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Nearly Gone, but Not Forgotten: Jerusalem Cafe Sells out to Pizza

February 14, 1996
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Perhaps it was inevitable. With mcDonald’s, Ben & Jerry’s and Blockbuster Video all ensconced in downtown Jerusalem, some consider it just a matter of time until the city’s venerable outdoor cafes become obsolete.

Even so, Pizza Hut’s recent announcement that it was leasing the space now occupied by the nearly mythical Cafe Atara on Ben Yehuda Street sent shock waves through the Israeli capital.

Far from fancy, and certainly not chic, Atara’s appeal has always been more historical than gastronomic.

Founded in 1938 by Heinz Greenspan, a German refugee, its narrow, tilting tables – the sidewalk is uneven – continue to draw Israeli intellectuals, foreign journalists, and a myriad assortment of tourists.

Immortalized in Amos Oz’s best-selling novel “My Michael,” Atara is to Jerusalem what Horn & Hardart was to New York.

The best place in town to eat onion soup, it’s also the place where military battles were strategized and political campaigns formulated. In a country barely 50 years old, the 58-year-old restaurant is a cultural icon.

Still, icon or not, the Greenspan family has decided to sell their tenants’ rights for a reported $500,000. If they can find an alternate site for the resident, the cafe may ultimately reopen elsewhere.

“It’s complicated,” says Uri Greenspan, the founder’s grandson. “It’s not just that we got a good offer. There’s an old tenancy law from the Mandate period that might change next year, and that will cost us a great deal of money.

“We didn’t want to take any chances. We tried to buy the building, and we didn’t put any limit on the offer, but the owner didn’t accept. So now we have to be practical.”

Overhearing the conversation, a passerby in her 60s tells Atara’s owner: “We’re so sorry you’re leaving. My husband and I have been coming here, as tourists, for 40 years.”

Shaking his head, Greenspan continues, “It’s been unbelievable. I’ve gotten letters from customers living abroad, and from people living here. They ask me to reconsider our decision.”

Practically raised in the cafe, Greenspan waxes nostalgic when asked to recall Atara’s past.

“I wasn’t here in 1948, but in 1958 we had a party to celebrate 10 years of independence, and it lasted until dawn. All of our customers who were here in 1948 came back to join us.”

Noting that the cafe never closed a single day due to war, Greenspan says that the 1967 Six-Day War was something special.

“We stayed open the entire week, and I still remember the celebration when Jerusalem was reunited. I had to join the army, of course, but my parents came and ran the business.”

During the Gulf War in 1991, he continues, “A lot of our customers from Tel Aviv came to Jerusalem and spent the days with us. This restaurant has seen a lot of history.”

Although many of Atara’s customers are relative newcomers, even they seem to cherish its link with the past.

“It’s truly sad to see a landmark like this turned into a Pizza Hut,” says Chava Weiss, an editor who emigrated from the United States three years ago.

“A hundred years from now, I can’t see people putting up a fuss when someone decides to knock down a pizza restaurant.”

“I’ve been in Jerusalem only three months, but friends suggested I check it out,” says Ariel Hayat, a Hebrew University student. “I’d heard it had a lot of tradition, that it’s one of the oldest cafes in Jerusalem.”

Upset by what he perceives to be the Americanization of Israel, Hayat says, “It’s sad. When you walk down the street you see a big McDonald’s sign. It looks so out of place.

“I’m from Tel Aviv and am used to the Americanization there, but here in Jerusalem you expect something better, something more quiet, more peaceful.”

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