Mapping The Shuk
Tue, 05/15/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Eli Bashar’s acclaimed cheese shop. Photos by Tovah Lazaroff
Eli Bashar’s acclaimed cheese shop. Photos by Tovah Lazaroff

When Uzi Eli was 5 years OLD, HIS grandfather decided it was high time for the little guy to stop breastfeeding. But the young Eli, who was born and raised in rural Yemen, went on a nursing strike and refused to eat any food at all.

“My grandfather was a holistic medicine man and he tried all different ways to make me eat, but I refused everything,” recalls Eli. “Then he found me a goat and let me take milk from her.”

We are standing in the middle of Jerusalem’s landmark Mahane Yehuda market (known locally as the Shuk), and Eli is one of the better-known vendors, who, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, went into the natural medicine business.

Growing his own herbs on a moshav just outside Jerusalem and cultivating his own range of potions and creams, Uzi Eli’s market stall is a mecca of sorts for people far and wide who come looking for natural cures to all sorts of physical and emotional ailments.

He continues his story in the animated voice that many visitors to this corner of the market have come to love:

“I fed from the goat for about two years and then I was told that we were about to leave Yemen to make aliyah,” he says of his journey more than 60 years ago to the new Jewish state.

“I remember going out to look for the goat but I could not find her anywhere,” he smiles, then he reaches up onto the shelf behind him and brings down a goat’s bell.

“My father had killed her so that we would have meat to eat on our journey to Israel and all that was left was her bell,” Eli rings it with a sense of irony and replaces it back on the shelf.

Whether Eli’s story is embellished or not, he knows that entertaining visitors is an important part of his sales pitch, and that is why he has joined a growing number of market traders in promoting their wares via a self-guided tour through the market.

One such initiative is Shuk Bites, which launched a few months ago for the Hebrew-speaking market and was recently translated into English. It allows visitors from Israel and abroad — map in hand — to work their way around the market smelling, feeling, tasting goods and experiencing its unique flavor at their own pace.

“We wanted to create an experience that someone could do on their own without having to depend on a group or an organized tour,” explains Michael Weiss, founder of Go Jerusalem, the largest tourism portal about the capital and co-founder of the Mahane Yehuda website; he and his partner came up with the idea for Shuk Bites.

“With this tour, you can go in your own time, go to the places that you like and taste the things that you want to taste,” he explains. “You can start where you want and end where you want; you just follow the dedicated map, which takes you to the special places in the market.”

Indeed, the Shuk Bites tour begins in a quiet corner of the market on HaEgoz Street, at the store Pri HaAdama, an artists’ cooperative owned and operated by 10 women ceramic artists. They take turns staffing the store, where tour tickets are pre-ordered online (http://www.machne.co.il/en/category/the-machane-yehuda-shuk-bites-ticket) must be picked up.

The ticket is a large card with a map on the back and the stubs representing 10 vendors around the sides. Visitors make their way around the market, stopping at each one of the participating market stalls and receiving small samples of their wares to taste.

Along with Uzi Eli’s natural juices, potions and, of course, the intriguing personal stories and even a little bit of fortune telling,  the tour also includes a stop at boutique bakery, Artisan Bread, where the owner shares some of her unusual breads; Eli Maman’s halva stall, which has been in his family for generations — it offers more than 100 types of Israel’s popular sesame seed spread and has won prizes across the globe for its unique flavors; and an array of other stalls selling Israeli olive oil, spices, coffee and sweets.

No trip to the shuk would be complete without a stop at what is perhaps the most famous stall in the market, Bashar Fromagerie, an emporium of international kosher cheeses. Owner Eli Bashar became something of a legend in local circles when he broke with family tradition and opened a dairy delicatessen.

According to the story, after a single trip to France, Bashar declared his love for European cheeses and decided to abandon the  restaurant that had been in his family for two generations to open a cheese shop in the market. His place now boasts some of the best quality cheeses available in the country, and he continues to travel far and wide importing unique varieties of cheese, all of them kosher.

“The ticket that we offer is not random — these are dedicated bites,” explains Weiss. He added that each place has been carefully selected in order to show visitors the best possible places in the market.

Although most of the tourists on the tasting tour have been Hebrew-speakers and the program is evolving, Weiss hopes that it will provide a unique insight into Israel’s open-air food market for those coming from outside the country, too.

“We know this place is a magnet for tourists and we hope it will offer visitors something new,” he said, adding that the company is also in the process of creating a similar tour for Jerusalem’s Old City, which will target the weekend tourist and focus on eateries in the Christian and Muslim parts of the city.