As the ‘shuk wars’ heat up, is Mahaneh Yehuda’s character at stake?

Some 140 years ago, Mahaneh Yehuda market – aka the shuk – was established on a plot of about 30,000 square meters.

FOR SHUK shoppers of all stripes, it’s business as usual in daytime – despite the appearance of the contentious yellow line (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
FOR SHUK shoppers of all stripes, it’s business as usual in daytime – despite the appearance of the contentious yellow line
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last week, merchants and owners of shuk bars and eateries discovered that overnight, the municipality had drawn yellow lines all over Mahaneh Yehuda to mark the space designated for tables and chairs for night activity. The reaction was harsh and immediate – a total rejection most call “a diktat from above” that they feel will harm their businesses.
Reducing the number of tables and chairs permitted will reduce the number of clients each bar can hold. Music is already no longer allowed after 11 p.m. The municipality has also added a request to register in advance for additional tables. All these steps add grist to the rumor mill that the municipality’s next step will be to reduce the number of bars – with owners feeling they are no longer wanted in the shuk.
A strike was organized in reaction, discreet talks with former mayor and candidate for next treasury minister Nir Barkat were conducted, a plan was proposed to block the entrance to the market from Jaffa Road by throwing garbage on the path to the light rail, and it seemed as if a serious protest was on the way. However, 10 minutes before launching the protest, everything was canceled. While it is still unclear what prompted the cancellation, the anger, mistrust and preparation for a strong response to Safra Square’s plans for a shuk “upgrade” (at a total cost of NIS 1.5 million) are still alive and kicking.
THIS STORY holds most of the typical dramatic components, with the local flavor of the iconic Jerusalemite market as the backdrop. A bunch of men versus one young woman; the needs of hardworking earners versus nightlife and culinary promoters; the older generation facing a new, energetic and very different young generation of entrepreneurs; on top of political tensions due to the changing of the guard at Safra Square and big money, too – all these are involved in the hidden story of the shuk. On the surface, it is business as usual: tourists, guided tours, clients, lots of fresh merchandise, just as always, but tensions are rising.
Some 140 years ago, Mahaneh Yehuda market – aka the shuk – was established on a plot of about 30,000 square meters, between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street, with the Iraqi shuk on the right side of the main alley (when coming from Jaffa Road); the Gruzini (Georgian) shuk inside on the left side to the main alley, where some of the first bars such as Casino de Paris (on the site of a former bordello and British officers’ club) opened in recent years; and the main covered alley, home of most of the coffee shops, restaurants and eateries; all existing alongside Nahlaot, one of the most veteran neighborhoods beyond the Old City walls. For now, only the Iraqi shuk seems to retain its authenticity as an affordable market – with the exception of the legendary Azura restaurant serving up homestyle “worker” food, and a small, popular empanada eatery, Argento – with primarily vegetable, fruit and butcher stalls.
Long before it became a fashionable destination, the shuk was a place where residents and farmers from rural locations bought and sold basic products, with very low-level basic structures and conditions and no vision whatsoever to become a tourist or cultural meeting point. It very quickly became a place attracting Jerusalemites from across the growing city, including buildings constructed around the main street where large families lived.
“My mother used to pluck the chickens she sold here, in her tiny stall, and a few meters down the same main street of the shuk, my grandfather sold watches,” recalls Shimon Futterman, who continues to come every morning to the market, to get his daily burekas and black coffee breakfast, before going to his business. In recent years, he brings along his three-year-old granddaughter, “so she gets used to becoming a shuk child, as I was.”
Today, one becomes a “shuk child” against its wild popularity as the “anchor” of Jerusalem: According to municipal figures, over a million people visit Mahaneh Yehuda each year.
AT ROASTERS, known for its top-notch coffee, elderly pensioners with pasts in the Shin Bet and veterans of the 1960s-era radical Left meet on a regular basis. Some continue with the same old political arguments, others take a distant look at that old buzz and focus instead on the blessings of their present life – children and grandchildren, friends, and the unique Jerusalem atmosphere. With all ages mingling, they have their traditions, including a Friday afternoon “parliament” and insider jokes, as they check out or initiate new candidates to their circle. From Roasters, Shuki Haidu, one of the city’s most accomplished tour guides, kicks off his popular history, folklore and culinary tour to endless streams of Israelis and foreign visitors.
But this idyllic scene is misleading, as storms of mistrust, suspicion, conflicting interests and attempts to wrest control threaten to ruin not only the atmosphere, but perhaps the shuk itself. The shuk’s transformation from a simple market to a highly appreciated spot, for tourist from here and abroad, is the blessing that also includes the curse of its success. According to Yalla Basta, a site that monitors the country’s various markets, Mahaneh Yehuda has stood – for years now – at the top.
“The need for some regulation and putting some limits on what is going on there in evenings has become urgent,” adds Futterman.
“These yellow lines are the beginning of the improvement we all need,” declares Yaki, owner of one of the most popular eateries (who asked not to be identified), “because things have become unbearable here.” Yaki, like some owners, feels regulation is badly needed in the shuk, “before everything crumbles and is lost.”
Asked about the specific threats, Yaki says that “without regulation, the authentic shuk – where vegetable, fruits, meat, fish and [baked goods] are sold – will disappear. If that happens, none of the bars and eateries will survive, and within a short time, the real estate sharks – who have never renounced efforts to get their hands on this plot – will win.
“This is one of the most expensive plots in the city; they dream of raising up a few towers instead of the market.”
Moreover, adds Haidu, “the shuk is not only vegetable stalls, it is a part of the story of this city and its people.”
“In my guided tours I always mention the human touch that has always existed here – those who send merchandise to needy families, the restaurant where they will tell you that not all customers always pay and that’s fine with them. You can’t preserve that special quality based only on bars that make noise at night and are not really part of the shuk.
“This is possible because in a few places, the ancient style of key-money rent [a local form of rent control] still exists, and allows owners not to run after the profit, as they pay a very low rent and thus can still take care of their neighbors and needy faithful clients – all the things that preserve the special atmosphere here. This is what is at stake now.”
Yankele owns a coffee shop/bar, and though he doesn’t live in Jerusalem, he feels deeply attached and involved in the shuk’s fate. “It’s a big money story. Since the shuk became fancy, the rent for any tiny shop has skyrocketed. In 2019, the shuk had more visitors than the Kotel!
“Take a middle-aged or aging man who has worked hard here for years to sell vegetables and fruit, and now some young guy who made lots of money – don’t ask me how – comes and offers him five or 10 times his rent, to get the place and turn it into a bar or an eatery. Who will turn down such an offer? And within a few days you have one more bar, and lots of chairs and tables all over, and if something happens, a rescue vehicle cannot pass through, not to mention drunks, violence and all that stuff that comes with alcohol.
“So yes, these yellow lines, and the restrictions on the quantity of chairs one can set out and where, are more than welcome here.”
NINO PERETZ, the former president of the shuk merchants’ association, sees things differently. Peretz is close to Barkat, and strongly supported minister Ze’ev Elkin’s candidacy for mayor, who lost to current Mayor Moshe Lion. Peretz is still a strong figure in the shuk, and it is no secret that he is not happy about the shape of things today. Peretz is very careful not to directly attack Tali Friedman, who has been appointed by Lion to organize the merchants’ association and prepare it for the next election in the shuk, but his skepticism about her abilities – as a woman and as a relative newcomer to the shuk – and representing the culinary interests before that of the traditional produce stalls, is not hidden.
This tension was rumbling underground for a while, but the yellow lines, which he discovered one morning encroaching on his supermarket on the Etz Haim open street, have inflamed his anger. “You can’t tell an entrepreneur not to open a new bar – it’s a free country, who and how could restrict business?” Peretz demands.
Friedman says she represents both sides.
“I do my guided tours early in the morning on Fridays, so that merchants can work without the disruption of lots of tourists who do not buy anything,” she notes, “and then I take them to the Atelier, to the culinary workshop I own, using local products I bought here.”
Friedman has the total confidence of Lion, who has approved budgets for the large-scale renovation planned for the shuk. “Today,” she says, “the main streets and the narrow inside alleys are clean, most of the shops are renovated, and the drainage system is improving. But there is still a lot of work to be done, and this is what I am here to accomplish.”
Peretz was indeed the first president of the merchants’ association who promoted the need for renovations, and the roof over the shuk enabling visitors and customers to walk comfortably no matter the weather, was done under his watch. His opponents say that the major problem is the “pirate” bars that sell alcohol without seriously checking the age of customers, the unbearable noise they make and the semi-criminal atmosphere they bring with them to Mahaneh Yehuda.
“Nightlife and [the] vegetable market are tied and depend on each other,” says Yaki. “Every side has to understand that, and basic regulation is necessary.
“It’s very simple – if you don’t want to have some undesirable types here, stop the loud music until the morning, then they won’t come. So we arranged that, and now the music is authorized until 11 p.m. Selling alcohol is another problem that has to come under control, and many more things. What we need is more municipal supervisors here, at least four or six, patrolling inside the shuk in the evenings. Police are not a solution, they should be alerted when something really bad occurs, but municipal supervisors can do most of the job required, that’s what we have asked for.”
FOR THE RESIDENTS living around the shuk, things are even more difficult.
“I moved with my family from Ohel Sarah to Jaffa Road, literally above the shuk,” explains Avinoam Kutcher. “I am not against the nightlife in the shuk, but, yes: we need regulation and supervisors and policemen here, so that it doesn’t become a nightmare. Residents need to have their parking free, and that is not the case presently. The noise – of course it has to be stopped at a reasonable hour.
“I really like that this shuk has become such an attractive spot, but it needs some order. Reducing the number of tables and chairs is a good beginning and these yellow lines are a good start.”
Not all local residents share Kutcher’s optimism, as Ophir, who also lives in the neighborhood, put it: “That’s only cosmetics. They will reduce the number of chairs, so what? Residents living very close to the shuk continue to suffer from dirt and drunk people.”
For Yaki, the solution is to stop – as of now – granting permits for additional bars or eateries.
“If you can’t open a bar, you have no reason to offer huge sums for a tiny vegetable shop and turn it into a bar – that’s the only way to save the authentic shuk, and that’s in the hands of the municipality.”
Peretz is adamant that it won’t work and that all these regulations are not moving in the right direction.
“You can’t really stop people who want to enjoy time with friends at night. I agree that alcohol is a problem, but that’s in the hands of the police, and in the evening, when the stalls are closed, why not allow bars? As for the new work being done – these yellow lines are insane – I can’t get the merchandise brought to my supermarket in the mornings; the delivery trucks are not allowed to reach the entrance. It’s not only an issue for me, but all the other shops around. That won’t work.”
Friedman takes a deep breath and stresses that the fate of the shuk is not just a local issue.
“We have become a beacon of attraction for tourists and visitors, local and foreign. This is a state mission: the government, the municipality and, no less importantly, the public. Jerusalemites have to understand that the shuk is our jewel, that they cannot stay away from it and not be involved.”
After getting the mandate from Lion to reorganize the merchants’ committee, Friedman has announced her intention to run for the position of its president as soon as new elections become a reality (no date has been set). Her vision is to reach a new status quo, based on old and current statistics.
“Thirty years ago, we moved out some 250 merchants and peddlers who took over in the streets around the shuk. That was the right thing to do, but now it’s time to bring some order again here. Our recent surveys showed that of shuk businesses, about 22% are nightlife venues. Considering that only a few years ago they comprised barely 12% to 15%, this is insane. This is a growth of one side over the traditional authentic shuk, which has to be preserved. And I’m sure that since that survey was done just a few months ago, the situation has even worsened,” she notes.
Friedman adds that the logistical support of Safra Square is essential.
“The yellow lines are only one aspect. There is tremendous work to be done here in terms of infrastructure, pavement, lighting – that’s the municipality’s job, and that’s what is being done now.”