Mahaneh Yehuda by night.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The freezing cold that covered the city last week was not enough to keep many young (and less young) Jerusalemites at home – and the bars and eateries in the Mahaneh Yehuda market compound were as full and bustling as usual.
Beer and wine, together with various styles of music, warmed the atmosphere at one of the city’s trendiest nightlife destinations. This went on even during the three days of the municipal strike last week; the garbage piling up around them didn’t prevent anyone from hanging around and enjoying the activity.
The profound change that has occurred over the past 10 years or so in the famous market is not news anymore – the radical daily change at sundown is already an established fact. Around 8 p.m. the vegetable, meat and fruit stalls shut down and the spotlight shifts to bars, eateries and coffee shops generating lots of music – sometimes quite noisy – in the narrow alleys of the covered shuk. Nearby, the external alleys are also brimming with bars and restaurants, some of them quite fancy, that remain open until late – sometimes even until dawn.
Some of these restaurants are kosher; others aren’t – but they all share something characteristic to Jerusalem: they all close down for Shabbat. This includes even the most famous non-kosher restaurants, like Machneyuda.
For years, the shuk has managed to retain its status as a place where the religious, haredi and secular have been able to get together without the tension or pressure that one associates with other parts of the city. Recently, however, some have been saying that they discern a change under way that is affecting the special weave of this place – a change linked not to Mahaneh Yehuda’s unique atmosphere mingling of fresh produce and alcohol, but to a social development.
“There are many more religious people who come to hang out here in the evenings than before,” says Nino Peretz, the recently elected president of the new association of merchants.
“It is not true what some people say, that the shuk is becoming a religious place. We have always been very strict on the issue of Shabbat here – no place is open on Shabbat and this is not going to change, whoever the people are who hang out here.”
Yair Kokhav, owner of the Tahrir bar for promoting Mizrahi culture, says that the characteristics of Jerusalemites who come to spend leisure time at the shuk is a non-issue.
“Why do we have to pay attention to that aspect? What does it mean that there are more or fewer religious people or even haredim who want to spend a nice evening at the shuk? All these comments make me feel bad!”
Peretz adds that even if it is accurate that more young religiously observant customers are hanging out at the shuk, no spot has required separation between the genders.
“Not even places like the bar that has replaced Café Mizrahi and is now a place where most of the clients are very religious, even perhaps haredi, has such a separation, and I don’t believe that it will come at any time. What’s wrong with religious young men and women who come to the shuk to have a drink and listen to some music?”
A merchant at the shuk who prefers to remain anonymous says that the concern that the shuk might become another stronghold of the religious is not impossible to imagine.
“This has always been a place identified with the religious, or at least traditionalist, people of Jerusalem. That is true, but it has also been a place of merging, of informal interaction between different people, and I don’t think this is going to change – unless politicians from the haredi sector decide to get involved.”
As to the question of what will happen if local haredi leadership changes their approach and requests that non-kosher restaurants be barred from the shuk, Peretz responds that he is not afraid of such an eventuality.
“Mahaneh Yehuda, everything here, is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. For years, men and women have donated their houses in their wills to community charities, which are all run by religious associations. They have always been very attached to Jewish values, like respecting Shabbat, which is why this is a place where we are very strict about observing the holy day.
“I personally see all the shops and stalls closing 20 minutes before Shabbat, at the latest, but this is a place for everybody, without distinction.”