A good argument can be made that the soul of Jewish Yerushalayim is the old Machaneh Yehudah market, known as “the shuk.” Now it will become the largest Jewish portrait gallery in the world.
The open-air food mart is a beautiful chaos of jostling capitalism five and a half days a week, but at night, it is dark and spooky. A good place to be a rat, or better, a cat. But in the past few years, the shuk has transformed itself into an improbable popular draw, the narrow alleys and stalls taken over fish-and-chips joints and similar shops.
There are about 360 metal shutters that roll down to protect the fruit, fish, bakery stalls at night. Solomon Souza has spray-painted portraits on 140. He has another few months to go and thinks he and other artists will do a couple hundred more.
Using spray cans he pulls out of grocery sacks, Souza has painted portraits of Jews, famous and obscure.
He has painted famous Jews, such as Albert Einstein, and the less well-known, such as Gracia Mendes Nasi, the spice trader and perhaps the wealthiest Jewish woman in the Renaissance world, who helped resettle Jews in Tiveria on the Sea of Kinneret in the sixteenth century.
There is a portrait of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent executed in Pakistan by al-Qaida operatives in 2002, whose last words were “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish…”
Souza is a 22-year-old transplant from London. Mostly self-taught, he can paint up to four shutters a night.
On a recent day, Souza and his crew walked from their nearby home over to the shuk, lugging cans of paint and video equipment.
At the Levi brothers’ falafel shop, they scraped and cleaned the metal shutters as Souza asked his friends whom he should paint.
Souza will not paint a shutter unless shopkeepers give their permission. His artistic partner and the P.T. Barnum of the team, Berel Hahn, prowls the shuk during the day, cajoling vendors to allow their shutters to be sprayed.
“At first we got a bunch of requests to paint the shopkeepers’ favorite rabbis,” said Hahn, 26, a transplant from Crown Heights in Brooklyn who wears a gold sequined yarmulke.
Souza painted many grandfathers of today’s stall owners; other vendors tell the artist to paint whomever he likes. The pair ask not only for permission to paint, but also a donation. Many shop owners decline; some offer to buy the paint.
“This is a labor of love,” Hahn said. They want to open a nonprofit gallery in the market to sell T-shirts, coffee cups, posters and refrigerator magnets of the portraits.
Hahn said the vision is to paint “everybody who helped the Jews get here, to support indigenous Jewish culture.”
He said one day he had a vision. “I saw the shuk exploding at night with color and history.”
Merchants in the shuk by their very nature are hagglers. “They’re suspicious. They want to know what’s the catch? Why are these guys painting shutters for free? They think maybe this artist will be famous and somebody is going to steal my shutters? That kind of thing,” said Shuki Haidu, a tour guide and friend of the artist.
Some of the vendors wanted the art to serve as advertisement, which Souza and Hahn declined. A coffee shop wanted a painting of coffee. A mobile phone dealer wanted phones. So Souza painted Samson fighting the lion, and at the very bottom of the shutter, he drew a fallen cellphone.
Sara Hannah Ekaireb, 20, a New Yorker spending the year on a religious studies program in Yerushalayim, said she comes to the shuk most evenings and enjoys seeing the how the project is taking shape.
“It’s fun to see snippets of Jewish history with this work.” she said.