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Magic Moments at a Tel Aviv Soda Shop

Inside Levinsky 41 with Neta Maoz (left), who works in the shop, and owner Benny Briga (right). Photograph by Shulie Madnick.

One and a half year old Levinsky 41 is a bright, artisanal soda shop nestled in the historic Levinsky Spice Market, in the shadows of the old bus station in southern Tel Aviv.

A wide range of residents populate this bustling neighborhood and its surroundings, which was established in the 1930s by Jews from Saloniki, Greece. Hipsters, a mix of African immigrants, old timers, young starving artists and some involved in shady business at night are some of the dwellers in this revitalized area.

My friend Inbal Baum, of Delicious Israel, an American-born culinary guide in Israel, introduces us to Benny Briga, the owner of Levisnky 41. Benny, who resides in the neighborhood, is amused by my childish excitement and tourist-like, trigger-happy picture taking. I am sure he has witnessed my sort of enthusiasm before for the bubbly refreshments he concocts.

With a twinkle in his eyes, Benny carefully adds wedges of guavas that have been macerating in sugar over a long period of time into a clear plastic cup. The 100-kilo guava crop came from the trees in his parents’ backyard. He then adds pomegranate arils, an assortment of herbs and homemade herb-infused syrups to make the most delicately-laced-with-sweetness, thirst-quenching fizzy refreshment. For my husband, he makes a citrusy potion with lemons, ginger and lemongrass. It’s the end of summer.

We hang around chatting, shooting the breeze by the kiosk-like counter. Benny was not pressed to ask for shekels. He says, “drink first” and “no hurry.” An unkempt young guy from the neighborhood drops by — he’s a guitarist in a band or a drummer, I imagine — as well as the neighborhood butcher, a solid fellow with his white apron still strapped on. Benny’s shop thrives on his neighborhood regulars. The tourists, few and far between during this past volatile summer, are usually economy-boosting during the sweltering months, but to him, he says, they are the cherry on top.

Image by Photograph by Shulie Madnick.

Briga serves not only invigorating, all-natural flavored sodas, or gazoz, as they’re called in Hebrew, but also coffee and sandwiches as a light lunch. He came to this shop after years of working in many kitchens in Israel. Most notably, he was a sous chef at Manta Ray, with its sweeping views of the Mediterranean, on the beach in Tel Aviv, where we’d, coincidentally, just had a delicious brunch a couple of days before we met Benny.

As our tour of the market was winding down, I could not help but end up back at Benny’s counter. Benny concocted another gazoz from the myriad jars and preserves lining the shop’s shelves. This time with lemon verbena — or was it lavender, or geranium?

In the process, he generously shared with us his recipe for an apple with cinnamon soda. Apple soda in celebration of seasonal produce, holiday symbolism and as an elegant twist on the Sephardic tradition. Breaking the fast with a sweetened beverage is a Sephardic custom, as I wrote last week in The Washington Post Food Section, and earlier this week here.

Shulie Madnick is a food writer and photographer and author of the blog

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