Ladies and gentlemen, market-lovers, if you’ve been to the famous market in Barcelona, or the market in Bangkok, if you’ve been to markets in the towns of Provence, you know what a real market it. On your tour to Israel, we know that everyone has his or her own favorite market.
There’s nothing like a Tunisian sandwich in the Netanya market, or the Russian taborog cheese from a certain Russian delicatessen in the Petah Tikva market, not to mention the Iraqi kubeh dumplings in the Hatikva market. Nevertheless, I insist that the main market in Jerusalem, in the Machane Yehuda neighborhood, is the best of the lot.
Dear Jerusalem lovers, I understand the Temple Mount is the rock of our existence, and that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is enchanting, and the Knesset is stately, and that the Ben Yehuda pedestrian walkway is the heart of the city, and the market in the Old City's Muslim Quarter is far more crowded and overwhelming to all the senses, but believe me: Jerusalem is, without doubt, the Machane Yehuda market!
Jerusalem is not cooperating. The traffic jam at Sakharov Gardens starts miles away, all the way back at Shaar Hagai, and all the lanes at the entrance to the city are already jam packed with mounting testiness. Calatrava’s bridge looms overhead, the air is shocking, I’ve never found breathing more difficult. After such a welcome, the sign over Rahmo’s veteran workers’ restaurant on Hashikma Street sounds like a call for help: "Rakhamu (have mercy!), send me back to Tel Aviv!" But I’m here to write words of love, and love must win through. I will not succumb! At Rahmo you sit among Ultra-Orthodox black skullcap wearers and Arabic speakers and you get passed a portion of kubeh soup, a wonderful elongated cutlet with thick tomato sauce and fries, coca cola and some hot stuffed vine leaves. If Jerusalem means you have to refuel and relax we’ll give it that. It’s worth the investment, for the food.
The window to the kitchen of Hapinah restaurant is open, and even if your belly’s already full, you can have a chat with Yaffa the cook, about Rachel the Poetess and about the sea at Jaffa and about anything you fancy. Above her tiny restaurant the steps lead to the Iraqi market plaza. There, six cafes offer a relaxing refuge for backgammon players. The Iraqi market got its name from the Iraqi traders who set up stalls there before the state of Israel was born.
This is the Babylonian corner of the market which has always been home to a mix of ethnic groups, peoples and languages: Palestinian traders from the villages of Lifta and Dir Yassin set up the first market stalls in the nineteenth century, and traded with the Jewish residents of the nearby Nakhlaot neighborhood in a mixture of Arabic and Yiddish.
The forefathers of the musically talented Persian Jewish Banai family ran a store at 1 HaAggas Street (which, today, is called Meir Elyahu Banai Street) and a beautiful song by Ehud Banai is dedicated to this very address.
And there’s plenty more. Up Hashkima Street you’ll find Ichikidana, a vegetarian Indian restaurant, and also an Ethiopian cultural ethnic center. The scent of Yemenite hilbeh (fenugreek) from the falafel stands hangs in the air, and the Turkish halva with Turkish coffee, which is just as prevalent, is served for tasting along the main covered avenue of the market. This is Etz Haim Street, which is all fresh fish, sparkling fruit, or fried fruit suffused with sweetness, nuts, cheeses and olives, marinated mushrooms and pickled lemons, superb bread and love of the local Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.
The Yuppie Alleyway
In the last few years the market has started to develop a sophisticated orientation, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Miazettim is a wonderfully stocked delicatessen and cheese shop located in one of the alleys that cross between the roofed market (Etz Haim Street) and Machane Yehuda Street. The place is run by Itzik Sannans, a high tech professional who left the industry to look for adventure. "When I started I knew nothing about cheeses," he says, "but I have one advantage: after all, I come from high tech and I’ve got Internet." Sannans researched the field thoroughly, and his brie and havarti cheeses are among the best around in the Holy City.
Across from the alley – Café Mizrahi: Hakol LaOffeh VeGam Café ("everything for the baker, and coffee too"). The Mizrahi family, which runs nut stalls in the market, opened up the first place here a few years ago, where you can order latte or macchiato coffee, as well as excellent dairy food.
Take in Some Air in Nakhlaot
The stone courtyards of Nakhlaot, south of Agrippas Street, offer some respite from the hubbub. There is urban beauty here. It is both crowded and relaxed and offers an ambiance that is almost unrivaled - even in Jerusalem. There is a considerable amount of cultural activity here, unbeknownst to all. The Barbur Gallery at 6 Shirizli Street offers locals a glimpse of contemporary art, which is sometimes political and provocative, and sometimes simply challenging and aesthetically pleasing. The Ktuvot Jerusalem poetry group holds evenings of poetry, music and presentations, as well as poetry workshops, at the Lev HaIr Center which, too, is hidden away in a maze of streets to the south of the market stalls. One wonders if they recite love poems dedicated to the market there.
Other than that, it is important to remember that the market is one of the most beautiful cultural melting pots in Israel. It offers color and taste which are hard to find anywhere else in the world.