August 23, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, August 23, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Festive crowds thronged the streets. You had to push to make your way through the mass of revellers: hip teens, families with kids, grandparents and young couples. Above, cheery fairy lights were strung between the buildings.

On a large stage in the middle of the square a band played ridiculously loud Brazilian pop and Samba tunes. After them came a troupe performing capoeira, Brazilian martial arts. Up the street on another stage models strutted up and down showing off the latest wedding dress fashions, the pop music blaring from the speakers competing with the Brazilian carnival. Round the corner, on a narrow side street lined with jewellery and craft shops a jazz quartet attracted yet more people.

This was the scene in central Jerusalem last Saturday night. The Brazilians were in Zion Square, the fashion show was in the middle of Ben Yehuda Street and the jazz musicians were livening up nearby Yoel Salomon Street. For the first time in almost two years it felt like the old downtown Jerusalem had returned. All that was missing were the foreign tourists and overseas students who once flocked to the area.

I stood there savouring the noise and the bustle, drinking in the raucous music, turned up too loud. For once I didn't mind the assault on my eardrums. It was worth it just to see my favourite city enjoying itself after so many months of tragedy and mourning.

Music and fairy lights could not entirely mask the painful times the city is going though. Dancers shimmied past memorials to terror victims and stalls stood outside businesses closed due to the war. On Yoel Salomon Street, famous for its restaurants, local fixtures such as Amigos Mexican restaurant, Tza'ad Teimani Yemenite restaurant, Chamomile health food cafe and Kapulsky's cafe have all shut. A couple of popular bars and eateries had signs along the lines of "closed until the war is over". Near Zion Square, The Patriot Café has also gone out of business. In the adjacent Café Rimon customers sit inside an ornate wrought iron security cage designed to stop bombers from forcing their way into the restaurant.

For several weeks now similar street fairs have been held as part of the Jerusalem municipality's effort to revive the terror ravaged heart of the city. Each week there has been a different theme: fashion, health and beauty, music, back to school, food and more. Jerusalemites and visitors from elsewhere in Israel, have responded enthusiastically to the initiative, returning in droves to the once popular entertainment district.

Ben Yehuda and surrounding streets have been sealed off with metal gates. Armed guards and police watch every access point, searching anyone wishing to enter the "sterile" zone. Police and soldiers patrol the area constantly.

A week ago the theme was fashion. The area was packed with clothing and cosmetic stalls. A few trendy bars had temporary stands along the street, complete with blaring electronic music. Up towards Ben Hillel Street a Middle Eastern style tea shop occupied the middle of the mall. Customers sprawled on rugs and cushions, puffing on nargilehs or sipping sweet tea. A local band played traditional music from the region on Middle Eastern acoustic instruments.

Round the corner there was an old style rhythm and blues band. Further down the street there was American folk music played on fiddle, kazoo and a washboard. Mime artists and dancers in bizarre costumes milled amongst the pedestrians.

I know this sounds strange to say but somehow there is a sense of renewal in downtown Jerusalem these days. Despite the terrorism, the lack of tourists and the dire economic situation in Israel, most businesses are still managing to stay afloat - just barely. Some owners are relying on their savings, others have set up websites and are selling via mail order and a few have toured diaspora Jewish communities, selling their wares in fairs organized by synagogues in cities such as London, New York and Washington.

A few weeks ago we came into Jerusalem on Friday morning to get Jason sandals. There is a quaint old store on the corner of Rav Kook Street which reminds me of the helpful family run stores I used to get my shoes from as a child. It has been there for over 50 years and the clerks still wear old fashioned uniform smocks. Worth the schlep to Jerusalem just for the nostalgia trip.

From Rav Kook Street we turned towards Ben Yehuda Street to pick up some food for Shabbat. That Friday was the turn of the food fair and we did our shopping at the various stalls representing a choice selection of kosher restaurants, delis and Mahane Yehuda market sellers. There were herbs and spices from the exotic to the mundane and cuisines from around the world, everything from Chinese to Middle Eastern to Argentinian. A one man band wandered amongst the stalls and parents badgered him for photos with their kids.

On Jaffa Road itself there was a feeling of chaos. Jerusalem is building a new light railway system to ease the city's traffic congestion and they are busy digging up chunks of Jaffa Road to lay the infrastructure. Meanwhile, several terror damaged shops have been renovated, now sporting shiny new windows and modern fittings. If you hadn't heard the news for the past year, you might imagine that this is just part of the general bustle of urban renewal accompanying the new transportation project. If only.

Shabbat shalom,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.