Jerusalem’s ‘Santa’ of traditional foreign food

Mahaneh Yehuda store is ‘Christmas Central’ in city where holiday keeps low profile.

Santa Clause in Jerusalem (photo credit: (Ammar Awad/Reuters))
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 countries.
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 holiday cheer.
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 Christmas!”
“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 supermarkets.
Mania is also where many of the large churches in Jerusalem place their orders for Christmas supplies, especially chocolates and gift baskets.
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 chocolates.
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.