In Jerusalem, Celebrating the Desecration of the Sabbath

Brand-new cultural and culinary complex in the heart of Emek Refaim neighborhood gives Jerusalem's secular residents a place to shop and spend on Saturdays.

The staff at the new Landwer Cafe that opened in Jerusalem's old railway station compound braced for an influx of customers on its first Saturday in business by beefing up staff and stocking up on extra materials.

Thousands of people came to ride bicycles on the sparkling new bike path and eat in the newly renovated compound of the city's 19th-century train station, now transformed into a cultural and culinary complex.

"I ordered 20 percent more merchandise," says Elav Kislasi, Landwer Cafe's owner.

He should have ordered even more. By 4:30 P.M. on Saturday afternoon, with the cafe packed solid and customers still queuing up outside for a table, the very last lettuce leaf was gone.

The kitchen dispatched a worker to hunt down more lettuce, which is no simple feat in Sabbath-observant Jerusalem.

It's incredibly rare to see so many people publicly desecrating the Sabbath in Jerusalem, where most businesses shut down at sunset on Friday and streets are quiet until nightfall the following day. Secular Jerusalemites have hailed the new complex at the station as a breakthrough that will revolutionize Saturdays in Israel's capital city. The ultra-Orthodox, however, are threatening to demonstrate until at least some of the activity is stopped.

The historic railway station building at the end of Emek Refaim, the main thoroughfare of Jerusalem's charming German Colony, was inaugurated in 1892. In the past 15 years, since the trains stopped running, it fell into neglect. Two years ago, after prolonged negotiations, Israel Railways leased the property to developers Avi Morduch and Asaf Hemo, who had renovated and restored the station at the other end of the Ottoman line in Jaffa.

The compound, which opened some two weeks ago, has two marked advantages as far as the capital's secular public is concerned. It is privately owned, so the city's elected Haredi officials can do little to stop its weekend activity, and it's located deep in the city's secular area. If the Haredim want to demonstrate against it on Saturdays they will have to walk a long way from their own neighborhoods, which saps up much of the energy that would be required to assemble and protest.

Only a handful of the businesses were open yesterday. Like Landwer Cafe, the Adom restaurant was also completely full. Kislasi says he reckons 35-40 percent of the income that businesses in the complex pull in will be made on Saturdays.

An ice cream vendor, a visitors' center and a bicycle renting station were open, as well as a gallery, a small pub and some 20 stalls selling arts and crafts.

Some eating places prefer to remain closed on the Sabbath, for fear of losing their Kashrut certificate.

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The compound has created a new public space: open, noisy and packed with locals. It feels vaguely like a Tel Aviv beach, an atmosphere that has never been seen before in Jerusalem, at least not in the west of the city.

"The city has craved a place like this," says Binyamin Zarka, a Jerusalem architect. "There's no alternative for this."

The wonder of being able to choose where one wants to eat, says Yotam Kweller, a lawyer living in Jerusalem, is one of the best parts of the complex.

"Having several open restaurants makes a difference," he says.

Kweller and Zarka both echoed the sentiments of many of Jerusalem's secular population: Because of the increasing religiousness of the city, the young and the secular are fleeing to other parts of Israel. The train station, they both said, could work to stem that tide.

"People come here to see others like them, to see that some secular people are left in Jerusalem," says Zarka.

But even amidst the Sabbath-day hubbub, a sprinkling of religious Jerusalemites, curious about what the new complex has to offer, also ventured in to explore.

A number of religious families could be seen wandering among the stalls. A jewelry vendor said a religious couple promised to return on Saturday night to buy a piece they liked (religious Jews will not handle money on the Sabbath).

"We didn't believe it would happen in Jerusalem," said a man named Hanan, who lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim and was on hand on Saturday to help his wife Shoshi sell her handmade jewelry. "But people are coming, it's a fact. It goes to show that people need places like this, in Jerusalem and everywhere else."

Shiran Granot
Shiran Garnot