City Life: Jerusalem - The Fresco seafood restaurant: it's a riot every Saturday

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EVERY SATURDAY afternoon, spot on five o'clock, through the summer and into autumn, a squad of mounted police clip-clop past my house on the Street of the Prophets. Half an hour later, equally promptly, dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their Sabbath best gather outside the Fresco fish restaurant, 100 yards up the road, and riot until sunset.

The men, bearded patriarchs in long, black, tailored silk coats and cartwheel fur hats, swelter piously in the hottest summer on record (up to 34C). Their wives, wigged for modesty, sweat in floral prints with long sleeves and hems below the knee.

Small boys in black knickerbockers and velvet skullcaps twirl their sidecurls and shrill "Shabbes! Shabbes!" (Yiddish for Sabbath) whenever a car approaches. Their elders take up the raucous refrain like a chorus from Fiddler on the Roof.

Sometimes they surge forward, jeering and leering. One week I watched an Arab family, visiting a nearby maternity hospital, turn tail and flee down the hill to the sanctuary of the Old City.

The police, with batons drawn, force the rioters back - and are cursed as "Nazis" for their pains. Things turn doubly ugly when secular Israelis drive up and down with their radios blaring heavy metal in counter-demonstration.

The religious Jews are protesting that the Fresco, a cool oasis in a restored 19th-century mansion, serves Mediterranean seafood forbidden by kosher law, on the day of rest, too. The restaurant, truth be told, is tucked between Prophets Street and Jaffa Road, the main thoroughfare of Jewish West Jerusalem. It interferes with no one's Sabbath.

The rioters' real aim is to close Prophets Street, which runs near, but not through, the ultra-Orthodox ghetto of Mea She'arim, on Saturdays. In a holy city where logic-chopping has been raised to an art form, such distinctions dictate how the rest of us live.

Last year they forced the town council to close another main road, Bar- Ilan, on Saturdays. Bar-Ilan has been engulfed over the past decade by the synagogues and seminaries of the expanding ultra-Orthodox suburb. They are less likely to succeed in Prophets Street, where the only ecclesiastical buildings are an Anglican School, a French convent and the Swedish Protestant Theological Institute.

The zealots campaign with total conviction and no scruples. Yeshiva students harass the Fresco throughout the week. On Fridays, they call 20 or 30 times, always from public phone boxes so that they can't be traced. They book tables, then don't turn up.

"They threaten to burn us down," says Udi Me'iri, the 26-year-old chef and part-owner. "They threaten to smash up the place. They yell that cancer will consume us, that we'll be struck by lightning."

When Nurit Rosenberg, a 25-year-old waitress, answers the phone she is cursed as a whore. Occasionally, the students come to the door and spit at her. They call her a shiksa, a non-Jewish slut. "It's frustrating," she says. "It's insulting, humiliating."

The Fresco is one of dozens of Jerusalem restaurants open on the Sabbath. In the Russian Compound, just as close to Mea She'arim, discos rock till dawn.

According to a survey published last spring by the Committee to Uphold the Sabbath in Jerusalem, the number of businesses open on Friday night and Saturday has doubled in the past three years. They logged 43 restaurants, 13 coffee shops, 26 pubs, nine nightclubs, three cinemas, eight kiosks, six fast-food and takeaway shops, and 10 taxi ranks. A local paper counted another 30 eateries that the committee missed. You have to book if you want to be sure of a table.

Jerusalem is at once a holy city and a capital city, the home of countless yeshivas, but also of the Hebrew University and the Bezalel Academy of Art. Jewish tradition speaks of two Jerusalems, the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem.

Despite the aggro, they find ways to coexist. Yet the zealots, about 30 per cent of Jerusalem's 400,000 Jews, are slicing away at the resistance. Demography is on their side. More than 50 per cent of this year's primary school intake was ultra-Orthodox.

Fresco's chef, Udi Me'iri, is pessimistic: "They take one street after another. A lot of my friends are moving to Tel Aviv. We tried to negotiate with a more respectable delegation that came to see us. But they wanted us either to go kosher or close. The gap is so wide that I don't think it can be bridged."