Friday 28 June 2019

Tel Aviv Tales - 4 Change and tradition in the Jaffa Fleamarket

If Tel-Aviv is my favourite city then Jaffa is probably my favourite neighbourhood. I love the faded grandeur of its main street - Jerusalem Boulevard, the quiet lanes and galleries of the old city, the smell of the sea and the possibility of stories on every corner.

Most of all I love the flea market - the Shuk HaPishpeshim. Known for its antique, carpet and furniture shops, the Shuk has seen many changes in recent years. As older traders have retired or died, their premises have been acquired by new, mostly independent cafes, bars, restaurants and design shops, making for an eclectic mix and attracting a new, younger audience reflecting the gentrification to the area. This has resulted in a new night time economy with many of the new businesses staying open into the evening, some of them offering live music at the weekend. Whilst this is new in the Shuk it is not new to Jaffa which in the 1960's and 70's had a thriving nightlife with legendary clubs including the Hammam, the Ariana and the El Dorado the latter of which was to give its name to a gangster thriller movie shot in Jaffa in the 60's. These places are now long gone but perhaps the new bars are reviving this tradition.

Reuven Sinai, carpet and vintage clothing dealer
Mikhail, antiques dealer
Despite these changes a number of older businesses survive, especially on the Shuk’s main street, Oley Zion and the surrounding alleys. I was recently able to talk to some of the older traders, to hear their stories and to find out what they think about recent developments. It quickly became apparent during these conversations that change is not something new in the Shuk. Reuven Sinai explained that when he first began working here, most of the traders were Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom repaired and sold shoes. He particularly remembered a woman Holocaust survivor whose family had all been killed in Poland. She sold shoes and had many Arab customers. Reuven has two shops in the Shuk, one where he repairs and sells rugs, the other a vintage clothing shop. I first met him about five years ago when I noticed him working outside his shop and asked to take his picture. He kindly agreed and later showed me an extensive collection of photographs that tourists had taken of this most photogenic of gentlemen! Now aged 68, he was born in Isfahan, Iran and made aliyah in 1962. His father sold clothes in Iran but a friend advised him that it was possible to make a living from buying and selling rugs and so he bought their shop in 1965.

Today most of the traders are Sephardi, many of them coming from Iran or Afghanistan. I knew that many of the carpet merchants were from "Paras" the Hebrew name for Persia or modern day Iran but had incorrectly assumed that most of them came to Israel following the fall of the Shah in 1979. Time after time they told me that their families had come to Israel in the 1940's, 50's and 60's due to their commitment to Zionism and that whilst life had been good in Iran the desire to make aliyah and to help build the state was more important to them.

Yaron Larian, carpet dealer
Some of the more established traders were unhappy about the decline of traditional businesses but all accepted that that change is inevitable and that if they wish to survive they must adapt as many have. Yaron Larian, aged 60 repairs and sells carpets in his shop on Oley Zion.  He speaks nine languages and has worked in the Shuk for 35 years. Some of his customers have been buying from him for more than two decades. He says "they have bought perhaps 100 rugs from me". Talking about his success he emphasised the need to be honest in business and to ensure both the salesman and the customer are satisfied saying that if someone regrets a purchase they will not return. When asked about change he said "we have to fit in with what people want. In the past they only wanted antique carpets. Now they want modern, cheaper rugs. They don't want to spend, to invest”. He explained that the old rugs are based on natural vegetable dyes and the colour is permanent. The new ones are synthetic and although the colours may be more shiny they will fade.

Yaron was born in Shabazi, Tel-Aviv but his family came from Mashhad in Iran. Previous generations lived publicly as Muslims but in reality were Anusim and practised Judaism behind closed doors. This meant they were constantly at risk of being discovered. His grandfather even made the Haj but later when visiting Hebron he was recognised as a Jew by one of the guards at the Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs) and forbidden from progressing beyond the third step.

Several of the traders tell stories about their ancestors having visited Jerusalem, including those who made what is referred to as the "aliyah b'regel" or the aliyah on foot. Mikhail who was born in Herat, Afghanistan explained that Jews from Bukhara (and fro other cities) would visit Jerusalem, making the journey on foot or by camel - a journey that could take three months. On returning to Bukhara these Jews were considered to have made the equivalent of the Muslim Haj to Mecca and some were given certificates to mark their journey.

Miriam Scheuer, vintage clothing dealer
Miriam Scheur's parents came from Czechoslovakia and Germany in the 1930's. Her father dealt in leather goods. She sells vintage clothing from a small shop in one of the indoor lanes behind Oley Zion. She has had this unit for 35 years but has worked in the Shuk for closer to 50. She described herself as a self-taught expert in vintage clothing of the 1920's-50's but says that young people now want clothes from the 70's, 80's and 90's and she has changed her focus accordingly. She describes the arrival of the bars, cafes and restaurants as being a response to market forces and to changing tastes saying "If I decide to sell my shop someone will turn it into an ice cream parlour". There are already three ice cream parlours in the Shuk, all of them busy from morning until closing time.

Back on Oley Zion, Shlomo Mazlomian has worked in the Shuk for 45 years. His family made aliyah from Teheran in 1971 and were initially housed in a reception centre in Kfar Saba. He learned to repair carpets from an early age. His father taught him to repair carpets from an early age. He can often be seen sitting outside his shop, working on repairs or keeping his antique carpets clean. I have known him for several years now and always spend time talking and drinking strong, muddy Turkish coffee with him when I visit the Shuk. He speaks candidly about how things have changed over the years and whilst understanding that everything changes he is sad at the loss of tradition saying "there is a loss of authenticity, things are different now".

Shlomo Mazlomian, carpet dealer
One part of the Shuk is relatively unchanged. Behind Oley Zion there is a piece of open ground where traders come and spread out their goods on trestle tables or in a number of cases on the floor. You can find just about anything here – books, antiques, clothes, dolls, games, CDs and vinyl, electrical goods, hand-made jewellery, pictures, old photographs strewn on the floor or in boxes - people's life stories being offered for sale. I often look at them and wonder who these people were and what happened to them. The customers here are as diverse as the goods and include secular and religious Jews, Arabs, overseas workers from Africa, China and the Philippines as well as tourists all of whom come in the hope of finding a treasure. I enjoy watching the bargaining that takes place here, including unexpected exchanges such as a Filipino woman bargaining down the price of some second hand Barbie dolls – in perfect Hebrew. But even here there is a hint of change. On Fridays in particular it is not unusual for professional photographers to turn up accompanied by models who strut amongst the customers and pose beside piles of old clothes. 

Bargaining in the informal part of the shuk
Coffee is another Jaffa tradition
Music in Friday morning
Friday is the busiest day in the Shuk. The streets fill up with locals and tourists who come to shop, eat and enjoy the street entertainers including impromptu performances by mime artists and musicians. The streets are filled with haunting Persian and Middle Eastern music played on the oud, saz and kamancheh. These young musicians bring the rich musical heritage and traditions of Mizrahi Jews to a new, primarily young audience. Also on Friday, in the midst of all of this activity, young Lubavitcher men work from a small stall and invite Jewish men to put on tefillin and pray in the street. Open air prayers are not limited to Fridays. Many of the longer established traders are religious and it is not unusual to see an open air minyan during the week.

For the moment the Shuk will retain its attractive mixture of old and new, traditional and modern but as Reuven, Yaron and Miriam say, further change is inevitable. Most of the children of the carpet repairers and antique sellers prefer different careers and many of them work in the professions. Whilst it is sad that some of the old skills and traditions will eventually disappear perhaps the new arrivals are really part of another tradition in the Shuk - that of change, but change mixed with respect for the past.

Hezzi Motada, craftsman at work

Trying before buying
Friday photo-shoot

You can see more pictures from Israel here.


  1. I too love Jaffa where my grandmother lived until her marriage. But you wrote another thing that struck a cord. When my grandfather and his brother left Russia, he said they were shoe makers, so they had no trouble finding jobs repairing and selling shoes in a market. But due to Fiddler on the Roof, many people thought "sandlar" was a fake term for a more dodgy trade :)

  2. As usual: FANTASTIC PICTURES of Adrian....THANK YOU...

  3. Good article. Informative and interesting.