19th-century charm

A family-run hotel, a defunct cinema and countless functioning synagogues on Agrippas Street.

Agrippas Street 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Agrippas Street 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
In a city whose historic buildings are frequently torn down to make way for luxury apartments and commercial towers, it is comforting to discover that some things never change. That’s one reason we were so excited when we climbed the stairs to the Palatin Hotel on Agrippas Street: we discovered that the tiny hotel is still being run by the family that built it.
You will find most of this week’s Street Stroll extremely upbeat, for it begins at the Palatin, takes you through picturesque neighborhoods over a century old, steps into a stunning 19th-century villa, and ends at a bright new gallery/coffee shop on 7 Bezalel Street.
Take the light rail, if you like, disembark at King George Avenue, and walk up the street. Turn right on Agrippas, and you will be in the midst of one of the city’s lively pedestrian malls, inaugurated in 2003.
Back in 1936, Jerusalem-born Todros Warshavsky put up a guest house at 4 Agrippas Street. That year saw the start of a three-year Arab revolt against both Jews and the British who controlled Palestine.
Tourism ground to a halt and the Warshavsky family was forced to sell the hotel – then immediately rented it out and has been managing the property ever since.
The Palatin was a favorite with Knesset members, who could walk to the Knesset on King George Avenue in minutes.
Today, although it has been renovated to keep up with the times, the hotel retains its old-world charm and family atmosphere.
Now ascend the lower portion of Agrippas. Until the late 19th century, this busy street was just a tiny path along a patch of ground owned by an Arab who didn’t want Jews on his property and took pleasure in shooing them away. Then one dark night in 1875 Jews from the newly established neighborhoods adjacent to the property got together, worked until dawn, and turned it into a public thoroughfare.
The new road became known as Bila – an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “overnight” or “bein laila.” Later on the name was changed to Agrippas, perhaps because about 2,000 years ago King Agrippas II paved the city’s streets with marble.
The crumbling concrete building on your left was once a flourishing movie theater. When it first appeared in 1928, it was known as Eden Hall Talkies, and only later became the Eden Cinema. Closed in the late 1980s, and turned into a parking lot in 1998, it is really quite an eyesore.
But instead of restoring the building, or putting up something to fit the street’s 19th-century ambiance, land developers are about to replace it with a 24-story ultra-modern tower filled with luxury apartments, a hotel, shops and offices.
CONTINUE UP the street and turn right at the sign for the Arcadia Restaurant, next to 8 Agrippas Street. Then turn left at the first lane. You have entered Even Yisrael, located between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. Dating back to 1875, Even Yisrael was the sixth Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the walls of the Old City.
The name Even Yisrael (Stone of Israel) has two origins. The numerical value for the Hebrew word “even” is 53. And that is the number of apartments that were planned for the neighborhood. But there is also a biblical connection to the name.
A passage in Genesis reads: “But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Stone [even] of Israel” (Genesis 49:24).
Built with money and the initiative of the future residents, most of the settlers erected two-room dwellings with a little yard that held the kitchen and the dining room. Houses also featured cellars for storing wine, coal and oil. The main courtyard was the hub of life for the neighborhood, for it featured a synagogue, ritual bath, ovens and cisterns. As there were no gates at either entrance to the neighborhood, people walking between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street often made their way through Even Yisrael, which was a hustling, bustling little community. Take a good look around and you will find that although some of the houses have become galleries, workshops or stores, the neighborhood still retains its charm.
The three-story building on one side of the courtyard, dating back to the beginning of the neighborhood, belonged to American millionairess Rebecca Levy.
Known to locals as “the house of the widow Levy,” it is considered to have been Jerusalem’s first skyscraper! Walk to the far side of the plaza, turn right, then left into a winding lane. You will end up facing the entrance to the Sephardi orphanage, founded in 1908 after the Ashkenazim had already built two orphanages of their own. Children lived and studied – in Hebrew – at the orphanage, learning both religious subjects and secular ones. In the courtyard you will find that the building has two stories, and when Turkish and German troops took over the building during World War I they used the ground floor and courtyard for stabling and exercising their horses. Today the structure houses one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi synagogue, along with a kollel (institute for religious study).
Back outside, turn right. As you approach the Shmule Restaurant on the corner, peek into a glass door to see how staff prepares meals on old-fashioned paraffin stoves. Then turn right, and across the street you will see an arched entrance to the Succat Shalom neighborhood.
The large colorful painting inside the entrance depicts an elderly man leaning on his cane: the prolific Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, a famous 17th-century Yemenite poet.
You are now inside Succat Shalom, established in 1888. Since its founders were mainly Yemenite Jews who worked in construction, they were able to put up most of the neighborhood’s houses by themselves. The name comes from a verse in the Bible: “His tent [succa] is in Salem [Jerusalem], his dwelling place in Zion” (Psalms 76:20).
As you walk, look past the end of the alley to your right. The two-story edifice in the distance belongs to the adjacent neighborhood of Mishkenot Yisrael, and houses two synagogues. In the beginning, this was a one-story synagogue in which two different groups held a minyan.
Apparently, however, the more veteran group took so long at its morning prayers that newer worshipers had to cut theirs short. This caused a major rift, solved when a benefactor donated money for a second synagogue atop the first.
TURN LEFT at 13 Succat Shalom, pass through a little lane, and head right again onto Mesilat Yesharim Street. The magnificent reddish building on your left is Beit Mazya (Mazya House). Russian-born Aharon Meir Mazya was a doctor, linguist and rabbi. His first stop after immigrating to the Holy Land in 1888 was in Rishon Lezion, where he became a physician to area settlers. At the beginning of the 20th century he brought his family to Jerusalem, where he constructed this lovely villa in 1911. Working not only as a doctor at Bikur Cholim Hospital, he also ran a clinic in his home – and found time to author the first medical dictionary in Hebrew, creating Hebrew names for medical terms for the first time.
Over the past decades the building was home to a variety of educational institutions. During mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term in office, it was bought by the Jerusalem Municipality, which performed massive renovations as part of an effort to bring culture back into the center of town. In December 2011, exactly one century after its construction, Beit Mazya opened as a venue for three theater companies: the veteran Jerusalem Group, mainly female actors, directors and so on; Psik, which performs commedia dell’arte with a Jerusalem spin, and Incubator, young, brash and exciting. Besides the comfortable auditorium, a multipurpose theater on the top floor changes its seating and stage according to the type of performance being held that day. If you are here on a weekday, ring the bell and ask to look around.
Turn right at the corner and right again at the next. Then walk through a black gate into the complex known as Batei Rand.
Rabbi Mendel Rand was a hassid from Galicia, Poland, who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. He brought great wealth from his native land, where he owned farms, forests and sawmills.
After landing in Jaffa he made his way to the Old City of Jerusalem, where he bought a large plot of land, built a house, and settled a number of his hassidic followers in rent-free apartments.
Around the same time, another rabbi – Yaakov Broyda – moved to Jerusalem. In 1902, he donated a large sum of money for a neighborhood in New Jerusalem that would carry his name. There was one condition, however: it was meant solely for mitnagdim (ultra-Orthodox Europeans who opposed Hassidism).
Rabbi Rand was quite upset when heard the news, or so they say. Soon afterwards, he bought the lot adjacent to Batei Broyda and constructed an apartment building with two floors, a beautiful synagogue and a mikve (ritual bath).
Each apartment had one or two rooms with a tiny kitchen area. As you walk through the courtyard, look for the cisterns that were central to life in the neighborhood: two were for drinking water and a smaller one was used for laundry. Enjoy the ambience: the neighborhood looks almost exactly as it did a century ago.
You will end up on Bezalel Street, across from Beit Ha’am, whose colorful exterior mural is its only interesting feature.
Turn left and cross the street to a wonderful new enterprise, the fruit of a partnership between the Jerusalem Development Company and the Ariel Company. Called Designers in the City (in Hebrew, “Me’atzvim Ba’ir”), and located on Bezalel Street, it houses the workshops and galleries of young people in the fields of fashion, photography, pottery, leatherworking, industrial design – as well as a coffee shop. Inside, watch as they sew, pot, embroider etc.
Open Mondays through Thursdays 10 to 2 and 4 to 7; Fridays from 10 to 2.