Historical home

What makes an immigrant choose to live in a house built nearly 130 years ago?

Historical home (photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Historical home
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Not everyone wants to live in a house built in 1886, but for Gil Zohar and his wife Sandy, it’s the ideal home.
It’s in the historic and picturesque area of Nahalat Shiva, one of the earliest Jerusalem neighborhoods built outside the city walls.
“Tour guides come to the courtyard every day,” recounts Zohar, himself a guide and journalist who made aliya from Toronto in 1982. “They stop right in front of my door and start telling the history of the area, which was built by the Ginio family, who came from Salonika after their ancestors were expelled from Spain.”
The tourists would sit on the steps leading to his home, and he eventually decided to build a gate – out of old bicycles. Atop one of them is his name etched in iron letters.
Although this helped to bring a degree of privacy, the area is still hopping with visitors – not just tourists who come to gape at the historic buildings, including a very old synagogue opposite his house, but people who want to enjoy the nightlife of Jerusalem in a trendy entertainment spot. The Zohar house is directly over a bar, and when Gil bought the house in 2005, there were eight bars in the area.
“Now we are down to two,” he says with obvious relief.
So what makes an immigrant choose to live in a house built nearly 130 years ago? “I owned another house, and when I divorced and married Sandy, she didn’t want to move into the home I’d lived in before,” he says. “She felt it had ghosts.”
She was not sure where she wanted to live, but a walk through the neighborhood one afternoon soon altered that.
“We saw the ‘for sale’ sign and straight away, without even seeing the inside, she said ‘This is it – let’s buy it,’” he reports.
Knowing that it was very rare for one of these houses to come on the market – “you can’t find them for love or money,” he says – he jumped at the opportunity and bought the property. The unit, one of six in the building, had been completely renovated, and everything was new except for some historic floor tiles that luckily had been salvaged.
These depict menorahs, Stars of David and other Jewish motifs, and are in relatively good condition. The rest of the floor has worn terra cotta tiles that also attest to having been around a very long time.
The living room looks onto Yoel Moshe Salomon Street and is distinguished by the arched windows and doorway, which reveal half-meter-thick walls.
“We never need air conditioning, as the masonry keeps out the heat,” explains Zohar. A collection of masks that he has assembled on his travels is displayed over the front door, and there are tapestry hangings suspended on either side of the windows. The outside window bars are the original ones.
“We kept whatever was possible,” he says.
The room is furnished with a rustcolored sofa and chairs, while an off-white sofa separates the study from the lounge. Cushions of every hue are scattered around. The large paintings around the walls and the sculptures perched on the furniture are his own, in a style he describes as “eclectic.” A striking feature in the living room is the Dale Chihuly knock-off glass sculpture suspended from the 5-m.-high ceiling.
“They are manufactured in Tel Aviv, and one could say it is in the style of Chihuly, so I consider it a tribute rather than a copy,” he says.
A new gas furnace for heating the apartment blends in well with the general style of the home, while an old Singer sewing machine adds an authentic touch.
Separating the living area from the busy study and library area is a wooden-framed glass window that hangs between the two rooms.
“I salvaged it from the convent of the Coptic Church, as they were doing renovations and it had been thrown out, all the glass broken and the wood covered in endless coats of paint,” he says. Hours of work went into sanding it down and getting new glass put in, and the result is there for all to see.
The balcony looking out over the square was turned into a private bar, complete with bar stools and a counter. On the wall is an Armenian tile depiction of the tree of life, which Zohar designed.
“I had it made to my specifications by the Balian workshop in Jerusalem,” he says.
This is the place he likes to sit with his wife and friends on cool Jerusalem evenings with a glass of wine and enjoy his personal corner of the historic city.