Sounds distilled

Hamazkeka is a precious little – albeit growing – gem which should be savored and nurtured by one and all, and especially by the local powers that be.

Hamazkeka: Celebrating its third birthday with a two-day feast of eclectic musical fare (photo credit: DANA DECKTOR)
Hamazkeka: Celebrating its third birthday with a two-day feast of eclectic musical fare
(photo credit: DANA DECKTOR)
Booze and music go together like, well, a horse and carriage… and marriage. The conjoined imbibing thereof has been around since time immemorial.
So it makes perfect sense to have a music outlet called Hamazkeka (The Distillery), which has been doing sterling work in downtown Jerusalem for the past three years.
Shushan Street, where Hamazkeka is located, is something of a backwater. Tucked away behind the main post office, not many Jerusalemites stroll down that way by chance. It is, if truth be told, a dusty, craggy, aesthetically none-too-appealing little thoroughfare, which houses several leisure-time establishments.
But there is nothing like Hamazkeka.
Mikael Berkowitsch began the venture in 2014 after getting a taste of a similarly underground-oriented place in the Big Apple. “I was in New York with a girlfriend and I went to The Stone,” he recalls. The latter is a not-for-profit experimental music performance- space located in the East Village district of Manhattan. It was founded in 2005, by boundary- bending musician and record-label owner John Zorn, and Berkowitsch was enchanted by the vibe of the place.
“I was at a bit of a loose end at the time,” says the thirty-something, Swiss-born Jerusalemite. “I’d never had an experience like the one at The Stone. It was spellbinding, and I decided that I wanted to open up a something like that when I got back to Jerusalem. I wanted something like that at home – somewhere like that I could go to in my own hometown.”
And so it came to pass, and on Wednesday and Thursday Hamazkeka will celebrate its third birthday with a two-day feast of eclectic musical fare (admission is free).
Since 2014 the venue has hosted gigs by a broad cross-section of the local and international music community and the birthday lineup reflects that eclectic mind-set. There you can find the likes of psychedelic groove trio Crunch 22: Australian-born singer- songwriter Amy McKnight, trumpeter Sefi Zisling, experimental music scene-leading and German-born Lars Sargel, and Palestinian rapper Tamar Nafar.
There will also be DJ-anchored grooving and leg-shaking well into the night on both days. The birthday bash will also mark a new and unexpected development in logistics. Hamazkeka is, to put it mildly, not the flashiest or biggest of places, so its revenue- generating capacity is more than a little limited.
This makes the fact that it has made it so far all the more surprising. Not only has it managed to keep its head above water, next week’s shows will see the launch of the venue’s second stage.
“I know it’s crazy, but I am an entrepreneur,” Berkowitsch says. “I can’t just maintain a place. I like to initiate things, get things moving.”
Most business managers would advise against investing even more efforts and shekels in such a diminutive enterprise, but Berkowitsch is clearly made of sterner – or unbalanced – stuff.
“I thought that, even if we don’t have the money, I’ll treble the space and, through all sorts of other activities, I’ll manage to finance all of that.” One of the money-spinning initiatives is the launch of a new alcoholic brand called... Hamazkeka – and a café. “I know it doesn’t seem logical to expand, but I have a good feeling about this.”
Berkowitsch is blessed with capable hands, an ability to think outside the box, and the drive to get him over, and through, all kinds of logistical, financial and bureaucratic hurdles. It was not easy to get the venture off the ground in the first place. For starters, once he’d homed in on the cavern-like Shushan Street spot, he had to put in the footwork just to locate the owners and get a rental contract sorted out.
And then there was the not inconsiderable matter of divesting the walls of its former garage establishment that generated 30 years of grease and grime – which Berkowitsch did with his own hands. “I knew I had to set the place up as a non-profit,” he recalls, “and I needed to find investors.”
The financial conundrum was sorted out when, much to Berkowitsch’s delight, someone provided all the cash he needed for the sound and lighting equipment.
Anyone who has performed at Hamazkeka over the last three years – from the rock, pop, rap, jazz, electronica, ethnic you-name-it sectors – has been thrilled, not only with the ambience there, but also the quality of the amplification. That owes very much to the fact that, in addition to being an enthused visionary, Berkowitsch is also something of an accomplished musician himself.
Like his pal Asaf Krauss at the Drumbite musical instrument emporium over on Hahavatzelet Street, Berkowitsch is also fired by the desire to do something for Jerusalem. “The biggest ‘mistake’ I made was starting this place in Jerusalem,” he remarks with a wink.
“It would have been much easier in Tel Aviv. But I want to be here,” he adds in a more serious tone. “I want to do something for this city.”
Let’s face it, Jerusalem could really do with a leg up on the entertainment front. Hamazkeka is a precious little – albeit growing – gem which should be savored and nurtured by one and all, and especially by the local powers that be. The latter is a red raw point for Berkowitsch, who has kept Hamazkeka going despite a complete lack of support from the Jerusalem Foundation and, more strikingly, the municipality.
“With the municipality, which should be supporting an NPO like us, it feels like we are the enemy. On the few occasions when I asked them for help, I was fobbed off. When I asked them for support, they said they already have a place like this, in the Hinnom Valley.”
This would be the Louis and Tillie Alpert Youth Music Center of Jerusalem, created by the Jerusalem Foundation. “There is absolutely no connection between what they do and what Hamazkeka does,” he declares. “No one really knows about that place.
“The only time I have anything to do with the municipality is when I have to cope with fines they slap on me – all sorts of inspectors coming here to drive me mad, over-inflated prices you have to pay for all kinds of permits for chairs and such.”
That, as far as Berkowitsch is concerned, only serves to exacerbate the already difficult circumstances in which he is trying to add a much-needed spark of quality and envelope-pushing entertainment in the modest back streets of downtown Jerusalem.
“I repair the sidewalk on Shushan Street myself.
People can fall and hurt themselves there, and the municipality does nothing about it. And I have to pay a levy to put out chairs on that same sidewalk. That’s the way it is.”
When we met, Berkowitsch was grappling with officialdom over a fine for allegedly illegally placing tables and chairs on the sidewalk. “Two days ago I received a letter from the municipality telling me that, if I don’t pay a fine of NIS 3,500, within two weeks before I got the letter, I’d go to jail. That was for a fine from 2014, which I never got, for not having a permit for putting tables and chairs outside.”
Berkowitsch just wants to get on with the business of providing artists of all genres with a quality place to strut their stuff and give Jerusalemites a taste of that formative Stone experience he enjoyed in New York.
“I put up window boxes with flowers and herbs all along the street,” he says. “I cleaned up the facades of buildings on the street, and I have done electrical and plumbing repairs. What do they [at the municipality] want from me?” Hopefully, Berkowitsch will not end up behind bars and will be able to keep Hamazkeka – with its new stage and a recording studio about to open, not to mention the home-distilled new booze brand – flowing and grooving for years to come.
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