Navigating through history

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s house, the National Library and the first Bezalel building are just some of the unique sites on Rehov Ethiopia.

ethiopian christians_58 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
ethiopian christians_58
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When the first dwellings were constructed on its edges in the 1880s, Rehov Ethiopia was only an extremely narrow dirt road. But today’s Rehov Ethiopia isn’t any wider. Perhaps that’s one reason why it has retained its original character, with dozens of early buildings that have been either restored or preserved. Even the Ethiopian monastic compound that gave the street its name, once slated for destruction, remains in place.
History seems to seep out of the walls of the charming structures on Rehov Ethiopia and two tiny connecting byways as you view wonderful Arab and Ethiopian architecture. True, some of the buildings are surrounded by high walls, and you can see inside only if you happen to catch someone walking through their iron gates. But there are plenty more where those came from.
Begin with the splendid villa at No. 3, one of numerous buildings erected by Jerusalem’s wealthy Arab Nashashibi family. It was rented for many years to Dr. Arie Feigenbaum, an ophthalmologist with lots of “firsts” to his credit: he established the first Hadassah eye clinics, was first chairman of its ophthalmology department, edited the first Hebrew medical journal and was the first dean of the Hebrew University’s medical school. So luxurious was this villa that it served as lodgings for Chaim Weizmann when he visited Israel in 1918 with the Zionist Committee.
Israel Prize winner Ya’acov Orland once wrote a poem about Feigenbaum’s lovely daughter Hemda. Rapturing about her milky skin, raven-colored hair and orchid-red mouth, it suggested that instead of an ophthalmologist her father should have become a cardiologist so he could repair broken hearts. (Meanwhile, Hemda was also a pioneer in her chosen field, as she helped found Israel Radio and was one of the original announcers.) In the early 1990s the building housed the British Council Library and afterwards modifications were made to the top story. Although most of the house isn’t visible from the sidewalk, passersby are able to see its unusual balcony.
Around 1916, the Frumkin family moved into the house across the street at No. 4. Publisher Israel Dov Frumkin, whose Havatzelet newspaper was a pioneer in Hebrew journalism, was the father of the only Jewish judge on the Supreme Court during the British Mandate – Gad Frumkin.
Back in the day, the deliciously restored 1890s villa at No. 5 hosted nearly half a dozen European consulates. At one time, it was also home to famous German Protestant theologian and scholar Gustaf Dalman. Across the street and down a tiny lane – past the sign that says “Hadassah Medical Organization, 6 alef” – is the House with Green Shutters, which set a precedent in Jerusalem architecture: the house and yard were placed at opposite ends to the yard and house next door, offering a previously unheard-of level of privacy. The famous Albright Institute of Archeology, founded in 1900 as the American School of Oriental Research, rented this home from 1906 to 1914. Today the building serves children and adolescents as Hadassah Hospital’s Jerusalem Crisis Intervention Center.
On the way back to the main street, an arch provides a fantastic view of the house at No. 5.
Constructed in the early 20th century, No. 7 and No. 9 Rehov Ethiopia are so close together that they are really more one structure than two. The list of famous people who lived here is impressive: David Yellin, founder of the Hebrew Teachers’ Seminary; Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design; Mordechai Ben-Hillel Hacohen, one of the founders of Tel Aviv; and leading pre-state Zionist Arthur Ruppin.
In 1905, several splendid buildings were erected at No. 8 by Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. At least one of them was meant to be rented out and another he apparently intended as his queen’s winter palace. The structure along the sidewalk became a school for wayward girls in 1907; a second, separated from the first by a cement wall, housed the original Bezalel Academy from 1906 to 1908, and is only accessible from Rehov Adler.
In a biblical passage in Kings, the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon get along like a house on fire. Indeed, the Bible tells us that before the queen left she had been granted “all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty.”
According to Ethiopian tradition, one of the extras was the couple’s baby boy. Called Menelik (king’s son), the prince was destined to become the forefather of an illustrious imperial dynasty. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the lion – symbol of the tribe of Judah – is also the emblem of the Ethiopian kingdom. Fittingly, a lion sits above the balcony of this building, and another appears more clearly next door at the monastic compound Dabra Gannat (Mount of Paradise). Here, complete with crown and cross, it is proudly displayed on both sides of the gate. Above the large black dome juts the symbol of the Ethiopian Church: a seven-pointed circle with a cross in its center.
The gate is open daily and visitors are welcome, but shoes must not be worn inside the sanctuary. Removal of shoes before entering sacred ground is a custom that, like many other Ethiopian Christian rituals, practices and beliefs, is lifted from the Bible. God called to Moses from the burning bush, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
DECORATED WITH beautiful painted columns and striking icons, the church is divided into three inner circles. Only priests can enter the sacred precincts of the perfectly square Holy of Holies, which holds a representation of the Ark of the Lord and is where most of the service takes place.
The interior walls of the church are a very light, almost mystical blue, while the columns are peach colored. Of unusual interest is the church’s inner dome. Designed to look like a sky, it includes both stars and angels that give it a three-dimensional character.
Perhaps the street’s most famous resident lived directly across the street, at No. 11. He was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Ben- Yehuda advocated the use of Hebrew as a spoken language in Palestine, and after immigrating in 1881 published several Hebrew magazines and newspapers. Among them was Small World, the first children’s periodical in Hebrew. His was the first home in pre-state Israel in which only Hebrew was spoken. And Ben- Yehuda’s son Itamar was the first child in modern times to deliver his first words in Hebrew.
Ben-Yehuda and other enlightened intellectuals waged a bitter battle against Jewish religious extremists, who believed that Hebrew should be used only in prayer and objected vehemently to its use in daily life. For years, the municipal sign on the wall naming this as Ben-Yehuda’s house was so repeatedly defaced that it was eventually removed. Recently, however, a new sign was posted in its place.
Construction of some sort – perhaps restoration – is going on at No. 15, a decrepit edifice dating back to 1878 (or in Arabic numerals, the date of 1295 is carved in the ironwork above the gate). From 1928 to 1930, this once-beautiful building served as headquarters for the Jerusalem District Hagana.
In 1909, some of Jerusalem’s religious intellectuals got together to build the Tahkemoni School at No. 19 Rehov Ethiopia. Studies would be in Hebrew (as opposed to Yiddish) and teachers would impart traditional knowledge and values along with academic and Zionist subjects. The Tahkemoni School, under constant verbal attack by haredi extremists, moved to another site in 1929, and, ironically perhaps, today the building houses a haredi school.
On the adjacent Rehov Hazanovitch, an interesting round balcony protrudes from the corner dwelling. From Hazanovitch to Rehov B’nai Brith, the building at No. 18 is an attractive red-tinted stone edifice practically hidden behind the trees. This is Midrash Abravanel, named for the Spanish child prodigy born in 1437 who became a renowned talmudic scholar, philosopher, philanthropist and statesman.
In 1892, the B’nai Brith Organization decided to open a public library in Jerusalem in honor of the Jews expelled from Spain four centuries earlier. Although the haredim objected vehemently to the “worldly” material found in public libraries and did their best to prevent people from frequenting this library, it not only succeeded, but it flourished. At first the books were housed in a plain building near the Russian Compound but, after receiving an entire private library – 8,000 volumes – it moved to this more spacious structure in 1902.
Eighteen years later the building officially became Israel’s National Library, remaining so until the impressive collection it now held was transferred to the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus in 1930. Today the building hosts a yeshiva.
Along the remainder of this little street are several walls with splendid facades. Particularly memorable are the decorations at No. 12, No. 10 and No. 6. This path brings the visitor back to the beginning of the route, to Rehov Hanevi’im.