The tribal route

A wealth of history can be found on Yehuda, Reuven and Asher streets.

Park Hamesila follows a 5-km. stretch along the railway tracks. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Park Hamesila follows a 5-km. stretch along the railway tracks.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Six months or so ago, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund) introduced the world to a new and different Blue Box. You may remember the old ones: They were blue and white and had “Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael” written on the front in Hebrew.
The money you shoved into their slots was sent to the JNF, charged with land reclamation in Palestine.
The idea of purchasing land in Palestine using coins collected in a box was first presented in 1884 by an early Zionist, German professor Zvi Hermann Shapira. Nothing came of it at the time, but it is said that during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Theodor Herzl removed his hat and asked delegates to fill it up with money, thus contributing towards the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
To raise funds for KKL, established during that same congress, a bank clerk from Galicia put a box on his desk and wrote on it “Keren Leumit” (National Fund). The results were so astounding that he suggested Zionist officials use similar boxes to collect donations. Not long afterwards, tin collection boxes known as Blue Boxes in English and pushkes in Yiddish began making their way into Jewish homes and communities all over the world.
Today’s Street Stroll takes you off the track, to a gorgeous neighborhood that tourists rarely see and even Israelis often ignore. It is a walk along beautiful streets, next to splendid houses, and to the park that stands on the site of the factory that produced the pushke. It will take you about two hours to complete this circular stroll through a neighborhood that is officially called Geulim but hardly known by any other name than Baka.
Begin at 1 Asher Street, with Kol Haneshama. A modernday neighborhood synagogue that belongs to the Progressive (Reform) Judaism movement, it was founded on principles of equality and mutual responsibility. Today Kol Haneshama serves as a focal point for social action in Baka and the surrounding areas.
For centuries, the land on which Baka stands today was used for farming; houses this far outside the Old City were rare. One exception was the summer home built by well-to-do property owner Sheikh Muhammad El-Halili in the 17th century, a villa surrounded by vineyards and gardens.
Nothing much changed until in 1892, when a railway began operating between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The tracks ran right next to today’s Baka; and with the development of commerce in the area, wealthy Christian and Muslim Arabs began moving in. Hardly any of these are left; most of the houses that have been preserved or restored date back to the 1920s and 1930s.
During the War of Independence, the Arab population of Baka abandoned their homes. Afterwards, until the Six Day War in 1967, Baka was situated on the hostile Jordanian border, and almost all the residents were new immigrants with nowhere else to go. After the war, middle-class families saw the neighborhood’s potential and began moving in.
More recently, Baka has been experiencing an influx of very affluent European and American immigrants who build new homes or renovate older ones. Indeed, while preparing this article, I heard more French and English than Hebrew.
Turn right onto Harakevet Street, next to Railway Park (Park Hamesila), a fivekilometer stretch that follows the railroad track that was in use until 1998. The railroad was neglected for years, but in 2010 workers began restoring the train station and developing a marvelous park that was completed last year. Lined by sweet-smelling grass and flat walkways that are perfect for bikes, wheelchairs and strollers, it is a wonderful addition to the Jerusalem scene.
On your left you can see the railroad’s signal box, whose white wall sports an old photograph and part of a newspaper article from 1892 with the quote “Thunder and noise. . . the train to Jerusalem has arrived!” The signalman sitting in the “box” controlled the semaphores, the light signals and the interlocking equipment that ensured safe operation of the trains.
A few meters past the signal box, a dome peeks over the vegetation. It tops a round cement structure, one of many built by the British during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939 and dubbed “pillboxes” because of their shape. This one would have been put there to guard the railroad against Arab violence.
Soon you reach 53 Harakevet Street, originally an Arab villa but today a synagogue called Sha’ar Hashamayim. After the War of Independence, new immigrants were housed here – one family to a room. The structure has retained much of its rich, original look, from the arched entrance to the beautiful windows. An added story is totally without character.
Two enormous apartment buildings next along your route, constructed after the war to house new immigrants with no place else to live, are called shikunim and can be seen in neighborhoods all over the city. What a contrast with the nearby red-bricked edifice at 43 Harakevet Street. Stand back a bit for a good look at its decorative, round corner and lovely balcony.
Pass through the gate of the neglected pre-1948 structure at No. 33. From here you can get a glimpse of the gable at No. 31, constructed in a style reminiscent of those in houses of the German Templer Colony on the other side of the walkway.
Much of Baka’s property was owned by the Templers, so it’s not surprising to find its influence on the architecture here.
IN ADDITION to the German and Oriental styles of architecture in Baka, you will see quite a few houses built in International (Bauhaus) fashion. The structure at No. 27 is one of these: Note the flowing lines and cubes.
No. 25 is worth a second look as well. It may be new or it may be old – but at least it has kept the general style of the neighborhood. And don’t forget to gaze at the German Colony houses on the opposite side of the park, as many have been preserved in their original form.
Turn right onto Yair Street, where the house at No. 7 is still only one story high. Pass Yiftah Street and continue on Yair Street. On your left is a small monument to three Baka residents killed in cold blood on October 21, 1990.
That morning, an Arab terrorist bent on killing Jews walked into the tranquil neighborhood. In his hands he wielded a 40-cm.
Unarmed soldier Iris Azulai walked out of her house on her way to her base. She had gone only a few steps when she was attacked by the terrorist, Omar Said Salah Abu Sirhan. She fought back, but Abu Sirhan stabbed her repeatedly until she was overcome. Like her assailant, Iris was 19 years old.
After murdering Iris, the terrorist caught sight of Eli Altaretz, whose arms were full of plants that he was carrying to his nursery. Altaretz, too, was stabbed to death. Off-duty policeman Shalom “Charlie” Chelouche heard screaming, ran outside and shot in the air before wounding the assailant.
Then he, too, fell victim to Abu Sirhan’s blade.
Backtrack and turn right onto Yiftah Street. The park you see was once the site of a tin factory owned by Austrian-born Alfred Salzmann. During the 1920s, the factory turned out pushkes for the Jewish National Fund, along with containers for bandages, pills and two cookie companies.
Pass Yael Street and turn left on Otniel Street. Still in its original state, the house at No.
6 is a delight to behold, from its decorative ceramic tiles to its wonderful tower and lovely lintels. Return and take Yael Street, stopping at the corner of Barak Street to view the very unusual Beit Francis. The first floor, with its wide arches, was built at the end of the 19th century by a Christian Arab family possibly named Francis.
Additional stories, in a totally different style, were constructed in the 1920s, while the gable appeared during recent renovations.
Originally the home and workshop of an Arab tanner, the synagogue at 4 Yael Street was established in 1948. The founders were Holocaust survivors, many of whom moved to Jerusalem from other parts of the country to work in government offices and institutions. The building features a stunning lintel and, inside, beautiful arched ceilings.
At the end of the road, turn left onto Shimshon Street. Chock full of splendiferous buildings, the street housed important British officials during the Mandate period, along with wealthy automobile dealers.
The home at No. 5 is stunning, while No. 3 is decorated with a variety of colored tiles. Once the home of the British Council library, it now houses the French Research Center in Jerusalem.
Founded in 1952, the center serves as a home base for French archeologists working in Israel.
Turn around and walk in the other direction along delightful Shimshon Street, where the house at No. 16 features a row of elongated arched windows.
Arabic numbers carved into the lintel tell us the house was built in 1907 – or 1326 according to the Muslim calendar.
Turn left on Ephraim Street and view the fabulous entrance at No. 2. At the corner of Gidon and Ephraim streets, you will find two small monuments in memory of terror victims Altaretz and Chelouche. Then look at the shikun on your right, where residents added a room and a half to their apartments and upgraded the facade.
Follow Ephraim Street to Reuven Street and turn left, enjoying the view all the way to Derech Beit Lehem. Then on Derech Beit Lehem, a main artery, get a really good look at the street’s magnificent buildings – something you just can’t do while driving back and forth on the road.
At Yehuda Street, turn left and ascend a few dozen meters to the corner. The superb edifice across the street was built in 1930 and was renovated some decades ago into a boutique hotel with more than 30 rooms.
Now retrace your steps and walk back down Yehuda Street, taking special note of the houses at Nos. 5, 6 and14, and the arty building at No. 13. But your real point of interest is the modest home at No. 18, where sculpted lions gaze at each other on the gateposts and the living room picture window is made of stained glass. Built long ago by a wealthy Arab who moved to America in 1948, this is the home of Lithuanian-born Aharon April, world-renowned Israeli artist, sculptor and art teacher.
No. 31 Yehuda Street is home to the Pelech High School. Founded in 1963 by Rabbi Rosenbluth and his wife Penina, Pelech was meant as an alternative to contemporary haredi girls’ high schools. Pelech started out in a clubhouse, moving from one inappropriate location to the next. Finally, in 1976, Pelech was offered this three-story building, at the time abandoned and totally dilapidated, on condition that the school would carry out the necessary renovations.
From the beginning, a wide variety of subjects were taught at Pelech, including mathematics, physics and compulsory Talmud studies. This angered the haredi establishment, which proclaimed the school off limits. But more modern Orthodox families were delighted to offer their girls a less parochial and far broader education than was available elsewhere.
Renowned educator Alice Shalvi was principal for 15 of Pelech’s most formative years, introducing an atmosphere of creativity, democracy and social commitment. Today, Pelech is one of the highest rated high schools in the country.
Continue along Yehuda Street to reach brand new Binyamin Street – the last of the Twelve Tribes to be named in Baka.
Naftali Street is directly across from it on your right. Follow Naftali Street to your starting point on Asher Street.