Pioneer neighborhood

Nearly torn down by the municipality in the 1970s, the restored Nahalat Shiva area is now a hub of cafes, synagogues and boutique stores.

Nahalat Shiva_521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am )
Nahalat Shiva_521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am )
When a cholera epidemic swept through the walled city of Jerusalem in 1866, the population was devastated. And no wonder: Inside the walls, residents were crowded together like sardines in a can, while sewage and debris flowed freely through the streets.
Jews suffered badly from the disease, like everyone else in the city. The only group to escape the scourge had moved outside of the walls six years previously into the little neighborhood called Mishkenot Sha’ananim.
Obviously, it was time to move away from the city, and seven families prepared to do just that. They purchased land adjacent to the road leading from Jaffa to Jerusalem in the hopes that relatively frequent traffic would provide some measure of safety from wild animals and robbers and called their little kingdom Nahalat Shiva (Estate or Heritage of the Seven). By 1869, the first houses were ready for occupation.
However, none of the families felt brave enough to move out of the security of the city walls. Finally, one of the men – Yosef Rivlin – took the bull by the horns and began sleeping in his new home. His family was so worried about him that they waited at Jaffa Gate every morning to see if he was still alive!
Rivlin was eager for company. It is said that he opened a coffee shop on the roof of his dwelling, keeping guests happily enjoying the ambience until the city gates were closed and they were forced to spend the night. Eventually his family joined him, and soon the rest of the neighbors moved in as well.
Nahalat Shiva sits inside four clear perimeters: Jaffa Road is its northern boundary, Agron Street lies to the south, its eastern edge is narrow Rivlin Street, and the pedestrian mall that is Yoel Moshe Salomon Street marks the western border. Like the neighborhoods in the Old City, Nahalat Shiva consisted mainly of onestory structures with a common courtyard. These courtyards were wonderful meeting places where children played and women exchanged gossip and recipes.
As time passed, some of the early residents left to establish new neighborhoods, while those who remained grew older and were unable to maintain their houses. In the 1970s, when Nahalat Shiva was completely falling apart, the municipality decided to tear it down and erect office buildings there. The initiative was met with massive resistance by Jerusalemites aware of the importance of preserving their heritage. Consequently, in the late 1980s the two main streets were beautifully restored.
Begin an almost circular tour of those two streets and one little lane at Leonard Kandell Park, the plaza next to Beit Yoel at 33 Jaffa Road. The neighborhood’s first three houses were built nearly 150 years ago on this very spot and belonged to Michael Hacohen, Yosef Rivlin and Yoel Moshe Salomon. This is also where Salomon ran the printing press that he had established inside the Old City walls in 1862 with Hacohen. Its earliest publication was a guidebook called Hashoshana (The Rose), because of its rosy shape. A year later the press published the first Hebrew newspaper in the Land of Israel, Halevanon.
In 1872 Salomon moved his press to his new home in Nahalat Shiva. Ten years later, however, when he and some friends decided to found Petah Tikva, he handed the business over to his sons, and it eventually moved to Harav Kook Street.
Two decades before the proposed 1970s initiative, a decision was made to demolish a dozen of the neighborhood’s original houses. The result, in 1959, was the extremely unremarkable Beit Yoel and a parking lot where the plaza stands today.
Like me, you have probably walked past Beit Yoel hundreds of times without really noticing the lottery kiosk on the plaza. Here’s your chance to take a good look. Doesn’t the strange copper top have a Russian flavor, as if it really belonged in the Russian Compound a few dozen meters away?
Now walk past the tables at which diners watch passersby, then descend narrow Ma’alot Nahalat Shiva. As yet mainly unrestored, this little lane features some rather decrepit and foul-smelling areas situated next to historic synagogues more than a century old.
TURN RIGHT at Avraham Bichacho Alley (spelled Allevy on the sign). Directly in front of you, a long staircase leads up to a dairy restaurant featuring literary evenings. It is called Tmol Shilshom, named for the title of a famous book by Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon that translates as “Only Yesterday” or “Those Were the Days.” The restaurant, tastefully preserved, is part of a dilapidated structure from the neighborhood’s early days.
Cross the small square and take the second left to pass one entrance to the Ohel Yitzhak Sephardi Synagogue. Dating back to 1888 and named for one of its founders, it features a wonderful ironwork gate. If it is open, go inside to enjoy its old world charm.
Turn right, and on your left the Ashkenazi Nahalat Ya’acov Synagogue claims to be the first synagogue outside the Old City walls. Indeed, although there were places of worship in Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Mahaneh Yisrael, this was built in 1873 as the first purpose-built synagogue. Remaining from the early structure are the lovely stone walls and the beautiful stone floor.
At Michael Hacohen Square, descend the steps and continue straight ahead to find yourself shaded by the huge leaves of an ancient ficus tree growing in the yard of the Moroccan synagogue, Sha’arei Tzion. You will end up facing a bar, whose Goldstar sign and grungy exterior hide what was once a beautiful old building with a lovely staircase. Continue on, almost to the end of the lane, where the house on your left features a carved Star of David.
Directly in front of you is the back of a restored 1920s edifice that once housed The Jerusalem Report and, until recently, stood here alone in its splendor. You will see another side of it when you turn right onto Salomon Street and look left. Constructed by a Christian Arab from Bethlehem in the early 1920s, the building was rented by Zalman Baharav and was called the Baharav Hotel. Its location near Jaffa Road and the center of town made it a popular venue for British officers. Walk around and stand back to gaze at the building’s handsome façade.
Now return to Salomon Street and walk towards Jaffa Road. Turn left at the first lane, called Ma’avar Beit Haknesset. On your right, the main features of Nahman Plaza are public toilets and a quite charming oftenworking fountain.
Cross the plaza and turn right onto a quaint little alley. As you approach Salomon Street, you will see a fountain dedicated to Ma’ayan Levy, the victim of a terrorist attack on October 10, 1994. She was 19 years old.
The long building to your right is 12 Salomon Street. Find the sign that tells you where the neighborhood had its all-important oven, the only one in Nahalat Shiva. The “oven” was really more of a bakery and consisted of two rooms with a narrow connecting corridor and a stall facing the street that sold bread and other baked goods.
Stroll into the quaint entrance to 21 Salomon Street, where the shop called Judaicut displays unusual cutouts. Then look across the street at a tall modern building (No. 8) that is completely out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood.
In stark contrast, the boutique Harmony Hotel next door boasts a façade that fits in perfectly with the old world atmosphere on this street. Only a decade old, the hotel is one of those Jerusalem rarities: a classy but reasonably priced establishment in a prime location.
Then continue to Kahal Hassidim Synagogue at No. 13, originally a little carpentry shop operated in the 1940s by the house’s owners, Meir and Faiga Halevi. Meir liked to invite neighbors and passersby into the shop for daily prayers in the hassidic style, and the couple bequeathed their home and shop to the community as a synagogue, which was officially dedicated in 1954. Over the decades, many other groups joined the hassidic worshipers, and the style of prayers is now so mixed that any passerby should be able to join in.
AT THE corner of Shamai and Salomon streets, the tall Kikar Zion Hotel stands on the original site of the Zion Cinema, the movie theater that gave Zion Square its name. The cinema began operating in 1912 inside a large wooden shed, screening silent movies to a
fascinated audience. A few years later, a new owner named the shed Zion Cinema.
After the shed collapsed in 1920, it was replaced by a 600-seat movie house that hosted the city’s first opera performances. It closed in 1972 and was torn down in 1979. Today’s high-rise holds both the hotel and, facing the square, a branch of Bank Hapoalim.
In between, during the mid-1970s, the Religious Affairs Ministry housed its Office of Muslim Affairs at the site. Sitting in the office was Ya’acov Yehoshua, a scholar and the father of author A.B. Yehoshua. As there wasn’t a lot of work for him to do, he spent much of his time writing historical tidbits about Jerusalem. Perhaps his most well-known is a slim volume called Childhood in Old Jerusalem.
At the corner of Jaffa Road and Salomon Street, a stunning new structure with rounded corners replaces the Suramello pub and the Underground Discothèque. Note how its reddish stone reflects buildings on the other side of the road. On October 31, the Hamashbir Lezarchan department store opened inside with enormous fanfare, with tens of thousands of Jerusalemites pushing to get inside. Next door, farther to your right, the building under construction will include the original early 20th-century façade.
You have returned to Beit Yoel, but your jaunt is not yet complete. Rivlin’s house stood on the corner, at the westernmost edge of Nahalat Shiva’s northern boundary. On his engagement in 1856, Rivlin declared that he planned to settle outside the Old City Walls. Rivlin’s family thought a dybbuk had entered his head and tried to remove it, but they were, fortunately, unsuccessful. After Nahalat Shiva, he went on to settle and/or help establish more than a dozen other communities, among them Beit David, Mea She’arim, Even Yisrael and Sha’arei Tzedek.
The long building on the corner of Rivlin Street and Jaffa Road is known as Feingold House. The complex was built in 1898 by a former yeshiva student, Solomon Feingold, whose possible conversion to Christianity remains in dispute. From the beginning, Feingold House was both a residence and a shopping center and was famous for showing Jerusalem’s first moving pictures. Later on, patrons also enjoyed concerts and cultural events there.
Follow Jaffa Road to its entrance (No. 31) to enter a lovely courtyard filled with pubs and restaurants. At the end, go down the steps to Agron Street, the southern border of the old neighborhood, and turn right to follow Rivlin Street back up to Jaffa Road. Near the end of the street, beautiful old houses on your left date back to the 19th century.