The day in February that Kalman Gavriel invited me to his new boutique-gallery, The Jerusalem Scribe, I was delighted to see tourists back in the Old City of Jerusalem after a two-year absence.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions since March 2020 have devastated Israel’s tourism sector. Many establishments in the old town have closed.
Today, this prime tourist spot is bouncing back, with creative arts experiences and merchandise awaiting visitors.
There’s even a fun new way to see the sights: the Old City Train, traveling a circular route from Jaffa Gate through the Armenian and Jewish quarters, the Western Wall, the City of David and Mount Zion . Tours depart every 30-45 minutes Sunday-Thursday 10am-dusk; Friday until one hour before Shabbat.
In the Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian quarters of the Old City, you’ll find artists selling paintings, jewelry, ceramics, musical instruments, silver ornaments, and more. (Click here to learn more about Hagop Karakashian’s Armenian pottery workshops.)
For my visit, I focused on Chabad Street and the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter.
Chabad Street is lined with galleries and shops such as the famous Hadaya, where people line up to order custom-engraved silver jewelry with Hebrew sayings; and the Museum of Psalms featuring the late Moshe Tzvi Berger’s sublime Kabbalah-inspired paintings of the Biblical 150 Psalms.
Down a set of ancient stone stairs from Chabad Street is the Cardo, a Roman-era underground shopping center beneath the Jewish and Muslim quarters. Expanded by 6th-century Byzantines and 12th-century Crusaders, the Cardo was unearthed in the 1970s and restored as a place to purchase art, Judaica and souvenirs.
The scribe of Jerusalem
Kalman Gavriel’s studio/gallery/study room recently opened at 58 Chabad Street, up the stairs. It shares space with Live the Bible, a fun place to dress up in Bible costumes and have your photo taken.
The Minneapolis-born scribe, 33, has been creating artwork from the Hebrew alphabet for eight years and holding calligraphy workshops for groups inside the historic site of the Four Sephardic Synagogues in the Old City. .
Its new accessible location seems to be a magnet for passers-by. When I arrived, a family was huddled around his work table as he brandished his fountain pen on a piece of parchment.
The children watched intently as the scribe inked a Hebrew phrase, “This is the finger of God,” on a hand drawing he had sketched the night before. The visit was completely spontaneous.
“I don’t know their names, actually. I hope they registered,” he said, pointing to the registration book at the entrance.
The atmosphere here is welcoming, open and relaxed.
“I don’t want to be like those high-end galleries where it’s supposed to be boring so the guy with the money can focus and buy something,” he says.
“I want to stay with the high-end gallery concept, but instead of boring, I want people to come here to be inspired. And instead of exclusive, I want to be inclusive. I want everyone who comes in the Old City, even on the other side of the world, feel important.
Visitors can even sit on benches out back and peruse Hasidic, mystical, and philosophical books — many of them in English — on the gallery shelf.
“My vision is to be something I don’t see in the old town alongside museums and artifacts,” says Kalman, whose custom works range from around $600 to $3,000.
The Jerusalem Scribe is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; Friday by appointment.
ImagiNationz Studio is a new creative space and experiential art gallery at 62-64 Chabad Street.
Old City resident Tova Hametz, a young grandmother from New Jersey, brought together 26 master craftspeople from across Israel – painters, carpenters, weavers, ceramists, jewelry designers, chefs, 3D printing experts and more.
“We sell their original handmade creations, and each artisan also offers workshops for the public in their particular field, from tie-dying to cocktail making,” Hametz told ISRAEL21c.
Prior to the pandemic, Hametz was director of fairs and festivals at The First Station entertainment complex in Jerusalem.
Suddenly, in March 2020, all the artists and small businesses she worked with lost their source of income. She found an available space on Chabad Street and launched ImagiNationz in December 2020 to help them put food on the table.
Instead of rent, Hametz asked them to offer workshops in their specific trades.
“It helps promote and provide income for that person and provides something interesting and exciting for residents and visitors of all ages and stages to do in Old Town,” she says.
“You organize a weaving workshop or an eco-printing workshop and come out with a one-of-a-kind masterpiece you made in the Old City of Jerusalem. You connect with the artist and the place because you are part of the process.
ImagiNationz Studio is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, Friday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Musical instruments and more
Below, in the Cardo, some gallery owners have managed to stay afloat despite the lack of tourists.
For example, at The Cardo Charm, fourth-generation silversmith Galit Ben-Yeheskiel continued to handcraft filigree jewelry, Judaica, and decorations that his family has been creating for nearly a hundred years in Jerusalem, and before that in Azerbaijan.
Yehoshua Wiseman, who has sold his beautiful Judaic-themed paintings to the Cardo for the past four years, says it’s a miracle he’s stayed in business.
Others weren’t so lucky.
“One of the shop owners opposite my store packed up and left,” he told ISRAEL21c.
In a joint venture with Mordechai Baluka of the Museum of Psalms, Wiseman has taken over this empty space for his son Natan, 23, who has been handcrafting wooden guitars since he was 15.
Because guitars take a long time to make and are too expensive for a tourist spot, Natan Wiseman learned to make wooden David’s harps for his new Cardo shop, Guitart. Instruments range from around $300 to $900, ready made or custom made.
“Inside the store I have my work table and tools so people can watch me work,” Natan Wiseman told ISRAEL21c. Guitart is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday, Friday until 1 p.m.
Baluka recently opened another establishment in the Cardo, Western Wall Gallery, to showcase the works of talented artists for whom he had no room at the Museum of Psalms.
Rina Gallery is another Cardo business that has thankfully weathered the pandemic.
Owner, silversmith and tour guide Chanan Eliav specializes in quirky crafts and jewelry from local artisans – for example, silver-embroidered earrings, round paintings on parchment on wood, stone paintings on Jerusalem and a selection of decorative drums, tambourines and harps.
“The goal is to offer something unique – that’s how people will remember you,” Eliav told ISRAEL21c.