A Walk on the Wild Side

by Brian on December 22, 2010

in Just For Fun,Only in Israel

Change has come to downtown Jerusalem

It has been years since I’ve been to downtown Jerusalem at night, but it’s the “in” spot for the teenagers in our house. After our sushi dinner last week, my wife and I decided to take a walk around. Frankly, we were blown away.

I expected to find a run-down city center, its main artery decimated by years of light rail construction. What we discovered instead was a multi-block area of pedestrian walkways, upscale restaurants and seaside-style bars with lounge chairs to chill out (now if only Jerusalem had an actual sea…)

When I first came to Israel over 25 years ago, Ben Shetach Street was a dingy road with the hulking Bituach Leumi (social security) building on one side and the Meuchedet HMO down a dirty side street.

Not any more.

The block reminded me of a European walkway, no less classy than those we once frequented in Italy and France, with sidewalk bistros sporting white tablecloths and meaty menus (by which I mean, a slab of steak for NIS 150 – $40 – and up).

As we continued our exploration, we hit Yosef Rivlin Street – what my kids call “Bar Street” – which was packed with hundreds of post-high school and army young adults sipping beer and vodka and smoking large nargilas (water pipes filled with distilled tobacco and spices). Whoever said that there’s no nightlife in Jerusalem hasn’t been downtown recently.

As we strolled past more bars – interspersed with trendy art galleries – we hit the intersection with Jaffa Road known as “Cat Square,” a significantly less upscale corner – it’s where Israeli troublemakers hang out to drink and pick fights.

Mike’s Place, which started out in Jerusalem several decades ago but left a few years back to focus on its Tel Aviv flagship, has returned big time and set up shop right in the heart of Cat Square, taking over half of the old Village Green vegetarian restaurant that used to be uber-popular but whose healthy quiches and sprout salads can no longer compete with the nearby gourmet ravioli and chocolate mud pies.

A bit further west, though, the downscaling continued: the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall seems stuck in a time warp, reminiscent of the city center I remembered from the 80s, perhaps because it’s night crawling demographics skew lower – mostly rambunctious teenagers. Nearby “Crack Square” is the English-speaking dropout immigrants’ equivalent to Cat Square – we avoided it.

Our final stop was at the Birman bar on Dorot Harishonim Street where a very tall, eccentric man was leading a band consisting of two accordion players and a violin. The man, who’s long mangled white hair seemed more appropriate for Tel Aviv than more staid Jerusalem, looked familiar.

A sign on the wall provided the answer: he was Dan Biran, who ran for mayor of Jerusalem in the most recent elections on a platform espousing that all religion was evil. I saw him deliver that speech in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue where, I recalled, his proclamations of secular emancipation fell on deaf ears.

It was a perfect cap to a wild evening stroll through the “new” Jerusalem.

This article appeared earlier this week on the Israelity blog.

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