At Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, a window into Jerusalem’s hungry soul


Challah loaves at a market in Jerusalem. (William Booth/The Washington Post)
December 27, 2013

There are many windows, some clear, some hazy, into the soul of this holy city, but one of the best ways to see the real Jerusalem is to shop in the old food market, Mahane Yehuda, known to everyone as the shuk.

What was once a noisy, jostling market of hagglers warring over vats of peppery olives and sacks of plump dates, sniffing pickled herring and poking their fingers into hillocks of za’atar spice, is now the same noisy, jostling market — but all gussied up. Hygienic, tamed, but definitely not dull.

The shuk (which means open-air market in both Arabic and Hebrew) is now a foodie destination, God help it, with five hip bars, some the size of a walk-in closet in Malibu, serving Palestinian microbrews and boutique vodkas (Israel is filled with Russian Jewish immigrants, a few of them still quite thirsty).

In addition to the traditional cafes dishing Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, there are joints selling fish and chips, tofu burgers and Indian vegetarian, plus an Italian place around the corner that serves bruschetta with sardines that’s worth the one-hour drive from Tel Aviv.

The entrance to the market might as well have a sign at the entrance reading: “Look at you! You’re skin and bones. Eat!”

Students of the shuk date its current gentrification to a daring stroke by Eli Mizrachi, who opened a popular cafe here in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising and the suicide attacks it brought to the central city.

Mizrachi’s family had owned a dried-fruit-and-nuts stall in the market for many years; he is now chairman of the market’s board of directors. He thought that the shuk’s traditional clientele was aging and that the place needed young people and some night life.

So he opened Cafe Mizrachi, now managed by his daughter Moran, who trained as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He partnered with Shaanan Streett, a hip-hop artist with the popular group Hadag Nachash, to reopen the old Casino de Paris, once an officers’ club and bordello for the British, now a restaurant-bar-salon serving tapas and Palestinian beer.

The shuk has been discovered.

Television chef personality Anthony Bourdain showed up at the shuk this year for the second season of his CNN food and travel show, “Parts Unknown.” He wandered the market with famed London-based chefs Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli Jew, and his Arab-Israeli business partner Sami Tamimi, co-authors of the best-selling cookbook “Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem is trying hard not to be so somber, so obsessed with conflict — and although the shuk is not exactly a peace park, it does draw Jews and Muslims as both vendors and clients. More and more, it also pulls in food tourists. There is an English-language Web site listing market tours and cooking workshops, a Facebook page and a Shuk Bites card with vouchers for tastes of six delicacies from participating vendors for about $25 (99 shekels).

Sybil Kaplan, a transplant from Overland Park, Kan., has been leading walks called “Getting to Know the Shuk” for four years. She’s a pint-size super-bubbe (Yiddish for “grandma”) with an oversize handbag and journalist’s street-level knowledge of the market. She knows her shuk.

“He sells flowers by the kilo, not by the bunch, and you can’t beat the price. Ten shekels!” Kaplan reported, wading into the scrum one recent morning. Then she whispered: “I don’t know what he puts in the water. I don’t want to know. But his flowers last forever.”

In short order, she dispensed some advice: on the closest restrooms, the cleanest butchers, and why you should always buy spices from a sealed jar, never a sack (germs). Kaplan gives directions to destinations by shop stalls rather than street names. “Every street in the shuk has a name,” Kaplan said, “and nobody knows it.”

Therefore, “when you see a place on the left, at the corner, selling sourdough bread that’s not too sour, which is delicious? You’ve gone too far.”

Also, a revelation for first-timers: “There’s no more haggling in the shuk. That’s over, the price is the price,” she said.

She paused and pointed to me, a lone American on the tour. “Except for you.” A little poke in the chest. “Better to shop where there is a sign for the price. Till you learn some Hebrew.”

Arriving in the Iraqi quarter of the market, at a stand offering warty bananas, forlorn eggplants and tomatoes nearing retirement, Kaplan made a pronouncement: “Cheapest in the shuk.”

“Sure, he’s a little grumpy,” she said of the vendor. “But what can you do?”

Down the street, elderly gents still play backgammon in the sun and smoke cartons of cigarettes. There’s a hummus place where they yell at you because they can. Their creamy garbanzo bean puree is worth it.

Vendor Eli Mamman, from Morocco, wears a paper crown and is known as the halvah king of the shuk; he doles out plastic spoonfuls of the dense sesame confection to his people.

Kaplan offered up a little history as she pressed through the throng. The shuk began in the late 19th century, during the Ottoman Empire, on a patch of open ground near the road that leads to the port of Jaffa. The British, when they ruled here, tried to bring modernity to the market, with mixed success. For a time, it was known as the Iraqi market because it was run by Iraqi Jews.

There are about 250 stalls in Mahane Yehuda. The shuk feels less touristy than the more famous bazaars in Cairo, Istanbul, Fez and the Old City of Jerusalem, all of which are centuries older. Vendors aren’t pushy here; clients are.

The busiest day at the market is Friday, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, when shoppers and sellers meet in an orgy of last-minute commerce. On those days, bakers at their ovens can’t quite keep up with the demand for fresh loaves of braided challah. Everyone is eating, sampling almonds, sneaking an extra date, pointing at the cheese wheels and getting a freebie of feta.

There’s a line of shoppers holding plastic spoons for a taste of tahini; the juice guy is misting the air with something smelling of lemons and spice. And the lines from the lunch crowd spill out the doors of restaurants and cafes.

On some Fridays, an hour before sundown, a cadre of ultra-Orthodox Jews dressed in black frocks and hats march through, blowing horns and urging vendors to shutter their shops and go home to honor the Sabbath.

The market sleeps on Saturdays.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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