“I wanted this place to be a merkaz chayyim, a center of life, for the community,” Elyasaf Ish-Shalom explains over a comforting cup of coffee that he brewed himself. Owner and founder of HaSalon B’Shabazi – a coffee shop, community center, and 17th century French salon wrapped up in one – Elyasaf’s entrepreneurial spirit and educational vision led him to create one of the trendiest, and most innovative locales in Jerusalem.
On the eve of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, when nearly every store is closed in the country, HaSalon B’Shabazi was open. Nearly one hundred gathered in its spartan, yet homey interior and specious patio to hear the stories of survivors, and afterwards engage in lively discussion on the role of identity and memory in the poetry of Zelda. People stayed well past midnight.
“I had to gently force my customers to leave,” Elyasaf beams.
Frustrated by his experiences in the Second Lebanon War, where he served as company commander in the armored corps, Elyasaf left Israel in order to study philosophy in Switzerland, but eventually returned with the hope of inspiring change. Drawing from European literary and philosophical movements, he founded the salon in order to create a hub for dialogue and innovation in the capital city. Here, amongst the potpourri of books, ceramics, potted plants and funky lamps, is Elyasaf’s work-in-progress. Though weekly discussions and lectures offer customers an alternative forum for education, the public printer and washing machine allow the salon to bridge both the utilitarian and the intellectual.
Part of the salon’s success can be attributed to the physical layout of Nahlaot, a cramped Jerusalem neighborhood that borders the Mahane Yehuda market.
“Look around you,” he says, “this is a neighborhood of tiny studio apartments. Tenants barely have room to entertain their guests. I wanted the salon to be a place where people can come and gather.”
But there is another dimension to the salon’s success: Nahlaot’s unique population. Built in the 1870s in order to house the many Jews exiting the Old City’s unsanitary conditions, Nahlaot is not only home to a kaleidoscope of synagogues from communities all over the world, it also hosts one of the largest populations of university students. Elyasaf firmly believes HaSalon B’Shabazi can be the pot where contrasting and converging perspectives can melt together.
“One person’s idea is not enough…it needs to be able to interact with others. In this sense, the salon is a place where residents of the neighborhood can share their talents, abilities, thoughts, dreams, and passions.”
HaSalon B’Shabazi is not alone. In Tel Aviv, the Bar Kayma cooperative vegan bar and restaurant is making similar waves. The ownership functions as the staff. Daily yoga sessions and lectures grace their schedule online. These initiatives are representative of a nonconformist movement in Israel (and elsewhere in the world) that is trying to spark innovation and change by altering the meaning of public spaces like restaurants and cafes. Rather than going out for a cappuccino to gossip in lowered tones with a friend, HaSalon B’Shabazi offers the opportunity to challenge and be challenged within the friendly confines of a community atmosphere.
Certainly the mix of religious and secular clientele of all ages is a tribute to Elyasaf’s vision; although he doesn’t know himself whether it has reached his goals.
“The salon’s popularity, which has brought people in from near and far, is one of the surprising outcomes of this process, ,” Elyasaf candidly muses, ” while having only a positive impact on the our communal atmosphere.” Join him for a cup of coffee and he will be more than happy to hear your impressions.