Open air market at heart of Jerusalem’s revival

Merchants are counting on street festivals, cultural shows, and the new light rail train to bring shoppers and sightseers.

Mahane Yehuda 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mahane Yehuda 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like many major cities, downtown Jerusalem has seen its urban decay and flight to the suburbs. The main Jaffa Road was ripped up to lay a light rail that has been years over due and it’s been a struggle for business to survive.
But things are starting to turn around with the help of a modern cultural renaissance.
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“I’ve decided to move back downtown recently because it’s just become such an exciting place that I have to live here,” Karen Brunwasser, the deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, told The Media Line. “The main road of town, Jaffa Road, which was a disaster for a while, is now a pearl and is absolutely gorgeous. And I’m actually moving right to Jaffa Road, which is something I would have never thought of before,”  The center of the urban renewal is the Mahane Yehuda market, popularly known as the “shuk” A new festival called Balabasta, which is Hebrew for “come to the market stall”, is bringing musicians, performers and artists to a place better known for fresh tomatoes and surly vendors.
Kobi Frig, festival organizer, was born and raised in the area around the market. His family owns a spice store there and after the Balabasta’s successful first season last summer, he energetically brought it back this year.
“People come and see culture and see other people and have fun, and the musicians have work and the shops get money and it’s free, so people come. It costs something like X and it brings something like five X, so it works,” Frig says over the cacophony of rock bands, buskers and hawkers, adding his motivation was to not only rejuvenate the market but help the old-timers too.  
By day Mahane Yehuda is the popular and boisterous market selling everything from vegetables, olive oil and fresh fish brought from the Mediterranean Sea. But by night, it’s transformed into the cultural hot spot, the capital of cool, helping turn what was once a virtual ghost downtown into a vibrant hub. Many of the stalls remain open late to serve the crowds for the Balabasta, which is taking place every Monday in July.
Tali Friedman, a chef and author of the book The Culinary Story of Jerusalem, calls the century-old market a microcosm of Israel itself. 
“It’s like a very small Israel. You see people from all over the world. You see people from Iran, and Yemen, and Moroccans and Spanish, and Italians. We have a huge mixture, which is a reflection of all Israel. This is what Israel is. We are a lot of people from all different places in the world. We bring our food to the market and we take advantage of the lovely products that the market has. Each culture makes its own beautiful food,” says Friedman, interviewed on her rooftop restaurant overlooking the stalls.
“In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful markets that we have in the world and I’ve been in a few,” she adds.
The iconic market has also reflected the economic angst and violence suffered by Jerusalem, the target of numerous terrorist bombings over the decades.
“After all the things we suffered in the market, the bombings and stuff, it’s a great thing to bring the whole world here now,” says Motti, a spice seller.
Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city with a population of some 760,000, of which about half a million are Jewish and most of the rest Muslim. Facing poor job prospects, high housing costs and until recently few entertainment and cultural options, about 6,000 more people emigrate from the city every year than choose to move to it, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. The gap is slowly closing with more and more people moving to the city.
“In terms of Jerusalem renewal, the shuk is probably the best example because it taps into the traditional attributes of the city -- its authenticity, its diversity, even its complexity. But it gives it a fresh twist. You’ll see lots of new enterprises in the shuk, lots of innovations, and we saw that at the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which puts on this event, and we said ‘Wow, this has tremendous potential to be a real culture hub,’” Brunwasser says.
Once the shuk sold just produce, but chic shops and upscale restaurants have started to move in as the market becomes cautiously gentrified. Across Rehov Agrippas, the street marking the shuk’s southern boundary, the Zichron Yosef residential quarter is being spiffed up. New apartment buildings are being erected and the century or more old homes are being restored and expanded. 
“There are a lot of new shops here and a lot of new restaurants, but we are trying to keep from overwhelming everything because we don’t want the market to change. We still need the parsley and the cilantro and the onions and the potatoes here,” says Friedman, who is a member of the Association of the Mahane Yehuda Market. 
“I’m from Philadelphia and the center of Philadelphia, as the center of many cities in the United States, has also undergone a process of renewal,” says Brunwasser. “People are moving back to the center of town. They’ve become safe. They become cleaner and more interesting. And Jerusalem is at the beginning of that process but it think the trajectory is very positive.”
A lot of the folks downtown have pinned their hopes on the new light rail, already three years behind schedule but expected to finally start carrying passengers this summer.
A plastic golden crown on his head, Ronnie Barak entices the shoppers with a plate full of halva samples in front of his stall.
“There is the beginning of renewal down here. But at the moment the city is sad because the light rail isn’t running yet and there’s no movement of people. Often merchants are just sitting around,” he says. 
The trains have been trundling through downtown for the past several months on trial runs. In the meantime, public transportation to the areas is limited and often jammed up in the narrow, crowded streets that buses have been consigned to make way for the light rail.
“At the moment there’s no renewal in the market area. But we hope the moment the light rail starts to run it will bring it, says vegetable salesman Eliyahu Mordechai. “And this festival brings new clients to the market, people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to shop here.”