Night Falls on Jerusalem’s Fabled Mahane Yehuda Market

The open-air market has been Jerusalem’s top entertainment attraction for years, but there are concerns that its nightlife scene is killing daytime trade.

The La Cornerie bar next to a bread stall in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, September 28, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Jerusalemites like to tell the story of the city’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market by talking about Café Mizrahi. Until 2001, there was a storeroom in the middle of the market, along with a stand that sold cheap cleaning supplies and a store selling housewares from China. In 2002, Eli Mizrahi — a former senior Tax Authority staffer whose family owned stands in the market — bought two of the three spots. But instead of opening a fruits and vegetables stand there, he opened an espresso bar. Later, the opening of his little café would be considered a turning point in Jerusalem’s largest and most important marketplace.

Café Mizrahi was opened at a low point for the market, with the second intifada still raging and after many years of municipal neglect. Shoppers had abandoned the place and its reputation had declined. People were afraid to come to the market, opting for the mall instead, Mizrahi says. But a media and social buzz was created around the café within months of its opening, and it became a landmark.

Before long, other businesspeople hopped on the bandwagon, opening not just cafés in the market but also restaurants, boutique bakeries and gourmet food stores. Later, they were followed by jewelers and fashion retailers. The public — local residents and tourists, young and old — returned in their droves.

It’s been at least a decade since Mahane Yehuda became a vibrant urban hub and must-see site for visitors to the city. But last Friday, Café Mizrahi closed its doors.

The reasons relate to major changes that the area has undergone in recent years, specifically the opening of dozens of nighttime establishments. The market area has become the major focal point of Jerusalem nightlife every evening of the week (except Friday).

Old-timers at the market say the new businesses are ruining the place. When longtime merchants come to work in the morning, they complain that the area is left dirty and smelly from the night before. They point an accusing finger at city hall, saying, for example, that it’s ignoring the fact that dozens of establishments have begun selling beer without even making restrooms available.

The Jerusalem Municipality says it’s aware of issues that are “bothering the residents and merchants, and is working with them to address their needs while maintaining the proper balance and cultural development of the market.” The city has made three sets of public restroom facilities available to visitors to the area, which are accessible late into the night, it added.

Mizrahi says the final straw was an incident in which his daughter Moran, who was also his partner in the business, threw an egg at a man who was urinating next to the café. “She didn’t even hit him,” he says, “but he returned with six policemen, who told her she needed to apologize.”

Café Mizrahi in August 2016, prior to its closure at the end of September.
Emil Salman

“It’s not nice being here,” says Avraham Levy, who owns a vegetable stand in the market. “Everything is full of bottles. I don’t understand how people enjoy drinking beer in the middle of such filth.”

There are those who view the closure of Café Mizrahi as a symptom of a greater problem threatening Mahane Yehuda. Long-standing stall owners say the market’s success needs to be based on a balance between old stores selling fresh food — vegetable stands, butcher shops, and fish and spice sellers — and the new cafés, pubs, restaurants and gourmet food stores.

This balance, say many, has been disrupted to the detriment of the older stores, which in turn is leading to the market’s decline.

“They’ve changed the whole character of the place. If it continues at this rate, in a few years there won’t be greengrocers left,” says Levy, who has been selling fruit and veg in the center of the market for 38 years.

He spoke to Haaretz just days before Rosh Hashanah, which should be his busiest period. Shoppers were thronging the streets, but it would be hard to describe the market stalls as busy.

Levy’s stand is still there, but the number of businesses selling fresh food, particularly fruit and veg, is declining. On Etz Chaim St., the main covered street of the market, there were more than 100 businesses selling fresh fruit and veg until about 10 years ago. Now only about 20 remain. The others are rented out to cafés, bars, restaurants and gourmet food stores.

Last Thursday, as Levy bemoaned his plight, renovations were being completed on a nearby store. Vegetables had once been sold there, but soon it will be gourmet ice cream for sale.

The thriving nightlife has greatly boosted rental prices, and many store owners have jumped at the chance to rent out their stalls and take early retirement. Estimates are that even a small 20-square-meter (215 square feet) store on the main street currently goes for up to 20,000 shekels ($5,320) a month — apparently the highest rental rates in the city.

Drinkers and shoppers mix at Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem
Olivier Fitoussi

“People don’t want to get up at 5 A.M. and work until the evening when they can be paid such rents,” says Mizrahi. He doesn’t oppose the market’s nightlife, and in a way has a vested interest in the changes that have taken place. In 2011, he and singer Sha’anan Streett opened the thriving Casino de Paris pub in the heart of Mahane Yehuda.

“If the market is just a place with restaurants and bars, that will be its end. It won’t go back to fruit and vegetables,” adds Mizrahi. “People won’t come back. It will be finished. And If this market becomes extinct, all the other markets will, too.”

One of the claims made by merchants is that, unlike retail areas, entertainment areas are transient. Indeed, Jerusalem has seen concentrations of entertainment establishments shift around the city center over the years. “In another four or five years they’ll go somewhere else. Only the vegetables will stay,” Levy predicts.

The battle for space

In the meantime, though, fierce competition for space has developed among rival nightspots. Since the market stands themselves are rather small — barely enough for a kitchenette and beer tap — the nighttime patrons of these establishments sit at tables set up on the narrow streets. The arrival of every new bar makes competition for space that much fiercer.

Yair Kochav, the founder and manager of the Tahrir bar — which was one of the first nighttime businesses at Mahane Yehuda, and one of the most prominent — just had his business license renewed. But city hall cut his table space from 19 to three, which in reality would have spelled the end of the business. After a protracted battle with the municipality, he was allowed to continue using more tables. However, he was also warned that the issue would be revisited over the next month.

He has complaints about the competition, too. “At one time, businesses with a concept that ties in with the culture of the market were opened here. Today, businesses are being opened without any concept and are piggybacking on the traffic that has been created.”

Ironically, while some are complaining that city hall is shirking its responsibility to regulate the nighttime business activity, the nighttime establishments are complaining of overregulation, as reflected in fines for noise abuse and the placement of tables.

An egg stand next to the Time bar in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.
Olivier Fitoussi

“The city has taken a very clear line,” says the owner of one of the first bars in the area, but which recently closed. “Wherever the city can make money, it does: when a business opens, it profits. And when tickets are issued, it profits.”

A number of business owners blame Hitorerut, a party on the city council representing young secular residents. Hitorerut has both the business-licensing portfolio at city hall and the portfolio for services for young people. Business owners claim that, in recent years, the faction has encouraged businesses to open without any oversight.

Ofer Berkovitch, who is deputy mayor and chairman of Hitorerut, rejects the criticism. “The market is one of the most important cultural and historical assets in the city, and I’m proud that we’ve been a partner in the culinary and cultural revolution,” he says. “This trend has actually become rather extreme recently,” he admits. “Restaurants and nightlife are threatening the life of the market and [we] need to act to maintain a balance.”

Berkovitch suggests that long-standing businesses be given legal protection, similar to how historic preservation works for buildings. He insists that he’s never been involved in granting a business license to an establishment in violation of the law or without oversight, and has never received a complaint about a specific business.

Natural renewal

“The market achieves its own balances,” says event producer Kobi Frej. His family owned a vegetable stand at Mahane Yehuda that was later rented to a bar. “Outside intervention is not right. I don’t think the nightlife is taking over daytime activity. This renewal is a natural process. My dad retired and rented the store to a bar. Would you prefer that my father sells vegetables?”

Anyone wanting to rent out their place does so, and those wanting to work also do so, Frej adds.

Uri Amedi, who used to head the community administration in the Lev Ha’ir neighborhood (which encompasses Mahane Yehuda), led the market’s revolution. Now he’s trying to help other marketplaces around Israel, including Be’er Sheva’s, enjoy a similar transformation.

“The market passed the threshold in which the old and new can live peacefully,” Amedi acknowledges. “The number of bars and new businesses could result in the destruction of the old, historic market of fruit and vegetables, and meat and fish — and in the end that will also hurt the bars and restaurants.”

The first problem, Amedi says, is that Mahane Yehuda doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the thousands of young people descending upon it by night. Contrary to city hall’s statement, he claims there are no public restrooms, and adds that the number of cleaning staff in the area is insufficient. “A merchant who gets up in the morning shouldn’t have to deal with the remnants of beer and urine,” he says.

“Another problem is that there’s no management. They need to create a system to encourage the onion and garlic vegetable stores. This needs to be in the interest of the pubs. The strong [businesses] that benefit from the development and rehabilitation of the market, from the tourists, need to fund the longtime businesses,” Amedi proposes.

He admits, however, that no such system currently exists and, as with many other changes at Mahane Yehuda over the past two decades, this would also require innovation.

Before Amedi left his position as director of the community administration, he prepared a development plan for the market featuring a second story above the current stores. “The market can’t develop to the east or the west. The only choice is building upward. It shouldn’t be more than one additional story, and there should be no roof that would turn it into a mall. But upstairs there would be room for restaurants and bars,” he suggests.