History hub

Despite its short length, Hahavatzelet Street was once home to the first hospital outside the Old City Walls, the first Institute for the Blind and several newspaper offices.

Jaffa Road 521 (photo credit:  Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa Road 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
At 16, Leah Abushdid was the most sought-after bride in Jerusalem. Her Sephardi father was wealthy and well-known, and Leah was a full-bodied, raving beauty, with ravishing dark hair.
In stark contrast, Itamar Ben-Avi was Ashkenazi, the son of controversial educator Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, 10 years older, and although he was quite striking, very poor. Thus when Itamar fell madly in love with Leah, her family objected. And after he published passionate (and rather suicidal) love poems on the front page of the newspaper he had founded, her family forbade any contact between them.
In his book Family Kitchen, journalist Gil Hovav asks Grandmother Leah why she picked poor, rather crazy Itamar out of the vast array of suitors.
“True, he was poor (and don’t call him crazy), but why would I want the rich ones?” she replied. And she explained: one was a miser, another let his mother constantly tell him what to do, a third had managed to lose his fortune. Itamar at least had a big heart.
In the end, the couple was married in a solid partnership that lasted until Itamar’s death in 1943. For a look at the Abushdid family house, take a Street Stroll along Hahavatzelet Street in downtown Jerusalem. It is easy to reach by Light Rail, just get off at City Hall.
Begin your (unusually short) stroll on the corner of Jaffa Road and Hahavatzelet Street, once a very busy spot. Indeed, until a few decades ago, it teemed with Iraqi immigrants, porters by trade, who stood (or sat) on the corner hoping to be hired as day laborers.
Also on the corner: Alba Pharmacy, founded in 1924 and one of the oldest businesses in the area.
Twelve years later, when the two owners went broke, it was purchased by Willy Rosenberg, whose son Avi Raz (né Ernst Rosenberg) ran the pharmacy until his death in 2010. Raz married Itamar and Leah’s handsome daughter Rina.
The walls of downtown Jerusalem and the early market neighborhoods nearby are scattered with “Photographs in Stone,” signs bearing old-time photos and delightful blurbs about the history of the streets and the people who lived on them.
Hahavatzelet Street is no exception – indeed, there are over half a dozen on this street alone.
Read the interesting blurb about Alba Pharmacy, and view the old photo, then begin ascending the sidewalk. While the buildings from Nos. 3 to 7 are quite unremarkable, a Very Important Person lived for many years at No. 5. He was Jerusalem-born Ben- Zion Meir Hai Uziel, and he served as chief rabbi to Israel’s Sephardi community from 1939 to 1954. His motto – which he framed and kept over his desk – was a phrase from the Bible: “Love, Truth and Peace” (Zechariah 8:19).
Hahavatzelet Street was named for the first “modern” newspaper put out in the Holy Land. Founder Israel Bak, a publisher from a hassidic background, had set up the first printing press in Jerusalem way back in 1841. Twenty-two years later, the ultra-conservative periodical Halevanon appeared on the Jerusalem scene as an arm of the Ashkenazi Old Guard.
Soon afterwards, Bak founded his vehicle: Havatzelet. The paper, which would become one of the most influential in the country, campaigned forcefully against the system in which the Jewish community in Israel depended on contributions from abroad (known as haluka).
IN THE beginning, however, today’s Hahavatzelet Street was actually Hasolel Street, so-called for the Solel Press that churned out a newspaper founded by Itamar Ben-Avi on August 8, 1919. Entitled Doar Hayom, it was a fresh, lively rag run mainly by young people born in the Land of Israel. Doar Hayom was chock full of local stories, Jewish, Zionist and international news, sensationalist articles and all kinds of highbrow literary offerings. And at one time in its 27 years Doar Hayom was the most popular daily in a country filled with newspapers! Press and offices were located at 6 Hahavatzelet Street, along with other newspapers and the Glick paper shop. It was a terrific location, for Yitzhak Ya’acov Glick, who opened a wholesale paper business in 1901, sold the raw material used for printing the city’s numerous daily, weekly and monthly publications.
Directly across the street from Doar Hayom at No. 9, journalists were busy putting out The Palestine Post (renamed The Jerusalem Post in 1950). The paper was founded in early December 1932 by Gershon Agron, a man of action who fought with the American- Jewish Legion during the First World War. Later to become the fourth mayor of Jerusalem, Agron (and the Post) took a strong pro-Zionist stance and publicly opposed British restrictions on Jewish immigration during the Mandate period.
On February 1, 1948, near the beginning of the War of Independence and with the British still ruling the country, Arab and British terrorists loaded a stolen police lorry with half a ton of TNT and left it next to the building. When the bomb went off, and although the damage to the Post and surroundings buildings was severe, in true journalistic spirit publishers produced a newspaper the very next day from temporary quarters.
The Abushdid family resided just up the street in the beautiful structure at No. 8. Six photos of Leah Abushdid Ben-Avi are found on the wall: does she have the “fiery lips” and “dreamy eyes” that Itamar described in his poems? Today the building hosts the Esther Gottesmann Center for Technology, and is part of the Hadassah College campus. As you can see, a bridge connects the Center to other buildings on the campus. Several of these are fairly modern, and were added onto the back side of a Jerusalem landmark: the historic Rothschild Hospital, which you will visit later on.
Now ascend to the top of the street to reach the stunning building on the corner to the left. Follow the sidewalk around the left onto Hanevi’im Street so you can get a front view as well.
Wealthy property owner Shlomo Amiel and his wife, Tzippora, moved into this charming edifice at the end of the 1880s. Although it was almost new, they made some changes and added an extra story. A few years later, ultra-Orthodox zealots had the Turks arrest Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – the father of both Modern Hebrew and Itamar Ben-Avi – on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to revolt. Shlomo Amiel paid a ransom to help secure his release from prison.
One fine day in 1902, a blind child wandering alone in the Old City was seriously injured by a camel. He was taken to the shop of Nahum Nathanson, who, together with friends, was astounded to find that there was not a single framework for children who were visually impaired. Nathanson contacted Avraham Luncz, a prolific author who traveled widely in the Land of Israel, and together with several others they founded the only Institute for the Blind in Israel.
Luncz, who had lost his sight at the age of 25, became the institute’s director. An amazing individual, he also ran his own printing press and, along with dozens of other works, published the first Hebrew-language guide to Jerusalem.
The institute grew by leaps and bounds and when it needed a larger area it moved, in 1910 (or 1916, depending on your source) into the Amiel home; the family lived on the top floor and the institute operated on the bottom for several decades.
IF YOU are here on a workday, walk inside of the newly renovated structure for a look at the ultra-modern French Jewish Foundation Optical Center. Officially inaugurated in 2010, the center provides glasses and other optical aids solely for people who would find it difficult to purchase them on their own.
Continue along Hanevi’im Street to Harav Kook Street, passing the former Rothschild Hospital on your left. Originally located in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, Rothschild Hospital was founded in 1854 by scions of the House of Rothschild who wanted to honor the memory of family patriarch Meyer Amschel Rothschild.
But soon there were too many patients for the small hospital to handle, and the Old City was bursting at the seams. So in 1888 they built this exquisite structure, with additional beds where patients of all religions and nationalities received free medical treatment and drugs. It was to be the first Jewish hospital outside the Old City walls.
Ask the guard at the entrance if you can walk on the grounds, and once inside read the inscription above the main entrance (Hôpital Israélite Meyer Rothschild).
From here, you have a wonderful view of the splendid lintels and the building itself. The bottom floor held the laboratories for preparing medicines, the kitchen, and servants’ rooms; the second had one large room for female patients and another for men; the top story housed a synagogue, library and children’s department.
The lush and tranquil garden was intended to sooth the patients.
An oft-told story concerns a group of Presbyterians who came to Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century. They planned to be ready for the Messiah, who according to many traditions will appear on the Mount of Olives. With them they brought the makings of an enormous tent that could be set up on the mountain for the lucky 5,000 souls who would be the first to be redeemed. But, unfortunately, the Messiah didn’t come. So they left, storing their fabric, poles and pegs here and there downtown until the equipment eventually ended up in the basement of the Rothschild Hospital.
When World War I broke out the hospital ran out of sheets.
Someone remembered the curtains, noted that they were rotting away anyway, and cut them up for sheets; everything else was used as fuel to heat the patients’ rooms.
At some point during the war the hospital was forced to close its doors and began to fall apart. Fortunately, in 1918 the hospital was taken over by the Hadassah Women’s Organization of America to become Israel’s first Hadassah Hospital. The impressive building was later incorporated into the Hadassah College of Technology.
Despite changes in the 1960s, which ruined much of its outstanding beauty, the Rothschild Hospital is still a very imposing edifice.
Descend onto Harav Kook Street to discover exactly how the buildings from the college here, and on Hahavatzelet Street, were added onto the hospital. Then turn left onto a tiny semi-pedestrian mall, facing the main entrance to the former Palestine Post, where you can repose on benches in the shade of newly planted trees. The little alley runs into Hahavatzelet Street, where you turn right to get back onto Jaffa Road. •