How it really was: The sun has set on Shemesh

Once upon a time, there was a restaurant on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street that was owned and operated by Yehezkel Shemesh.

Mayor Teddy Kollek and Marc Chagall at the Israel Museum in 1969 (photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Mayor Teddy Kollek and Marc Chagall at the Israel Museum in 1969
(photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
ON THE wall facing you as you entered hung a drawing of extravagant lines emanating from a circle. It was a sun scrawled on a large sheet of paper that was signed by Marc Chagall. Beside it, was a massive enlargement of the historic photo of the three victorious generals entering the Old City in 1967: Uzi Narkis, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan. Below the photo was a bronze plaque thanking the proprietor for inviting soldiers for free meals during the Six-Day War. Which eatery was home to such unique décor?
Once upon a time, there was a restaurant on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street that was owned and operated by Yehezkel Shemesh.
The tasty cuisine of the Mizrahi kitchen, which was produced by Yehezkel’s wife, Margalit, together with his magnetic personality and charm, drew customers from near and far and all walks of life.
Indeed, Le tout Jérusalem, as they say in French, “all [who count in] Jerusalem” would eat and meet there, as would those who could permit themselves to go out to eat in those “good” old days.
One of the first times I ate at Shemesh’s, the restaurant was located on the north side of Ben-Yehuda in a narrow but long storefront, and had just a few tables. Sitting at one table all by herself was a pretty young lady. Yehezkel knew everybody, and we were already friends.
When I lifted my eyebrow in his direction, he came over and whispered in my ear, “Yael Dayan.” When I lifted both eyebrows, he said, “Ken, ken,” (yes, yes) not needing to add, “the daughter of Moshe Dayan.”
(Yael later became a celebrity in her own right, as an author, politician and independent thinker.) Yehezkel told me that she was celebrating her 17th birthday. This was the summer of 1956 before the Sinai campaign, but Dayan and his bold figure and eyepatch were already part of our folklore.
At that time, the restaurant may have had one waiter; Yehezkel mostly manned the tables by himself, with Margalit, a sweet, very capable Yiddishe mama, cooking unforgettable soups and doing her best with the rather forgettable meat that was available in those days.
Yehezkel had begun as a busboy at the famous- at-the-time Kalia Hotel near the Dead Sea. In those days, they used European nomenclature: a busboy, who set and cleared tables, was called “piccolo,” Italian for little one, in this case “junior.” He had studied at the Ratisbonne Technical High School in Jerusalem, and thus spoke French, Arabic, Hebrew and English, along with Persian and/or Judeo-Persian, which was spoken in his home.
He later picked up a fair vocabulary in German and Yiddish and would use it with a straight face, as though the language were natural to him, impressing his guests and amusing himself My fun in eating there was – besides the food and Yehezkel’s knowledge of wine – people-watching.
The new restaurant was located a convenient three-minute walk from the original Knesset building on King George Avenue.
Often, you would see cabinet ministers eating there with an overseas guest or guests, or with his own entourage and MKs, of course. As far as I know, prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol did not eat there, but minister Pinchas Sapir, mayor Teddy Kollek, and then-MK Menachem Begin and many Knesset colleagues lunched there.
There was one guest, however, who topped them all.
One day, after the restaurant had relocated across the street to the corner of Ben-Yehuda and Hahistadrut streets to a larger and more upscale-looking space, I asked Yehezkel, “Why don’t you have a Kosher certificate?” “The truth is I can’t afford it. They charge so much,” he said.
“Look, I am a bit uncomfortable without the certificate,” I responded. “Also I’d like to bring friends here, and they won’t come without a certificate.”
“Tell them not to worry,” he replied, and pointed to the last table, where an older man wearing a dark gray fedora was sitting.
“That’s my father. Do you think I would ever feed him something unkosher?” Touched, I said, “That’s better than a certificate.”
When times improved, Yehezkel did get Kosher certification.
By then, he knew all that was going on politically, socially and personally – from who was pregnant, who was a straying husband, to who would win the elections and the mood in the cabinet at the time.
Yehezkel was fun, darting from table to table, taking orders, welcoming Kollek and Chagall.
CHAGALL WAS here often in the years following the Six-Day War. The Knesset had moved into its present building in 1966, and the artist was designing and supervising the triptych of tapestries, which grace the walls of what is now the Chagall Hall there.
By that time, the food had changed amazingly, and my favorite became keves batanur (lamb in the oven), a slow-roasted lamb dish. In my carnivorous days of the 1980s, Shemesh offered an amazing entrecote. The flavors and aromas surround me, as I write.
For my own children, Shemesh was where we celebrated birthdays, and Yehezkel was part of the fun, often sitting with us and kibitzing.
I asked him if the restaurant would cater the wedding of my middle daughter, Tova, to which he replied, “Of course. Just pay for the ingredients.”
“But you have to pay the workers,” I said.
“Don’t worry, that too.”
When we arrived at the wedding hall on Mount Zion, who was standing in the kitchen, doing all the work? Yehezkel himself.
How could I ever thank him? For Simhat Torah, the holiday that marks both the completion and the restarting of the complete reading of the Five Books of Moses, Margalit and Yehezkel held open house at their Ussishkin Street ground-floor apartment. Then and there, Middle Eastern hummus and tehina met Ashkenazi cholent and kishke. It seemed like an endless stream of guests entered the apartment.
Margalit left Yehezkel bereft and mourning in January 2000. She died at a dance evening they attended with friends. Even when the restaurant went through tough times, and when family problems arose, Yehezkel never let it show. But after Margalit’s death, his eyes changed.
Yehezkel had both a sense of humor and a talent for promotion.
It must have been on the 50th birthday of the Shah, in 1969. Yehezkel was not only proud of his Persian heritage, but was convinced that he looked like the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah. So on that October day, he stood with wine glasses and bottles, and offered free wine to all who passed his restaurant. Long live the Shah! Ten years later the Shah fell.
Yehezkel handed over the restaurant to his late son, Mussik, in 2005. Neither the son nor the grandsons could create the ambience, presence, the joie de vivre and joy of hosting that Yehezkel had.
Chagall knew from his heder days that shemesh means sun. A few weeks ago, the sun set on Yehezkel Shemesh.
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