A commentary on Rehov Ramban

Almost all Rehavia’s first streets were named for eminent Sephardi personages, interestingly since soon the neighborhood would be filled with Ashkenazi immigrants.

Rehavia_521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman (Nahmanides, or the Ramban) was a brilliant Torah commentator.
In 1263, after winning a debate with Catholic clergy on the relative merits of religion, he was summarily expelled from his native Spain.
Four years later, Nahmanides and some of his followers traveled to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. “What can I tell you about the Land of Israel?” he wrote to his family. “There is so much...
wilderness here. Jerusalem is more desolate than anywhere else. We found the remains of a house, built on marble pillars with a beautiful dome, and we took them with us to build a synagogue...”
The first street in Rehavia was named for Nahmanides, whose synagogue was to prove the focal point for renewed Jewish settlement in the Holy City. Almost all the other streets were named for eminent Spanish/Sephardi personages as well, an interesting choice, since within just a few years, the neighborhood would be inundated with Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany.
This week, we take you down Rehov Ramban, past architectural gems built by well-known historical figures.
You will be walking through Rehavia A, the first section in what is today an exclusive and exorbitantly expensive neighborhood.
Established in the early 1920s over a wasteland owned mainly by the Greek Orthodox Church, Rehavia was one of five garden neighborhoods planned by architect Richard Kaufman in Jerusalem.
Most of the houses were built in the International Style that was popular in the Rhineland. And the language on the street soon became German – or Hebrew with a very pronounced Teutonic accent.
Pianist Michal Zmora, director of the music department at the Israel Broadcasting Authority for 23 years, grew up in Rehavia. As a child walking home, she would pass house after house on Rehov Ramban and hear the same classical concert coming from the radios in each. That’s because the German immigrants who built Rehavia in the 1930s were passionately addicted to culture.
Punctilious about dress, with an abhorrence of dirt, always on their best behavior and scrupulous followers of any and all rules, the new German immigrants were perfect butts for veteran Israelis’ jokes. It was especially easy to laugh at the Germans because they seemed to lack any sense of humor whatsoever. To this day, anybody who does things strictly by the book is called a yekke, the name bestowed upon the new immigrants by the locals. But Israelis like what they brought with them: Schlafstunde – the afternoon siesta – and the custom of afternoon coffee and the resulting rash of coffee shops.
Begin your walk down Rehov Ramban at Kikar Tzarfat. In early January 2008, the municipality officially renamed it “Freedom for Jonathan Pollard Square,” and its proximity to the prime minister’s residence less than a block away makes it a popular venue for demonstrations. Stop at the modern shopping center just past the Prima Kings Hotel. The windmill on top was erected by the Greek Orthodox Church some 150 years ago. When in operation, it ground wheat from the fields in the area to produce flour to feed a horde of Orthodox pilgrims visiting the Holy City.
Prominent architect Erich Mendelsohn bought the windmill in 1935 perhaps because of its weird resemblance to one of his earliest creations, the Einstein Tower near Potsdam. Mendelsohn, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, lived there off and on with his wife until they moved to the United States in 1941.
Several decades later, when the windmill had begun to seriously deteriorate, the municipality decided to tear it down. Massive protests by Jerusalem residents prevented this travesty, and eventually the powersthat- be decided to keep the windmill and build a shopping center underneath.
Continue to Ramban 14. Construction was completed on this, Rehavia’s first dwelling, in 1924. It was built by Eliezer Yellin, the son of David Yellin (a famous educator and grandson of one of the founders of Nahalat Shiva more than half a century earlier). It was Eliezer Yellin who named the neighborhood for Moses’s grandson, “Rehavia.”
Eliezer became an engineer/architect and eventually designed many of early Rehavia’s houses. Note the unusual architecture: Although the style is International and there are lots of cubes and other straight lines, it features a variety of local touches from arches and capitals to the pillared porch at the structure’s entrance.
Note the portion of the house that juts out in front.
This was a salon especially designed by Yellin for weekly concerts in which his British wife, Thelma, and other artists performed for the cream of Jerusalem society. This cosmopolitan audience included not only Jews and Arabs but also British higher-ups and German visitors.
FARTHER DOWN the road and across the street, Bunim House at 21 Ramban was once a stunning dwelling. Designed in International Style by Austrian painter/architect Leopold Krakauer, it was built for German immigrant gynecologist Dr. Paul Bunim in 1935. Krakauer is famous for having designed many of the houses in early Jewish settlements, the double cubic dining hall at Kibbutz Tel Yosef, and the symbolic Beit Ussishkin Museum at Kibbutz Dan.
Bank Leumi, which purchased the house in the 1950s, managed to ruin much of its beauty, but fortunately some of the elements still remain. Take some time to walk around and examine the building, which is constructed out of cubes, with the tallest part of the house standing on the highest area of the plot and the shortest section on the lowest part. In typical International Style, the balconies are shaded by cement roofs, while the latticed wooden balcony on the corner resembles an Arab mushrabiya (women are hidden from view, but light enters through the slats).
Beit Molcho at Ramban 20 was one of the first houses in Rehavia.
It was built by Sephardi shopowner Yitzhak Yehuda Cohen for his daughter Simha and her husband, Salonika-born Yitzhak Rafael Molcho. An ardent Zionist who immigrated in 1919, Molcho was crucial in the advancement of Sephardi culture in pre-state Israel and in 1943 was sent on a mission to help Greek refugees in Istanbul.
During the mid-1930s Beit Molcho became Cafe Rehavia, one of the first modern coffee shops in the city and a gathering place for intellectuals, artists and British officers. Cafe Rehavia held dances and concerts, even on Shabbat. After a multitude of haredi demonstrations a few decades later, it was forced to close its doors.
You have now reached Gan Eliezer Yellin, planned by Kaufman as a playground. Since there were as yet no children in Rehavia, it was rented out temporarily as a tennis court, which its German-born sport enthusiasts called Tennis Platz. The location was so convenient that when the first babies turned into toddlers, the neighborhood committee refused to turn it back into a playground. A small portion was rented out to a flower shop that is still in operation today, and eventually a few playground items were added, along with a sculpted giraffe. A plaque naming the site for Eliezer Yellin was placed at the entrance, but the park is more commonly known as Gan Hagiraffa.
Built in 1924, the lovely dwelling on the corner of Ramban and Rehov Ibn Ezra belonged to Gad Frumkin, the only Jewish Supreme Court justice to serve during the British Mandate. Frumkin is also famous for resigning his post as chairman of the neighborhood committee when it refused to return the Tennis Platz to the children.
Although the house was designed by Yellin and partner Wilhelm Hecker, Frumkin was intimately involved in planning it, and even called himself one of its three architects. The sign “Havatzelet” (lily) over the door was a gesture to his father, who published a newspaper of that name for more than 40 years.
VIPs visited Frumkin, from the highest of British officials to members of the Egyptian delegation that arrived for the opening of the Hebrew University. The house was bought by a yeshiva half a century ago, and some changes were made. Today, after a recent cleaning, it is an unusually handsome edifice.
The four-story house at No. 30 is built over the 1925 home of Arthur Ruppin, who dedicated his life to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Designed by Yellin, the original building was one story high with a garden and a squat yellow rotunda that served as the gardener’s residence and can still be seen in the yard.
Among the regular visitors to the Ruppin house were the British high commissioner and Nobel prize-winning author S.Y. Agnon.
The house at Ramban 32 belonged to Menahem Ussishkin, one of the giants of the Zionist world and chairman of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for almost 20 years. When he became chairman of the JNF in 1922, Ussishkin was put up in a two-story villa on Rehov Shivtei Yisrael that contained more than 40 rooms. Absolutely exquisite, the house had been built in 1885 by Swiss missionary banker Jacob Johannes Frutiger, who called it “Mahanaim.”
Frutiger’s bank collapsed in 1896, and the handsome villa eventually became the property of the Anglo-Jewish Association that rented it to Ussishkin. In 1927, however, a severe earthquake damaged the British high commissioner’s residence in Talpiot.
The British commandeered Mahanaim and replaced Ussishkin with the commissioner. Ussishkin, a very strong, single-minded personality who had no doubts about his own worth, was highly insulted. That’s why he called his new home in Rehavia, designed by Kaufman in 1931, Mahanaim. Look for the name, written in Hebrew, over the door.
On the great man’s 70th birthday, and over the objections of the neighborhood committee, he managed to change the cross street named for Yehuda Halevi (a Spaniard and one of the greatest Jewish poets of all time) to Rehov Ussishkin. Old-timers will tell you that if you got up early enough in the morning, you would find Ussishkin busy polishing the street sign!