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CAFE WITHSTOOD WAR - BUT NOT FAST FOOD

SHARE CAFE WITHSTOOD WAR - BUT NOT FAST FOOD

War hero Moshe Dayan was a regular here. Novelist Amos Oz featured it in one of his bestsellers. Countless romances blossomed under its Art Deco roof.

Cafe Atara, a Jerusalem landmark, survived nearly six decades of turbulent Middle East history, keeping its doors open through air attacks and bombings.But now the cafe has come up against a more powerful force: a fast-food chain. The cafe's owners have sold out to Pizza Hut, the latest U.S. company to open a franchise in the holy city.

Atara regulars are heartbroken.

"This place has a magic to it. I don't know what I'll do when it's gone," said retired law professor Ahron Rabinowicz as he and six friends sat around a wooden table, wearing suits, sharing a newspaper and sipping coffee.

"I don't like pizza," he added.

Nestled in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, the two-story Atara, with its smoked-glass facade and rows of cream cakes in the window, was founded by Heinz Greenspan, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1938 when Jerusalem was part of British-ruled Palestine.

The Atara's Old World atmosphere soon drew a lively blend of regulars, including British officers, members of the rival Jewish militias, Haganah and Etzel, and Palestinian businessmen.

"I would sit down here with the Haganah guys, and the Etzel boys would be upstairs. We'd all be trying to listen in on the British officers," said Rabinowicz, 78.

Uri Greenspan, the founder's grandson, said the Atara has never closed, even when Jerusalem was shelled by Arab troops in the 1948 and 1967 wars.

"Soldiers would come here straight from the battlefields and tell their stories," he said. "Tales would be woven. Poets would gather. Friendships would form."

In the 1970s, a car bomb detonated by Palestinian guerrillas blew out the Atara's front window and killed its manager. In 1987, police detonated a bomb delivered to the cafe in a cookie tin.

But the customers never stopped coming. The cafe, mentioned in travel books, was a stop for many tourists strolling on Ben Yehuda Street. There, they mingled with Jerusalem's power brokers and cultural elite.

Regulars included Dayan, former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon and author Shai Agnon, who won a Nobel Prize for literature.

Innumerable romances began in Jerusalem with the words: "Meet me at Atara." One such meeting is described in Oz's widely translated novel, "My Michael."

The cafe's closing is part of a trend that recently has given downtown Jerusalem some of the flavor of an American strip mall. Riding on a pro-American tide swelled by cable and satellite TV, dozens of U.S. retailers have set up shop.

The picturesque corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street now flashes with the red neon of Sbarro's, which offers Italian fast food. McDonald's and Tower Records share the old Orion Theater. Ben & Jerry's and Blockbuster Video also have opened franchises.

Greenspan said he could not resist the temptation to sell his tenant rights.

"All the large chains are looking for a spot in the center of town and there are not that many," he said. "I have to be a realist and put my sentiments aside."

Uri Saphir, manager of a music shop across the street from the cafe, said he missed the old Jerusalem. "Once downtown was more respectable, more personal," he said. "Now what we are getting is a quickie: quickie foods, quickie service."

But Saphir, 63, said change was inevitable. "It's like when your wife changes her hair color," he said. "At first you don't like it, and then you realize that it actually suits her."