The life and death of Jaffa Road

This is the story of 'Yaffo' from Ottoman times until the present.

jaffah road 88 (photo credit: )
jaffah road 88
(photo credit: )
Jaffa Road, Jerusalem By David Kroyanker Keter 387pp., NIS 138 Jaffa Road, "Yaffo" to Jerusalemites, runs through the capital's downtown area like a spine that supports the head, legs and rib cage of the city. Once upon a time, it was the center of life in a divided city, then a long finger hemmed in on three sides by the Green Line drawn in 1948/9 on the ordnance map of the Israel-Jordan Mixed Armistice Commission. Jerusalem-born architect David Kroyanker's latest and marvelously illustrated book goes back even further: it tells the story of Jaffa Road from Ottoman times until the present. As the book's title has it, much of it is the story of the city itself, not all of it glorious. Early in 1949, when the population was much smaller, one entered and crossed the city only via Jaffa Road, following its twists and turns (originally formed by camel caravans) past the original Shaare Zedek Hospital (then simply known as "Wallach" after its founder/director), and reaching the bustling area at the entrance to the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Nearby was a 19th-century police station, and opposite it a lovely old building that still houses the Ministry of Health's inoculation center. At the junction of Yaffo and Strauss (formerly Chancellor Road, after a British high commissioner) stood the fabled Maayan Stub, an alleged department store, and across Rehov Strauss and King George Avenue the commercial center began to emerge. In 1949, the city's rickety Hamekasher buses emerged onto Jaffa Road via a little lane through the shops that are now behind the pillars. The main road soon reached Kikar Zion. Here was the very heart of the city, always jammed full of dancing Israelis on the eve of Independence Day. Three decades later, it was the scene of an early terror atrocity when a refrigerator left on the curb exploded, with frightful results. To the right was fashionable Rehov Ben-Yehuda with its shops and cafes, almost recovered from a devastating bombing in 1948. At its junction with Yaffo was the popular Zion Cinema, flanked by the original Kapulski pastry shop and the Feuchtwanger Bank. Nearby was the Bacchus cabaret-bar, the Balaban bookshop, the historic Tochen grocery and the original Safrai gallery. Opposite were several restaurants like the rather posh Cafe Europa and the expensive Cafe Vienna. The Europa had aspidistras and a daily tea dance; both establishments demanded your ration coupons. Above the Vienna was a hotel balcony from which Menachem Begin regularly exhorted his Herut stalwarts. Next to the Vienna was Warshavsky's tool store, the pioneering yekke Photo Prisma, a bookshop and an antiquities dealer. Facing Kikar Zion was the veteran Alba pharmacy, still today at the corner of Rehov Hahavazelet (formerly Rehov Hasollel), a street which led to the offices and press of the bomb-battered The Palestine Post. Almost opposite the Alba was the Heatid bookshop, richly stocked with English literature; outside it lolled a gaggle of huge Kurdi-Jewish porters, each wrapped in a dozen meters of heavy rope hawser. On the next block was the Cafe Alaska, a jolly venue always filled with journalists and painters. Next was Rehov Heleni Hamalka (formerly Queen Melisande Street) which led to Kol Yisrael, successor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service recently liberated from clutches of the Arab Legion. Opposite on Yaffo was Mrs. Yedidya's optical shop, still run today by her optometrist son. And then, on the left, was the turn to the Russian Compound, with its cathedral, law courts, police station and lockup. At the Generali building, once the heart of the Mandate's wired-in "Bevingrad" (still today surmounted with the Italian insurance company's trademark winged Venetian lion), Jaffa Road appeared to divide. To the right was Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka and the Mandarin, the city's only Chinese restaurant, as well as the long vanished Rex Cinema. But Jaffa Road continued on past the main post office and the elegant Anglo-Palestine Bank, the latter designed by Erich Mendelsohn. A little park lay on the left and across it were the offices of the Ministry of Health, where Dr. Adler once searched for amoebas. He found several of mine. Jaffa Road, which originally began in coastal Jaffa and ended at the Old City's Jaffa Gate, did not reach past Barclays Bank in 1949, which faced the barbed wire of the Green Line that bordered the western side of the Old City walls. The facade of Barclays was pitted with rifle fire, as was the little bakery on the corner of Shivtei Yisrael (it served fresh bagels at 2 a.m.). Arab Musrara and the shattered building of the Notre Dame Hospice were both in Israeli territory; Jewish Musrara, where my father was born, was not. To the right of what is now Kikar Zahal was the Levantine Ottoman Bank, and opposite it, the ruin of the Hotel Fast which was filled with squatters, most of them new immigrants. The windows to the east were all bricked up to frustrate the Beduin snipers of the Arab legion who lined the crenellation of the Old City wall. I was sent several times into the slum of the Fast to search for army deserters. Next to the Fast were the offices of the Department of Antiquities, now the offices of architect Moshe Safdie. The Fast has more recently been replaced by a modern hotel. Fast himself was not only a German Templer but also a Nazi; there is a photograph in Kroyanker's book showing a huge swastika banner flying from the hotel in pre-war Jerusalem. In Jerusalem! In 1948 Barclays Bank and the adjoining hospice of Notre Dame had been the last line of Jewish defense in the city. Hagana men on the roof of Barclays, one of them David Rubinger, had stopped the advance of Jordanian armored cars by tossing Molotov cocktails at them. For me, this was not the end of Jaffa Road. Walking home at night from the The Palestine Post I swung right at the barbed wire, past the Hotel Fast and the Ottoman Bank, crossed Mamilla Road and ascended Julian's Way, soon to be known as Rehov Hamelech David. This brought me to my room next to the YMCA, opposite the shattered south wing of the King David Hotel. The road continued all the way to Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, still in Israeli hands after falling four times to Jordanian or Egyptian troops. Kroyanker's book however, begins at Jaffa Gate and moves to the entrance of the city. His initial chapters are divided by time and period; the following ones by sections of the road delineated in excellent schematic maps that identify every building and the many fascinating lanes and cross streets connected to Yaffo. Kroyanker reminds us that before and during the British Mandate, the Jewish aristocracy of Jerusalem was headed by educated Sephardi Jewish landlords like the Kokia, Salomon and Valero families, whose scions still own property lining Jaffa Road. Arab notables and a few Turkish effendis also erected handsome buildings with carved lintels that can still be enjoyed today. Many of these oriental architectural details get special attention from Kroyanker. In 1948 Jewish Jerusalem suddenly found itself bereft of its Arab and Armenian notables; even the Armenian cigarette magnate Matossian fled the city. By then Jerusalem's cultural life was headed by German-speaking refugees from Hitler, the much admired yekkes, who had enlivened the city after 1933. The yekkes dominated the Hebrew University, the Bezalel School and the orchestras, and even ran the best cafes, then the center of Jerusalem's social life. Yekkes were even a strong presence at the Post, where the literary editor was a former decorated Uhlan officer, Dr. Eugen Meyer. Kroyanker's book has also reminded me of the many German-speaking shopkeepers on and near Jaffa Road, like the bookseller Herman Meyer and the shoe sellers Freiman and Bein, the latter both charming men who had fought in defense of the city during the siege. Many of the city's optometrists were also yekkes (their doyen was my non-yekke grandfather who spoke German only because his family came from 19th-century Memel). And the city's fabled bar, Fink's, was run by a yekke, Dave Rothschild (no kin). Today, the yekkes have gone and so has the social life of downtown Jerusalem, long a shabby, congested shadow of its former self. The population of the capital has grown sevenfold and fled to new suburbs and shopping malls with a modicum of parking. In the last decade, death has stalked Jaffa Road, which suffered a large number of bus bombings, further contributing to its commercial demise. Kroyanker, like myself, acknowledges a love-hate relationship with Jaffa Road. The disappearance of Jerusalem's yekkes was concomitant with the gradual deterioration of the road's charms, architectural, cultural and commercial, and the same soon happened to the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, causing more affluent Jerusalemites to flock elsewhere. Jerusalem has outgrown its parent, and left Jaffa Road behind. As this lovely, richly informative book testifies, Jaffa Road is still studded with architectural gems, but most of them will eventually fall to developers. If the trams fail to return Jerusalemites to Jaffa Road, this book will serve as its memorial. An English edition is a must. I think it will sell like hot cakes abroad.