Sometime in the 1840s, in the teeming Algerian port town of Oran, a young Jewish
boy named Aharon Chelouche boarded a ship bound for Haifa with his family. Half
a century before the publication of Herzl’s Zionist novel Altneuland, the
Chelouches and 149 other Jewish families were making aliya to Eretz Israel, then
an unimportant backwater of the Ottoman Empire.
When they reached Haifa,
tragedy struck. The boat carrying them ashore capsized and several passengers
were drowned, among them Aharon’s brothers, nine-year-old Yosef and
Grief-stricken, the Chelouches did not want to
remain in Haifa. They moved to Nablus, then Jerusalem, and finally settled in
the ancient seaport town of Jaffa.
Tomer Chelouche, Aharon’s
great-great-great-grandson and Neveh Tzedek tour guide, relates this captivating
tale of the Chelouche family – Jewish pioneers, entrepreneurs and community
leaders, who championed peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors.
Enthralled by his family history and the way it is woven into the Hebrew city
and its complex relationship with Jaffa, he adds a uniquely personal perspective
to the neighborhood his ancestors built.
The Chelouches, he relates, were
native speakers of Arabic and had no difficulty settling into life in Jaffa, a
thriving, colorful port town that must have shared similarities with their
Young Aharon grew up to be a brilliant businessman, a
goldsmith by trade who also learned the art and craft of money-changing. His
sharp mind, keen eye for a good deal and excellent local reputation soon made
him a wealthy man.
By 1887, Aharon had amassed a large amount of
Tired of Jaffa’s overcrowded streets, he came up with a
outrageous idea: He purchased a patch of land on the shifting sand dunes north
of Jaffa’s city walls.
“People thought he was crazy,” says Tomer. “There
was nothing there, just sand.”
While Aharon Chelouche is rightly credited
with building the first Jewish settlement outside Jaffa, he was not motivated by
any intention of building a Jewish city.
That came later: The official
history of Tel Aviv begins not with Aharon and Neveh Tzedek, Tomer Chelouche
points out, but years later, in 1909, with the Ahuzat Bayit
“Last year, we celebrated 100 years since the founding of
Tel Aviv,” he says. “But Neveh Tzedek was founded before that, in 1887. Aharon
wasn’t building a city – just a better place to live.”
The first house
Aharon built in 1883 was not in Neveh Tzedek, but on the northern edge of
Manshiya, in a completely desolate area. It took four years for him to persuade
his family to move there.
In 1892, the Chelouches moved to a newly built
family villa in what would become Neveh Tzedek. Beit Chelouche, which still
stands, was a stone’s throw from Walhalla, the German Templer
“At first, Aharon built just a single-story house,” says
Tomer Chelouche. “The second floor was added later to accommodate his growing
Jewish identity was of paramount importance to Aharon,
and his Judaism was inseparable from his deep love of Eretz Israel. He was
instrumental in advancing local Jewish affairs – in 1904 he purchased a local
vineyard and sold it to Yemenite Jews, who built Kerem Hateimanim (the Yemenite
Vineyard), another pre-Tel Aviv neighborhood. He constructed a synagogue – still
functioning – adjoining Beit Chelouche.
“On Yom Kippur, the villa’s
garden was filled with family and neighbors,” adds Tomer Chelouche. Aharon also
brought a rabbi, Shlomo Bahbut, from Beirut to teach at Jaffa’s Talmud Torah
It is remarkable that Aharon’s passionate concern for Jewish
affairs did not conflict, and was even seamlessly compatible with his identity
as an “Arab Jew” – a term which seems an impossible contradiction
The Chelouches were on excellent terms with the local Arab
Aharon would regularly smoke a nargila and drink Turkish
coffee with the kayamakam, the Ottoman district governor, a personal friend of
the Chelouche family.
Aharon, who dressed in the local Arabic jalabiya (a
loose-fitting caftan) and tarboosh, was by all accounts a formidable figure.
According to one tale, when a gang of bandits attempted to rob the Chelouche
villa one night, Aharon flew into a rage.
“He took a Torah scroll, raised
it high above his head, and shouted at the bandits,” relates Tomer Chelouche.
“They fled in terror.”
Aharon had two sons, Yosef Eliahu (named for his
two drowned brothers) and Avraham Haim. To them, he passed on his love of
Judaism and Eretz Yisrael, his keen business acumen, his civic spirit and his
desire to maintain good relations with his Arab neighbors.
was fluent in Arabic, as well as in French and Hebrew, which he learned at the
Tiferet Yisrael school in Beirut, a privately owned academy for the Sephardi
elite. (Among his classmates was a future Iraqi finance minister, Reuven
Yehezkiel Sasson Salah.) When he returned to Neveh Tzedek, Yosef Eliahu decided
to create a “start-up” with his brother, Avraham.
“They asked themselves
what the next big thing would be,” says Tomer Chelouche. “They figured that
since more Jews were moving to the neighborhood, a building supplies factory
would be a lucrative trade.”
The Chelouche Frères factory (the name,
painted in French and Arabic, is still visible at Rehov Chelouche 32) was a
success. Tomer Chelouche says it is possible to spot brightly patterned
Chelouche Frères floor tiles in some Tel Aviv buildings.
Like his father,
Yosef Eliahu was influential in local politics. He made his mark not only on
Neveh Tzedek, where he built the Girls’ School and the Alliance School (now the
Suzanne Dellal Center), but also on the new city of Tel Aviv. As one of the
original founders of Ahuzat Bayit in 1909, he built 32 of its new
Although keen to develop Jewish interests in Eretz Israel,
Yosef Eliahu was deeply concerned about deteriorating relations with Arab
residents in the wake of conflicts with the growing Jewish population, which he
felt did not do enough to understand the local culture.
“The bitter truth
must be told,” he wrote in his 1931 autobiography Parshat Hayai. “Many of those
who came from abroad to build our enterprise did not understand the importance
of good neighborly relations.”
Yosef Eliahu also pointed out that while
Zionist improvements to local infrastructure also greatly benefited the Arab
population, this was ignored.
Beit Chelouche still stands, an important
Tel Aviv landmark, albeit one that is not open to the public. In 2001, the
Chelouche family sold it for around $4 million to Dutch-Israeli hotelier Daniel
Varsano, who planned to build two apartment blocks on the land but (thankfully)
didn’t. Its current owner is Marius Nacht, millionaire founder of Checkpoint,
according to Oren Katz of Neveh Tzedek Real Estate.
“Rumors that it was
bought by Roman Abramovich aren’t true,” says Katz. In 2008, the Russian
oligarch offered Nacht $30m. for the property, but was refused.
long-neglected house is currently undergoing careful renovation to make it
habitable. Supervising this sensitive project is architect Prof. Amnon Bar
“Beit Chelouche is a very important house, a monument,” he told
Metro. “It’s one of a kind. There is nothing like it in Tel
Today’s Neveh Tzedek is a far cry from the quiet, empty place
where Aharon Chelouche built his family home so long ago. Once a tiny outgrowth
of Jaffa and then a slum, Neveh Tzedek is now a chichi enclave favored by the
wealthy. Luxury apartments are sprouting everywhere, the narrow streets are
choked with traffic, and many of the neighborhood’s older, poorer residents have
As Neveh Tzedek grows ever more exclusive, its founding
fathers and their message of good neighborly relations should not be completely
forgotten.Tomer Chelouche conducts guided tours of Neveh Tzedek. For
more information, contact him on 054-588-1969 or e-mail