It's market day

With Tu Bishvat looming, Mahaneh Yehuda is the perfect place to while away a few hours.

shmita shuk 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shmita shuk 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Have you ever wondered where the late Yossi Banai got the inspiration for the marvelous comedy sketches he wrote and the songs that he sang in his unique raspy voice? The answer lies inside the Mahaneh Yehuda market, where Banai, who died of cancer in 2006, grew up in a tiny apartment above a vegetable stand! Experience for yourself the exquisite sounds and sights of the marketplace and the picturesque Ohel Moshe neighborhood next door with an outing that begins and ends at the parking lot on Rehov Kiah, off Agrippas. The market is closed on Shabbat, so come on a weekday, preferably Friday when Mahaneh Yehuda pulsates with life. Walk through the parking lot in the direction of Jaffa Road and stop at a giant mural that was only recently completed. Beautifully recapturing Jerusalem in the late 19th century, it tells the story of Jerusalem's first trade school - a historic site that was, and is no more. Indeed, all that remains standing is the gate you see in the picture. Replaced some decades ago by the ugly Clal Center - Jerusalem's first shopping mall - the school was built on Jaffa Road in 1882 by the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (in Hebrew, Kol Israel Haverim or KIAH). With the exception of the Laemel School, this was the only modern educational facility in the city and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was one of the staff. When examining the mural, note faithful reproductions of the building, the gardens and old photographs featuring teachers and groups of students. Now descend the steps that lead to Jaffa Road and turn left. Pass the bus stop to reach a little police station. Originally a small Turkish citadel, part of a chain of 17 fortresses along the Jaffa-Jerusalem highway, this building later became the residence of British Consul Noel Temple Moor. In the past the two stone lions in front that were above the low walls have moved. When the street was being prepared for the light rail the lions had to be pushed closer to the façade. Not long ago, again in preparation for the light rail, little shops further up the street were torn down. Fortunately, however, the striking Etz Haim Yeshiva behind them still stands. Founded in the Old City in 1862 by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Etz Haim branched out into several neighborhoods over the following decades. At the beginning of the 20th century the organization purchased a large plot of land on Jaffa Road and erected a modest yeshiva (not the building you see there, today). You will soon reach the Mahaneh Yehuda market, originally an open air Arab bazaar. But Etz Haim soon realized the economic potential of its Jaffa Road location. Sixteen shops were constructed next to the yeshiva and rent collected from the vendors helped with the yeshiva's maintenance. In 1936 the original yeshiva was replaced with this lovely, two-story, symmetrical structure, made of beautiful red stone. Turn into the covered market at Rehov Etz Haim and learn the real meaning of "rubbing shoulders" (literally!) with people from all walks of life. On Friday, especially, the market is incredibly vibrant. Hear the incessant cries of merchants hawking their produce, and feast your eyes on displays of fruit, vegetables and spices in riotous color. When you reach the third alleyway inside the market, turn right. In 1922, vendors themselves added two streets full of shops and topped with dwellings. This street was one of them, originally called Rehov Agas (Pear). Yossi Banai's grandfather, Eliahu Banai, was one of the merchants who built the street. Look for a Star of David carved into the lintel on your right, and a second (currently being restored) that dedicates the building to Eliahu Meir Banai. For many years the Banai family lived right here, absorbing the sounds and sights of the market and the atmosphere of early New Jerusalem. A sign of the times: The former vegetable stand is slated to become an organic coffee shop! Descend to the bottom of Rehov Agas (today called Eliahu Banai) and turn right. You have left the covered market and are in a wide street bazaar beautifully renovated by the municipality, which paved the road with granite and replaced eight sad little street lights with 50 new ones. The city also planted saplings, and ordered merchants to cover newly restored store fronts with colorful awnings. Look up on your left to see a police station sign on one of the awnings next to a pickle stand. Walk through the very narrow, adjacent alley to reach the Iraqi Market, established in 1935. In one of his songs Yossi Banai called it the "little market behind the big market." Here, in addition to food stands, dozens of older men spend hour upon hour drinking, chatting and playing cards or backgammon. Peek into the various rooms, or watch the men sitting outside. Then go left, up the ramp next to an interesting little restaurant and adjacent to the men's restroom (the ladies' still eludes me). You have reached Azura, a popular dinosaur of a restaurant where the owners prepare home-cooked food as they have always done - on old-fashioned paraffin stoves! Follow this street to the end, turn right and you will again be in the outdoor market. Head right, and at Rehov Eshkol look down and peer right to discover a miniature flea market on the sidewalk. At the bottom stands Rahmo, a veteran eatery with home-style food. Continue straight ahead, taking in the ambiance of this delightful market street. On any given day you may find musicians playing their instruments, haredi men preaching to bystanders, or people hoping for alms. Why not buy hot burekas, and enjoy them at tables in the middle of the action! Turn in at Rehov Shaked and read the sign on the wall. In 1931, additional peddlers got a loan from the Savings and Loan Bank to add streets to the market. The names sound like the market itself: Almond, Carob, Peach, Plum, Walnut and Mulberry streets (Shaked, Haruv, Afarsek, Shazif, Egoz and Tut). HEAD RIGHT when you reach the main drag. Pass the bakeries with their mouthwatering aroma and emerge directly across from Ohel Moshe, one of the early neighborhoods that make up Jerusalem's Nahlaot area. Ohel Moshe, like the market, played an important role in the life of former president Yitzhak Navon. Founded in 1883, the neighborhood was built by and for religious Sephardi Jews as a direct answer to the adjacent Ashkenazi neighborhood of Mazkeret Moshe. Instead of Yiddish, residents here spoke Ladino, a Spanish dialect with Hebrew elements. This is where Navon spent his childhood. There are three parts to the unusual monument that crowns the arched entrance to Ohel Moshe. In a circle on top you can read the name of the neighborhood and the date of its establishment. Below, "Moses Montefiore" is engraved into two square plaques in English and in Arabic. The center plaque is a larger testimonial in Hebrew to Montefiore, whose money funded the neighborhood. As you wander through Ohel Moshe, you will understand why Navon, like Yossi Banai, wrote nostalgically of his childhood haunts. In fact, among the first lines in Navon's famous play Bustan Sepharadi (Sephardi Orchard) are the words: "Each time I am in Jerusalem my legs take me here to the neighborhood...." Pass through the arch and look up to your left. It is common to find tin covering the exterior walls of early neighborhoods. Meant to be temporary, tin walls dating back more than a century still remain on many of the houses. Note the use of tin cans as flower pots, typical of Nahlaot. At the garden called Bustan Sepharadi, look both right and left to see blocked up cisterns. You will find them throughout Ohel Moshe and all of the Nahlaot neighborhoods as well. Then look closely at the houses to see that they are all connected to form a protective wall meant to keep out thieves, murderers and wild animals. As you walk through Ohel Moshe you will begin to see signs (in English!). The first two signs tell the story of the neighborhood and its benefactor. Further in you will find over three dozen other signs attached to photos of Ohel Moshe's 19th-century residents, Sephardi pioneers who left the safety of the Old City walls to become part of New Jerusalem. The excellent exhibition is the work of the Lev Ha'ir Community Center. Cross Rehov Carmel to view another garden, where residents once grew vegetables. Ohel Moshe is a particularly lovely neighborhood due to a clause in the contract between future inhabitants and the Montefiore Fund: in order to secure funding, residents had to promise that they would plant trees and gardens! Soon you reach Beit Avraham and Ohel Sarah, a house built in 1925 by Jewish immigrants from the Greek town of Yanina and later transformed into a synagogue. Yanina housed the largest Jewish community in Greece, dating back to the days of Alexander the Great. Continue straight ahead, reading the interesting signs and looking at the pictures. The Navon family photos show the playwright, politician and former president as a child. Turn right onto Rehov Gilboa and stop at a covered cistern and plaza. Here the women of the neighborhood gossiped as they did their laundry. Next to the photo of Cohen the Dairyman (on your left) turn into a very tiny lane. The one-room synagogue here was built in 1890 by childless Yom Tov Taranto who hoped that the contribution would result in the birth of a son. It is so small that worshipers more or less took over the lane, covering it and adding benches for women who frequently peek through the window. Old timers relate that in the evening, renowned sages studied together with simple folk. And since the synagogue was open 24 hours a day, anyone in trouble or with a special request could come in and read from the Psalms whenever he wanted. Return to Rehov Gilboa, enjoying the superb combination of old and new that became possible after residents were allowed to build on top of the original houses. Metal slits in a few of the walls allow anonymous donations to charity. At Isaac Levy Square go left. On the wall there is a strange wedding photo in which bride Rivka and groom David look as if they would rather be anywhere but under the huppa (bridal canopy) together! When the street ends, turn right, exit through the gate and go left onto Rehov Mazkeret Moshe. Head right on Agrippas: the parking lot where you began is on your left.