A definite Jerusalem milestone is the Mahane Yehuda Market, also known as the shuk, a bustling and authentic market place and neighborhood that brings together colorful vegetable and fruit, nuts, olive, spice, meat, fish and cheese stalls in every color and scent, aroma and flavor one can dream of in the Middle East.
In recent years, this Jerusalem landmark, which draws its roots from the end of the 19th century, when Arab and Fellahin farmers sold their produce to residents living outside of the Old City out of an empty lot (comprised between Jaffa St. on the North and Agrippa St. on the South) –in a neighborhood that counted less than 200 homes, has undergone an incredible transformation.
Alongside fruit stalls’ screaming vendors and trucks offloading wares, the shuk has drawn in boutique cafes and gourmet restaurants, trendy pubs, designer clothes and elegant jewelry shops that would put Tel Aviv to shame. In the early 2000’s, the Jerusalem Municipality repaved and refurbished the streets and alleyways and renewed the shuk’s infrastructure.
The History of Mahane Yehuda Market
Under the Ottoman Empire rule, of which Jerusalem was just a province, the market grew in an inorganic fashion that soon became unsanitary. Fast-forward one decade, British authorities cleared out the stalls in the market place and built permanent wooden stalls and roofing.
The Mahane Yehuda market has grown over the years, reaching out to Kiah St. to the East and Bet Yaakov St. to the West. The covered market, Etz Haim St. runs parallel to Mahane Yehuda St. open market and both main streets are bisected by smaller side streets, bearing names such as, Egoz.(Nut St.), Shaked (Almond St.), Tapuach (Apple St.) and the like.
The Iraqi section was established in the early 1930’s off the main Mahane Yehuda St; it included 20 news stalls “bastas” bought by residents of Iraqi descent. It is a preferred shopping area to Jerusalem residents today, given its relatively lower prices or no advertised prices, meaning you can practice your haggling skills.
My favorite basta for fruit and vegetables is Mohamed’s basta in the Iraqi section. Mohamed and some of his brothers from the area of Bet Hanina offer a variety of Baladi vegetables and fruit, perfectly ripe juicy cherry and date tomatoes, luscious avocados, and perfect sized cucumbers –not oversized and insipid; also seasonal “pita” peaches, cherries and fresh figs. There are no fixed prices at Rami’s stall but if you ask how much an item costs, he’ll make you an offer, particularly as the day unfolds and he wishes to declutter the space for fresher produce tomorrow. By seven o’clock many bastas go on sale. The shuk thus revives in the evening with hordes of visitors looking for deals.
Many vendors in Mahane Yehuda are unknown Torah scholars or men who learn Kabbalah in the early morning before commencing their menial tasks as stall owners. Rahamim, who sells second hand produce in the open market, does not look like a vendor at all. His fine features and intelligent and compassionate looking face betray his trade as a simple merchant. His clients include many poor people who cannot afford the shuk’s competitive prices, so they make do with over ripe produce. At Rahamim’s stall, buyers can fill up a bag with a variety of fruit and vegetables of their choice. Rahamim then looks at the bag and determines the price, usually dirt cheap. Nevertheless, some people argue. Rahamim brushes them off, as they drive him to exasperation. In the background, a loud radio program broadcasts Jewish law prohibitions and positive commandments and sometimes buyers discuss Halachic issues with Rahamim. Gird yourself with patience: the place is packed by rowdy customers; on the other hand, it you are planning to make tomato soup or sauce for pasta, Rahamim will give you five kilos overripe tomatoes for less than 10 shekels if you are well behaved.
Old Fashioned Loving-Kindness
If you are struggling to carry the overloaded bags and shopping carts to the nearest bus stop, watch for young men and women volunteers in yellow shirts. Their mission is to help people carry heavy packages to their car, bus stop or light rail. No payment, no tip, just old fashioned loving kindness. They volunteer on Thursday’s noon when the shuk is at its busiest.
As far as fish goes, I recommend Avner, corner of Etz Haim (covered market), enter from Jaffa St, a few stores on the right. Within a modest but immaculately clean and impeccably maintained establishment, Avner sells the freshest fish I have purchased so far. Not to devalue other vendors, whose establishments have grown over the last few years, Avner’s small business still relies on old world reputation for freshness, consistency, cleanliness and fair prices. His Musht tastes like heaven, the salmon can be cut according to buyer’s instructions, fish may be ground on the premises at an extra cost and picked up at the client’s convenience. Avner may even offer you a cup of Turkish coffee while you wait.
If you are a non-vegan, non-vegetarian, a rare commodity these days, and in addition you care for Bet Yossef meat certification, make sure you visit Nissim. Coming from Agrippas into the open shuk, make a sharp right at the juice shop, sharp left and stop immediately. The store is on the corner. Nissim offers fresh meat, veal, chicken, lamb, ribs, steak and liver, as well as frozen meat imported from Argentina. Nissim is a good looking fellow who always says: “Good morning, Madam” as if he were the last survivor of a race in danger of extinction, But aside from Nissim’s manners, the meat is not from this world. Not cheap but well worth it. A few years ago, I introduced a carnivorous Argentinian friend, who explained to Nissim how to cut the Asado and she’s remained his client for more than ten years. Enough, it’s making my mouth water.
Bakes and Breads
Back to Mahane Yehuda Street, the smell of Borekas is driving me mad. Filo pastry filled with spinach and white salty cheese, my favorite, Spanish Borekas, heaven scented Rogalah, cinnamon rolls, in short, it’s intoxicating. For a good deal, try to get there after 7:30 and you can purchase all of the above for 20 shekels a kilo at Haifa Borekas, next to the Aroma Cafe.
Now Say “Cheeze”!
The tour would not be complete without mentioning Bashar’s cheese store, a boutique shop, offering a large variety of cheeses, such as French Camembert, Brie, Chevre, Gruyere, Reblochon, English Cheddar and Stilton, Italian Gorgonzola, Reggiani Parmesan and Ricotta, to name a few, in addition to succulent wines and salted fish. Bashar stands behind the counter in a fancy white overcoat. Incidentally, Bashar is allergic to cheese.
Gifts, Crafts and Japanese Coffee
One of the most interesting features of the Mahane Yehuda shuk are its fancy boutique shops and restaurants standing side by side to vegetable and fruit merchants, yelling prices out loud. When the first of such fancy cafés introduced the “Macchiato”, the people of the shuk called it “Japanese Coffee”.
There is much more to discover and explore at the Mahane Yehuda Market, more than can fit into these lines. To schedule a tour to this center of diverse cultures and foods, please visit our tours page. Bon appetit!