Arabs call it Al-Quds, Israelis call it Yerushalaim and the rest of us just call it an expensive place to shop. Jerusalem is like that funny, beautiful person at a party. Everyone thinks they have a special relationship and that relationship gets more complicated and strained as each person realizes everyone else at the party feels exactly same way. It’s a city that holds prominence in every century; its very name is synonymous with both holiness and tension, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
While sitting outside for a half-hour, I’ve seen two Arab street vendors arguing–over what, I’m not sure, they were speaking too fast– but I summarized the conversation from their exaggerated hand gestures. After them followed a small pack of Orthodox Jews, complete with fashionable black hats and rectangular glasses. Then there was a Japanese family posing for a picture holding their hands up in support of either peace or the number two. Oh, and an Australian couple–but those people are everywhere. In short– it’s a great city for those who love people-watching, which is why I’ve spent the past few days here while on break from classes for Eid Al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
It’s hard to talk politics in Jerusalem; that sentence feels like an understatement. I’ve gotten strange looks from Israelis when I bring up that I’m studying Arabic, and strange looks from Arabs when I tell them I’m Jewish. That’s why I decided to pursue a subject to write about that everyone in this noisy, beautiful region can come together on. Because of the weather here, that either means coffee, juice or tea. I found a good subject with the last of the three.
Ben Yehuda Street is great place to find a place to drink, whether at a bar, a café or Halita’tea, located just off of the artsy pedestrian-only boulevard, in a little concave on Hillel Street. Halita’tea fits Ben Yehuda Street perfectly. It has an open patio that’s slightly tucked away, complete with wooden lounge chairs and shade (!), a small vintage-looking radio inside that has an actual Bluetooth speaker system placed directly on top of
it and a coat rack full of colorful hats, none of which appear to belong to anyone. Aesthetic
plays a huge role here, as owner Gabriel Piamenta explains.
Gabriel, 30, is a 12th generation Israeli. The son of a highly ranked IDF [Israeli Defense Force] officer (the actual position doesn’t really translate into English). He moved all over for his father’s work, but he was born in Jerusalem. After serving his time (the Israeli military has a mandatory draft), as a special operations officer, Gabriel returned to Jerusalem and obtained a Masters in Business Management and International Strategic Consulting. He originally thought of climbing the corporate ladder at McKinsey Israel, an enormous and prestigious business advising firm based out of Tel-Aviv. That never happened.
It’s not as though Gabriel was averse to the hipster-millennial nightmare of working for the man (#wftm), in fact he describes the initial idea of working with McKinsey as attractive. Corporate skillsets run in Gabriel’s blood. His father is a major operator in the IDF, which, though military, Gabriel describes as, “also a big corporation,” and his uncle is the CEO of Samsung in Israel. “But I wanted to maybe start something of my own, since I was going into working for the big man. And I had all kinds of ideas and tea attracted me not because of the tea itself or the type of tea itself, but because of the atmosphere around the tea… The kind of music that would be in a tea-house, the kind of people that would show up there, and I kind of just went for it, I said, ‘ok, let’s start with that and if everything goes bad I have a masters and I can go work for someone.’” He was 26 when he decided to create his own corporate ladder.
Gabriel began his business, avoiding importation, and focusing on high-end teas specifically found in Israel. But he had a naturally innovative attitude towards tea in
general, and, “after about a year and a half I started making my own blends, because we did want to keep it more user-friendly and not just have high-end tea,” he explains. “So we’ve kind of branched out in both directions, we’ve had the ones that we manufacture and design and then there’s the special blends that we bring in for more high-end tea.”
Part of Gabriel’s decision to create new blends comes from his admitted lack of shameless obsession towards the beverage. “I’m not a tea fanatic, but I really like it,” he says, with a brief pause. ”Actually I’m drinking coffee right now…” he tells me as though it’s an admission of guilt to a minor crime. “Because there’s a lot of competition between tea people and coffee people, or whatever, there’s a lot of companies abroad that are very into tea and don’t allow anything else. There are companies in Europe that don’t let their employees drink coffee… but we got into it with a user-friendly [and] laid-back attitude. We wanted to make it so that it was cool option, a nonchalant option that you can drink
every day.” Gabriel started teaching staff his methods and even started giving specialty lessons– including for five different bachelorette parties. He now also holds lectures on
tea mixing to teach others how to create the special blends that he’s developed over the past few years.
His business mantra is, fittingly, ‘making it accessible for everyone.’ Along with the location off of Ben Yehuda Street, Gabriel has opened a tea bar (yes, he said “bar,” – he’s developed tea-beer) in Tel-Aviv. The location in Tel-Aviv is actually being moved so he can open yet another space there. “I’m kind of in a blue ocean, I don’t really have competition because I don’t really compete in the same area of coffee houses or restaurants because we offer more of an atmosphere and a whole experience.”
Gabriel has taken a leaf (pun slightly intended) from both European and Arab tea cultures. “Mediterranean tea is usually not even tea [plant]. It’s usually an herbal blend that comes from local herbs like mint, sage and thyme and stuff like that. And European culture [has] a tea culture that’s very old, and they import from China or India… They have a tea culture that’s base off of importing high quality tea [leaves] that’s very special. And Israel doesn’t really have a tea culture, in my mind, we created a tea culture… at least I like to think so,” he says, laughing. The difference between herbal blends and tea is actually quite intense in other areas of the world. Gabriel describes a company in Germany where one floor of the business is dedicated to herbal blends and the other to tea leaves specifically. Workers on one floor aren’t allowed to cross over to the other. It sounds like a very German approach to the whole thing.
But Gabriel embraces the ambiguity of it all; his views about tea are fitting for the city he started in. Jerusalem is a city with so many different cultures that perhaps no one should have such a strict view on the drink. “We have a very modern approach to tea… people come together to drink tea the same way people come together to drink a cup of espresso, but tea is more intimate, you won’t share a cup of coffee the same way you would share a pot of tea… sometimes the tea house is full of very different people like gays and lesbians, very religious people and businessmen, and they all feel at home there. They don’t mind each other and respect the place and the conversation,” he says. “It is like beer [or] coffee but in my mind, tea is very intimate, because it’s a slower experience… girls will talk to me about how they like it here because their husbands [or] boyfriends won’t talk to them in a bar, they just sit and drink… but when you drink tea, it’s compulsive that you have to wait awhile, so you kind of have to talk.” Politicians, take note.