Save Restobar, Save Jerusalem

Cafe Moment suffered a terror attack in 2002 that led to its closure. Today, there is no need for an attack to deliver the deathblow on secular Jerusalem.

Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev
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Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev

Our final encounter was on my birthday at the end of January; I didn't know it would be our final encounter. It's heartbreaking, but it's always that way. How can you know that a final encounter is a final encounter? How can you know that a premature death is on the way, so you can arrange one last meeting?

If I had known in January that Restobar was going to close in mid-March, I would have gone back in February and early March. I would have had a chance to say farewell.

This special cafe, this thronging and lively restaurant and bar on Jerusalem's Gaza Street opposite the Prime Minister's Residence, was one of the last symbols of dying-out secular Jerusalem. At night it wouldn't go to sleep like most places nearby. On Saturdays, when everything was dead, it was very much alive. It was a magnet for Jerusalem's dwindling nonreligious population.

It was also a magnet for protesters outside the Prime Minister's Residence. It became a second home to Aviva and Noam Shalit, across from their protest tent, before their son Gilad was released by Hamas. It was a second home for students, scholars and literary and cultural figures; a magnet for local and foreign journalists. They say even diehard Tel Avivians would come over and have their after-parties there.

But on the day the new government was sworn in - the government without the ultra-Orthodox - Restobar closed down under pressure by the ultra-Orthodox. A French Jewish businessman had bought the property and other properties in the city, and demanded kashrut and closure on Shabbat.

Restobar's owners - Shahar and Avigail Levy - refused. They knew that accepting that dictate would destroy the place's DNA, which they had created with so much love and sensitivity. They knew that a Restobar knuckling under to religious coercion wouldn't be the same Restobar. Their appeal to Mayor Nir Barkat didn't help. Their lease wasn't renewed, and the coffee shop became extinct.

Cafe Moment, which occupied the same site, suffered a terror attack in 2002, which led to its slow demise and closure. Restobar flourished until its last day and was closed down with one thrust of the sword. No need for a terror attack to deliver the deathblow on secular Jerusalem, of blessed memory.

In 2008 Restobar won a precedent-setting lawsuit when municipal fines it had incurred for selling bread on Passover were rescinded. Restobar didn't force secularism on anyone. I remember that on Passover a year ago I ordered matza with my breakfast. On Passover this year I won't be able to choose matza.

And without warning you feel homeless. You miss the years in Tel Aviv. You miss the years abroad. You think about your friends who move to Tel Aviv or abroad. You can just feel how Jerusalem is slipping through your fingers - if you ever held on to it at all.

And completely illogically, you feel guilty. Why didn't you visit it during the last weeks of its life? Why didn't you ask how it was doing? Why didn't you talk more with Shahar and Avigail? Maybe they would have told you about the threats to Restobar's existence. Maybe these words would have been written premortem and not postmortem.

We must not accept the closing of Restobar. We must save it and what it represents - because the next loss might not be of a cafe, but of Israel's largest city.

Shahar Levy, one of the owners of the Restobar, in 2008. Credit: Emil Salman

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