No visit to Israel’s capital is complete without visiting its magical marketplace – Machane Yehuda.
From shopping to enjoying authentic Israeli cuisine, this iconic market invites you to discover a microcosm of the ‘REAL’ Jerusalem.
While there are several internationally recognized places of interest in Jerusalem whose names are synonymous with the city – the Western Wall, the Shrine of the Book, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jaffa Gate and King David’s Tower – these all enshrine ancient history. Far more current and animated with the daily buzz of vendors and shoppers is Mahane Yehuda Market. Referred to by locals as ‘Ha’shuk’ (“The market”), it is colorful, noisy, and aromatic as well. “The variety of sights and smells sure whets one’s taste buds,” remarked my friend Vera Galleid, from the USA, originally from South Africa. Her basket was bulging with Middle Eastern confectionary. “You never see this stuff in my neck of the woods,” Vera exclaimed, chewing while at the same time talking.
Well, she was ‘not out the woods’ yet, and I had the distinct impression that not much in the basket would survive her return trip to her hotel!
A Percolating Brew
The shuk however is not only for shoppers stocking up on fresh produce or special spices. Locals, and overseas tourists like Vera, simply enjoy wandering through its colourful alleyways, stopping at stalls – “whatever catches my fancy,” says Vera. “There is nothing quite like the sights, sounds, and scents of this bustling market. You don’t leave this place without feeling you have met half of Israel.”
Only at Mahane Yehuda do espresso bars, photography galleries and fashion boutiques vie for space with butchers, appliance repairmen and fresh produce vendors, and it’s this percolating brew that draws camera-toting crowds.
It’s a great place for rubbing shoulders with local Jerusalemites and being packed every day with jostling people, ‘rubbing shoulders’ is literally what this authentic experience is all about.
The best day to visit is Friday. There is a special atmosphere in anticipation for Shabbat. People are shopping in preparation for Shabbat; even at a market there is a feeling of impending spirituality.
Touching and romantic is seeing the men buying flowers for their wives. While in other societies, such conduct might solicit, “Hmmm…What has he been up to that he is buying flowers for his wife?” – in Israel – buying flowers on Fridays for one’s loved one is a custom.
Little surprise that all Israeli florists – with no exception – are solidly supportive of this ‘custom’!
As one in Machane Yehuda flower seller jokingly remarked, “It’s a custom that increases customers!”
And if one enjoys bargaining, Friday’s are best. This is when shoppers enjoy the most leverage driving prices down until somewhere around 3:00 p.m., the bell will ring heralding the approach of Shabbat. At this time, the fruit and vegetable vendors are at their most vulnerable – keen to hurriedly sell off their fresh produce before closing their stalls and packing up for the weekend.
“Bargaining is the soul of the Middle Eastern market experience,” said my friend Henrietta David from Rishion Lezion, formerly from Cape Town, South Africa. She says she never settles until “either I or the shopkeeper is too exhausted to continue” and there is usually a crowd of shoppers queuing up behind me to do ‘battle’. The final price for Henrietta “is more like a truce.”
However, if one can’t make it to buy or ‘battle’ on a Friday, the shuk is open for business every other day of the week, except Shabbat.
In and around the market are falafel, shawarma, kibbeh, kebab, shashlik, kanafeh, baklava, halva, zalabiya and mixed-grill stands, juice bars, cafes, and restaurants. The atmosphere is literally ‘amplified’ by vendors calling out their prices to passersby’s.
A visit to the shuk is particularly exciting right before holidays. Before Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles or Ingathering) for example, Jerusalem’s Shuk Arba’a Minim (Four Species Market) is held here, crowded with people searching for the perfect lulav and etrog. Prior to Chanukah (commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple), the smell of sufganiyot (jelly donuts) is almost tangible, and in advance of Purim (celebrating the saving of the Jewish people from the ancient Persians), the shuk is filled with costumes, as well as plenty if ozney haman (hamentashen), tiny bottles of grape juice, and other sweet treats.
Israelis don’t simply celebrate their festivities, they literally live them and this could not be more evident than when visiting Machane Yehuda before or during a Chag (festival).
The shuk is situated between two main streets: Rehov Mahane Yehuda and Rehov Etz Chaim. Between these two streets are several smaller streets named after a variety of fruit. These streets include Rehov HaTapuach (The Apple), Rehov HaArfarsek (The Peach), Rehov HaShazif (The Plum), Rehov HaShaked (The Almond), and Rehov HaTut (The Strawberry).
The first generation of the famed Banai family of actors and musicians originally lived at 1 HaAgas Street at the southern end of the market. In 2000, the Jerusalem municipality renamed this street as Eliyahu Yaakov Banai Street after the family’s patriarch. In 1998, Yossie Banai was awarded the Israel Prize for his contribution to Israeli theatre, while Ehud Banai, another descendent, wrote a song entitled ‘1 HaAgas Street’, which describes the life and atmosphere at the family home.
In 1976 Rami Levy opened his first store on Hashikma Street, one of the streets in the Mahane Yehuda district, selling food products to consumers at wholesale prices. Today Rami Levy Hashikma Marketing is the third largest food retailer in Israel.
Tourists and shoppers aren’t the only people who visit the shuk. Local politicians frequently visit before elections to ‘take a pulse’ of how ‘healthy’ their electoral prospects are. Amateur pollsters view the shuk as an ‘unofficial barometer’ of the sentiments of the people.
Look no further that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu who was ‘campaigning’ in Machane Yehuda not for fruit and vegetables! He was generally warmly received besides at a coffee shop, where the proprietor conveyed a non-verbal message to the Prime Minister. When Bibi went to pay for his espresso with a NIS 100 bill, she paid him back with 87 coins “as a protest against his economic policies,” she said, “which harmed small businesses.”
Overall, Bibi left the market feeling the next election was a shoo-in!
By the way, there are stalls to pick up bargains on real shoes!
If you happen to see a group of people gathered in the middle of the market, carefully checking the produce, and listening to an elaborate explanation about fresh tuna or some exotic spice, it more than likely is Tali Friedman with a group on one of her culinary tours.
Tali, a professional chef with deep roots in Jerusalem, takes her guests on a tour of the market, where they buy the ingredients and then join her in her charming studio apartment and together cook a feast.
A graduate of the elite LeNotre School in Paris, Tali has been running her unique tours in Machane Yehuda for nearly a decade. “This place is magic,” she tells the writer. “It may not be the biggest market in Israel but it is the most complete.” What does she mean?
“It has everything – there is something about the vibe, the people, the over 450 vendors, the products that are sold here; it is the combination of all of these ‘ingredients’,” she laughs. Tali is a member of the market’s management committee, and heads its cultural portfolio. “I can tell you that most of the important delegations that visit Jerusalem visit Machane Yehuda. We have a constant stream of celebrities that we welcome.” Amongst the many personalities she has welcomed include Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States in the 2012 election, and Martha Stewart, the ‘The First Lady of Fine Living’. “I have always wanted to come here,” TV celebrity Steward said as she disembarked after her flight from New York aboard Israel’s national airline, El Al. “I am so eager to see not only the holy sites and historic monuments, but also to tour markets and sample Israel’s cuisine.”
She did both at Machane Yehuda!
Hungry for More
The Shuk is not only about shopping and sightseeing. Catering to one of man’s greatest pleasures – eating – Machane Yehudas offers a wide range of cuisine. For something traditional, there is Rachmo on Rehov HaEshkol, a traditional worker’s restaurant serving Iraqi-style kube soup; meatballs in a deliciously thick tomato sauce, warm grape leaves stuffed with rice, and fresh hummus. On this same street, you’ll also find a very different type of eatery, the vegetarian Indian-style restaurant called Ichikanda.
For the more expensive there is Machneyuda, ranked 10 of 463 restaurants in Jerusalem by TripAdvisor where Martha Stewart made a pit-stop and wrote favourably about the experience in her public blog.
For delicious, home-made Middle Eastern cuisine ‘like mother would make’, there is Ima Kuba Bar. ‘Ima’ (“mother” in Hebrew) is a home-style dining experience offering a variety of kubah soups as well as piping hot meatballs served with rice and lentils.
There are many others, notably:
Of course, there are many other eateries and more than likely, while visiting HaShuk, it will be the smell that will first catch your senses followed by the atmosphere that will draw you in to grab a table.
“Bon Appetite” or as we say in Israel, “Be’te-avon”.
Time to Party
When Jerusalem’s golden sun sets, and the evening moon rises, the banter and barter of trade gives way to the night revelers. What is a market in the day, transforms into one big pub at night – the on-tap beer flowing and the music is blaring – and with Thursday night being “ELECTRIC” as one local resident assured me.
I can confirm this as I found myself far more sturdy on my feet when I arrived than when I left after midnight.
For most locals, it’s the only night they can go out without having to worry about getting up for work the next day, and it shows, as the bars and restaurants at Machane Yehuda stay open late; with crowds spilling out into the streets.
It’s great to experience this Jerusalem when you see the young and the less so, secular and religious, all sit side by side drinking beers and drinking in the shuk’s unique character.
“Cheers” or as we also say in Israel, “Le Chaim!”