Voices of Jerusalem: Wild about fish

Loren Minsky speaks to famous fishmonger and owner of leading fish store David Dagim in Mahane Yehuda market.

David Dahan (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Dahan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I am passionate about fish and love what I do," says David Dahan, the owner of David Dagim in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.  "When I work, it's with my neshama [soul]." David Dagim sellssome of the freshest and best quality fish available in Israel from the Mediterranean Sea, kibbutz farms and from all around the world.
The son of Moroccan immigrants, David left school in 1973 at the age of 14 to help in the family fish store when one of his older brothers joined the army. David was a natural from the beginning. One of eight children (five boys and three girls), David and his brothers all worked together. "It was very difficult work back then; nothing like it is today," says David. "I used to go to Jaffa at 4a.m. andAshdod in the evening three times a week. The car that we used was old and the roads were bumpy."
David worked in the kitchen during his army service but was given permission to return to help in the store one week of the month. While in the army, he met Miri whom he married and the couple had two children together: Tuvia and Oranit.
When Tuvia was ten and Oranit was nine, Miri left David and went to live in Canada. "It was a very difficult situation," recalls David. "I worked long hours and still had to figure out how to go about raising children. On top of it all, I struggled to find someone to care for my kids; someone that they felt comfortable and happy to be with."
Then in 1995, David metLimor on a bus on the way to visit Miri's parents. He immediately thought she would be a good fit for the children, and asked her to come and work for them as a carer. Limor arrived at the store a week later and accepted the job.
Limor moved in with her three children: Liz, Yechiel and Asaf and quickly they became an unofficial family unit. David and Limor became close as they shared their "hearts truths", and  decided to get married. "It was real from the beginning," says David. "That is the best way for a relationship to develop."
In 2001 David's four brothers decided to get out of the business and although it was a challenging transition, David was relieved at the simplicity of working just with Tuvia. However, the stress and pressure of work, and the poor economic situation caught up with him. David suffered a mild heart attack, and found himself in Sharei Tzedek Hospital for two weeks.
In 2002 David's father died, and unfortunately never got to see the business as the success that it is today. Just a few years later the situation started to turn. The economic environment improved as David and Tuvia poured all of their energy into making the business work.
Nowadays, David and his four brothers gather once a month for a traditional Moroccan meal with music and tambukas [drums].  David mentions sadly and in disbelief how in 2012, within one week of each other, three of his other siblings passed away.
It's clear that what one of the things that brings David the greatest pleasure is making excellent fish accessible to the public. "I love so many aspects of my job –recommending suitable fish and bringing the best of the best to my customers," says David. "I am at peace just being close to the fish, and often choose to work behind the scenes with my staff cleaning the produce. I get a lot of satisfaction from fish that is washed and packaged well."
David and Tuvia take the quality of the fish they offer very seriously and make a point of not stocking frozen fish from China, which has high water and chemical content.  They use state-of-the-art equipment and cleaning machines and are so confident in what they offer that they encourage customers to return fish they're not satisfied with.
"The Mahane Yehuda market is the most special place – the smell, atmosphere, thebuildings, the way the sky looks from this particular vantage point," says David passionately. "There is something special and holy about living in Jerusalem; I could never live elsewhere."
David has traveled all over the world – France, England, Germany, Morocco, America and Cyprus. The best fish in the world? "Undoubtedly from Spain. It's amazing but has such an expensive import duty that it's not worth bringing it in," says David.
David works long hours, and in fact "never stops working." "I get up at 5a.m. every morning in order to speak to our driver before he heads to Jaffa," relates David.
"If I'm not in the shop, I'm at the port or at our warehouse, but it is okay as I enjoy it all. Of course there are days when things don’t go smoothly and that's not easy, but I can deal with challenges when all is well on the home front. David remarks how blessed he is at home and how he is treated "like a king".
These days David lives in the quiet residential neighborhood of Arnona in Jerusalem with his family and is happy with his lot, for "what I have and what I do not have".
"I believe in God as my father did," says David. "Every morning I say "modeh ani", and on Shabbat I go to the synagogue with a kippa on my head and tzitzit. Going to shul is an emotional and holy experience for me; I cry every time."
"It is said to be a special thing to eat fish in honor of Shabbat Kodesh," exclaims David. "I believe that the effort and money that goes into preparing for Shabbat comes back to you twofold."
His dream for the future is to make David Dagim fish accessible to everyone in the country through offering branded produce at supermarkets and other stores. "People enjoy eating fish, and it's also so healthy and good for them," says David. "There's so much love in what I do, and I'm just so grateful."
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