“Thank you darling,” Eli Mizrahi says graciously to the old woman who’s blessing him on the occasion of Caffe Mizrahi’s reopening. “Back in the day, she knew my father and mother, and even my grandfather,” says the local “sheriff,” sitting in his usual spot on the balcony of the family café in Mahane Yehuda market, exchanging greetings and quips with passersby. There have been four generations of the Mizrahi family here.
“Grandpa Eliahu was very poor,” says grandson Eli. “The Turkish side of the family came to Jerusalem by donkey in 1910, and Grandpa Eliahu was one of the first boys who carried baskets in the market. He did wagon deliveries to the city’s wealthy, and tried to get into antiques trading. Yitzhak, his son [and my father], was the king of the black market at Mahane Yehuda.”
Eli, named for his grandfather, was born in the Nahlaot neighborhood in 1951, and grew up in the market’s alleyways. “It wasn’t until 1954 that my father finally got a fruit stall here,” he recalls. “He was a world champion at selling and gradually built up his business. In 1964, the owner of the adjacent coffee shop died. It was a little hole in the wall, with men playing backgammon and cards, and he bought his first store for 16,000 Israeli liras.”
Some years later, Yitzhak became a merchant selling dried fruits, legumes and nuts. Eli’s brother was the first to join the family store, which is still going strong. “I worked in customs,” says Eli, one of the most recognized faces in the market. “From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, I worked in the VAT office in the West Bank – and that’s where I came to know and love Palestinian food. In 1985, my father told my brothers that he was afraid something bad was going to happen in the territories, and asked them to persuade me to join the family business.”
Mizrahi looks back on those pre-intifada days in the market nostalgically. “There weren’t many supermarkets in the city yet. Fruits and vegetables were mainly sold here in the market, and it was packed with people – everything in season, when sour was sour and sweet was sweet.” Regardless of whether such an idyll ever truly existed, the two intifadas, especially the second one, indisputably changed the face of the market. “During the period of the big suicide bombing attacks, Mahane Yehuda was defined as one of the most dangerous places on earth. For close to a decade, people were afraid to come, and shops were closing one after the other,” recalls Eli.
In 2000, Mizrahi was elected chairman of the market merchants’ association. “The municipality, which at the time had been neglecting the deserted city center, wanted our cooperation with the light rail, and we said it had to be contingent upon renovation of the market.” With the remodeling, which ultimately transformed the old market into one of the nicest and most spacious in the country, Mizrahi fulfilled a long-held dream: turning one of the closed shops into a café that’s a pioneer in modern food and drink, and which for the past 15 years has been a lively hub.
Caffe Mizrahi opened in 2002, along with a store selling cooking and baking supplies. The limited menu of cookies and pastries was expanded when eldest daughter Moran returned from her patisserie studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and when younger daughter Ya’ara also joined the business. Before long, chefs and food journalists had made a remarkable discovery: a modern espresso bar serving French patisserie in the heart of the traditional Jerusalem market.
In 2005, Moran and Eli also opened Tzachko, a restaurant that combined traditional family recipes with modern Mediterranean cuisine. “The challenge was to open a kosher restaurant and only cook with all the finest ingredients around. We’ve always been a little ahead of our time,” sighs Eli. “We closed in 2008 because we were losing money in our struggle to maintain a certain level of quality.” The love for cooking and good food was funneled back into Caffe Mizrahi, and when they were able to purchase another space next to the original café, they expanded the kitchen and began serving a varied and interesting dairy bistro menu.
In 2011, the Mizrahi family – together with Sha’anan Streett of hip-hop band “Hadag Nahash” – opened the Casino de Paris bar in the Georgian part of the market. “I think it contributed a lot to the development of nightlife here,” says Mizrahi. “Now, more and more pubs are opening in the market and some of the old stalls selling fresh food are closing. I have no regrets, but still it saddens me.”
In mid-June, Caffe Mizrahi closed its doors for the first time in 13 years and remained shut for a week. “We got tired,” says Moran Mizrahi. “We’re perfectionists who have to be in the place at all times and be involved in every stage of the process, and we couldn’t keep up with the 24-hour workdays anymore. We wanted to scale things back in terms of the work and the hours, as well as the menu. To focus on a few things and do them better than anyone.”
The reopened café offers, from 7 A.M. until 7 P.M., a menu of savory and sweet pastries, and a selection of sandwiches. It’s limited in comparison to the previous extensive menu, but the range and selection that starts to arrive in the early hours from the adjacent bakery is still quite wonderful: brioche, croissants and other buttery breakfast pastries; seasonal fruit tartlets and almond cream tartlets; cakes garnished with berry cream or sour cream and apple; and marvelous classic French quiches. There are also terrific sandwiches, like one with herring pickled by Eli himself, and a refrigerator filled with wines and other alcoholic drinks, for those requiring a boozy breakfast.
Some people may still want to quibble over the changes and the new self-service system, but for the most part fans and customers are voting with their feet. The main problem now is getting a seat on the wonderful small balcony in the heart of the market.
Caffe Mizrahi, 12 Hashezif, Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem (02) 624-2105