Intrigue on Disraeli Street

Even veteran residents might not know that Talbiyeh is home to a friary and the house was the setting for a murder mystery in a famous novel.

Disraeli Street521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Disraeli Street521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
One Saturday a few months ago, a friend asked if I would like to accompany her to a (free) concert at a monastery in Talbiyeh. Since I knew Talbiyeh rather well, I was taken by surprise.
Since when did Jerusalem’s most exclusive and, arguably, most beautiful neighborhood feature a monastery? To my delight, I learned that not only is there a friary (not a monastery, as it turns out) on Disraeli Street, but the acoustics in the chapel are extraordinary.
And the concert, performed by a choir from the South of Israel, was fantastic.
You can stop outside the friary on a wonderful, hour-long street stroll through a small portion of Talbiyeh. Your walk, which begins on Disraeli Street and ends nearby Hovevei Zion Street, features stunning architecture and fascinating stories. Just because I left some out for lack of space or spicy stories doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a good look at them all.
And you will have plenty of shade, for trees on both streets are nearly a century old.
Like its next-door neighbor, Rehavia, Talbiyeh was built on land purchased by the Greek Orthodox Church. But unlike Jewish Rehavia, Talbiyeh’s new owners were mainly wealthy Christian Arabs – Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Catholics and Protestants from Ramallah, Beit Jala and Bethlehem. Also unlike Rehavia, where the houses were often a far plainer International (Bauhaus) Style, the magnificent homes in Talbiyeh were designed with dignified lines and superb gardens. During the War of Independence most of the residents abandoned their homes, but expected an early return.
Begin outside the friary, which stretches from 16 to 18 Disraeli Street. It belongs to the Capuchin Friars, a subdivision of the Franciscan Order.
Jerusalem’s Capuchin presence dates back to 1932, when the Latin Patriarch, an Italian, invited Capuchin friars from Italy to work with the Christians in Talbiyeh. The Capuchin Order bought land in Talbiyeh from the Greek Orthodox Church, and immediately constructed a small friary.
During the 1930s, relations between then-Italian leader Benito Mussolini and the British government deteriorated. And because it was owned and inhabited by Italians, the British commandeered the property early and turned it into a military prison. When the British left the country, the State of Israel asked the Capuchins to rent out the building for use as a psychiatric hospital.
In 1996, the Capuchins asked Israel to return their property, and renovations began. Not only was the hospital in a state of terrible disrepair, but both the British and the Israelis had used asbestos in their construction. As a result, it was necessary for the Capuchins to redo absolutely everything.
It took until 2010 to rebuild about half of the structures, construct a chapel, and remove the asbestos.
Today the friary serves as a very small guest house and spiritual center for people who want to experience a retreat. On occasion, when asked, they host concerts in their spectacular chapel.
Across the street, the stupendous building at No. 19 was erected with fewer stories by a well-known Armenian physician, Dr. Ahan Kalbian. One of the first dwellings in the neighborhood, it has lost the lovely wooden gable that decorated the original second story, but has acquired all kinds of interesting extras.
The house at No. 17 was built by a Greek Orthodox family in the 1930s. A decade or so later, the British rented the structure, turning it into an Officers’ Club; for the past 50 years it has housed outpatient psychiatric clinics belonging to Clalit Health Services.
Although it looks more like a driveway, the paved road immediately across from No. 13 is actually a street named for 19th-century poet and author Mordechai Zvi Manne. Swallowed up by new buildings, with a rather neglected garden, the still gorgeous dwelling at No. 4 boasts an imposing fan-like staircase that gradually narrows near the top. At some time in the 1930s the house was bought (or rented out) to Supreme Court justice Benjamin Levy, while the bottom floor became home to a noted architect and his ophthalmologist wife.
Ever since I can remember, the once-grand edifice at 6 Manne Street (down two sets of triple stairs on your left) housed the offices of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. The ceilings were high – and the rooms were cold. Today the AACI is located in Talpiot. But the still-elegant double entrance on the side remains.
FOLLOW MANNE back to Disraeli Street. As you approach, you will be looking directly at a stunning building whose staircase curves around the charming entrance to 13 Disraeli Street. This was the setting for a novel by author Batya Gur, The Saturday Morning Murder. Today the building houses the Israel Psychoanalytic Institute.
Turn left on Disraeli Street, and take special notice of the corner structure at No. 9 (not 9B). The original two stories gained a third – and a tiled roof – a few decades ago. As you can see, the splendid dwelling features two lovely trios of window plus door, and two wings separated by a balcony.
You can’t miss the opulence on the structure across the road on your right. Located at 8 Alkalai Street, this is perhaps the most ornamental building in Jerusalem. Built in the 1920s by Elias and Catherine Jelat, the intriguing edifice incorporates a wild variety of colors, tiles, crenellations, arches and stone railings.
From 1936 to 1939 Palestine’s Arabs revolted against the British. As a result, the British appointed a royal commission of inquiry, the Peel Commission, to come to Palestine and study the problem. The commission worked out of the Jelat House, and in 1937 came up with a plan to partition Palestine.
However, this plan pleased no one, and was subsequently dropped. In 1948 this fine edifice became the Motza Children’s Home, its residents children from a Youth Aliya village originally located at Motza just outside Jerusalem. Later on, other social-minded organizations rented the building.
The corner house on your left at 9 Alkalai Street is one of several magnificent dwellings built in Talbiyeh by the wealthy Jamal family. Utilized by Stern Group underground fighters in 1948, the building was suggested as a possible residence for the prime minister.
But David Ben-Gurion refused to live in an Arab house evacuated by its residents. Later, it was turned into a club for western immigrants, with an ulpan and social activities. Renovations have turned the once rundown building I knew as Moadon Ha’oleh into a splendiferous creation.
A tiny garden stands to your left as you continue up Disraeli. Very modest, it is dedicated to the memory of Elimelech Admoni, the municipality’s first landscape artist. It was he who designed, in the 1930s, Talbiyeh’s Rose Garden.
Continue to Marcus Street, and as you pass the house on the corner to your right, look for the clovershaped design on its balconies and the railings of its fanned staircase. Then turn right on Hovevei Zion Street.
Built at the end of the 1920s, the dwelling at No. 2 was originally one story high and topped with a lovely tiled roof. Today it represents the utter lack of attention to preservation that was prevalent in the 1960s. Indeed, the original structure has almost disappeared under the construction on top.
Philosopher Martin Buber spent the last years of his life at the one-story dwelling across the street at No.
3. Look for Roman-era antiquities in the garden.
Worth a second (and a third) look, the house at No.
7 features a crenellated rooftop and a protruding living room. Like the building at No. 5, currently undergoing renovations, it belonged to lawyer Elias Moghannam, who served as secretary to the Muslim- Christian Palestinian National Congress. When founded in 1919, one of the congress’s first acts was to demand that the British renounce the Balfour Declaration.
Wife Matiel was a feminist who published, in 1937, a book called The Arab Woman and the Palestine Problem. Among visitors to this home were Jordan’s King Abdullah (the current monarch’s grandfather) and the British high commissioner.
Both 9 and 11 Hovevei Zion Street belonged to the Ja’ar family, and were filled with Ja’ar relatives. If you walk into the side entrance of No. 9, you can still see the fancy rug-like floor tiles that were common at the time. On the wall outside stand remains of an old pump, used to bring up water from a cistern beneath the house.
One interesting feature of the lovely house on the corner, at No. 12, is a one-story structure in the yard.