Rediscovering Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market

The shuk is drawing a chic, younger generation into its narrow passageways.

mahane yehuda market 224.88 (photo credit: Shelly Paz)
mahane yehuda market 224.88
(photo credit: Shelly Paz)
Unbeknownst to many, Jerusalem's famed Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market has undergone an incredible facelift in the last few years. The shuk, as the locals call it, has managed to shed its old image of elderly people buying produce, and is now drawing a chic, younger generation into its narrow passageways. Nowadays, a visit to the market need not just be for fresh fruit and vegetables, but rather a colorful experience for tourists and locals that can include popular cafes and restaurants. Mahaneh Yehuda stretches between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. It dates back to the end of the 19th century, when it was first established on an empty lot owned by the Sephardi Valero family. In an unorganized way, at first, Palestinian merchants started to sell their goods on this empty lot to Yiddish- speaking housewives, who struggled to bargain in Arabic. But the improvised market soon became a success because it saved Jewish residents, especially from the nearby neighborhood of Nahlaot, the long walk to the Old City's food markets. A couple of decades later, Jewish merchants replaced the Arab ones. One part of the market became "permanent" for the first time in the 1920s under the British mandate, and two more sections joined it by 1931. Many new stalls and food stands opened on the market's main pedestrian malls during the 1940s. For many years, though, Mahaneh Yehuda was neglected, and suffered from a poor water-pipe and sewage system, leaking tin roofs and cracked asphalt. After years of stubbornness and following a string of terror bombings, the market's merchants finally gave in and accepted the Jerusalem municipality's renovation plan. Today, just a few years after the make-over was completed, the market has an entirely new image. Legendary restaurants such as Azura, Morduch, the Sami and Sima steak houses still appeal to the many regulars and tourists who visit the market. But at the same time, new and refreshing businesses and eating places have opened, drawing in segments of the population that stayed away from the market for many years. They hang out in attractive new cafes, upscale restaurants and trendy bars featuring a variety of bands on week nights. And they shop at stores specializing in wine and spices, delicatessens, bakeries, clothing boutiques, and shops offering a range of goods from textiles to Judaica. A sure sign that Mahaneh Yehuda had converged with contemporary Israeli culture was the opening on the market's main thoroughfare a few weeks ago of the popular Aroma cafe. Students and young Jerusalemites who moved into Nahlaot because of what used to be cheap rent [it has become much higher in the meantime] and the magical atmosphere of the market also contributed their share in improving its prestige. And even if the prices of fruit and the vegetables have gone up since the good old days, a visit to Mahaneh Yehuda is as much of an experience today as ever. As a child, going to the market for me was an unpleasant experience. The smells of the raw fish and meat mixed with stench of the sewage and dirt, the yelling merchants and the struggle not to lose my mother's hand left a traumatic impression. As a young adult, avoiding my mother's requests to join her to the market became an art. However, less than a decade later, a visit to the market has become for me what it is clearly was for her - an escape to a place that reminds one of the good old Jerusalem. Whether someone is joining you or not, the people of shuk will embrace you. A basket or a shopping cart is always a good idea, and don't forget to take cash, because many of the sales people, especially the greengrocers, don't accept credit cards. Trust your instincts. The colorful fruits and vegetables will be first to catch your attention, and pretty soon you'll find yourself shouting, "How much are the figs?" and tasting a grape without receiving permission, which in most cases is acceptable. The shuk also has several great bakeries that offer fresh pitas, halla, roles, breads made from hazelnuts and cherry tomatoes, and delicious cakes and cookies. A refreshing coffee break or a small meal is often a good idea if you feel you need to catch your breath from the hustle and the bustle of the market. There are several great cafes in the passageways, including Emil and Mizrahi - "everything for the baker and coffee too." If you like homemade salads (especially humus) and home-cooked dishes, Tzidkiyahu, a Jerusalem institution, is a must, although you might have to stand in line for a while. If you suffer from stress or a particular health problem, stop at Uzi Eli's "potions" stall next to Emil, and the salesmen will find you "the right drink." Two women standing in line told me they had throat ache and high blood pressure. When I asked them if the potion they are given helps, they admitted that they couldn't tell, but said they like to drink it anyway. Several clothing boutique stores are situated on the shuk's main road that connects between Jaffa and Agrippas, and you can also find jewelry stalls, shoe stores and houseware shops. Down Agrippas are some excellent restaurants, and even a small Sushi take-away and a cool bar that hosts bands on Friday afternoons. If you enjoy cooking Asian food, you can find all the original ingredients you need at the Balagan store for really good prices. The prices are reasonable throughout the shuk, but you may need to some investigation to find exactly what you're looking for. "Digging for the good stuff" is actually a fitting motto for a successful visit to Mahaneh Yehuda. It's all there, but you need to discover it for yourself.