Much is made of the youth exodus plaguing Jerusalem, a cascade of bright young people squeezed out every year by skyrocketing rents, poor municipal management and sometime intolerance by more conservative sectors of the population, but were a Jerusalem visitor to situate themselves in the slice of downtown between the HaNeviim Street and Hillel Street, they would find a youth culture more culturally vibrant, artistically engaged and politically aware than any in a city three times the size of Jerusalem. What Jerusalem's underground community lacks in numbers, it makes up for in enthusiasm and the sort of civic pride peculiar to groups who buck the dominant culture. The pierced, tattooed Anarchist Against the Wall radical, the heretically-inclined but still devoutly faithful ultra-Orthodox Jew, the Russian-born lady electro DJ and the Palestinian drag queen may not fit the stereotype of a Jerusalem resident, but the city is theirs too - and they would be the first to tell you so.
So where can you meet the ambassadors of the Other Jerusalem? Let Jerusalemite show you the way with our list of the top five underground performance spaces in Jerusalem.
Uganda The British government once floated the idea of establishing the Jewish state in Uganda rather than politically volatile Ottoman Palestine. It came to naught, but a century or so later Uganda established itself in the Jewish state...or at least a hip cafe/bar/record store/comics shop calledUganda did. Located on a downtown side street near the fortress-like headquarters of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the shuttered Russian Compound, Uganda is ground zero for Jerusalem's young, secular and radical crowd, a cozy space where disaffected local youth and earnest foreign activists alike can gather to discuss art and politics, flip through local zines and comics, sample and purchase the latest in European underground electronica and hear Jerusalem's best indie DJs, all while nursing a bottle of Taybeh (the Palestinian beer). Performances by both DJs and bands take place almost nightly, although you'll have to make your entertainment choices carefully, because come nightfall the urban secular demographic is split by...
Sira ...Jerusalem's other underground watering hole and incubator for local avant-garde and independent talent. Sira is the successor to D1, AKA Diwan, a bar in the same extremely dark, somewhat grotty and most decidedly seedy nook off of Ben Sira Street. D1 in its heyday served as the de facto headquarters of young Jerusalemites dissatisfied with the status quo, whether Jewish, Arab or otherwise, and huge crowds gathered nightly to share pints, shots of whiskey and not-so-well-concealed hashish joints while dancing to (or aloofly appreciating) local bands and DJs - some of whom (like Hadag Nachash's Shaanan Street, former D1 bartender) went on to big things. Sira continues that noble tradition to the letter. From punk to reggae to electronica to hip-hop, local talent lights up the tiny floor every night, and you never know if the guy rapping might turn out to be the next Rebel Sun (another Sira success). Hunting down the performance schedule might take some work, though: Sira is so thoroughly underground that their schedule is distributed solely in postcard form. But the club will have to scramble a little harder for fresh DJ talent due to...
Bass ...the newest arrival on the underground local music scene, a nightclub devoted to the cult of the DJ. Affiliated with heavy-hitting local turntablists like Pacotek, DJ Dina, Markey Funk and Walter Einstein Frog, Bass, as its name might imply, throbs nightly with the sub-tonal thumps of electro, house, breakbeats, electronica, hip-hop, dancehall, reggae and other things that go bump in the night. A weekly dancehall and roots reggae show is a godsend (Jahsend?) for lovers of reggae in Zion, and Bass is your best bet for catching big-name local and foreign DJs spinning their booty-shaking (or hyper-minimalist) best.
HaTaklit Things are a little less aggressively trendy over at HaTaklit ("The Record"), a tribute to the beloved vinyl record in bar/performance space form. While nostalgia for the record may not be entirely justified, seeing as the performers and clientele of places like HaTaklit have kept the medium alive and spinning, any excuse to open a bar with plenty of beer on tap, English footie on the TV screens, record sleeves on the walls and independent performers from at home and abroad on the stage is good enough. And best of all, HaTaklit is a labor of love, founded by three local boys working in various sectors of the music industry who wanted a place where they could show off their collections and hire all their friends and favorite bands. Awwwww.
Chet-7 The Beit Avi Chai organization, a private foundation dedicated to fostering Jewish culture in Israel, may have a bit too much money for true indie cred, but they don't screw around when it comes to their underground music venue, Chet-7: the only underground space in Jerusalem that is literally underground (in Beit Avi Chai's parking garage, to be precise). Chet-7 scored big by getting Yerushalmi golden boy Shaanan Street of Hadag Nachash to serve as consulting curator, helping to choose promising artists (both up-and-coming and well-established) and organize shows. Chet-7 is most notable for its Saturday night concerts, affordable and intimate performances by some of Israeli music's biggest non-pop names aimed solely at the hometown crowd.
Lots of underground artists also appear at the Yellow Submarine, but as a Municipality-funded affair, its cred is suspect - even if its music, which encompasses otherwise overlooked underground musical forms like jazz, is excellent. And of course, no mention of underground venues would be complete without the late, lamented Daila, a one-time Shlomtzion landmark that served as salon, gallery and cafe for Jerusalem's proud radicals, artists, poets and weirdoes. Jerusalemite pours out this Taybeh in its memory.
Photo of accordion antics and thumbnail photo of musicians at Uganda courtesy of ak-duck; photo of a DJ rocking Sira courtesy of dovi under a Creative Commons license; Bass photo courtesy of Bass; photo of Beit Avi Chai by Harry Rubenstein for Jerusalemite.
The rabbis of the Talmud wrote it, and every guidebook and tour operator repeats it: "Ten measures of beauty descended on the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem." Trite, perhaps. Immodest, certainly. Untrue? Well... not really. No matter what ill-advised (or painfully ironic) contemporary architectural claptrap the government flings skyward, the modest beauty of the olive-studded, elaborately terraced Judean mountains and the quiet grandeur of the ruins of glorious pasts remain unsullied. But even those aforementioned guidebooks and tour operators might not tell you where to go for the city's most spectacular vistas. That's what we're for. So get ready for Jerusalemite's definitive list of the best views of Jerusalem's Old City:
Haas Promenade This is a vantage point so well-known that every person (or at least every cabbie and tour guide) in Jerusalem refers to it simply as "HaTayelet"("The Promenade"). This is where every first-time visitor - from synagogue tour groups saying Shehecheyanu (the blessing over meriting to have achived benchmark experiences) to prayerful Christian Zionists and peace activists - comes to get a sense of Jerusalem in all her grandeur. The heart of the view is the distant glimmer of the Dome of the Rock and the entirety of the Old City's walls, but there's not much you can't see from the Haas Promenade. The sections of the Haas Promenade park that are highest in altitude and closest to the road and parking lot can sometimes bustle with tourists and families out on scenic constitutionals, so if you're looking for an opportunity for quiet contemplation, you might want to venture down into the terraced and beautifully landscaped lower sections (although this is not necessarily advisable after dark).
Mt. Scopus Promenade This is Jerusalem's other major tayelet, and a much quieter one than the Haas. The lookout point hugs the ridge of the upper slopes on Mount Scopus, directly below the Hebrew University campus at its peak, leading ultimately to the Arab neighborhood of A-Tur atop the Mount of Olives. Fittingly, the promenade offers an Old City view similar to that of its more crowded competition, but from the opposite direction. This is the view that gave Mount Scopus (Har HaTzofim, "Lookouts' Mountain") its name; from here, the legions of Titus camped and planned their siege of Jerusalem during the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE. When you visit, try to avoid similar plans.
The Austrian Hospice It's all about the advantage of height with this Jerusalem view. While the Old City is the star of many a vantage point, the Austrian Hospice offers the best view of the most ancient section of Jerusalem from within. Perched high above the bustle, you can peer down into the winding alleys of the Christian and Muslim Quarters, and take in everything from the countless steeples and minarets to the not-so-distant Dome of the Rock. And when you're done, pop inside the cafe downstairs for some serious dessert options.
Mount of Olives None other than Jesus himself famously scoped out Jerusalem from atop the headstone-strewn Mount of Olives, so there's plenty of historical precedent for Jerusalemites enjoying the view. Take the steep hike up to the top of the world's oldest and most densely-populated Jewish cemetery and behold an incredible panorama stretching from desert to Gehinnom to the Temple Mount to Mount Scopus. And try to ignore the pushy guys selling postcards and camel rides.
The Ramparts Walk What better method could there be to finding the best Old City vistas than circling its perimeter at roof-level? At the paltry entrance fee of 14 NIS for adults and 7 NIS for children, the Ramparts Walk allows adventurous visitors to explore the Old City's various highlights, including the Arab market, the Lion's Gate plaza, the Church of the Dormition and residential clusters of the Armenian and Muslim Quarters. The ramparts allowed 16th-century Ottoman defenders of the city to peek out behind various specially designed nooks and counter-attack Jerusalem conquerer wannabes, so role playing fun for the entire family is also afoot here.
And that isn't all, of course. Honorable mentions go to the Kollek-initiated terraced sidewalks of Yemin Moshe; to anywhere in Ein Kerem for the unparalled Jerusalem hills vistas; to the Goldman Promenade at Armon HaNetziv; and to the roof of the Harry S. Truman building on Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus for a stunning panorama of Old City, new city and vacant desert (see if a Hebrew U friend will take you).
Photo of Jerusalem at sunset from Mount Scopus courtesy of mockstarfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo from the Haas Promenade courtesy of moomoobloofrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo from the Mount Scopus Promenade courtesy of MiKix by Mirellafrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo from the Austrian Hospice's roof courtesy of delayed gratificationfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo from the Mount of Olives courtesy of Ladyhawkefrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo of the Ramparts by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite.
Makes you want to sing that Sinatra classic: "Three kubbeh in a soup bowl..."
You look a little damp. Come inside or you'll catch a cold. Here, sit down. You know what'll make you feel better? A nice steaming hot bowl of soup, just like mom used to make. You're in the right place for it.
Welcome, readers, to the soup capital of the world. Maybe you think Jewish soup begins and ends with soggy matzah balls bobbing in chicken broth, but that's as much a misconception as thinking Italian food begins and ends with spaghetti. When the Jews flooded back into Israel from the far-flung corners of the Diaspora, each of them came bearing soup, and from the crimson beet-flavored borscht to the...uh...crimson, beet-flavored marak kubbeh adom, every one is uniquely delicious. So strap on your bibs, shine your spoons and prepare for a Biblical deluge of broth as Jerusalemite reveals the top five soup joints in Jerusalem.
The sign says it all: "At Mordoch, we roll kubbeh." What are kubbeh, you ask? Why, they're an entire class of meat-stuffed bulgur and semolina dumplings, often deep-fried and crispy, but in the context of soup, they're big soft globes of pure epicurean pleasure. Coming to Israel courtesy of the Jews of Kurdistan, kubbeh soup is wildly popular all over the country, and if its Mecca is the heavily Kurdish Jerusalem neighborhood around the Machane Yehuda market, its Kaaba is the modest family-run restaurant Mordoch. While every stew, meat dish and mezze Mordoch makes is wonderful, their reputation is built on their kubbeh soup, which comes in three varieties: marak kubbeh adom, "red kubbeh soup," a sweet and savory deep red soup based on beets and other hearty root vegetables; kubbeh hamousta, "sour kubbeh," featuring a sour broth made greenish from an abundance of chard and hinting at its northern Iraqi origins with its Aramaic name; and kubbeh shel pa'am, "old-school kubbeh," similar to hamousta but more garlicky. And the regular old meat soup is pretty rad too. And here's a bit of Jerusalem trivia: Mordoch's kubbeh-rolling motto comes from the time generations ago when legions of Kurdish grandmas from Nachlaot would descend on Mordoch and roll kubbeh in the kitchen all day as a way of hanging out and sharing gossip (with Nachlaot rapidly turning into another glitzy, vacant foreign-absentee-landlord playground, those days are sadly behind us).
There's something about soup that goes hand-in-hand with funky DIY sensibilities, and a city can hardly claim to be home to a thriving underground scene without an indie soup joint. Enter HaMarakiya (more or less, "the Soupery"), a soup haven frequented by both Jerusalem's young and trendy and the city's LGBT community. The cozily eclectic Goa-meets-Little House on the Prairie decor tells you exactly what to expect: a rotating selection of hearty homemade-style vegetarian soups as well as a few fixed favorites, including Jerusalem standby marak batata (sweet potato soup) and shakshuka (not a soup, but still tasty). Space is limited and what few seats there are have a tendancy to fill up fast, so try to arrive right as the place opens at 18:00 sharp.
Azura Competing with heavy-hitters Mordoch and Rachmo for the lofty title of Machane Yehuda's finest Israeli soul food joint, Azura is hidden away at the far end of the grubby Iraqi Shuk (an aisle of Iraqi vegetable sellers within Machane Yehuda), right in front of a mountain of discarded produce boxes and trimmings. Don't let the grungy ambience deter you: this is serious Jerusalem food, and the lunch lines snaking through the Iraqi Shuk bear daily testament. Although mostly known for its hummus, Azura dishes out quite the kubbeh soup - its seasoned sixty-something Iraqi regulars would accept nothing less.
Marvad Haksamim Someone visiting Jerusalem for the first time might find it hard to believe, but not too terribly long ago, King George Street landmark Marvad Haksamim ("The Magic Carpet") used to be just about the only sit-down restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. Things have changed, and so has Marvad: the restaurant has gone chain, with satellite locations on Emek Refaim and in Malcha. The menu, mostly Yemeni but with a pronounced streak of culinary ecumenism, is famously hit-or-miss: the hummus is terrible, but the lineup of soups is killer. Yemen represents with a don't-miss beef and coriander soup, and the hardcore-but-tasty calf's foot soup; other standouts include red and hamousta kubbeh, Moroccan lentil, hearty bean and a surprisingly competent (considering the Middle Eastern source) chicken noodle. Every order comes with all-you-can-eat tzaluf, a crispy/chewy Yemeni flatbread perfect for soaking up those wonderful soup dregs.
Village Green The most vegetarian-oriented of Jerusalem's many soup eateries, the Village Green is also perhaps the least Israeli. One of the city's only cafeteria-style restaurants, the Green's clientele is mostly comprised of English-speaking visitors and residents, people who are attracted to the Western-style vegetarian fare and not put off by the relatively high prices. But Anglo ambience and pricey food aside, the soup is undeniably excellent all-around. Chunky gazpacho is great in the summertime, and in winter you can cozy up around a bowl of butternut squash, cream of broccoli or whatever else is bubbling away in the pots on any given day. As a bonus, soup orders come with the restaurant's excellent bread and butter.
Honorable mentions go out to the family-friendly Ima, the trendy/slightly upscale Kubiya, Heimishe Essen for the Ashkenazi end of things, and Jerusalemite's favorite lunch spot Ta'ami for a fine chicken soup. And if you can't enjoy Jerusalem soup in your current place of residence, check out some simple recipes for authentic kubbeh and marak kubbeh adom.
Photo of a full Mordoch spread (top) courtesy of rbarenblat from Flickr under a Creative Commons license; photo of Mordoch, photo of Marakiya and photo of Marvad Haksamim by Asaf Kliger for Jerusalemite; photo of Azura courtesy of Gad Shoshan from Flickr under a Creative Commons license; photo of soup at the Village Green courtesy of veggiefriendly from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.
Children: can't live with 'em, can't further the species without 'em. And on the long (or too-short) road between birth and financial independence, you've gotta entertain 'em. Fortunately, you're in Jerusalem, and that's a pretty easy task. Middle Easterners love children (and they have bunches of them), so it's only fitting that Jerusalem be gifted with a great abundance of child-friendly entertainment options. Just trust your friends at Jerusalemite and your kids will never be bored, because they'll be in the thrall of the top five children's activities in Jerusalem.
HaMifletzet (The Monster) The best things in life are free. Especially when the economy is in the tank and you're starting to think that your kid's piggybank is a safer place for money than your 401(k). Not all children's entertainment comes with a price of admission; the Mifletzet has been thrilling Jerusalem children day in and day out for nearly 40 years, and nobody pays a dime. Erupting out of the ground in a modest Kiryat Yovel park, the grotesque glory is the work of renowned sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, and literally every single person in Jerusalem knows it by one-word name alone (even though, technically, it's called "The Golem"). Sure, your kids have gone down slides before...but were the slides erupting from the rouged mouth of a creature that looks like a Picasso interpretation of a melting cow? No. No they weren't. So head over to the Mifletzet and join a venerable Jerusalem tradition.
The Bloomfield Science Museum There is no child-oriented institution in the world that wrings as much fun out of so modest a premise as the science museum. One would think science museums would be a series of static exhibits clarified by dry, small-print placards (and for adults, they are), but children's science museums are awesome. Lightning balls. Houses of mirrors. Play gyms. Robots. Bright lights, loud noises, and more interactivity than you can shake a TV-addled attention span at. The Hebrew University's Bloomfield Science Museum does not let down. The museum pursues its worthy goal of making every Jerusalemite child love science by putting together scads of hands-on science-made-real activities and exhibits, giving your child the opportunity to literally climb all over learning. They don't offer that sort of thrilling take on education in school, and yet you pay taxes. Hardly fair, huh?
The Israel Museum Youth Wing If the hard science-focused Bloomfield Science Museum is the dedicated, sober MIT of Jerusalem children's museums, then the Israel Museum's Youth Wing is the crunchy, Birkenstocked Oberlin. Here, it's all about art, and reading, and self-expression, and creativity, and all those other things you try to instill into your munchkins between rapt Dora the Explorer viewings. Whether your child is exploring a cave/tower of books seemingly constructed by Georgia O'Keeffe or participating in one of many craft workshops, you'll be able to proudly watch as their artistic sides grow, develop and start getting designs on your hard-earned money for art school. At least they'll be reading, though.
The Biblical Zoo Officially known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, a name far too cumbersome for anyone to bother remembering, the Biblical Zoo gets its more pedestrian nickname from its main (and entirely unique) draw: the zoo houses dozens of animals mentioned in the Bible as being native to the land of Israel - some of which had gone locally extinct and had to be brought to Israel from other countries. But little kids don't really care about neat stuff like that. They want to know if there's a petting zoo, and if they can feed the adorable little baby goats. Yes there is, and yes they can. They can also climb all over a massive Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture garden of animals spilling out of Noah's Ark. Parents can enjoy the immaculate grounds and Jerusalem mountain air. And those adorable little goats - even if they do refuse to engage in conversation.
The Time Elevator There has to be a better way to experience history than reading a dusty old book. Maybe if Haim Topol was somehow involved. Maybe if there were moving, vibrating seats. Maybe if water occasionally sprayed from the ceiling. That's history Jerusalem Time Elevator-style. It's actually exactly like that scene with the filmstrip and moving seats in Jurassic Park, except instead of dino cloning, the Haim Topol-augmented movie documents 3,000 non-stop years of Jerusalem history, using those wobbly chairs to make your kids believe they're taking an active role in the grand history of Jerusalem, which might not be such a stretch after all. Didn't they always say they wished they could have sacked Jerusalem with the Roman Tenth Legion? Jerusalemite respectfully suggests that you let them fulfill their dream.
Photo of Mifletzet spewing children courtesy of bdneginfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; thumbnail photo of the Mifletzet by Harry Rubenstein for Jerusalemite; photo from the Bloomfield Science Museum courtesy of Dany_Sternfeldfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo from the Israel Museum courtesy of yanecfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo of the adorable little baby goat at the Biblical Zoo courtesy of EagleXDVfrom Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo of the Time Elevator courtesy of the Time Elevator.
Jerusalemite does not care for the word "foodie." It is a silly name for a serious passion: seeking out and consuming the very finest in comestibles. That passion is given ample outlet in Jerusalem, currently in the midst of the classed-up peasant food culinary revolution that has swept the world - but every self-respecting gourmet, gourmand, gastronome, epicure or (sigh) foodie knows that experiencing a city's edible best requires looking beyond the guidebooks, the restaurant reviews and the temples of modern haute cuisine to the humble workingman's establishments that feed residents from teething babies to toothless old-timers.
So put down the Lonely Planet and let Jerusalemite show you real Jerusalem food with this list of the top five Jerusalem foods you've never eaten before:
Meorav Yerushalmi You can't really be a New Yorker without lox and a schmear. You're hardly Edinbourgeois if you eschew fish and chips. And you're no kind of Jerusalemite until you've tucked into a pita or plate full of meorav yerushalmi, a dish so identified with Jerusalem that it's named after it. Meaning "Jerusalemite mix," and often called "Jerusalem mixed grill" in English, the concept is simple: every edible-but-unappealing part of a chicken heavily seasoned with Middle Eastern spices and seared on a griddle with onions. Hearts? Yeah. Lungs? Sure. Liver? De rigueur. Spleens? Pray to God you don't forget them spleens. Don't be a sissy. Meorav is generally chopped up into a fairly uniform mix, and if you've ever eaten a hot dog, you've stuffed your face full of offal before - and it wasn't nearly as good as the signature meorav at Agrippas Street landmark Chatzot (pictured), just down the street from Machane Yehuda.
Sabich Not so long ago, Jews were Iraq's cultural elite, a full one-third of Baghdad's population, vastly overrepresented in commerce and the arts. Then they were expelled, and made their way to Israel to become this country's culinary elite. Anybody who's eaten falafel is familiar with the Iraqi laffa, a large chewy flatbread, but more obscure, and more delicious, is sabich, a dish either invented or popularized by Iraqi immigrants in Ramat Gan (althought the jury is still out when it comes to the origins of the name). It's true poverty food: a pita dramatically overstuffed with slices of fried eggplant; long-cooked, brown hard-boiled eggs; hummus; cucumber and tomato salad and spicy charif, then topped with amba, the pickled mango sauce adored by Iraqis. A whole rack of lamb wouldn't fill you up as full. For sabich in Jerusalem, there is no better choice than the aptly named Sabichiya on Shammai Street.
Maqluba First, learn how to pronounce it: urban Palestinian Arabs pronounce the Arabic letter qaf as a glottal stop, so "Al-Quds" (the Arabic name for Jerusalem) becomes "Al-'Uds" and "maqluba" becomes "ma'aluba." No matter how you say it, though, it's tasty. Meaning "upside-down" in Arabic, and often called the Palestinians' national dish, maqluba is a casserole made from rice, sliced eggplant, sliced tomato, onion, cauliflower and mountains of savory lamb (or sometimes chicken). Plenty of east Jerusalem and Old City holes in the wall offer their versions of this homestyle fare, and upscale locavore bistro Eucalyptus is famous for its gussied-up version.
Knafeh Desserts rarely make an appearance in weird food lineups. As much as human tastes vary from culture to culture, sweet is sweet, and what's sweet is rarely surprising - unless it happens to be neon orange shreds of phyllo dough drenched in syrupy sugar water and filled with gooey, salty warm goat cheese. Oh, confounding knafeh. It's a combination just about as incongruous as ice cream in a hamburger bun, but this Nablus delicacy is hugely popular in Jerusalem - especially during Ramadan, when feasting on pastries, dried fruits and nuts at night is traditional - among both Arabs and Jews. For the real deal, head over to Muslim Quarter landmark Jaffar's Sweets, where the knafeh is made fresh every day.
Sachlab When it gets cold in Jerusalem, forget eggnog, brandy, or hot cocoa: the real restorative drink is sachlab. Called "salep" in English, and perhaps familiar to European readers if not North American ones, sachlab is a hot, sweet, perfumey drink, thinner than pudding but thicker than whole milk, derived from the powdered extract of certain species of Middle Eastern orchid. It doesn't quite taste like anything else, but topped off with a mountain of coconut shavings, ground nuts and cinnamon, it will let you temporarily forget that the city is 45 degrees, pouring, and a single, unbroken shade of gray-brown. All-night cafe Mifgash HaSheikh is famous for its sachlab, and no winter nighttime shuk shopping trip is complete without an invigorating dose from one of several sachlab samovars.
Now doesn't that all sound tasty? And after you've gorged yourself on Jerusalem's unique delicacies, don't forget to head to our friendly neighborhood witch doctor for one more only-in-Jerusalem refreshment: khat smoothies. Mmmm. Eat well, and stay tuned for more Jerusalem best-of lists in the coming weeks.
Photo of knafeh-making at Jaffar's Sweets by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite; photo of meorav madness at Chatzot by Asaf Kliger for Jerusalemite; photo of maqluba from Wikipedia under a GNU Free Documentation License; photo of knafeh courtesy of Tololy Tutunai from Flickr under a Creative Commons License; photo of sachlab by Harry Rubenstein for Jerusalemite.
It's not originally an Israeli food, or a Jewish food - its origins are lost to history - but Israel runs on falafel. Along with its cousin hummus, the savory, deep-fried chickpea balls are a common denominator, a food that unites Jew and Arab, religious and secular, native and immigrant, rich and poor. It's cheap. It's filling. It's delicious. It's everywhere. But the sheer number of falafel kiosks can be daunting to Jerusalem newbies. Sure, any falafel in Israel is better than the abortive just-add-water abominations they call falafel in the West, but there's good falafel, and there's great falafel. And as always, Jerusalemite is here to help you separate falafel from fal-awful (ouch).
There is a simple test for gauging falafel quality, which Jerusalemite calls the "paper bag" test: do the falafel balls stand on their own, without their hummus, tehina, amba (mango chutney) and kruv (cabbage) co-conspirators? Is a grease-spotted paper bag of plain falafel just as good as the full pita-or-laffa monty? Just as a pizza could be dressed with the freshest sauce and the finest Italian buffalo mozzarella and still fall flat if the crust is sub-par, a stuffed laffa (like a tortilla wrap but much doughier) with all the fixings is nothing more than soggy bread without perfect falafel. Rest assured, all of the following pass the paper bag test with high-flying colors. Below is Jerusalemite's list of the best falafel in Jerusalem.
Moshiko Usually, restaurants in heavily-touristed areas are terrible, aimed squarely at foreign palates and shunned by locals (try getting a good meal in the Jewish Quarter). But Moshiko, in the midst of the tchotchkes-and-frozen-yogurt bustle of the cheesy Ben Yehuda midrachov, reliably serves Jerusalem's finest Israeli-style falafel. The falafel themselves are large and deeply green, and with Moshiko's non-stop traffic, almost always fresh. The side salads are abundant, and include the rarely-seen Turkish salad, a highly-recommended mix of tomatoes, onions and herbs. The ability to apply your own tehina from a squeeze bottle is another plus... but the French fries, predictably, are terrible. Hey, even the best isn't perfect.
Yemenite Falafel Center There are two schools of falafel in Israel: Yemenite and everything else. Most falafel is green from cilantro and parsley and fairly moist, but Yemenite falafel eschews the herbs for a drier, golden fritter. The most prominent Yemenite-style falafel establishment is Shalom Falafel, which attracts its fair share of devotees despite being awful, but the real deal is at the unassuming Yemenite Falafel Center on HaNevi'im Street in the Russian Compound. When you walk in, the proprietor hands you respect in the form of a piping hot falafel ball fresh from the frier - even if you don't wind up ordering. The falafel is delicious; the fixings are standard but solid, and the spicy charif is the hottest and most flavorful in town (as you would expect from an authentic Yemenite establishment). The real fun starts if you show up before closing time on a Friday, when you'll have the chance to cast aside pita and laffa in favor of either the crispy tzaluf or the spongy lahuh, traditional Yemenite breads. Tasty. Different.
Ta'ami Ta'ami is known for its hummus above all else, but Jerusalem falafel connoisseurs know that its mastery of chickpeas doesn't end with spreads. Ta'ami's falafel is dense, moist and intensely flavorful - perhaps the best on-its-own falafel in the entire city. The restaurant's major weak point is that they don't offer the full complement of salads - you can order a falafel to go, but all you can get in the pita is the falafel, hummus and tomato-and-cucumber salad. Still, it's Ta'ami falafel and Ta'ami hummus, which means that essentially anything else would be an unwelcome distraction.
Falafel Ovadia A classic unassuming workingman's falafel kiosk in the heart of Baka. Unlike the previously mentioned joints, Ovadia doesn't shine bright in any one area, but it's all-around solid. Good falafel, good pita, good salads, and the good feeling that you're eating the kind of humble lunch that's sustained countless cabbies and hard-hats before you. And it's definitely the best and cheapest workingman's lunch you'll get in this increasingly upscale part of town.
Falafel Adir Not unlike Ovadia, The German Colony's Adir is an oasis of falafel authenticity on an increasingly hoity-toity block. Pizza Hut might have come and gone on the corner of Emek Refaim and Rachel Imenu Streets, but Adir remains. At Adir, the garlic-heavy balls and the crispy (for Israel, anyway) fries are made in small batches, so your sandwich is guaranteed to always be served hot.
And now that Jerusalemite has clued you into the best, you should know the worst. No matter what your supposedly "veteran" friends tell you when you first arrive in Jerusalem, do not waste your time at the quantity-over-quality Melech HaFalafel, or the pedestrian Shalom Falafel, or the running-on-nostalgia-and-stale-cooking oil Maoz Falafel, or the simply sad From Gaza to Berlin. When you're in this city, there's no excuse to settle for second-rate.... At least not when it comes to chickpeas.
Photo of a laffa-in-progress at Moshiko (top) by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite; photos of other felafel joints by the Jerualemite team.