Voices of Jerusalem: Visionary with verve

Loren Minsky speaks to Eli Mizrahi, 61, owner of Café Mizrahi in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem.

Eli Mizrahi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Mizrahi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"The favorite part of every job I’ve ever had is the people," reflects Eli Mizrahi, the warm and personable owner of trendy Café Mizrahi in Mahane Yehuda market (shuk). Known as Mizrahi Hakol La'ofeh V'gam Cafe (Everything for the Baker and Coffee Too) until three years ago, the café-restaurant was the pioneer coffee shop in Jerusalem's shuk and paved the way for its regeneration into so much more than just a fruit and vegetable market.
After studying International Relations and Islamic History at Hebrew University, Eli worked for the government in the customs office in the West Bank from 1975 until 1985. Around then, three years before the first intifada, Eli's late father had a feeling that something bad was going to happen in the region and urged Eli to join him and his two brothers in the family business in Mahane Yehuda.
"When I first came to the market it felt unusual for me, even though I had been around it since I was a little boy," recalls Eli. His father had owned a store in the market since 1950 selling commodities like dried fruits, nuts and spices.
Over time, Eli worked on developing and growing the business and also went into wholesale and the packaging of goods. Although Eli did this until 2002, his heart was never completely in it and he became increasingly disturbed by the competitive nature of the industry as the years went on.
By 2000 the shuk was in bad shape economically with its clientele of mainly old people. "Back then the younger generation simply preferred the convenience of supermarkets and malls," says Eli. "Thirty percent of the stalls were closed, and another 35 % were changing hands every half year. I decided to stand in the election for the shuk committee with the hope that I'd be able to make the positive changes I'd been envisioning for a decade." Eli was elected as chairman of the committee.
Eli opened up the shuk's first coffee shop, which was considered a big risk at the time. "I saw very little money for the first seven years," remembers Eli. "But I'm a very optimistic man, and have confidence in myself and what I do. I have always been this way and I brought this feeling to the market in those years."
Eli believes he struck a perfect balance as chairman between being tough and co-operative with the municipality and authorities, and managed to boost the budget for improving the shuk from basically nothing to NIS 40 million over a couple of years. Slowly, the market started to attract a different type of clientele such as students and small families.
Eli recalls how most vendors managed to adapt to the new atmosphere and mindset, which was different to serving very simple customers buying in bulk. Interestingly, only 10% of the market's stores began offering something other than standard commodities, fruit, vegetables, fish and meat, yet it was enough to transform the whole shuk.
More recently, in the last few months, Eli has been fighting cancer and just two weeks ago had a CT scan that revealed that the cancer is all gone. "I am optimistic and tough," says Eli. "I fought to make radical changes in the market, and similarly I fought the disease."
Although Eli has been working fewer hours than usual, he was not about to "sit at home and cry.”
"It happened and now I'm finished with it," says Eli, who has started coming into the café more and more the last few weeks to be around the people he loves and who love him so much.
One of Eli’s daughters, Yara, works in a relatively new bar Casino de Paris in the shuk that Eli co-owns with lead singer Sha'anan of hip hop band Hadag Nahash. His other daughter Moran runs all aspects of Café Mizrahi. She received patisserie training in France and is according to Eli “a truly excellent chef.”Eli also contributes ideas and recipes and considers himself to be an anthropologist in food who has learned on his travels and through his life.
Eli's wife, a special needs teacher, and two sons are not involved in the business. The family live in the residential neighborhood of Mevasseret Zion.
"Jerusalem is my city," remarks Eli, who was born here. "I could have become a rich man in Tel Aviv and although I considered leaving a few times, I am so happy with my decision to stay in Jerusalem. I hope my family will stay too.
The atmosphere is utterly unique here. Where else in the world can you wake up on Shabbat morning and hear the birds and the sounds of nearby synagogues? Even though I am not a religious man, it is something so special."
Eli comes from a religious family. "Although my father was a cantor, he was also very liberal and never forced us to do anything or be anything we did not want to be," shares Eli. "I have a lot of respect for religious people and I am very traditional – we don’t cook on Shabbat, make Kiddush, light Shabbat candles and have a strictly kosher home so that my wife's religious observant family can feel comfortable eating at us."
"I aimed to give my family at least a minimum knowledge of Jewish culture as it's important that they remain Jewish," says Eli. "It is a remarkable thing that nobody can destroy the Jews and that we've been around since the beginning of the world and are still so tough and unique." Eli shares how he finds the Jewish religion to be the most logical and most understanding of religions, but points out, however, that he does not like religious institutes. "They take your money and that’s it." Eli recently got rid of his rabbinate certification and has taken more responsibility to keep a check on the kashrut (kosher status) of the menu.
"A lot of people have suggested that I become a politician," says Eli. "But I believe that people are forced to change when they become politicians, and I am too truthful. However, I have a lot to say when it comes to politics. I have many good Arab friends from when I lived in the West Bank, and I think that together we could make peace."
Eli believes that part of the problem is that politicians are not open minded enough, people don't think positively enough and also cannot accept the other. "We should teach our children Arabic not English," exclaims Eli. "We live in the Middle East and we need to know our neighbors. I find it horrible that we have less knowledge of Arabs than them about us."
"I have a zest for life," says Eli, who plans to enjoy the upcoming years and possibly write a book about food, with recipes and tidbits from the past 40 years. "I just need someone to publish the book."
"What's the secret of my contentment? asks Eli. "I think good thoughts and therefore it is good. I wake up smiling and don't make an issue out of everything. Most of all, I don’t care about money. I would be happy if all that I had earned over the years was the amazing people I've known."
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