Aroma Versus Mahane Yehuda Market

Does the arrival of the successful coffee shop chain mean the end of this mainstay of tradition in Jerusalem?

The stronger and more oppressive the sun is these days, the more authentic Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market looks. Indeed, it seems so authentic that for people visiting for the first time - for example, a young woman from Tel Aviv or a group from the Taglit-birthright program from the United States - it is easy to pass through the metal guard station of sweaty Border Policemen, look ahead at the happy tumult of stores and colors, and pass right by the new branch of the Aroma cafe in the market without noticing that it is a sensitive spot. Sensitive for Jerusalemites and regular market-goers, but also for anyone who sees the arrival of such chains as part of a global phenomenon that may erase local culture.

For these people, the arrival of an international chain in the heart of a market that by nature has a local, seasonal and diverse character can damage its very essence. For example, Aroma's franchisees are obligated to buy their raw materials in bulk from the chain and not necessarily use local, fresh and available goods. The decor of the branches also most be uniform and are in some instances disconnected from the natural surroundings.

Last weekend, the local color was still there. You could see remnants of it in the old-style places were tea is served and men, only men, mostly old ones, played backgammon and chatted; in the stores with arched entrances that were handed down from father to son, where spices and dried fruit, fish, meat and fruits and vegetables are sold; and in the relationships between the sellers and the customers. For example, Gideon Ezra, who bears the same name as the minister of the environment ("I never get his phone calls," he says, adding that, "his wife and my wife are both called Ora, and both of our mothers are called Pnina"), the owner of a spice and dried fruit store, knows the shoppers by name and offers them a chair to sit on.

Ezra, "a Moroccan, not an Iraqi," as he puts it, says he has been selling in Mahane Yehuda for over 42 years, since he was 14, after he inherited the store from his father. His son will not work in the shop; he works for a health maintenance organization.

"The market is disappearing," says Ezra. "The ones who come shop mostly are the older people and a few young ones. Maybe people don't have time. Most of the people come to the cafes and all those stores." He is referring to the two clothing stores that opened not far from him, to the jewelry store that closed and "which belonged to the guy from Channel 1 and his wife" [Yinon Magal - T.F.], to the cafes and now to Aroma as well. Nevertheless Ezra welcomes the arrival of the chain to the market.

Yaakov Cohen, a native Israeli with Persian roots, feels the same way. His face is lined with wrinkles, he wears a black kippah, is hard of hearing and runs a stall selling fruits and vegetables. He thinks that the arrival of the coffee chain "might add, not detract." He adds that he will probably give up his key-money stall, because his sons are not interested in carrying on after him.

This lack of continuity is an indicator of the changes in the market, but it is possible to see global culture seeping into local culture everywhere here: There are signs in English and anglicized Hebrew such "Kippah Man," and clothing and housewares shops with products from China. Meanwhile tourists looking for "authenticity" are filling the cafes and excitedly photographing a bearded painter, who looks like he was brought in straight from a plaza in Italy.

Ezra and Cohen are not excited about the new tourists who are arriving. "This doesn't help me as far is work is concerned," says Ezra. "Aside from the fact that it's nice and full of people, there is no positive change. The American tourists eat felafel, walk around and buy flowers."

Beginning of the end

Mahaneh Yehuda has been around for 100 years and many Jerusalemites have an emotional attachment to it, dating back also to more recent years when it was devoid of shoppers because of terrorist attacks. "There were times when the merchants stood around and shooed away flies," recalls chef Rafi Cohen of Raphael.

Nostalgic Jerusalemites remember some of the forgotten foods and the stall owners who knew everyone by name. Now with the opening of a branch of the international chain - even if it is originally from Jerusalem - they have a renewed feeling of nostalgia, because they see Aroma's arrival as a sign of the beginning of the end of the market.

Yehezkel Hillel, a tall and pleasant Jerusalemite with a knitted kippah, returned from abroad not long ago and doesn't mince words: "I saw the branch for the first time and I'm in shock. I was overwhelmed. It's an idol in the sanctuary, the antithesis of the market and the whole concept of it."

Yael, a young native Jerusalemite who comes to the market every week, also says that in her opinion, "the arrival of the chain crossed the line. It's something commercial in a place that's unique. I have some civic pride, because these are guys from Jerusalem, but the market is like a nature reserve. I would have liked them to prevent the entry of such chains, so that the unique character can be preserved."

These reactions prompt the question of whether to allow market forces to set the tone in Mahaneh Yehuda. Yoram Amir, chairman of the Mahane Yehuda market committee until 2000 and owner of a photography gallery opposite the new coffee shop, has an answer: "The market is like a kind of museum. It is the only place where a person with a tattoo and a nose ring can stand beside a religious man in a black hat and the two will get yelled at by an avocado seller."

Amir's forecast for the future is not optimistic: "The average salaried wage-earner comes in the afternoon, in the evening the poor people and the students come, and last of all is the old woman who collects food for the needy. When it will be only Aroma where you can get a croissant for NIS 14, there will not be all these different groups. Only certain kinds of people will be able to buy here."

Amir distinguishes between economic issues and the cultural-historic significance of the market and its place in society. "A mall is a brilliant idea," he says. "Both the idea of Castro across from the Old City walls and Aroma in the shuk [market] are good ideas economically speaking - but the question is, in what direction are you taking this place to?"

He says he has nothing against the coffee chain, "but they would blend better into Teddy Stadium."

Cohen, who went as boy to the market once a week with his grandfather, remembers how a guy called Salah "would deliver coffee to the coffeehouses," and how they sold kubbeh (meat-stuffed delicacies) wrapped in paper. "There is no market like Mahaneh Yehuda. As hard as the state or the municipality tried to get rid of the stall owners, none of them agreed to leave. They tried to transfer them to a covered place, they tried to create a market at the bottom of Agrippas Street, and nothing worked."

He doesn't object to the opening of a branch of a chain, but is troubled that "places with a shuk identity and a Jerusalem identity aren't opening up. As a former Jerusalemite, I know that it takes time until you understand the roots of the place and decide to do something with it. Many places that open up here are more Western. I don't have anything against Western culture, but it's a shame that it come at the expense of the Jerusalem style - a tradition that is thousands of years old. I would have expected to eat the best felafel and other dishes here, but they have disappeared."

Why does Cohen think the Western-style places are opening? "I have no doubt that people wanted to bring a younger crowd in, and it's important that it come to Western places. I was also that way once. People go to graze in foreign fields. They think that a croissant will sell better, but there are also croissants in Tel Aviv. Why not institutionalize the kubbeh, make a place for kubbeh. After all, the Sheinkin Street types will all stand in line for it there."

He adds that in his travels around markets in Europe, he did not encounter a branch of a large chain, so maybe Israel has now created another "startup."

'Globa-localization'

It is possible that the struggle between old and new that is taking on global dimensions will actually end in "globa-localization" - the inclusion of the global in the local. This is the approach, for example, of Pini Levy, who for years had a meat store in the market and then became owner of a restaurant in Jerusalem and later in Tel Aviv. He describes the market lovingly as "my childhood playground."

"They won't finish off the shuk. I forgive them for Aroma. The shuk is growing slowly and developing and moving in the right direction," says Levy. But he adds, "one is enough. I hope that Cafe Hillel doesn't run there, too."

Eli Mizrahi, the current chairman of the market committee, and his daughter Moran, owner of the first cafe in Mahaneh Yehuda - called Hakol La'ofeh, Gam kafe (Everything for the Baker, Coffee, Too) - have a similar opinion. She says she will not buy at the chains because she does not like to go there. "The opening of a branch in the market is a little odd to me because it's the symbol of urbanization and modernization, and the shuk is my quiet corner," she says. Nevertheless, she adds that she feels proud because she remembers the days when the market was dying, in early 2000. "If they opened here, it's a sign that we're on the map. They wouldn't open a branch in the Sahara Desert."

Mizrahi was also criticized when she opened her cafe five years ago, but she has since created a model of integration in the market - for example, by arranging musical performances in the alley adjacent to her business.

Will the main street of the market become an open-air mall? Says Yatzu Nahmias, the franchisee who chose the location for the Aroma branch: "I heard the talk that Aroma doesn't belong in the shuk, but to me, it's a Jerusalem affair that started in Jerusalem." He is sure that the branch under his management will become part of the market scene and says he will be happy about "every Jerusalem chain that also comes here."

Nahmias employs workers of varying ages, Arabs and Jews, at the new, tourist-filled branch and notes that he was permitted to change the terms of the franchise and to purchase eggs, fruits and vegetables right there, in the market.