On Saturdays, metal shutters cover the market stalls of the Machane Yehuda outdoor “shuk” in Jerusalem, and the ordinarily boisterous marketplace takes a Sabbath rest.
While walking through the shuk on a quiet Sabbath, Berel Hahn had a vision.
“I saw a flash of color and imagined the shuk full of art, and then I imagined the shuk full of people,” Hahn tells ISRAEL21c.
His dream is make Machane Yehuda come alive on Shabbat – not for commerce, but for cultural gatherings to nourish the souls and stomachs of Israelis and tourists of all persuasions.
The closed shutters, he realized, provide the perfect canvas to turn the Saturday shuk into a street-art gallery.
Artist Solomon Souza enthusiastically came on board, and with equally enthusiastic permission from stall owners began working on weeknights after the shops shut for business.
The 21-year-old from London has been working at his craft since his early teens, and tells ISRAEL21c that he can finish one to four paintings in a nightly session.
In only two months, Souza has spray-painted 60 shutters with bold depictions of fanciful animals, biblical scenes and portraits of pioneering personalities of the past, for example the kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Kaduri and 16th century female magnate Doña Gracia Nasi, who helped establish the modern city of Tiberias.
“There are photos of rabbinic leaders hanging in many shops in the shuk, and the owners feel strongly about them,” says Hahn, 25, who moved to Israel four years ago from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and lives near Beit She’an. “We paint what the store owners want if it’s reasonable, but not free signs or ads. We want it to be inspiring.”
The cost of materials is underwritten by a third partner, Shalom Lakein, who has brought in other donors and dedicated the entire project in the memory of his parents, Miriam and Shlomo.
“His parents were very interesting and accomplished,” says Hahn. “His mom helped found a kibbutz and his father founded a school in Brooklyn and made Jewish art calendars.” Together the couple raised 10 children.
The founders next partnered with the Jewish Unity Project, whose community-building events include an open Shabbat luncheon set up on the light-rail tracks outside the shuk on Jaffa Street (in Jerusalem, public transportation does not operate on Saturdays).
Moving these meals into the marketplace – a repast on the last day of Passover drew 500 people — they plan to serve wine and cheese on the night of Shavuot (May 23), with people participating in study sessions focusing on themes in the shutter artworks.
Universal tourist appeal
“I want to attract tourists, who usually are not looking for art in the shuk. Potentially we could have 1,000 people there,” says Hahn, who looks at the project from a universal, rather than a parochial, viewpoint. Shoppers and stall-owners are not all Jewish, let alone religious, and he likes bringing together the ethnic flavors of Machane Yehuda: Tunisian, Yemenite, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and more.
“I feel that through the shuk we can change the world,” he says.
Hahn and his partners are bringing in other artists to add their own touches to the shutters of stores that, during business hours, sell items such as vegetables, spices, halva, fish, jewelry, housewares or cell-phone accessories.
They are in preliminary discussions with the Jerusalem municipality about going forward with the project together.
In fact, Hahn says he was first inspired by Tabula Rasa, a city-sponsored urban art initiative in 2011 that used the shuk’s trash bins, stone walls and concrete surfaces as blank slates. Participants included students from the Bezalel, Hadassah and Musrara schools of art and photography in Jerusalem as well as local painters, sculptors, photographers, graphic and street artists.
Hahn says he considers his Shabbat art gallery a gift to the residents and tourists of Israel’s capital city.
“We’re not going to stop with the shuk; we have other projects in mind. We want to have a tzava shel tzeva, an army of spray artists,” he adds, using the Hebrew near-homonyms for “army” and “paint.”