Crusading Photographer Seeks To Save Israeli Mom-and-Pop Shops for Posterity

Assi Haim Chronicles Fading Tel Aviv World on Blog

Light Work: Moishe Meirovich, captured here on Assi Haim’s blog HaMordim, has operated his Tel Aviv lamp shop since 1963.
Assi Haim
Light Work: Moishe Meirovich, captured here on Assi Haim’s blog HaMordim, has operated his Tel Aviv lamp shop since 1963.

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Published May 22, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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“Some people think of it as sad,” Haim said of what people see in his photos. “But I see the project as optimistic. I’d like to be like them when I’m in my 80s. They are not in the rat race, and they respect their professions and their stores.”

While some of his subjects accept their situation, others are somewhat bitter about the devastating competition from big chain stores. But they all demonstrate a strong resolve to keep doing what they have always done. For instance, Miriam Givoni who, in her 80s, keeps open her kol-bo, a small general store, at 163 Ibn Gvirol Street, dating to 1956; the elderly Jersey brothers show up to work every day at their 69-year-old nut shop at 32 Yedidya Frankel Street, and Yehuda Yaakov, 78, who is still baking up a storm at his Albert Pastry Shop at 36 Matalon Street, which his father established in 1935 upon his arrival from Greece.

For Haim, it’s all about capturing these “rebels” in context. “These stores look the same way they did when they were first opened,” he said. Haim wants the viewer to notice the cracked vinyl seat, the outdated plastic Purim mask that has been hanging from the ceiling of the tiny school supply shop for who-knows-how-many years. “The furniture grows old with them,” he said.

Haim said that all the storeowners he has met have pointed to the import of inexpensive Chinese goods that began in the 1980s as the starting point of their own financial decline. One woman who sells high-end, handcrafted buttons made of natural materials from Europe lamented the arrival of plastic sewing notions and fashion accessories from Asia.

Eytan Sheshinski, an economics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed that major changes in the Israeli economy began to be felt acutely in the 1980s, but he said the shift began earlier, in the wake of Six Day War. As early as the late 1960s, more and larger businesses sprang up, and the standard of living rose. More recently, Israel’s high-tech sector has brought in large amounts of international investment and moved Israel even further into the global economy.

“Israel is no different from other Western economies,” Sheshinski said. “Small businesses are struggling against chain stores all over the world.”

Unlike Haim, who believes he is in a race against time to document mom-and-pop shops, Sheshinski is not sure that these kinds of establishments will imminently disappear. “People want these neighborhood stores,” the economist said. “You won’t find the kind of products they sell in the big stores, and now it is even considered trendy to seek out the old and authentic. These stores can take advantage of this nostalgia.” Sheshinski himself likes to occasionally eat old-time Ashkenazi food at restaurants like those Haim is documenting.

Haim is keenly aware that he is not the only young Israeli with a sense of nostalgia for the Israel of his childhood. He has already published a book that looks back at the traditional food of the kibbutzim and hopes to publish a collection of his “HaMordim” photos.

In the meantime, he is trying to do his part in supporting these stalwarts by granting them attention and hopefully sending some business their way. He personally patronizes some of these shops, brings clothes he needs fixed to one of the tailors he has met, and he has become particularly friendly with octogenarians Yeshoshua and Rivka Ashkenazi, who operate a small sandwich place at 28 Yedidya Frankel Street, in Tel Aviv’s Floretin district.

“We shouldn’t let small businesses be ruined by globalized capitalism,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know how the world works. But change is not always for the best. Sometimes you just need that personal connection.”

Renee Ghert-Zand is a regular contributor to the Forward.


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