“For the Artists, by the Artists: a Visit to the Nachalat Binyamin Market”
I’ve been wearing the same necklace for five years — a dove, wings stretched, perched inside a silver triangle; its wings, beak, and the points of the triangle outlining a Magen David, a Jewish star.
Five years ago, I bought this necklace from an artist on Nachalat Binyamin, a bustling artisan market at the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel. Adjacent to the famed and always-hectic fish market, Shuk haCarmel; a ten minute walk from one of Israel’s hippest beaches; and polka-dotted with restaurants selling a wide range of authentic cuisines, Nachalat Binyamin is an Eden for artists, as well as for the admirers who patron their work.
Aside from my personal connection to the market, Nachalat Binyamin is extraordinary for a plethora of reasons. Since 1987, more than 220 artists gather, every Tuesday and Friday, to exhibit their creations along at least a mile of blocked off road. It’s one of the largest and most renowned arts and crafts markets in Israel, and each artist must sell pieces adhering to strict quality controls: all artists are approved by a committee; all works must be original and handmade; and every artist must sell their own work. With such a complex breadth of art displayed, held to strict quality standards, there’s no way you can travel between the stalls of the Nachalat Binyamin market and not find something that amazes you.
Whenever I return to Israel to visit my family, Nachalat Binyamin is always a destination I find myself revisiting. All of my senses heighten in this place: the strangely intoxicating smell of sweat and shawarma; the direct sunlight seeping into your heavy sunscreen; the cacophony of street performers drumming on garbage cans, and religious men chanting Tefillah before Shabbat. It all interweaves somehow, intersections between ancient and innovative, to establish something, uniquely, “Nachalat Binyamin.”
This past trip to Israel, a visit to my favorite artist’s street found itself prioritized on my itinerary. After a quick lunch with my mom, burying our faces into warm pita and falafel at a nearby cafe, we began our descent into the market, and were - of course - blown away by what we saw. We marveled over a glass-blower’s handiwork in realtime, the artist too invested in the marble he was sculpting to respond to our compliments; we conversed with a woman whose unique journals exhibit her paintings on the face, and quotes from Alice in Wonderland on each page; we deliberated over which leather wallet to purchase as a gift for my father, each piece worth every shekel and every minute of our deliberation. Photographers - sculptors - jewelers - doll makers - all utilizing this platform to exhibit and market their stunning work.
We came across artists that had sold their pieces at the market for years - the pomegranate bowl which adorns my kitchen table in New Jersey was sculpted by a woman who we encountered again this most recent visit. Trekking down this street, witnessing the collaboration and easy conversation between artists who have seen each other twice a week for, in some cases, decades, I felt such a profound admiration for Nachalat Binamin. This market offers artists, from big cities and tiny mushavs alike, a medium to proudly display their work, and soak in the the awe of passerby's as their art is perused. As an artist myself, I understand - the visibility is so meaningful and (perhaps, almost) enough. But closing up shop at the end of the market day, your pocket jostling with extra shekels, and with the knowledge that your sculpture will mark its territory on someone’s coffee table - well, that’s a whole different ballpark of pride.
I wondered, as the bustling crowd waned to escape the afternoon heat and rest before the evening, if I would come across the man who sold me this necklace, the one which still hangs around my neck. And sure enough, before the Middle Eastern heat drained all of our energy, and with our arms full of gifts for friends and family, I saw him: arms crossed, leaning back in a foldable chair beside his wife, taking refuge under the shade of his open umbrella. Between the other pieces of stunning jewelry was a replica of my necklace, secure under the careful watch of the artist who created it.
When he asked me if I was looking for something in particular - a simple Magen David or hamsa, perhaps - I tugged my necklace from the hem of my shirt and showed him his incredible piece of art, one that holds so much significance for me, one which has inherited the memory of everything I’ve experienced throughout the last five years, as it hung near my chest. I told him that, when I’m home, this necklace serves as my token of Israel. It grounds me, gives me peace. And the joy I recognized in his expression - the pride in that of his wife - just their eyes alone would encourage me to patron the market again, upon my next trip to Israel.