Nightlife in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market Under Threat From ultra-Orthodox

Yaakov Litzman, a Haredi deputy minister, is reportedly pressuring mayoral candidates to bar Mahane Yehuda’s restaurants and pubs from staying open late

Nightlife in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Yaakov Litzman, the ultra-Orthodox deputy health minister, has long expressed unhappiness with the bustling night scene in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market — and now he is getting ready to do something about it.

Once an open air market selling fresh produce, simple housewares and groceries, the area has become a popular food and entertainment venue for the capital’s secular residents and tourists.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Produce stands still operate by day, but at night, it’s restaurants, cafes and pubs that are the attraction. The retail consulting firm Czamanski & Ben Shahar estimates that about a quarter of the 350 business operating in the market stay open into the night. But for the ultra-Orthodox residents in the adjacent neighborhoods, it is simply a nuisance.

“We’ve received a lot of complaints about it, that there’s no difference between day and night in the area any longer. No one is enforcing the law on noise,” a source close to Litzman told TheMarker. “The whole place has turned from a shopping area for fruits and vegetables into a big bar scene and a place for wild activities.”

Now with the race for mayor gearing up, Litzman made it clear several days ago that he would condition support for the candidates from Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox voters on Mahane Yehuda being effectively shut down at night.

Litzman is not believed to have formally approached the candidates, but with ultra-Orthodox voters accounting for about a third of the city’s population, Litzman’s threats are real.

But more than concern over local residents, TheMarker has learned that Litzman has taken a personal interest in the matter because the yeshiva belonging to the Ger Hasidic court to which he belongs is located nearby. Ger Hasidim coming for night prayers find themselves uncomfortably amid diners, drinkers and revelers.

Despite the reports, at least one declared candidate for mayor, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) declared last week that he wouldn’t agree to closing the market at night.

“Rest assured, Jerusalemites — the Mahane Yehuda market will not be closed. It’s an important leisure and entertainment center for Jerusalem and I don’t think I should act to shut it down,” Elkin said. “If there are residents with a private complaint of one kind or another, I’ll be happy to listen to them. It doesn’t have to become a political issue.”

Ofer Berkowitz, head of the city’s Hitorerut faction, said in interviews with the Haredi media that he would keep Mahane Yehuda as it is.

The market in downtown Jerusalem is girded by ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the Ger yeshiva, but the area’s restaurants and pubs observe Shabbat and serve kosher food. Many of them are owned and operated by Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Merchants and other businesspeople in the area caution about any attempt to rein in Mahane Yehuda’s nightlife. “We have right-wing, left-wing, religious, ultra-Orthodox and hipster customers — everyone,” said Avi Moskovitz, who owns the BeerBizaar pub, which opened three years ago in the heart of the market. “We respect the area and stop playing music at 11 P.M. every night. Of course, we’re closed on Shabbat and keep kosher. We respect the ultra-Orthodox, but Litzman’s demands aren’t reasonable.”

Religious himself, Moskovitz said businesses like his could never survive if they can’t stay open late. “More than 70% of our revenue is in the evenings, like a lot of others here. It also brings a lot of business to produce stands because many of the night-timers start coming in the early evening.”

Even Tzipi Visenstern, who has been selling fresh fish in Mahane Yehuda since the 1980s and is ultra-Orthodox herself, doesn’t support Litzman on closing the market at night.

“Litzman is calling what happens here at night debauchery, but debauchery is a relative term. There are a lot of religious people with knitted skullcaps who enjoy a drink here in the evenings. It’s closed on Shabbat, so I really don’t understand what he wants. And because businesses are open at night, there are fewer break-ins,” she said.

Tamir Ben-Shahar, CEO of Czamanski & Ben Shahar, said the change in Mahane Yehuda has occurred in open air markets all over the world as they looked for a new role after shoppers began patronizing supermarkets and malls for their daily needs. He added that many young people and students have moved into the downtown area because of the nightlife.

“If you remove the restaurants and places of entertainment from the market, you’ll take out all its life,” Ben-Shahar said. “The Mahane Yehuda market is a magnet for visitors, and closing it would strike a blow against the city’s incoming tourism and all downtown businesses.”