Soup and all that jazz

Hamarakia will be serving up a new music menu.

Food and jazz in Hamarkia (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Food and jazz in Hamarkia
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Think of typical Jerusalemite spots around the city, and presumably places like Mahaneh Yehuda and Nahalat Shiva feature high on the list. The Hamarakia also deserves to be up there with the best authentic fare the capital has to offer.
When I popped into to the Koresh Street eatery on Monday evening, the place was abuzz and packed to the rafters. True, it was the third installment of this year’s Sheon Horef cultural bash, but Hamarakia is a magnet for Jerusalemites and tourists alike, particularly when it’s nippy outside.
As the name of the establishment suggests, soup is the staple item on the menu, but this is no “soup kitchen.” Then again, we are not exactly talking fancy napkins and Michelin-star menus either.
Hamarakia opened for business 16 years ago; for the last 13 years, it has been run by Noam Frankforter, now 35. Sounds like Frankforter got an early start to his business management career. “This place was started off by a couple of young women. I finished my army service and started working at the Reut School [in the Katamonim neighborhood], as a helper for a handicapped child, and then I started teaching there,” he says.
Frankforter’s professional evolution took a sharp turn when the Hamarakia founders decided to move on to other pastures; it seems there was also some familial stuff in the career-switch mix. “One of the women who owned the place is my cousin, and when she told me she’d had enough I asked her to put off advertising the place,” he explains. “Hamarakia became mine within three weeks.”
Despite misgivings, Frankforter’s parents eventually also supported the new venture. “To begin with, they thought it wasn’t a good idea,” he recalls. “They said I was young and that maybe I should check out other things before committing to a business. But after a while, they said that if this is what I really wanted they would back me, and they put up the initial funds so I could take over the place.”
It turned out to be a lifesaving move – not for Frankforter, but for a couple of people close to him.
“On the evening I signed the contract for the business, I went to the home of the lawyer Leah Tsemel – she’s a top political lawyer – who is my cousin’s mother. She represented both sides,” says Frankforter. That was on March 9, 2002, at the height of the second intifada.
“When we got to Leah’s house, the TV was on and we saw that the Moment Café on Aza Road had been blown up by a suicide terrorist,” Frankforter continues. “That may have saved Leah’s and my mother’s lives. They were due to meet there for coffee, but they canceled because of the contract signing.”
Quite a dramatic start to Frankforter’s business career.
That also helped to focus the then-22-year-old’s professional mind-set. “I realized that I needed to concentrate on bringing in younger people to Hamarakia. With the intifada going, on people were scared to go out at night, and I wanted to encourage youngsters to get out and enjoy life – like in ‘normal’ times.”
Thirteen years down the line Hamarakia is, thankfully, still with us – and Frankforter is still at the helm. As we talked, squeezed into a dark corner of the lower level of the restaurant, an eclectic musical backdrop mingled with the animated chatter of the diners. “Each worker chooses their own playlist,” Frankforter explains. “So you get all sorts.”
You do indeed; and as I enjoyed a delicious, steaming homemade-style brew, I was “subjected” to madcap musical continuums – with ’70s disco followed by Arabic music, a Beethoven sonata and a jazz standard.
“My mother is a Communist,” notes Frankforter, possibly by way of explaining the higgledy-piggledy musical fare. That mind-set also informs other areas of the eatery’s ethos. “I am not really into politics, but I don’t know how many places there are in Jerusalem where you can find an Israeli and a Palestinian working side by side in the kitchen.”
The ethnic personnel mix, says Frankforter, is also down to the location. “We are right in the middle here, between east and west Jerusalem, so we get Arabs and Jews and all sorts coming in here.”
And, as of last month, jazz fans have also been squeezing into Hamarakia. Drummer Roy Ben-Yosef is the man behind the weekly Tuesday shows, and by all accounts he has got some top-quality artists on board. This week, for example, saxophonist Matan Chapnizky and his trio added some improvised swinging grooves to the tasty victuals experience, with New York-resident bassist Hagai Cohen-Milo and drummer Adam Cohen in the lineup, and next week Paris-based saxophonist Shauli Einav will be backed by Australia-born bass player Simon Starr with Yonatan Rosen behind the drum set.
Ben-Yosef says he has “ulterior motives” for getting the jazz series up and running. “We have some wonderful jazz musicians in Jerusalem, and I am fed up with them having to go over to Tel Aviv to perform. I hope the Hamarakia program can help provide a venue for us to play, and offer Jerusalemites quality jazz.”
He says the series, which has received funding from the Panonika Association, was born out of frustration – but also out of wish to salute the pioneering work of late American-born jazz saxophonist and teacher Arnie Lawrence. Lawrence ran a music school in Ein Kerem until shortly before his death in 2005, and nurtured the nascent skills of many of today’s top local jazz artists. Bassist Hagai Belitzky, now a teacher at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, is among the former Lawrence disciples who have played at Hamarakia, as is pianist Omri Mor.
“I started playing at Hamarakia four years ago,” notes Ben-Yosef, “but it wasn’t a regular thing. We are now bringing jazz fans to the restaurant, and it’s a win-win situation for everyone – for Noam and Hamarakia, for Jerusalem jazz musicians and for local jazz fans. This is not just about providing entertainment, it is also about building up a jazz community here.”
Thirteen years on, Frankforter is delighted with the new jazz endeavor, and says he is happy to be still a going concern. “We have had some tough times here, like when they were laying the infrastructure for the light rail. They said the work would last a month; in fact, we spent a whole year obscured by piles of rubble. There were evenings when I was here alone, playing backgammon with one of the workers.”
Happily the cozy soup-based establishment is still alive and kicking, serving a variety of tasty wholesome fare – and not just soup – while doing its bit for the capital’s cultural scene.