From bizarre to bazaar

Community center, bazaar, synagogue and watering hole, Slow Moshe is a different kind of bar in a different kind of neighborhood.

slow moshe 88.298 (photo credit: )
slow moshe 88.298
(photo credit: )
As local bar owner "Slow Moshe Levi" knows as well as anyone, Nahlaot has changed more dramatically over the past few years than any of the other residential neighborhoods in central Jerusalem. Nestled between the increasingly religious Sha'arei Hessed, with its many yeshivot, and the Mahaneh Yehuda Market, Nahlaot was once a Mizrahi blue-collar bastion. But the neighborhood has experienced a real cultural transformation - not unlike, one might say, the one that turned Greenwich Village in the 1950s and Prague in the 1980s into affordable, charming urban centers. Just as the German Colony's Rehov Emek Refaim changed its character from southern Jerusalem residential center to trendy yuppie haven through the 1990s, and then again to satellite city center since the beginning of the second intifada, today one can observe a line of new neighborhood haunts along Rehov Nissim Behar, one of Nahlaot's only car-friendly arteries. Over the past 20 years, Nahlaot has become home to Jerusalem's version of the "funky" set: arts students from all over the country, bohemian "baby boomer" families ready to settle down after their India explorations, and young, religious American hippie types. "Throughout the whole world, the city center becomes fashionable," Levi explains, sitting at a small table not far from his Goldstar tap. Slow Moshe, a no-nonsense, home-like bar that serves its target market well, is located just down the block from the unlabeled (and unparalleled) "Pita Lady" bakery, the new wireless Internet-offering caf , the Kubiya corner eatery, and a self-serve laundromat wallpapered with concert posters. The area around Nahlaot is traditionally home to elitist, funkier-than-thou watering holes, accessible only to those in the know. Mahaneh Yehuda's Rosa bar, known for its deep blue fabric walls and blasting experimental music, is difficult to locate for those out of the loop, thanks to its low lighting, deliberate lack of signage and alleyway location. There used to be another, even more obscure bar on a nearby apartment building rooftop - but this unnamed, unlicensed establishment served its last drink over two years ago when it became so popular that the owners closed up shop, fearing that they'd soon be targeted by bureaucrats looking for their cut of the action. Slow Moshe's welcoming feeling is thus a new development. It is prominently visible, accessible to all and serves Nahlaot's new populations with much more than booze. Slow Moshe has evolved into a community center, much more like the corner pub in London or the local in Brooklyn than an Israeli nightspot. It's even been home to a used clothing sale event and a synagogue of sorts. Business partners, apartment mates, and lovers, Shoshana and Yaniv (both of whom attend the David Yellin College for Education and prefer not to reveal their real names), organize the biweekly "Second-Hand Bazaar" thrift-shop at Slow Moshe, performing all of their sales through the bar. "The bazaars have been taking place for years," Yaniv explains. "It simply happens [that this is] the time period when we're doing it." Years ago, Yaniv worked as a bartender at Slow Moshe, so the couple had an "in" at the bar. And since the location is so close to their market, the choice was obvious. Adds Shoshana: "It started out with my own clothes, as I was cleaning out my closet. But now the clothes come from everywhere - from thrift shops donations and friends that help out." "Everyone meets there," says Yaniv. "It's a place to enjoy a beer in peace and quiet and all types of people come there: regulars, transients, Arabs, secular, religious, kibbutzniks." The couple and their network of friends distribute fliers to advertise the next bazaar, but most customers come from walking by and wanting to see what the commotion is all about. They claim that the profits are meager but enough to cover their investment of time and labor. And then there's the "Minyan Bar," a prayer group that until recently met every Friday night at the Slow Moshe, which was recently put on hiatus because neighbors complained that the Slow Moshe was "open" on Shabbat. Nearly 60 people, mostly Americans from the neighborhood, would attend this experimental prayer group. A Jerusalem anomaly, it included an egalitarian ethos, guided collective meditation sessions and pot-luck dinners in an unlikely location. "They asked me for the key so they could have a minyan - they didn't have a synagogue for it," recalls Moshe. "I said, 'No problem. I'll give it to you out of love.' But on one condition - they have to take care of the lights, the alarm and other electrical arrangements before sunset, so they won't offend the predominantly Orthodox population in the area." Yaniv says that the bar plays a community role because of Moshe, "who pays attention to everyone. This is related to the beauty of Nahlaot. It's not like Tel Aviv here - there's no posturing here." "Moshe is a golden guy," says Shoshana. "He's the heart of the place. Unlike almost all bartending jobs in the country, which illegally pay only meager tips under the table, Levi pays all of his bartenders NIS 20 per hour on top of tips - and he has them officially on salary and takes care of their tax obligations as well. "That's the law," says Levi. "No one does it, but I don't care. The employees perform the most difficult duties, and when an employer cares, it helps the place - which helps them and helps everyone." Regarding the events taking place at his bar, Levi says, "I'll give the bar to anyone who is willing to pay the bartender's wages. I don't see any of the profits, but it keeps the community coming here, which is good for me in the long run." Moshe Levi was born in Nahlaot. His mother, a house cleaner, was born in Mandatory Palestine; his father, a Kurdish immigrant, was a construction worker. He drove a tour bus for many years but then developed a slipped disk in his back and was forced to look for a new profession. "I always dreamed of owning a bar because bar owners get the girls," he quips. A friend heard that the little-known Posner Bar was ready to sell, Levi took it on and Slow Moshe first opened its doors at the end of 1999. The name is a play on words, based on the English phrase, "slow motion." It's also the same as a Tea Packs song, but that's pure coincidence, he says. Only a few months after he bought the bar, the intifada broke out and Jerusalem's night owls started to stay home again. But typically, Levi saw this as an opportunity. Modeling his bar after the no-nonsense watering holes he'd frequented when he lived in lower Manhattan, he wanted to create a space where people could drink beer in a "warm home" rather than the more dangerous bars a few blocks away downtown. "I liked the atmosphere," he says. "If you messed up the rug, it was okay. If you drank too much and vomited, they gave you mineral water." As he talks, five Bezalel Academy of the Arts students, the first customers of the evening, enter the establishment, set their backpacks down at a small table, and help themselves to the Goldstar tap. "Push the handle down all the way," Moshe tells them before telling them where he keeps the pretzels behind the bar. Then he says, "Last year, I went traveling for three months. When I returned, I found that the expenses had remained the same for the bar, but profits were up by 30 percent - which illustrates how much beer I give away when I'm here. I love giving drinks to regulars who want to come here and chill." Today, Levi claims to make some money - "but not a fortune." And the municipality and police are threatening to withhold renewal of his business license until he puts a security guard at the entrance. He says that they never demanded this in previous years, when terror was far more prevalent. "This is just so the city can make people think they care about safety," Levi accuses. "Besides, I believe in a free life, one without too many guards." In July 2005, Levi opened a second Slow Moshe in the Florentine neighborhood in Tel Aviv. In many ways, it's the opposite of the Jerusalem original. The Florentine branch is a theater bar, similar to the now-defunct Pargod Theater, offering classic rock and blues over the speakers as well as regular live reggae parties, all for an NIS 30 ticket. Levi says he's not making much profit in Tel Aviv, either, but is satisfied to provide a homey, arts-driven alternative to the high-concept, shiny black shoes-only electronic music bars that dominate Florentine. At Slow Moshe, Levi concludes, "We don't have sales and promotions. The sale is me - I'm inviting you. It seems that the community gets it."