Tali Friedman: Leading the men at Mahaneh Yehuda market

As of two months ago, Friedman became the first woman to be elected chair of the Mahaneh Yehuda Merchants’ Association.

Israelis are seen shopping in Jeursalem's Mahane Yehuda amid the coronavirus pandemic, on January 6, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen shopping in Jeursalem's Mahane Yehuda amid the coronavirus pandemic, on January 6, 2021.
 Tali Friedman, 45 and the mother of four children, a chef and food entrepreneur, was one of the first to link the shuk’s fresh merchandise with a culinary business in her popular Atelier cooking and dining space, located on the first story of a building on the market's main street. 
Born in Tiberias and raised in Safed, Friedman moved with her family to Jerusalem when she was 11 years old and has lived here, near the shuk, ever since. She is also, as of two months ago, the first woman to be elected chair of the Mahaneh Yehuda Merchants’ Association.
TALI FRIEDMAN: Doing the right thing. (Haim Yossef)TALI FRIEDMAN: Doing the right thing. (Haim Yossef)
Did you grow up in a feminist environment?
I wouldn’t put it that way, but I can still remember my grandmother, a woman of Kurdish origin, who decided one day during renovations in our synagogue that shut down the women’s section, that the women would move to the men’s section. Many eyebrows were raised but she wouldn’t give up. She insisted that women also had the right to pray and deserved an appropriate space. So in a way, you may say that I had some good examples surrounding me since I was a child.
Did you plan to make a breakthrough to show the way to more women when you decided to run for the position of merchants’ association chair?
No, I didn’t even know I was “breaking through.” I just wanted to do the right thing, that’s all.
But you couldn’t ignore the fact that you were stepping into a “men’s space,” right? You certainly were aware of that?
Yes, of course. I realized right from the beginning there were a lot of things that had to be done, since I was a member of the former committee. And I knew that I wanted to do things to improve the situation on the ground. I had a clear idea what needed to be done, in terms of infrastructure, cleaning, the balance between the nightlife and the authentic market. But that’s what I had in mind in the beginning – I didn’t give too much attention to the gender issue then. It came later.
How did you become aware of it?
Well, I began to be involved in shuk matters even before I was elected. I was requested by Mayor Moshe Lion to do the groundwork for these elections, and then I began to meet people who shook their head in my face asking themselves and asking me that question.
What question?
Well… she’s a woman, right? They brought a woman to direct our committee? They put a woman on this? 
Yes, I did meet that kind of reaction at the beginning, absolutely.
And how did you respond?
It only made me stronger. It gave me much more motivation. But today the gender issue has become almost irrelevant. We’re beyond that now. Nobody among the merchants mentions it any more.
Why? Is it because you proved your capabilities or because things have changed?
I wish I could say it is because things have changed. I think we’re not there yet. However, we see everywhere more women taking over positions and roles they never dared to until not so long ago. So yes – women in strong positions are becoming part of our reality. It is something becoming more acceptable, but the road is still long.
Would you say that as a woman, you are doing things in a different way? Your being a woman president of this association, does it have an impact?
It is first a matter of character, of the way one leads things. As a woman, I would say what characterizes me is that I am more attentive. I am a woman but I am also a mother, and quite often, when I realize I don’t know something or I don’t understand how things work, I ask. I am ready to listen to explanations, to learn. There are men who have this capacity of course, but I would say it comes from the fact that I am a woman and a mother. 
It’s not an easy task, and more than once I had to face anger, complaints, lack of trust in my capabilities, even during the first weeks of the coronavirus. If it were a man in my position, I guess people would address me differently. But I didn’t care – I was ready to ask questions, to learn. I didn’t feel less capable because I had to learn things.
Besides the gender issue, you stepped in this position at one of the worst periods for the shuk. The coronavirus, the lockdowns, the insecurity – economic and health – were and still are a tremendous challenge. How did you handle things?
As you know, this is a volunteer position – I do not get paid for what I do here.
Working for the public is very demanding, and sometimes it can also be unappreciated, so I had to learn to draw a lot of strength from the small achievements here and there, from things I managed to bring to a better place through my activity. I had to fight for our rights here at the shuk, facing the discriminatory governmental decisions and rules that caused terrible losses for the merchants. When we finally obtained even a part of what we asked for, it gave me a lot of strength.
You were also elected on the ticket of improving shuk infrastructure, but it came all together, elections and coronavirus. You probably were under the watchful eyes of the merchants?
It was indeed a very demanding time. I had the full support of the mayor and the city administration and even in the middle of the lockdowns and the coronavirus, we began to launch major renovations inside the market that are still in progress. When the day comes that we are free of the virus, the shuk will be ready to renew business as in its best days.
What would you recommend to any person involved in the public domain, man or woman?
The first requirement is to love what you do. To feel that you are doing the right thing, to believe of course that you can do it. Never approach a public task without listening to the needs of the people involved who depend on your actions.
Would you say that being capable of listening is a female characteristic?
I know there are men who can do it as well. But yes, being in a position where you’re not trying to show you're the strongest person who never makes a mistake, but being ready to listen and learn from those there before and hence do the best thing. That’s what I did and I believe it’s more a woman thing.