A small piece of history

The tiny Merhavia neighborhood boasts a museum, several historic homes and the President’s Residence

Merhavia Neighborhood (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Merhavia Neighborhood
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Sandwiched between the Jewish neighborhood of Kiryat Shmuel and the wealthy Arab neighborhood of Katamon, tiny Merhavia lived a relatively peaceful existence until the UN decided to divide Palestine into two separate entities on November 29, 1947.
Suddenly, Merhavia was on the front line. Arabs had been routinely terrorizing Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods for years, but now there was a drastic increase in incidents.
Homes on what is now Hapalmah Street absorbed the brunt of the attacks, for they were directly in the line of fire. It wasn’t until the final conquest of Katamon at the end of April 1948 that quiet returned to the little neighborhood.
Established in 1936, Merhavia was nothing like other pre-state Jewish neighborhoods. While other early Jewish neighborhoods were founded to provide homes for the needy, to flee from congestion inside the Old City or to fulfill the biblical commandment of “possessing” the Land of Israel, Merhavia was purely a business enterprise.
With the help of two Christian partners, land for Merhavia was purchased by merchant/entrepreneur Reuven Zilberstein. From the very beginning it was intended for private sale. Contractors and private parties bought property, then built houses and apartment buildings to rent out, to sell and occasionally for personal use.
Until a few decades ago, there was not a single synagogue in Merhavia – a fact that marked its distinctly secular character.
Nevertheless, the neighborhood’s name came from the scriptures – Psalms: 118:5 “I called upon the Lord in distress; the Lord answered me and set me in a large place [merhavia].”
Begin a circular stroll through this very different – and very small – Jerusalem neighborhood with the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art.
You will find it on the edge of Merhavia, at the corner of Hapalmah Street and Hanassi Street.
Although it consists of fewer than a dozen galleries, Jerusalem’s Museum of Islamic Art is one of the city’s most enchanting museums.
Its exhibits include thousands of everyday articles used in Muslim life over the centuries. So elegant, elaborate and decorative are these items that experts consider them to be functional art.
A gorgeous painted jar dating back to 10th-century Egypt, fabulous Iranian glassware from the ninth and 10th centuries and ornamental horse trappings from India in the 1700s are just a few of the fascinating pieces in the jewelry exhibit. Other items on display include a ninth-century green-and-yellow Egyptian dish with a splashy design and an Iranian pomegranate drinking vessel about 1,500 years old.
The museum has become famous for its wonderful collection of nearly 200 antique watches and clocks. Among them are gold watches from Paris, watchmakers’ tools, a musical bracket clock dating back to the 1700s and a rolling ball clock. Incredibly, the collection – stolen in 1983 and including a priceless gold-and-crystal watch created for Marie Antoinette – was recovered in 2006.
Head for Hapalmah Street and turn in to the driveway next to the museum. You will see the number 10 on a locked gate; facing the number, look ahead of you and to the right to see a house on stilts, similar to a number of dwellings in Tel Aviv but very different from others in this neighborhood.
This was the home of Zilberstein and his wife, Orna, constructed in 1940. It can’t be seen from the street, as it is surrounded by newer and bigger buildings. At the time, and hard as it is to imagine, there was nothing else here but sand, and a clear view of the Old City.
Located as it was, all alone and right below the Arab neighborhood of Katamon, Zilberstein’s house was a prime target for Arab shells.
One assault occurred in February 1948 just as Zilberstein’s son, Herbert, was tying the knot, and the guests were forced to flee the wedding festivities. Hardly anything has changed in the exterior since then, so I assume that the very noticeable holes are left over from the war. Balconies are spacious, and if you look past the stilts you will see a glass door covered with decorative bars.
BACK ON Hapalmah, gaze across the street at No. 9. The building stands on the site of a home that was constructed in 1937 by German immigrant Dr. Walter Katz in the middle of large, empty fields. Katz built his house using prefabricated parts imported from Nazi Germany – the price he had to pay to recover some of the property he’d left behind.
During the early months of the war, Katz was made area commander for the Hagana and the family home served as a Hagana outpost.
His 12-year-old son, Yoram, anxious to help, took part in the war effort as a signaler; he also cleaned weapons and transported them from one place to another.
Pass No. 12 Hapalmah and walk up the driveway at No. 14. (The address is on the side of the building.) Climb the steps, and as you ascend you will get another view of the Zilberstein home (to your right).
Turn left onto a short path just below the last flight of stairs to reach a large patch of green filled with enormous trees: Jerusalem pine, a huge Washingtonian palm, towering eucalyptus and a cedar that looks just like a Christmas tree. Benches offer the opportunity to relax and enjoy the tranquility of the garden.
Three long, low buildings on your left are known as the Biberman Houses (Batei Biberman) after the contractor who constructed them.
Located between Hapalmah and Itamar Ben-Avi streets, they date back to the mid 1940s. During the war, the bomb shelter under the complex not only proved an excellent hiding place for the Hagana, but offered a safe venue for trying out weapons and teaching raw recruits how to shoot.
When you get up off your bench, continue through the garden and descend (left) back to Hapalmah, passing a variety of flowers and a lovely pepper tree. You will exit at No. 18 Hapalmah, next to a little shopping area. Glance at the tiny table outside the deli market at 18b, where Netiva Ben-Yehuda spent part of each day until her death two years ago at the age of 83.
A courageous commander in the Palmah, the feisty Ben-Yehuda took part in many battles during the War of Independence. Later, together with Dahn Ben-Amotz, she co-authored a humorous dictionary of Hebrew slang. From 1995 until 2009, salty Ben-Yehuda was the host of a late-night show on Israel Radio, conversing with callers and playing old-time Israeli songs.
A famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) murder was committed directly across the street on Ben-Zion Guini Square, named for Jerusalem’s first Jewish city engineer. The victim was Count Folke Bernadotte, a mediator appointed by the United Nations.
Bernadotte had just completed a proposal that he hoped would stop ongoing battles for Israel’s independence. Among his suggestions: hand the Negev over to the Arabs and return Arab refugees to Jewish-controlled territory. On September 17, 1948, afraid that the new Israeli government might agree to the plan, members of the Stern Group ambushed his motorcade as it passed this square. A member of the group shot and killed both Bernadotte and his aide, Andre Serot.
Descend Hagdud Ha’ivri Street, passing more enormous pine trees, then turn left onto Mevo Yoram. The little street is named for Yoram Katz, Walter’s son, who was killed in a clash with Syrian forces on the eastern bank of Lake Kinneret in 1955. He was 19 years old.
ALL FOUR stories of the dwelling at No. 5 date back to the mid-1950s. Sometimes called House of the Consuls because several of its residents were diplomats, it was also home to an author unfamiliar to me but well-known to children growing up in Israel in the ’50s – Yemima Chernovitz.
As a youngster, television personality Gil Hovav lived in the house across the street, at 6 Mevo Yoram. Hovav began his journalist career by reviewing bars in the local Jerusalem paper Kol Ha’ir. These days he is best known as an expert on restaurants and as a chef, often appearing on TV in cooking shows.
Nathan (Agmon) Bistritzky, author, playwright and critic, lived in the house at 9 Mevo Yoram. A tall Jerusalem pine towers over the well-preserved edifice, constructed in the 1940s and located at the southern edge of Merhavia. At the time, it was one of the few Jewish-owned buildings in the area.
Ukrainian-born Bistritzky immigrated in 1920 and joined pioneer farmers at the settlement of Betaniya. Best-known for his works on controversial figures like self-proclaimed messiah Shabtai Tzvi and Judas Iscariot, Bistritzky worked with the Jewish National Fund for three decades as head of youth and information.
If you continue in the same direction, you will end up on a path leading into Hurshat Hayareah – Moon Grove – full of ancient oaks and pines, blooming flowers and almond trees. Developers have been dying to get their hands on this choice property, planted in the 19th century as a garden around the adjacent leper hospital, since the 1980s. It was only after environmentalists and area residents fought a hard public battle that it was declared an urban park.
Finally, the path leads up a few steps to Chopin Street. Frederick Chopin, famous Polish-born composer and virtuoso pianist, is considered by many to have been anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, in 1960, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, Chopin’s name was bestowed on this street – perhaps because it had already been chosen as the venue for the future Jerusalem Theater and Symphony Hall.
Construction of the theater, begun in 1964 and completed in 1971, was funded mainly by the philanthropic Sherover family. A wing containing the Henry Crown Symphony Hall and two smaller auditoriums opened in 1986. Miles Sherover Plaza, in front of the main entrance, features a large piece created by the late, noted sculptor Yehiel Shemi. Its imaginative name: Concrete Sculpture.
Back on Chopin Street, pass the theater’s side entrance. Then stop in front of the Ma’alot Synagogue Center and Ohel Nehama Synagogue, designed by renowned architect David Cassuto. The non-profit organization that runs the unusual structure, which was inaugurated in the mid 1980s, offers classes in Judaism in Hebrew and in Russian for immigrants.
It also buses in children of Ethiopian descent from outlying neighborhoods for bar and bat mitzva classes and collects and disperses clothes and furniture to needy families (call Freddy Siesel at 054- 567-2242 if you have something to donate).
Next door, the Israel Bar Jerusalem Law Center was completed about the same time as its neighbor. What makes this modern building impressive is the wide staircase leading up to a triple-arched entrance.
Turn the corner onto Hanassi Street, at the edge of Kiryat Shmuel and home to our president. Finish your stroll at 15 Hanassi Street (the first building in Merhavia) and then, if you haven’t yet done so, visit the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. The museum is open seven days a week and is wheelchair accessible. For details on hours and fees, see www.islamicart.co.il/en/. During the intermediate days of Passover there will be special workshops and performances for children. •