Wikipedia claims that November 2 is "commemorated in Israel and ... in the Jewish Diaspora" as Balfour Day. I doubt that is true, for I haven't found a single mention of Balfour Day on any of my calendars. But who needs a special celebration when Lord Arthur James Balfour is one British statesman who will never be forgotten? This Monday, it be exactly 92 years since foreign secretary Lord Balfour declared in writing that His Majesty's Government viewed "with favor the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people...." The letter followed a decision made by the British Cabinet two days earlier supporting Zionist aspirations. Notwithstanding the fact that the British later turned their back on this position, especially before, during and after the Holocaust, it still was a major milestone in the history of the Jewish nation.
So it is only fitting, I think, that the Jerusalem byway named for Lord Balfour is one of the most sensational in the city. Not only do the houses boast a unique blend of Middle Eastern elements and Bauhaus (also known as International) architecture, but pedestrians can't help but be overwhelmed by the street's tropical abundance of foliage. Oh, and need I remind you that the prime minister's official residence is on Rehov Balfour? So be careful not to look suspicious as you take a brief, superbly pleasant stroll along the street. I was questioned simply because I walked back and forth checking out houses. And I had to pull out my journalist card when I began writing in my notebook.
Begin at Orde Wingate Square, on Rehov Jabotinsky, known locally as Kikar Salameh (accent on the first syllable). You are standing in Komemiut, the formal name for Talbiyeh that - like "Morasha" for the Musrara Quarter - is seldom, if ever, used. Talbiyeh was constructed by wealthy Christian Arabs in the 1920s and '30s just as neighboring Rehavia began to appear. But Rehavia, established by Jews and chockful of history, features only a few elegant villas. In Talbiyeh, exclusive from the get-go, they are everywhere.
Before you head away from the square and turn onto Rehov Balfour, feast your eyes on the Belgian Consulate. Not for nothing did Rehov Balfour get the nickname "Street of the Consulates." At least three other consulates and embassies were housed on this very short byway. Absolutely gorgeous, the structure was one of several superb buildings surrounding the square and constructed by Constantine Salameh (hence the local name).
Salameh and his family lived in this mansion until 1948; but when the British Mandate period neared its end, they left the country. The keys were entrusted to the Belgian consul general, and Belgian consuls continue to make this their home.
Impressive as it is from the square, the villa's entrance is really at No. 22 Balfour. Note the garden and the plain Bauhaus-type pillars. Before he became Israel's third president, education minister Zalman Shazar lived next door, at No. 20. Another Salameh construction, this apartment building is three stories high with a colorful lion in the front yard - probably purchased from the dozens that were scattered around the city a few years ago.
The house at No. 18 is something else entirely. One story only, with a red-tiled roof, it was constructed in the 1920s by the family of Jamil Khoury. Khoury is a famous name in Israel: Jamil was a judge in the magistrate's court, and in 1987 his son Makram became the youngest actor and the first Arab to receive the Israel Prize for his achievements in the dramatic arts. Later owners put up the high stone wall that keeps gawkers like me from getting a better look. Enjoy the gardens at No. 16 and the splendid simplicity of the flower-covered building at No. 12.
IF ZALMAN Schocken were alive today, he would no doubt be delighted with the goings-on at No. 6. Schocken was a wealthy businessman from Germany who founded a publishing house strictly for Jewish material and established an institute for the study of Hebrew poetry. Passionate about Jewish culture, he also collected rare Jewish manuscripts. Among them were first editions and books printed well before the 16th century.
Schocken left Germany in 1934 and moved to the Land of Israel. In need of a suitable venue for housing his vast collection, he chose this site for its proximity to his home on nearby Rehov Smolenskin. Internationally renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn designed the building as a multifunctional structure to hold Schocken's nearly 60,000 books, while serving at the same time as a lecture hall and research center from which Jewish culture could be widely disseminated.
Every detail was overseen by Mendelsohn, including door handles, special tables that can be topped with glass for exhibitions and a porthole that the guard could open when a visitor arrived. Walk all the way around the back to notice how the building was constructed in two parts at sharp angles to one another. Continue until you spot a rounded balcony of purplish glazed glass on the library wall, a Mendelsohn trademark. Viewed from inside the library, the balcony walls are transparent and let in a very soft and gentle light.
Upon Schocken's death in 1959, the building and grounds were turned over to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Today the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research publishes books, offers public lectures and serves as a unique arm for researching Jewish subjects.
Once upon a time the fabulous structure at No. 4 was only one story high with a red tiled roof - like so many Arab houses. Built in 1932 (look for the date in ironwork above one of the entrance doors), it housed the Swiss consulate for many years. But little by little, after the consulate moved to Tel Aviv, additional stories were built.
Renovations began anew some time ago, and the apartments are on the market. New residents were supposed to move in by January 2009, but as you can see work on this spectacular edifice is still under way. According to an ad I saw on the Internet, each of the five units will go for between NIS 13 million and NIS 25 million.
Construction is evident on the corner house at No. 2 as well. It was built in the early 1930s by Hanna Salameh. Like many other wealthy Arabs living in Talbiyeh, the Salameh family moved to Beirut as the British Mandate came to an end. Two years later, the house was rented out to the Guatemalan Embassy. Look for the words "Villa Salameh" carved atop the decorative ironwork gate.
Much of the house is blocked by temporary high walls, but you can still see how architect Zoltan Hermet took advantage of the fact that the structure stood on a corner lot. Feast your eyes on the brilliant combination of East and West - West being the typical straight lines of Bauhaus architecture, East the gentle curved walls on both sides of the entrance.
You have now reached Kikar Tzarfat (France), a square at the top of Rehov Agron lined on one side by the red stones of the Terra Sancta complex and by the Kings Hotel on the other. You may remember the large fountain and pool that sprinkled passersby in the past, replaced fairly recently with something much more modest. Demonstrations are common here, probably because of its central location and proximity to the Prime Minister's Residence.
Returning to Kikar Salameh on the other side of the street you will find that there is no No. 1 Balfour, only Terra Sancta's backyard. So your tour begins with No. 3, built by a wealthy Jewish family in the late 1930s. Bordering Rehavia and designed by Richard Kaufmann (who planned Jerusalem's garden neighborhoods), it is my least favorite of the houses on Rehov Balfour - perhaps because it is barely visible and onlookers can't enjoy whatever admirable features it contains.
Leah Rabin must have liked it, however. When her husband, Yitzhak, was elected prime minister the first time, the couple moved into this building, and it has been the official Prime Minister's Residence ever since. A few years ago, this portion of the street was closed to vehicles.
The corner house, No. 7, is again an eclectic mixture. Although the straight lines do little for me, I love the double arched entrance (walk through the gate on Rehov Brenner). At one time the building housed Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim.
Formerly the Turkish Consulate, the structure at No. 15 is worth a second - and third - look. Strangely, half the structure has straight lines, while the other half is rounded. The words "The Claremont" appear on the gate of No. 19, making it look like a hotel (it wasn't). Among the elite who resided in its apartments over the years was Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister.
My favorite of all the houses on this street hugs the square on a diagonal, at No. 21. Also designed by Hermet, it is a masterpiece hidden by tall trees and lush gardens. Pass through the gate for a good look at this stunning construction, which features a vertical window on the stairway to provide light, two entrances and striking balconies.