk - we're in the middle of the market! I make the salads, and Moshe's wife makes up the felafel batter.
"We have three helpers now, really good people," Mazal says. "We're like a big family - it's not like we're the owners and they're the employees. We work until we close at about 4:30 p.m. Every day is busy. It used to be that market days - Monday and Thursday - were the most hectic, but now there's really no difference. On Friday we're open only a half-day, but that's busy too because a lot of people aren't working, so they come to shop on Friday morning and then stop for a felafel."
What's the hardest part of running a felafel stand? "It's all hard," Mazal laughs. "I'm almost 50 years old, so standing all day on the hard tiles is getting harder all the time. Sometimes it's pretty tough in the summer - it can get pretty hot in here. We stayed open through all the wars, even with the rockets last December. We owe it to our customers, because many of them are like family, too.
"Some of our Beduin customers are third or fourth generation," she says. "Their fathers or grandfathers came when I was a little girl, and now it's their children or grandchildren, because they marry so young. Some of them I've known my entire life. They call me 'the Egyptian woman.' The family comes to shop and the kids want felafel. The mothers say, 'Fine, but you go to the Egyptian woman!' I speak a little Arabic. That helps."
Standing in line is a perfect example of Israeli demographics. Muslim women and children stand next to men and boys with kippot, all mixed in with people who appear to hail from all over the world. "We're kosher," Mazal says. "We don't have a certificate because it's vegan - there's no milk or meat here at all, not even creamer for coffee. It's just beans and vegetables."
Even the holiday closure schedule is egalitarian. "We're closed on Shabbat and all Jewish holidays, and we also close during Ramadan," Mazal says. "For a while, we stayed open during Ramadan, but because so many of our customers don't eat during those weeks, it didn't seem worth it. So now we close. We honor our Muslim customers and it gives us a break, too. Every year Moshe and his wife use that time to take a vacation, and I go to Pittsburg, in the US, to visit my son and his family. My married name is McKinney - I married an American, and now our son lives in the US."
Spending all day making felafel, does she get tired of it? "Not at all! Never! I love it. I eat one a day - I'd eat more, but I'd get fat. Our felafel gives me energy. I know what I put in it and it's very good."
Mazal rushes off to greet a family who just arrived from Eilat. "They come to Beersheba once a year and they always come here," she says, adding that Jack Melech is easy to find, even in the shuk's almost incomprehensible maze of shops and vendors. "Just ask for Jack Melech, or the 'Egyptian woman'. Everyone knows us!"