The road to Jerusalem

A tour of Jaffa street features the site of the first Zionist bank, Bulgarian burekas and a pre-state cinema.

Jaffa Street, Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jaffa Street, Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Most Israelis are familiar with the tragic story of Raoul Wallenberg. A Swedish diplomat who saved over 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust, he was arrested by the Russians in 1945 and was never heard from again.
Far less well-known is Dimitar Peshev, who – along with the Bulgarian Church and a few other Righteous Among the Nations – is credited with saving all 50,000 of Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens.
A couple of years ago, the name of this almost unknown hero appeared on a plaque next to a fountain on Jaffa’s Jerusalem Boulevard (Sderot Yerushalayim). You can honor him, if you like, by making Dimitar Peshev Square your last stop on a holiday street stroll. Begin at No. 1 Jerusalem Boulevard and end about halfway up the boulevard at the square.
Jerusalem Boulevard dates back almost a century, to 1915; a year after cruel, ambitious Hassan Bek became the Turkish governor of Jaffa. Anxious to make his mark and jealous of the Jews’ Rothschild Boulevard in the new city of Tel Aviv, he wanted to create his own impressive avenue in the middle of town.
Using forced Jewish and Arab labor, materials from existing buildings, and trees that he uprooted from fields and orchards, he built a beautiful road that he named for the Turkish army commander Jamal Pasha (a.k.a. “the butcher,” assassinated in 1922).
When the British took over the Holy Land in 1920, they renamed the boulevard King George V Avenue. But after Israel became a state, there was a problem: Tel Aviv already had wide road named after King George. So the avenue, which in the past had led to Jerusalem, became Jerusalem Boulevard.
START YOUR walk at Bank Leumi, 1 Jerusalem Boulevard. The first Zionist bank in the world, Bank Leumi was founded in London exactly 110 years ago as the Anglo-Palestine Company.
A year later, in 1903, the company opened its main branch in Jaffa, on Yefet Street.
Instrumental in the financing of Zionist enterprises, including the purchase of land and the construction of houses in Palestine, the Anglo- Palestine Company was renamed Bank Leumi Le-Israel in 1951.
What you see here was designed by Russian- The road to Jerusalem A tour of a Jaffa street features the site of the first Zionist bank, Bulgarian burekas and a pre-state cinema born and -educated Yosef Berlin, who immigrated in 1921 after putting up at least 12 buildings in his native land.
One of the first trained architects to design buildings in Israel, Berlin designed the bank in 1924. Less than a decade later, the bank moved its main branch to the stately edifice on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.
My better half has bittersweet memories of the alleyway between the two beautiful new buildings at No. 3 and No. 5; for many decades this was the city’s army recruitment center, and this is where he and all of his friends were drafted into the army.
Remember Shekem? That chain of stores where soldiers and police (and their families and friends) could buy all kinds of items at a discount? When it was founded in 1948, the main offices were located on nearby Raziel Street, but they were soon moved to the dilapidated structure at 8 Jerusalem Boulevard. In addition to shops, Shekem boasted over 1,000 kiosks on army bases all over the country.
Rumor has it that a boutique hotel may one day take over the building.
Before it does, and very carefully, cross over for a better look: there is a very lovely faded tile beneath one set of second- floor windows.
An events hall called Moadon Hate’atron (the theater club) is housed in what was once the Tzlil Cinema at No. 10. Next to it, Jaffa’s central post office may look a bit dreary. But like its counterpart in Jerusalem, it has some redeeming features that include arched pseudo-doorways and the dark- and light-colored layers of stone that vaguely resemble Mameluke design.
Both post offices were built by the British Mandate’s chief architect, H.S.T.J. Harrison, who also designed Jerusalem’s gorgeous Rockefeller Museum. Jaffa’s post office was completed in the mid-1930s; the exterior of the Jerusalem version, put up a few years later, is not layered, but its blandness is slightly offset by a row of basalt stones.
Before the advent of television, movie theaters like the Tzlil were greatly in vogue. Jaffa’s Nabil Cinema (named for its owners) opened in 1922 at No. 9 (across the street) with 1,081 seats. After the War of Independence, it became the Noga Cinema. Renovated in 1986, it was transformed into a theater that today houses one of our most well-known companies: Gesher, founded in 1991 as a dual-language theater.
Composed mainly of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, with more and more Israeli actors joining its ranks, Gesher is the only theater in the world where the same actors perform in both Russian and Hebrew.
You can rest in the shade of the palm trees and pergolas near Gesher while you gaze at a small fountain. A pedestrian mall called Bat Ami begins here and runs just behind the boulevard; the enormous corner building is just begging to be restored.
A small arcade stretches from 9 Jerusalem Boulevard to No. 13, just past another fountain. After that, a stunning complex called Jaffa Courts reaches as far as No. 19. Inside the complex, the ground floor of what is called Sea View Boulevard is full of shops, almost all of them bridal salons.
A few of the houses on the other side of the boulevard are worth a second look – even without any historical context (that I know of, at least). The building at No. 14, glaringly orange (or is it bright pink?) is rounded to fit the corner. No. 24 is absolutely charming, the balconies at No. 28 are delightful and No. 30 features an eye-catching yellow second story atop a lovely stone first floor.
AS YOU pass Burekas Jacques at No. 35 and catch the fragrance wafting through the air, you may begin to wonder why there are so many burekas cafes on this street. The reason: Jaffa is full of Bulgarians, and Bulgarians love their burekas.
Unlike Jews elsewhere in Europe, Bulgarian Jews apparently did not suffer from anti-Semitism, pogroms, riots or massacres. But Bulgaria became an ally of the Germans during World War II and it was inevitable that the Nazis would try to send its Jews to the death camps. But in 1943, although the Germans gave the order, it was rescinded over and over again through the efforts of the Bulgarian Church – and Dimitar Peshev.
As vice president of the Bulgarian parliament, Peshev supported an alliance with Germany that returned territories to Bulgaria that had been lost several decades earlier. He didn’t say a word against the racist laws passed by the parliament, even though many of his closest friends were Jewish, believing that it was temporary and nothing like the situation in Germany.
When it became clear that Bulgarian Jews would not be spared the fate of their brethren, though, he began to act. As a result of his strong protests in parliament and against the Bulgarian king, he was forced to resign his post.
But he managed to gather so much support that deportation of Bulgarian Jews was suspended – although the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, which were annexed to Bulgaria during the war, were not so lucky.
After the establishment of the state, almost all of Bulgaria’s Jews moved – en masse – to Israel with their rabbi, Avraham Yosef Bachar (Avramico). Alex Ansky, actor and commentator, relates that the Jewish Agency brought the Bulgarians to Jaffa, counted how many people there were in a family and told them: you – third floor; you – second floor; and so on.
Avramico, who was not only their rabbi but also the community’s mohel and cantor, made a living by spraying walls and roofs against dampness and eventually opened a grocery store on Jerusalem Boulevard that soon became the Bulgarians’ synagogue. As far as Avramico was concerned, a Jew was a Jew, whether he went to synagogue on Shabbat or rode his motorcycle to a soccer game instead. He is quoted as saying, “I am the first Reform rabbi in Israel!” In addition to being the rabbi of the Maccabi Jaffa soccer team, whose players were almost all Bulgarians, he was one of its founders Move on to the shiny new Scientology Center at 39 Jerusalem Boulevard, which opened only a few weeks ago. The center is on the site of the famous Alhambra Cinema, which was designed by a Lebanese architect in 1936 in elegant art deco style. One of the largest and most luxurious of its kind in the country, the Alhambra hosted plays as well as movies.
World-famous Arab actors and singers performed there, including Oum Kalthoum.
The Alhambra continued to operate after the War of Independence, becoming the Gimel Gimel Theater after Giora Godik took it over in 1963. This was the place to see musicals like Hello, Dolly, The King and I and – the first performance I attended in Israel in the late 1960s – I Like Mike. But success is fleeting and, in the 1970s, real-estate developers got ownership of the Alhambra and eventually it was designated to become a commercial center.
Purchased in 2008, the renovated Alhambra is today known as the Ideal Church of Scientology Israel.
In 1934, the British declared Tel Aviv to be a city independent of Jaffa.
A year later, Jaffa mayor Issam Sa’id decided to build the city hall at the intersection of Jerusalem Boulevard (at the time King G e o r g e Avenue) and Ben- Z v i Boulevard. There were two sections to the municipality; Issam Sa’id and his family lived in the two upper stories, and the bottom floor operated as city hall. Adjacent to the municipal building stood a traffic square featuring a fountain, businesses and a coffee shop.
DIMITAR PESHEV S q u a r e down the street is far more modest than its predecessor, although it still boasts a small fountain. But its location at the junction of four streets (Hatekuma, Olei Zion, Ben-Zvi and Jerusalem Boulevard) does give it some importance. As you walk toward the square, gaze across the intersection in the direction of the apartment building on Olei Zion, next to the gas station at 40 Jerusalem Boulevard. Its little colonnades, a lovely shade of pink, and the bike standing on a second-story exterior wall make it quite special.
Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, at No. 47, is right on the edge of the square.
Inaugurated in 2007, it serves as a cultural and educational center meant to encourage pluralism and tolerance in Israel. One of the homes of the country’s Reform Movement, Mishkenot offers classes and seminars that are open to people of all faiths and nationalities.
A guest house takes up the top three stories, and from the rooftop there is a fantastic view of the city.
If you want to venture further, cross over to No. 44 for a closer look at a building that seems to be composed of three different parts. Next to the entrance there is an unusually beautiful, and very old, lintel.
In 1953, singer Yisrael Yitzhaki composed a popular song about one of the main features of Jerusalem Boulevard: the amusement park where Mishkenot and a super-modern office building at No. 47 are located today. The song – which my husband, who loved the park as a child, still remembers – was called “Abbaleh [Daddy], Come to the Luna Park”: Abbaleh, come to the Luna Park, We will ride on the white horse...
Abbaleh, come to the Luna Park, It’s nice there, cheerful and wonderful!