Great Shopping (And History, Too)
Wed, 12/05/2007
Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — Residents of Mamilla, a century-old neighborhood located right outside the Old City of Jerusalem, have been eyewitnesses to many important events in the city’s turbulent history.

In 1948 and 1967, they either fled or shuttered themselves in their homes as soldiers fought on their doorsteps. Now, during happier times, they watch tens of thousands of Israelis march to the Western Wall to celebrate holidays.

About two decades ago many of the neighborhood’s venerable shops were forced to close after the historic stone buildings in which they were housed were either demolished outright, or in some cases carefully disassembled, to make room for new construction. Not long afterward, the first stage of the new Mamilla housing project and the David’s Citadel Hotel, were erected, but the state-of-the-art shopping promenade was bogged down in bureaucracy and controversy. 

Fervently Orthodox Jews did not want to remove skeletons found during the archeological excavations conducted prior to any Jerusalem building project, and they objected in principle to a shopping center being built next to the holy Old City.

It took until this past summer for the open-air mall to open, and many feel it was worth the wait.

Designed by the famed architect Moshe Safdie, the complex is an elegant addition to a city renowned for its religious sites, unparalleled history and frumpy dressers (at least that’s the opinion of other Israelis).

Few Jerusalemites, in fact, are even aware that the promenade is open, probably because the exterior still looks like a giant building site: dozens of multimillion-dollar apartments are being built by the Alrov group, the same contractors who built the mall.

Those prepared to duck between the bulldozers are in for a pleasant surprise. The Mamilla shopping promenade is architecturally unique and several of the stores are on par with those found in New York, London or Paris.

Many of the stores — the Body Shop, Nine West, Tommy Hilfiger, Erroca sunglasses, the Superpharm drug store — can be found in other Israeli malls, but none of the brands’ other franchises have wall-to-wall indoor Jerusalem stone and vaulted ceilings. 

What distinguishes the promenade from other local malls is its historic location. It was built just below a beautiful old convent and adjacent to the Old City, whose illuminated walls provide a very spectacular backdrop. The reconstructed buildings feature graceful arched windows, a reminder that this is the Middle East, not Manhattan.

Shopkeepers say the promenade is attracting both overseas tourists and wealthier Israelis, particularly those looking for high-quality Israeli products.

One such store is Yalduti, which sells sweet children’s clothing and soft toys, both made in Israel, as well as some European items. The accessories designer Daniella Lehavi, who has eight stores in Israel, sells pricey leather handbags, shoes and boots. Laline, another homegrown chain, sells aromatic skin products at surprisingly affordable prices. Some incorporate Dead Sea salt and locally produced oils. Gilgul has Israeli children’s clothing, diaper bags, whimsical Hebrew letters (to create a child’s name) room decorations and linens. Michal Negrin, whose sparkly jewelry is also sold in the U.S., has an impressive shop in the promenade.

Ruthie Dahan, the owner of a boutique called A Room of One’s Own, sells one-of-a-kind clothing, jewelry and art, all of it produced by local designers and craftspeople. Many study at Jerusalem’s Bezalel school, Israel’s premier art academy.

“I look for unusual jewelry,” Dahan says, pointing to delicate woven pearl necklace and a ring crocheted in gold. “I buy things I like.”

One of Dahan’s favorite designers is Paula Bianca, who fashions fabulous handbags from tire rubber. “Her Neutra brand is ecologically sound,” the shopkeeper says. “Her work is made of recycled materials.”

Dahan, who also has a shop on trendy Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony, believes it’s “important” to provide local artists and designers “a platform.”

“Jerusalem has been ignored for much too long. People think it’s a haredi city, an unsafe city. Fortunately, there are people here who are intelligent and enlightened. I’m trying to demonstrate that you don’t have to go to Tel Aviv to purchase something special or have a night out,” Dahan says.

Phyllis Friedman, a well-dressed Torontonian who was shopping along the promenade with her daughter-in-law on a chilly evening in November, called the experience “glorious.”

“This is very different from anything I’ve seen in Israel. There are more boutique shops than elsewhere and the things are beautiful. It’s very upscale and we’re having a great time.”

Her daughter-in-law, a stylish 20-something who makes her home in Israel, focused on the American stores she misses from the Old Country.

“There’s a Nautica, a MAC makeup, a Nine West. It’s a little taste of home,” she said.