Oozing history

Zichron Moshe has been home to a number of influential individuals.

Laemel School (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Laemel School
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Some years ago I wrote an article about historic buildings in Jerusalem. I mentioned only a few, among them the Palace Hotel, the Alliance School and the Edison Theater. Sadly, all that remains of Alliance is the gate, but the Palace’s façade and some of its interior have been completely restored in the soon-toopen Waldorf Astoria Hotel. And the apartment that replaced the Edison – which oozed history but wasn’t that pretty to look at – was constructed with a few of the old theater’s original exterior features.
This week’s suggested Street Stroll takes you through Zichron Moshe, a residential quarter founded in 1906 with a religiously liberal, integrated and enlightened population. Quite a few historic edifices remain standing, but the atmosphere surrounding them and the people that inhabit them have significantly changed. Indeed, today almost all of the residents are haredi.
Begin your walk on the corner of Hanevi’im and Yeshayahu streets. The first street you pass on your right, as you ascend, is Prag Street. It is named for an unusual rabbi, community activist and founder of a historic school.
Born in (Ashkenazi) central Europe, Rabbi Yitzhak Prag Oplatka dressed and prayed in Sephardi fashion. And when he opened the school in 1866, inside the Old City, he welcomed both Ashkenazi and Sephardi pupils.
The rabbi and his teachers taught secular subjects as well as religious studies so that pupils would be able to support themselves. Rabbi David Ben-Shimon, leader of the mid-19th century Moroccan immigration, helped to organize the school and taught classes there as well. Poor pupils received free lunches, dinners and clothing.
Unfortunately, the Ashkenazi religious establishment was wholeheartedly and vehemently opposed the school – and Rabbi Oplatka even suffered physical attack. Indeed, no one really believed it would survive; there had been other attempts at schools that offered academic subjects. You will encounter the school near the end of your walk.
Continue ascending Yeshayahu Street. Turn right on Sima Blilius Street – apparently named for an early 20th-century philanthropist from Calcutta; from Hong Kong according to the street sign. Our mouths still water at the sight of the shop on the right hand corner, where Michel Cohen once sold delectable stuffed vegetables.
The structure at No. 12 Blilius was the home of Dr. Aharon Yosef Yarmens. Born in 1859, in Vilna, Lithuania, Yarmens excelled at his studies. He also spent a great deal of time with a banker named Moshe Vitkind, who encouraged promising young people.
Yarmens served a year in the Russian army, studied medicine in Berlin and became engaged to one of Vitkind’s daughters. He and his fiancée planned to emigrate to Israel right after their wedding, but her father was incensed at the idea and told them they would be cut off financially. They married nevertheless, in 1886, and moved to Israel.
Soon afterwards, Yarmens spent a year working in Istanbul, while preparing to take the medical boards in Israel. There he met Moshe Wallach (founder of Shaarei Zedek hospital) doing the exact same thing with the same purpose in mind. They went back to Israel together in 1890.
Yarmens’s first job in Israel was as physician to the Jews in Hebron, where he settled with his wife and daughter. Everyone loved Yarmens – from Turkish leaders to Arabs in nearby villages.
His wife served as a social worker/nurse and helped especially with Arab women in a difficult labor whose husbands wouldn’t permit the presence of a male physician.
Once a year, the country’s few Jewish doctors would get together at Yarmens’s Hebron home to discuss public health and other medical issues. Other visitors included most of the country’s intelligentsia and business leaders.
In 1905, under strong pressure from his wife, Yarmens moved to Jerusalem, became immensely active in the community and worked in almost a dozen Jewish hospitals and charitable institutions.
As one of the founders of Zichron Moshe, he moved into this house in 1910, and died in 1923.
Turn left at Press Street, immediately across the road. The corner building, at No. 9 Press Street, dates back to 1909. Its owner was well-known teacher and historian Yeshayahu Press, who helped found the neighborhood. Press, who authored a volume called The Land of Israel Encyclopedia, helped found both the Israel Teachers’ Union and the Hebrew Society for Research on the Land of Israel and its Antiquities.
Jerusalem-born David Yellin, one of the first people to support Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in his obstinate struggle to revive Hebrew as a spoken language, lived at the opposite end of Press (the corner house at No. 2.) Although an important member of the staff at a teachers’ seminary, he quit in 1914 after a dispute on the language of instruction. Classes were in German, and Yellin insisted that they be taught in Hebrew. Some years later Yellin became director of that same seminary, which today bears his name. Look for the word “Levanon” engraved above the door: in 1878 Yellin wrote articles for Halevanon, the first Hebrew newspaper.
Yellin built his home across from Laemel School, where he served as vice-principal for a time. Turn left onto Yeshayahu Street and find the school at No. 13. The first modern educational facility in the country, Laemel was established in 1853 inside the Old City as a memorial to Austrian-Jewish nobleman Simon von Laemel.
The present building was constructed in 1903 on an isolated hill, well before the first houses of Zichron Moshe appeared on the scene. Located in the middle of total wilderness, Laemel School offered a fabulous view of the Judean Hills, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives and New Jerusalem. The hill is so high that even today you can still see some of Jerusalem’s hills from the sidewalk.
Designed by architect Theodore Sandel of Jerusalem’s German Colony, the Laemel School was one of the city’s finest edifices. Note the encircled Star of David under the upper windows, and a clock on which time is represented by letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The lintel above the door to the school contains a carving of a palm tree shading a well, while chiseled into the background is a view of the Old City.
The housing project on your left, at No. 14, replaced the Edison Theater, which was constructed in 1932 on a vacant tract which had hosted open-air performances in earlier years. During bloody Arab riots in 1920, Jews carried out drills and military exercises on the empty lot. Commander of the troops was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a militant Zionist leader who helped organize the Hagana soon afterwards. Thus it was here, in Zichron Moshe, that some of the seeds of the Hagana were sown.
One of the first of its kind in Jerusalem, and the fanciest, the theater was named after the American genius credited with inventing the first movie projector. All kinds of international performers appeared on its stage; so did Israel’s pre-state Philharmonic Orchestra. During the 1950s and 1960s the theater was subject to constant Sabbath demonstrations by haredim.
Turn right onto David Yellin Street. Then head right again, onto a paved alley named for former Laemel School principal Ephraim Cohen. Enjoy the trees and the atmosphere, then turn left on Hagiz Street.
Near the end of the street, the building at No. 5 was the first home for the Hebrew Gymnasium High School that opened with both male and female pupils on January 2, 1909. The founders’ goal was to revive Hebrew culture, and the school’s program consisted of general subjects along with Land of Israel studies, Jewish history and Hebrew culture.
One of the founders was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, whose support included wildly enthusiastic articles in his newspaper; his son Ehud was one of the school’s first seven pupils. And among the famous teachers were a young Yitzhak Ben-Zvi – our second president – and the woman who later became his wife, Rahal Yanait.
Following the fall of the Second Temple, sages of the period declared that every new building must carry a reminder of that destruction: an unpainted area one cubit by one cubit in size. Owners of the house at No.2 took the edict literally, and as you look inside the entrance you see a square painted black, one cubit by one cubit, along with the original, early 20th-century floor tiles.
Turn right onto Pines Street, where the houses at numbers 25-27 are decorated with a number of Stars of David. As you descend, note the quaint steps outside the house at No. 14 Algazi Street on your left. Immediately across from Algazi Street, turn right at Haradbaz Street – a quaint and narrow alley.
When you reach a cross street (Soloveitchik), turn left and you will be looking directly at a shtiebel. The word comes from Yiddish, and refers to a small place used for both communal gathering and communal prayer that was common in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Here, prayers begin whenever enough men gather for a minyan (prayer quorum) and basically are held all day long (and sometimes at night as well).
The shtiebel is located on Hafetz Haim Street, where you turn right. Pass the mulberry tree, and when you reach a wall, turn left to re-enter the lane that is Ephraim Cohen Street. It runs into Pri Hadash Street, where you turn right.
Pri Hadash Street houses Avihail. My all-time favorite bakery, Avihail is open from 6:30 in the morning until after midnight with constantly fresh and extremely inexpensive baked goodies. Founder was Nissim Avihail, who opened it here in 1932. In 1939, when the British instituted a curfew in Israel, Avihail was granted a special pass as a baker that allowed him to travel freely at all hours of the day and night.
These days, most of the customers are haredi; the bakery is kosher lemehadrin, while a sign outside asks that customers enter in modest dress. Son Danny Avihail spent his childhood in the bakery and worked there for half a century. On YouTube, he declared that notwithstanding the multitude of chef restaurants and gourmet eateries that are available, there is nothing as delicious as fresh bread and butter!
Do grab something to eat, then turn right at the corner, back onto Yeshayahu. Follow it up to No. 7 where you will find the Doresh Zion School founded by Rabbi Oplatka.
After difficult decades filled with trials and tribulations, the school began to flourish. In 1929 it relocated to this building, which was being used as a teachers’ seminary. Today it houses a haredi yeshiva.
Just before you return to the corners of Hanevi’im and Yeshayahu, where you began your stroll, turn left on Prague Street for a great view of Nebi Ukasha. This large, 13th-century Muslim tomb is the burial site of one of three men who fought the Crusaders , or of one of Muhammad’s disciples.