On the February day when Kalman Gavriel invited me to his new boutique gallery, The Jerusalem Scribe, I was delighted to see tourists back in Jerusalem’s Old City after a two-year absence.
Pandemic-related travel restrictions since March 2020 devastated Israel’s tourism sector. Many Old City establishments closed.
Now this prime tourist spot is bouncing back, with creative arts experiences and wares awaiting visitors.
There’s even a fun new way to see the sites: The Old City Train, running a circular route from Jaffa Gate through the Armenian and Jewish quarters, Western Wall, City of David and Mount Zion. Excursions leave every 30-45 minutes Sunday through Thursday from 10am to dusk; Friday until an hour before Shabbat.
Throughout the Old City’s Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian quarters you’ll find artists selling paintings, jewelry, ceramics, musical instruments, silver ornaments and much more. (Click here to learn about Hagop Karakashian’s Armenian pottery workshops.)
For my visit, I zeroed in on Chabad Street and the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter.
Chabad Street is lined with galleries and shops such as the world-famous Hadaya, where people line up to order silver jewelry custom-engraved with Hebrew sayings; and the Museum of Psalms featuring the late Moshe Tzvi Berger’s sublime kabbalah-inspired paintings of the 150 biblical Psalms.
Down a set of ancient stone stairs from Chabad Street is the Cardo, a Roman-era subterranean shopping mall under the Jewish and Muslim quarters. Expanded by sixth century Byzantines and 12th century Crusaders, the Cardo was unearthed in the 1970s and restored as a place to buy art, Judaica and souvenirs.
The Jerusalem Scribe
Kalman Gavriel’s scribal arts studio/gallery/study room recently opened at 58 Chabad Street at the top of the stairs. It shares space with Live the Bible, a fun place to dress up in biblical costumes and have your picture taken.
Originally from Minneapolis, the 33-year-old scribe has been creating artworks from the Hebrew alphabet for the past eight years, and hosting calligraphy workshops for groups, inside the Old City’s Four Sephardic Synagogues historical site.
His new accessible location seems to be a magnet for passersby. When I arrived, a family was huddled around his worktable as he wielded his feather 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’d outlined the day before. The visit was completely spontaneous.
“I don’t know their names, actually. I hope they signed in,” he says, gesturing to the sign-in book at the entrance.
The vibe here is welcoming, open and casual.
“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 in the high-end gallery concept, but instead of the boringness I want people to come here to be inspired. And instead of exclusive I want inclusive. I want everybody that comes to the Old City, even from the other side of the world, to feel important.”
Visitors can even sit on benches in the back and peruse Hasidic, mystical and philosophical books – many of them in English – on the gallery’s bookshelf.
“My vision is to be something that I don’t see it in the Old City alongside the museums and the artifacts,” says Kalman, whose custom works range from about $600 to $3,000.
The Jerusalem Scribe is open 10am to 5pm Sunday through Thursday; Friday by appointment.
ImagiNationz Studio is a new maker space and experiential art gallery at 62-64 Chabad Street.
Old City resident Tova Hametz, a youthful grandmother originally from New Jersey, gathered 26 master craftspeople from across Israel – painters, woodworkers, weavers, ceramicists, jewelry designers, chefs, 3D printing experts and more.
“We sell their handmade original creations, and each artisan also offers workshops for the public in their particular field, from tie-dying to cocktail-making,” Hametz tells ISRAEL21c.
Prior to the pandemic, Hametz was director of fairs and festivals at The First Station leisure complex in Jerusalem.
Suddenly, in March 2020 all the artists and small businesses she’d been working 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.
In lieu of rent, Hametz asked them to offer workshops in their specific crafts.
“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 the Old City,” she says.
“You do a weaving workshop, or an eco-printing workshop, and come out with a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that you made in the Old City of Jerusalem. You connect with the artist and to the place because you become part of the process.”
ImagiNationz Studio is open 10am to 10pm Sunday through Thursday, Fridays 10:30 to 3:30.
Musical instruments and more
Down below in the Cardo, some gallery owners managed to stay afloat despite the lack of tourists.
For example, at The Cardo Charm, fourth-generation silversmith Galit Ben-Yeheskiel has continued making handmade filigreed jewelry, Judaica and décor that her family has been creating for almost a hundred years in Jerusalem, and before that in Azerbaijan.
Yehoshua Wiseman, who has sold his fine Judaic-themed paintings in the Cardo the past four years, says it was a miracle that he stayed in business.
Others weren’t as fortunate.
“One of the store owners across from my shop packed up and left,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
In a joint venture with Mordechai Baluka from the Museum of Psalms, Wiseman took over that empty space for his son Natan, 23, who has been handmaking wooden guitars since age 15.
Because guitars take a long time to craft and are too pricey for a tourist spot, Natan Wiseman learned to make wooden David’s harps for his new Cardo shop, Guitart. The instruments range from about $300 to $900, off the shelf or custom made.
“Inside the store I have my worktable and tools so that people can watch me work,” Natan Wiseman tells ISRAEL21c. Guitart is open 11-6 Sunday through Thursday, Friday until 1.
Baluka recently opened another establishment in the Cardo, Western Wall Gallery, to showcase works of talented artists he didn’t have room for in the Museum of Psalms.
Rina Gallery is another Cardo business that, happily, weathered the pandemic.
The proprietor, silversmith and tour guide Chanan Eliav, specializes in unusual handicrafts and jewelry by local artisans – for example, embroidery-on-silver earrings, round parchment-on-wood paintings, paintings on Jerusalem stone and a selection of decorative drums, tambourines and lap harps.
“The point is to offer something unique — this is how people will remember you,” Eliav tells ISRAEL21c.