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Inside the Old City of Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate
photo by Rhonda Spivak



Rhonda Spivak November 1, 2009

[Editor's note: This article was first published in September 2009 in the Vancouver Jewish Independent ]

Henri Semerdijan and his sister race stand patiently in their jewelry store near the entrance to Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. The owners of the surrounding shops are busy out on the street trying to entice customers: "This way please, you must come to my shop," "There is something I must show you," they yell out in English to each tourist who comes by. But the Semerdijans stand quietly in their store, preferring not to be out hustling for business.

The Smerdijans are third generation Armenian Christians who have lived in the Old City making jewelry since 1935. When I walk into the store, Grace tells me that "We are the only Christians left with a shop near Jaffa Gate." Grace tells me that a decade ago, there were over 10,000 Armenian Christians in Israel, mostly in the Old City, but today there are less than 2,500. She says that she has many friends and family members who have gone to Vancouver and California and other places to get away from the "suffocating" atmosphere of the Old City.

"We are a people who like to live in peace and so many of us leave," she said.

When I ask Grace what will become of the Armenian Quarter if Armenian Christians continue to leave she answers, "There will be the priests and the churches left and no one else."
Grace takes me to meet her brother, in his jewelry shop, across the street. He introduces himself as Avo, which means "the Gospel," and says, "My Jewish friends call me Avi." Avo learned the art of jewelry making from his father, who learned it from his grandfather's brother. Most of the jewelry in Avo's shop is made by his hand. The pieces consist of delicate and traditional Armenian designs, some of which are made out of 2,000-year-old Roman glass. Avo has only one piece of modern jewelry on display and it's made by a Russian Israeli woman from Tel-Aviv. It immediately catches my eye. When I tell Avo I'll buy it, he looks up and tells me "Please don't tell any of the other vendors you bought this here ... pretend it was already yours before you got here."  I ask him why and he says, "They won't be happy you have bought from me ... they'll make  problems for me ... they will want to see it so they can copy the design.... They make it hard for me because I am not Muslim. They try to stop me from having customers and they don't want me to make a living here.... But I will not leave. We have been here too long," he says.
The truth is that the vendors in the Arab market, Muslim or Christian, are all hurting this year. Given the tense political situation of the last few years, many Israeli Jews simply have stopped coming, and most Jewish tour groups stop to shop in West Jerusalem only. With the worldwide economic recession in full swing, there are even fewer buyers.

As I'm about to exit the area, a balding Palestinian Jerusalemite, Abu Rami, comes running towards me: "Please come see my shop. It's just around the corner off the main street, so no one can see it. I have lots of chazeri and it's too far to shlep it all out here."

My Israeli cousin and I laugh at Abu Rami's use of Yiddish. "I've lived here all of my adult life and I've never seen anyone in this market speak to me using Yiddish," my cousin tells Rami laughing.

Rami replies, "Zi Gesint," please come to my shop – Citadel Cave Souvenirs – you'll be the first ones to come to me all day." Rami is a masterful salesman and we cannot resist visiting his shop.

We ask him where he learned his Yiddish and he says, "I've been doing this since I was 10 years old." A little Yiddish is part of the tricks of the trade.
Inside his shop, Rami has a young boy bring us fresh lemonade and na'ana, with lots of sugar.

He picks out a piece of silver jewelry with a big Eilat stone. "Do you need a present for your mother? You should buy this one for her. She'll go meshugah over this," putting on a thick American Jewish accent. Who could refuse buying something?

When I finally decide which trinket I'll buy, Rami's eyes light up, and he exclaims, "Mazel tov!" As we say goodbye, Rami says, very slowly, "L'hitraot." A little Yiddish and a little Hebrew can go a long way.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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