The young new faces of Mahaneh Yehuda

Lucas Zitrinovich in front of Argento, which specializes in empanadas (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Lucas Zitrinovich in front of Argento, which specializes in empanadas
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A grumpy older man blows cigarette smoke across the colorful fresh produce he’s not putting much effort into selling. Then he yells random words such as “Sweet,” “Five shekels,” or “Bananastrawberrymango!” This is the face that many imagine when they think of the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
However, along with the changes that have altered “the shuk” in recent years, new faces have entered the market. Younger and with infectious enthusiasm, these newer business owners represent the future of the shuk. While some lament the alterations, this current crop of entrepreneurs surprisingly challenges many assumptions.
Meet three relatively new Mahaneh Yehuda shop owners, all under 40 years old, each with his own unique relationship with Jerusalem’s central market.
Moshe Gross – Muscat
At just 29 years of age, Moshe Gross is one of the younger shop owners in the shuk. He co-owns the Muscat jewelry store on Ha’egoz Street, a street already known for young proprietors; both the Pepitos and Steam restaurants there are run by “under 40s.”
Still, despite his youth, Gross brings a good amount of experience to his two-year-old business. He met his partner, Chaim Vitali Varol, when they worked as friendly competitors selling jewelry to passengers on cruise ships in Cozumel, Mexico. Back here in Israel, they continued their friendly relationship while continuing to work in the industry.
Gross always knew, however, that his future would be as more than just an employee. “All the time, I was looking to do my own thing,” says Gross. So when Varol asked Gross to work for him in a new venture, Gross counteroffered – a 50/50 partnership.
From the start, Gross and Varol wanted to do something different. Gross explains, “Our idea is to make special kinds of jewelry that you don’t ordinarily see.”
To achieve this goal, Muscat’s business is more than just sales. Gross and Varol design and manufacture all the jewelry. While many stores sell “the same hamsa that everyone is bringing from India or Thailand,” Gross points to Muscat’s unique designs at affordable prices.
The decision to open Muscat in Mahaneh Yehuda came from Gross, who grew up in nearby Nahlaot.
“There is nowhere else in the world that I feel so at home, so it felt natural for me.”
Yet Gross still feels like an outsider in the market.
Although most see discrimination against Sephardim in Israel, Gross says it is the opposite in the shuk. He was picked on while growing up as the son of Canadian immigrants of Ashkenazi background.
Still, this background familiarized Gross with the Anglo visitors to Jerusalem, which also brought him to Mahaneh Yehuda.
“I was looking for a tourist place that also has character.”
The partners are opening a second store in another touristy part of the city – Nahalat Shiva.
As a young, successful business owner in the shuk, Gross displays ambitious brashness tempered by sober realism. He chose the shuk after seeing other jewelry stores there and knowing he could “do it better.” He sees “no negatives” to working in the shuk at his age.
“At night, I turn into a 29-year-old. I get beer and enjoy being with the guys.” While he still has responsibilities, he has fewer of them than an older person, a big advantage with the inevitable ups and downs of the business.
Nonetheless, he never foresaw his future in the market.
“When you grow up, you don’t look at a store and say, ‘One day I’m going to have a shop in the shuk.’” He dreamt of being a lawyer or doctor. “But life takes you through a journey and it changes,” he continues.
“When you’re young you have plans and then you grow older.”
For now, though, he is very happy with his decision to open in Mahaneh Yehuda and sees it as the first step in his journey.
“I’m looking big. You know what they say, from Jerusalem you have to spread out into the world.”
Roi Mizrachi – Mizrachi
Produce In some ways, Roi Mizrachi, 35, is the exact opposite of Moshe Gross. Where Gross considers himself an outsider, Mizrachi comes from a family that may be the closest thing to shuk royalty. He is the third generation in his immediate family to work in the market.
Mizrachi’s cousin Eli is well-known as the founder of the first café to open in the market, back in 2001. Other members of his extended family own stores that sell nuts and granola.
Furthermore, where Gross is operating a jewelry store in the classic food market, Mizrachi has stuck with something that many see as more traditional – fruits and vegetables. Yet Mizrachi innovates just as much at Heharuv Street’s Mizrachi Produce.
“I wanted to bring something new to the shuk,” Mizrachi relates, somewhat incongruously. “Fruits and vegetables that are special and different, like in the shuk at the Namal [port] in Tel Aviv.” In other words, not all produce stands are the same, a fact that becomes obvious to any visitor to Mizrachi Produce. The selection on display easily differentiates this store from others in the shuk.
Mizrachi understood he couldn’t compete with large stores on price alone.
“After all the supermarkets opened – Rami Levi, Shufersal and all of their friends – they can afford to sell even cheaper as a loss-leader… Then they can make profit on everything else.” To succeed, Mizrachi offered another competitive benefit. “We decided to bring a new concept – a concept of quality, of variety, of freshness, and of special things that don’t make it into the chains and which you can’t find anywhere else.”
Mizrachi also brought experience with him when he decided, about five years ago, to become an independent business owner. Following jobs at the Defense Ministry and Tekoa Mushroom Farm, he decided it was “time to take a chance on the shuk.” His experience at Tekoa Farms connected him to smaller distributors who previously sold only to gourmet restaurants in town. He also buys some products directly from farmers, and even distributes their goods to other markets.
He also decided to make produce deliveries from the shuk, just one example of the greater customer service that differentiates Mizrachi Produce. While recognizing that his youth helps him understand what customers want, he also credits his father with teaching him this.
Straddling the border between the old shuk and the new, Mizrachi is satisfied with his decision to throw his lot in with the market he grew up with.
“Overall, people come and appreciate the atmosphere, and they are voting with their feet. They come to buy!”
Lucas Zitrinovich – Argento
Probably the most obvious recent change in the shuk has been the increase of eateries. However, even within that trend, there are differences between the unimaginative pubs aimed at a barely-legal-to-drink demographic and the original and creative ethnic restaurants. Argento clearly falls into the latter category, with owner Lucas Zitrinovich, 38, bringing his Argentinean culture to the shuk.
Like the other proprietors profiled here, Zitrinovich comes to the market with lots of previous experience.
He worked for many years in a string of restaurants started by celebrity chefs Assaf Granit and Uri Navon.
But in November 2016, Zitrinovich opened Argento in order to “focus on putting my entire soul into the small dish, the family dish” – the empanadas that he grew up eating in Corrientes, Argentina.
For Zitrinovich, although empanadas may be simple food, that doesn’t mean you can cut corners in preparing them.
“We work so hard,” he says, “to take the simple food to the extreme, to the maximum of the dish.” That quality takes effort. For example, rather than using a regular oven where he could just flip a switch to heat it, Zitrinovich stocked his open kitchen with a charcoal- fired oven that takes hours of prep time each day.
He claims the value is proven by the result – empanadas that simply taste better.
Though there have been many Latin Americans living in Israel for a long time, it is only in the past year that their food has arrived the shuk. Zitrinovich sees this as a logical step.
“We are bringing our kitchen – our soul – to Israel and to Jerusalem.”
In addition to the asado and olive option that is typical of Argentinean cuisine, he offers a spicy chicken empanada that is more traditional for Peru and Mexico.
Additionally, he features a Middle Eastern-inspired empanada filled with lamb, dates and peanuts, as well as a vegetarian empanada for those who prefer to go meatless (such as Zitrinovich’s mother).
Argento is located in the “Iraqi Market” area of the shuk, where there are fewer eateries. “This part of Shuk Mahaneh Yehuda is the typical part,” Zitrinovich says.
“This is the best part, with all of the vegetables.” In fact, Zitrinovich purchases all of his restaurant’s produce in the market. His chicken and lamb are also sourced in Israel; only his beef is imported from Argentina.
While some see the eateries and pubs as contrary to the “authentic and traditional” character of the market, he sees no problem with opening Argento in the most old-fashioned section of the shuk. He enjoys the contrast, and says it was very important to him that his store opened in a space that was vacated by a different eatery, rather than displacing a produce stand or butcher. This was the case with Muscat as well, which opened where a clothing boutique previously operated.
Furthermore, Zitrinovich values the warm relationship he has with the other workers in the Iraqi market.
“We drink coffee together… As long as you act professionally and work hard, they respect you.”
The biggest benefit that he sees in his younger age is that he has a lot of energy. He needs it. He arrives in the store every day at 7:30 a.m. and remains there until very late most nights. He also praises Mizrachi’s cousin Eli (of Café Mizrachi fame), who he says is “like a father to me.” Eli Mizrachi taught him about hospitality. “Be friendly with the people, have no fear, take all your soul and put it on the table.”
On a broader scale, that’s exactly what all these new faces are doing in the shuk. They’re taking their souls and putting them into their home away from home, Mahaneh Yehuda. In so doing, these young entrepreneurs breathe new life into Jerusalem’s central market while helping it maintain its authenticity. Be it better quality and service with traditional produce, simple but delicious food stemming from another large immigrant group in our city, or even a jewelry store that showcases unique affordable local designs, these merchants share a deep love and respect for the market and care deeply about its future.