The market's day

The shuk has always held the secrets to the soul of the city.

mahane yehuda 88 (photo credit: )
mahane yehuda 88
(photo credit: )
Since the times of the earliest Persian dynasties, open markets have beckoned countrymen to their shops, providing fares and wares with a cacophony of sounds and smells. Hardly a place for just shopping, the shuk (from the Arabic souk) has always been shrouded in mystique. Mythical lanterns with genies tucked inside could be summoned in the seamy underside of the marketplace's corridors and the murmurs of social revolution drifting from its passageways have caused politicians throughout time to court the market's traditional working-class powerbase. Since its creation nearly 150 years ago, the cadence inside Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda shuk has often echoed these stereotypes. Punctuated today by the bellows of shopkeepers tendering their best prices, the steady din of customers bargaining for a top deal and the clatter of dice hitting the shesh besh (backgammon) boards, the shuk still conveys a flavor of its ancient past. Venture even deeper into its alleyways, and you can discover some left-over magic in the small nooks of merchants such as Uziel, a herbal medicine man who bestows natural cures for today's ailments based on the thousands-of-years-old teachings of the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (Rambam). Amid these familiar images, however, there is a new tempo rapidly emerging onto the scene. Listen carefully, and you will suddenly hear the unfamiliar sounds of jazz music in what has become a new Sunday night entertainment ritual in the center of the market. But don't stop with the jazz music. Ring the bells! Bang the drums! Aladdin has transformed into Prince Ali, as the shuk is in the middle of its own Cinderella story. Jazz music is just one of many new signs that the rag-tag image of the old shuk is developing symbols of a genteel outdoor market, with wine boutiques, yuppie coffee shops and ethnic restaurants. Although this so-called gentrification of the shuk appears to be very recent with the opening of at least three new coffee shops, a wine specialty store and as many new restaurants within the past three years (most within the past 18 months), it is actually part of the process of a concerted social transformation that began almost 20 years ago. As a result, many of the old-guard shopkeepers have not only welcomed this renaissance, but have encouraged it by opening some of the new trendy hot-spots themselves. Their reasons for doing so lie squarely in their understanding of world markets today. As they see it, today's sophisticated shopper needs a classier draw to be persuaded to shop in the open-market. Long-time shuk heavy-weight Eli Mizrahi owns the coffee shop (whose Hebrew name loosely translates into "Everything for the Baker and Coffee too") that sponsors the jazz music, and he recently opened the chic Tzachaku restaurant in the Iraqi sector of the shuk. Mizrahi is not a newcomer to rules of commerce in the open-market. His father first came to the market in 1954 and ran a stand selling dried fruits and almonds that still exists today under different ownership. Mizrahi, however, believes in capitalizing on the future. "The world is going up and forward," he says. "Today's customers need entertainment and coffee between shopping." The same sentiments are echoed by David Bueh, a ninth-generation Jerusalemite who can see the apartment in which he was born from his small food shop, Havina, on Mahaneh Yehuda's main thoroughfare. Alleging that his shop, opened in 1919 by his grandfather, is the oldest shop in the market still in existence today, Bueh opened up a middle-eastern restaurant around the corner three years ago to bring in more business. Even though he eventually sold it to a close friend, he acknowledges that the "restaurant does very very well." Both he and Mizrahi believe that the gentrification of the market is not isolated to Jerusalem but rather is a phenomenon occurring in open-air markets all over the world as a way to capitalize on the appeal of the open market while competing with modern shopping centers. People prefer open-air markets, Mizrahi explains, because "markets all over the world are the center of life. It's nicer to be in an open market than in a supermarket." The business model of the shuk, however, is far more complex, as both Mizrahi and Bueh acknowledge. Like any product, the key to drawing people into the marketplace is ultimately understanding why people would want to shop there. For some, it is the long-held belief that the shuk offers cheaper prices. That belief, however, is a misconception, say most shop owners. Although some staple items might be cheaper, shopkeepers claim they haven't been able to compete with the grocery stores ever since the onset of chains such as "Shivuk Hashikma" (Rami Levy). That is not to say bargains can't be found inside the shuk, especially for shoppers who wander off the main pathways. "People who venture into the alleys know what they are looking for, have the time and are looking for a bargain," theorizes one shopper, Boaz Gershovitz. Case in point was a price comparison on the sweet cucumber-like vegetable, fakus. The shops deep inside the shuk sold high quality produce fakus for NIS 2.50 per kilo, compared to the outside vendors selling a clearly lower quality for NIS 4 per kilo. Yet with cheese prices nearing NIS 85 per kilo for specialty Tzfat cheese and items like white fish rivaling the prices found in the more expensive stores on Rehov Emek Refaim, it is clear that bargain prices are not the driving force pulling people to the market. The most touted reason from both customers and merchants alike on the shuk's allure is the culture, personality and personal relationships people find in the open-air market. "People come to the shuk because of the relationship they have with shop owners and the atmosphere, chemistry and the freshness of product," says Ami Samnes who together with his brother opened a wine shop across from Mizrahi's coffee shop. As if on cue, a passerby stopped to comment to those around her on Uri's cheese shop (located on Mahaneh Yehuda), offering that it was the "cleanest and freshest place in the shuk." The flavor and daily excitement in the market were the same reasons that Samnes and his brother Isaac decided to open their store - where they sell a three-liter bottle of Grand Vin wine for NIS 2000 - in the market. "The market is the soul of Jerusalem," says Isaac, who left a job in hi-tech to open the shop. "Here we are exposed to a lot of different kinds of people. We don't want to just cater to the Anglo-Saxon community on Rehov Emek Refaim," he explained, even as he notes that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and MK Avigdor Lieberman are regulars in his shop. In addition to the much talked about flavor of the shuk, there is a theme of uniqueness that runs through both the new and old shops. Despite their sometimes high prices, items that can't be found anywhere else in Jerusalem can still be found in the market. For example, bakers seek out the one-of-a-kind NIS 120 per kilo Valrhona-produced mangari chocolate in Mizrahi's shop for their delicacies. Noam Paz's friends opened up the Indian restaurant, Chandra ("The Moon"), inside the market less than a year ago because they could have instant access to many different kinds of rare spices they needed to complete their menus. Despite an inherent uniqueness in the new shops, it is easy to wonder if the new slew of middle- and upper-class stores will upset the balance of the much cherished culture in the shuk. Nurit Shalev-Khalifa, a curator at Yad Ben-Zvi and an expert on the shuk's history, explained that ever since it opened, the market has always contained a tension between the new and old shops. "The history of the market is the history of complaining. There has always been a lot of infighting between the new and the old. You can see in the municipality archives - boxes and boxes of complaining," she says. The shuk has its origins in what was then called the Beit Ya'acov neighborhood established by 10 Jewish families in 1877. As it was too dangerous for the new settlers to travel to the Old City market to buy their necessities, Arab villagers from the nearby town of Lifta would bring their merchandise to the new Jewish neighborhood. Setting up shop on an empty field owned by the wealthy Jewish banker Aaron Chaim Valero, their provisional stands soon became a permanent fixture in the field. The market grew to accommodate both Arab and Jewish merchants and remained relatively stable until the British Mandate in 1922. The British, disgusted by what they perceived to be a horrible eye-sore in the holy city, levied fines on the shop owners selling in the open field in an attempt to close down the market. The desperate merchants turned to the Jewish committee, which eventually purchased the field from Valero's widow and lent the merchants money to build real shops instead of the makeshift tents that they had been using. The established merchants, however, were in constant battles with new immigrant communities arriving from eastern countries who would set up temporary stands in the tradition of the old Valero field. Because they had lower overhead costs, the newcomers could bring their prices down below those of the more established shops. Today, however, the new shops are not underselling their merchandise, but rather offering luxury items and services. The acceptance of their presence, however, has as much to do with the economics of the day as it does with the small social transformation initiated in 1987 by the director of the Lev Ha'ir community center, Uri Amedi. A social worker by training, Amedi observed the rapid decay the shuk had experienced in the 1950s and 1960s as people moved away from the neighborhood. Realizing that the shuk was in danger of dying out, Amedi set about to create a community among the shuk's shopkeepers. Beginning in the late 1980s, Amedi approached the almost 450 stand owners one by one, until he gained their trust. "In my work, you can't be afraid of anybody and you can't pity anybody. If you do, they feel lower in your eyes. You have to love them and trust them," he says. As a result of his painstaking work, he was allowed to institute community activities including local football teams and a communal Purim party. Today the shuk also adopts an army unit to which the shops send collective care packages. To Amedi's credit, he understood the complex social make-up of the shuk. He actively sought the "blessing" of the old-timers in the shuk but focused his efforts on their children who could act as the agents of social and economic change. Amedi categorizes men like Mizrahi and Bueh in this second group. While there is no direct evidence to link Amedi's social transformations to the economic renaissance the shuk is now experiencing, it was Amedi who convinced shopkeepers to close their stores for four months at a time when the city agreed to do renovations on the shuk. By all accounts the renovations were a vital necessity to create a clean, safe and dry environment for shoppers, and they continue until today. Many people see them as a gateway to a broader appeal, not an end to the old way of shuk life. "It's changing because it has to change. If it would continue to be messy and uncomfortable, only one kind of person would come here. Yet it still appeals to other kinds of people," says Nimrod Tirosh as he served coffee in one of the newer shops. Indeed Shalev-Khalifa notes that her husband, who had rebuffed the shuk in past years, now takes their young children there every Friday for an outing. "The new people will bring change, but part of it will still remain - and it will be the combination that people are looking for," she observes. Perhaps most telling about the shuk's image is the small mural painted on the wall at the bottom of Rehov Agrippas six years ago. Before designing the mural, the artists interviewed shopkeepers in the market to find out how they interpreted their own image. From those interviews, they painted a picture of clean and serene stores. Regardless of the changes in the market, many people will continue to view it as an essential component of the city's soul. "The market doesn't belong just to the people of the market. It belongs to the people of Jerusalem," Amedi says.