Before he lived in Jerusalem, adjacent to the famous Machane Yehudah shuk, you could find Joel Haber walking the streets of New York and then Los Angeles. In these large cities, if you were Jewish, your circles probably overlapped. Everyone knew “Fun Joel.”
Haber made aliyah in March 2009 at the age of 38. Finding himself too old to serve in the army, his friend suggested he become a tour guide. He took the two-year course and later opened Fun Joel’s Israel Tours. Guiding uses his love of story, which he previously explored in the world of screenwriting, in “a different way of serving the country by exposing it to lots of visitors and showing them how wonderful this place is.”
Jewish Journal: Why did you make aliyah?
Joel Haber: Because it’s awesome. On prior trips, including a gap year between high school and university, I really loved it and wanted to make aliyah eventually, but didn’t know when. My parents made aliyah six months before I did. My entire family was in Israel. I thought, maybe now is the time. I feel at home as a Jew here, but even if I weren’t Jewish, I appreciate the lifestyle and values and diversity.
JJ: What’s your favorite place to take tourists in Israel?
JH: Five to 10 percent of my guiding is on the road in the north. But I like virtually everywhere in this country. I do so much [touring] in Jerusalem, which I love and live in, including the shuk, the Old City, the Israel Museum etc., but on a personal level, I like to have the opportunity to go somewhere I haven’t guided lately. Each time, it’s somewhere different.
JJ: Tell us more about living next to the Machane Yehuda shuk.
JH: The shuk is the most genuine place in a genuine city … the variety of people who shop or sell there, the freshness of the food and the variety of the dishes, from approximately 20 countries. It’s a microcosm of the city. A big chunk of my touring is two-hour tasting tours in Machane Yehudah. I started it because I’m a foodie and am in the midst of working on a book about the cultural history of the Jewish people via its food. The shuk used to be my figurative home and now I live a block away, so it’s a literal home. It’s a fun and vibrant place where people can eat and taste delicious food, that is a window onto our society.
JJ: How has the shuk changed since you first made aliyah?
JH: When you look at the history of the shuk since the late 1800s, the only constants are change and people complaining about the change. In the 1920s and 1930s, the British were taking over, cleaning up and making the city nicer and more orderly. That was reflected by the construction of actual permanent buildings in the shuk, along paved streets. At the same time, under the British, Arab-Jewish tensions flared. And during the same time, those who sold in the shuk changed. The merchants used to be all Arab, then there was an increase in Jewish merchants concurrent with a decrease in Arab merchants. The change everyone looks at now is the nightlife. Ten years ago, it was dead at night. Now there’s bars, restaurants and live music because (former Jerusalem mayor) Nir Barkat focused on youth culture.
JJ: What place in Jerusalem do you consider to be “yours”?
JH: The shuk in general. I’ll even go there and walk around to clear my mind without shopping or sitting down to eat or drink anything. Just seeing the people, I get a jolt of energy. It’s like standing on a side street in New York and feeling the energy of the city. There are also specific places. After I moved here, the Lion’s Den (a sports bar) opened. I helped them with some stuff and they named a platter after me (The Fun Joel Platter, with chicken fingers, Buffalo wings, french fries, onion rings, cucumbers and tomatoes), but eventually, the bar closed. Now, Hatch (a small craft beer taproom with a rotating menu of artisanal sausages) is a place I hang out a lot, where a nice young American oleh makes everything from scratch.
JJ: Have you experienced any challenges between Israelis and Palestinians, or secular and Charedi Jews?
JH: Those things come up periodically. We have always had such tensions. But I don’t personally experience them very much. I don’t hang in Mea Shearim (a religious Jewish neighborhood) or in Shu’afat (an East Jerusalem Palestinian Arab neighborhood). The shuk is, in many ways, the island of peace in the middle; everyone comes there. Jews, Arabs, Catholic nuns, Greek Orthodox monks. Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and everything in between. Old people, youth, students, foreign workers. … When you’re in a situation when people are going about their daily business, it’s just normalcy. That’s in no way saying that these tensions don’t exist. They’re macro problems for the country. But on a micro level, I don’t experience them. I’ve been through the main streets of the Muslim Quarter at night with my kippah on and nothing. But I’m not being provocative and neither is anyone else. People just want to live.
JJ: What makes Fun Joel’s Israel Tours different from other tours?
JH: Interestingly, my background in LA helps with my tours here. I come from the world of screenwriting. I’m no longer doing that here, but I’m still using those skills: crafting a narrative, thinking about what information to hold off on to use later for a payoff. Most tour guides have the knowledge. Many of them also have the ability to deliver it well. I may have some strengths that make me better than others. I try to make a connection with my group. I find out what they’re interested in and speak to that.
JJ: What does today’s Israel need that it doesn’t have?
JH: Patience. On a personal level, people aren’t as patient or respectful of each other as they should be. Also, Kirby cucumbers. We can’t make real pickles here.