Ya’acov: The story of a shuk vendor

When you walk in to Ya’acov’s shop, called Azura, photographs of Mahaneh Yehuda’s glorious past catch your eye.

Ya’acov Nakash in front of Azura. An urn proffering hot sahlab takes a place of honor on the counter (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ya’acov Nakash in front of Azura. An urn proffering hot sahlab takes a place of honor on the counter
As I do, you probably enjoy walking the length and breadth of the Mahaneh Yehuda market on a busy Friday or during the week, deeply inhaling the redolent fragrances of ripe fruit and fresh vegetables intertwined with the rich incense-like bouquet of herbs and spices flavoring the air around aromatic spice shops.
The sound track is a pleasant cacophony of vendors promoting tempting bargains, calling, “Come and get your pineapple – only three shekels.”
Mahaneh Yehuda’s distinctive personality has made it one of the most famous markets in Israel. Part of that fame is anchored on a drill-down level to many of the market stalls, charming small shops, and individuals that have fascinating back-stories to tell. Attune your ear to the whispers of the past, and you can hear Mahaneh Yehuda’s heartbeat,which has been pacing this unique venue since the Ottoman period.
Toward the end of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, refugees from Morocco, Iraq and Egypt came flooding into the Holy Land to settle. Among them were some of the market’s first vendors, opening their businesses to offer the public fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, meats, spices and herbs from lands far away.
If you would like to tune into Mahaneh Yehuda’s true story, take some time to listen to accounts of prior days shared by local market shop owners, such as Ya’acov Nakash and his mother Leah, first- and second-generation Jerusalem residents originally from Morocco.
Speaking from amidst the tempting traditional burekas and savory snacks on display, Ya’acov fondly recalls his father selling inexpensive soft drinks that were extremely popular at the time, known then as “Mashkaot Zua.” Zua is a derivative of his father’s name, Ezra.
When you walk in to Ya’acov’s shop, called Azura, photographs of Mahaneh Yehuda’s glorious past catch your eye: decades of pictures of vendors selling their products and of owners of businesses setting up shop in the early morning. Pictures of past and present generations of the Nakash family are also hanging proudly on the walls.
Ya’acov has a brother, who now runs his own business outside the shuk. Managing his own shop has meant that Ya’acov’s brother has become less involved in the family business. Yet, this has not always been the case. Ya’acov tells how, straight after school (they both went to Ben-Zion School in Kiryat Moshe), he and his brother would return to the market to help their father. Ya’acov was not immediately attracted to life in the market; unlike his brother, who Ya’acov says was blessed naturally with the “outgoing personality and innate traits” to be successful in the market, Ya’acov needed to work much harder to acquire these. His greatest teacher was his father, who gave him “the tools, both in business and life, to be successful.”
Ya’acov says that his most vivid memory was working in the northern part of the market. He remembers the lively atmosphere and the colorful personalities who always had a story to tell, making market life enjoyable. He remembers playing with his childhood friend Yossi Banai, the famous entertainer who once lived with his family above one of Mahaneh Yehuda’s fruit and vegetable stalls. In later years, Banai often visited the market, and when he did, he invariably popped in to see Ya’acov.
The main change in shuk life came with the introduction of supermarkets, built by entrepreneurs such as Rami Levy, who himself started out with a stall in the shuk. Supermarkets changed buying habits and shuk business in several ways. Customers no longer needed to go to multiple stalls to do their shopping, as supermarkets packed a broad array of merchandise under one roof. Shoppers had to pay cash in hand for goods in the shuk; in contrast, customers could opt for several payments with credit cards when doing their shopping in a supermarket.
Moreover, when Ya’acov’s customers started driving cars, it was very difficult for them to find parking near the shuk; it was much easier and more convenient for customers to shop at their local supermarket.
Ya’acov says that the shuk has survived turbulent times, particularly during periods of terrorism, thanks in large part to the soldiers and police who patrolled the market. Despite and throughout periods of unrest, customers continued to come to the market. This trend continues today, despite the latest spate of terrorist attacks.
In this era of hyper-sized stores, Mahaneh Yehuda market still flourishes, because it has something that the jumbo supermarkets do not have. It has a unique ‘rhythm’ created by a pulsing and lively atmosphere, stalls and shops that not only offer variety and high-quality produce at cheaper prices, but also a singular local flavor.
Despite the current situation, Ya’acov is optimistic about the future. He is passionate about developing his business, giving his customers more choice and variety. He reports that his busiest time is in the summer months, when he offers a rich variety of fresh juices that his customers enjoy.
When he finishes work, Ya’acov says that he loves to walk around the market – sampling the atmosphere, the variety of people, and selection of the stalls. He draws strength and inspiration from Mahaneh Yehuda’s lively momentum, which never ceases. Ya’acov says that he has traveled all over the world and has yet to come across a place like the shuk.
People from Israel and abroad continue to flock to the stalls and the growing variety of one-of-a-kind restaurants.
Ya’acov’s story is a fascinating one, of tradition, hope and passion, encapsulating the “never say die” spirit of Mahaneh Yehuda – whose unparalleled ambiance continues to draw visitors from across the country and from around the world.