Rabbis’ roads

Two prominent religious figures had streets named after them off King Albert Square.

Pagoda House 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Pagoda House 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
When Prince Albert of Belgium was just a teen, he suddenly found himself second in line for the throne.
Almost immediately, he began seriously preparing himself for a future role as his country’s king. One of his major concerns was the situation of the working classes, and he would often disguise his identity so he could see their living conditions first hand.
World War I broke out only five years after he was crowned king in 1909. He took personal command of the troops, while his wife nursed the wounded at the front lines.
In 1933 King Albert visited the Holy Land, and during his time in Tel Aviv was hosted by mayor Meir Dizengoff.
A year later, after the monarch’s death in a freak mountaineering accident, Dizengoff dedicated a charming little “square” in the heart of Tel Aviv to the king’s memory.
You can visit this tiny square on a circular Street Stroll along Nahmani and Mazeh Streets. Sprinkled among architecture that ranges from wildly eclectic to classic International in design, you will encounter the historic building that housed the first performance of the Cameri Theater, the famous Lodzia underwear factory and one of Tel Aviv’s early water towers.
Start with No. 4 Nahmani Street, where an old and unprepossessing edifice takes up the two next lots as well (6 and 8). Nahmani Street, which dates back to the 1920s, is named for 13th-century Torah commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides). Also known as the Ramban, this rabbi was known far and wide for his brilliance.
Thus in 1263 he was summoned to an official debate with Catholic clergy on the relative merits of the religions. Soon after winning the debate, Nahmanides was summarily expelled from his native Spain. Four years later, he and some of his followers moved to Jerusalem. The synagogue they built proved the focal point for renewed Jewish settlement in the Holy City.
While Ramban would have been an honorable name for this street, Jerusalemites had already bestowed it upon the first byway in the Rehavia neighborhood. Not only that, but Tel Aviv had a street called Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon), and the powers that be were afraid that people might confuse the names. So they came up with Nahmani, one of Nahmanides’s nicknames.
The building at No. 4 dates back to 1936, when it was built over a soccer field to serve as a sports club for Tel Aviv’s Hapoel organization. From the beginning, however, the building was also a center for the underground Hagana, whose field troops used it as a base for reprisal raids on Arabs in 1947 and 1948.
In the 1940s, this is where the Ora Theater showed movies to a delighted crowd. And after the very first performance of the Cameri Theater Company, on October 24, 1944, it became known as Cameri Hall.
Ascend the sidewalk, where the house at No. 10 has been beautifully restored. Next door, in sharp contrast to the clean, straight lines of its neighbor’s International (Bauhaus) design, the yellow structure can only be described as wildly different.
You will see why the corner building at No. 20 is known as the Pagoda House when you walk all the way around and look from a distance as well. Isn’t it fabulous? It is loosely modeled after a coffee shop located i the US. Built in 1924 and typically eclectic, it has columns and arches that make it look Oriental.
Pagoda House was built by an American immigrant, David Morris Bloch, who lived here with his six children and several tenants – among them the Polish Consulate. The house’s architect was Alexander Levy, an immigrant from Berlin, who found life here too difficult and returned to Europe in 1927. Bloch died in 1942; Levy perished in Auschwitz that same year.
Later owners moved in and moved out, making various alterations that included a synagogue on the first floor. Eventually, however, the house was abandoned.
It was rescued by a Swedish couple in 2000 who returned it to its former glory.
FEAST YOUR eyes on the building at No. 46 Montefiore Street, right across from Pagoda House.
The art deco façade of this magnificent structure has been preserved, and so have some of its interior elements.
You can see some of them if you are here on a weekday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., by entering Rugine Modern Home Design at the corner. An attraction in itself, Rugine is sort of an incredibly upscale IKEA, with 30 stunningly designed rooms that are furnished down to the last possible accessory. As you climb to the second and third floors, and on some of the walls, you will see some of the house’s original 1920s frescos.
King Albert Square stands at the intersection of four streets: Nahmani, Montefiore, Bezalel Yaffe and Melchett. Consisting of two back-to-back benches shaded by a large ficus tree, the square is splendid in its simplicity.
Gaze through the large glass windows at No. 48 Nahmani, on the corner of Bezalel Yaffe, to view the building’s original interior. Outside, part of the façade features a snowflake design. Then stay on Nahmani, to pass No. 23 on your left. Built in the ’30s, it is both enormous and full of interesting windows, shutters, and balconies.
If you examine the billoard in front of No. 25, which is under construction, you can see why it is commonly known as the “Falling House”: the front pillars appear to be slightly angled. To people standing across the street the building – which was a school – it seemed about to fall down.
You can tell from the picture of No. 27 Nahmani that when construction is completed this spot will hold an unusually luxurious and elegant residence. It looks like the new building will include some of the original elements, including the Doric pillars you will find if you stop at the entrance.
The horizontal windows at No. 28 are typical of the International Style that has made Tel Aviv famous. So are narrow vertical windows, which provide light and air to people taking the stairs. In Bauhaus design, this element is known as a “thermometer.”
Pass Rothschild Boulevard to view No. 34 Nahmani.
Its portholes serve the same function as the stairwell “thermometer.” Pass Yehuda Halevi Street and walk to Goldberg Street.
On the other side of the road, the reddish brick edifice at No. 43 Nahmani is known commonly as The Red House. Get an even better look by turning left and walking along Goldberg Street.
Three stories high, this decrepit building housed the Lodzia underwear factory, with sewing machines humming day and night. Designed and constructed in 1924 by Akiva Arie Weiss – one of the Founding Fathers of Tel Aviv – it fell into disuse in 1936 when the factory moved to Holon. For years there has been talk of turning it into a villa or a public building, and one can only hope for its early salvation.
AT THE next street, Mazeh, turn left. Like Nahmani Street, Mazeh Street was named after an important rabbi: Rabbi Ya’acov Mazeh. Mazeh is an illustrious family name, as it is an acronym for “From the Seed of Aaron the Cohen” – Moses’s brother Aaron. In other words, he could trace his lineage back over 3,000 years.
Rabbi Ya’acov Mazeh was born in 1859 in Russia and, in addition to religious studies, attended Moscow University Law School. An ardent Zionist, he joined Menahem Ussishkin in founding “the Sons of Zion” and helped purchase land in the Galilee. He even made a trip to Israel to further the cause.
The Russian government appointed him chief rabbi to the Jewish congregation of Moscow in 1893. His knowledge of both Jewish and Russian law, a silver tongue and the courage of his convictions made him the perfect defense witness in the appalling anti- Semitic trial of Mendel Beilis. Beilis, a Jewish clerk, was accused of ritual slaughter of a Christian in a trial that clearly demonstrated the ignorance and anti- Semitism of many Russians. The jury was split 50-50, which in Czarist Russia resulted in an acquittal.
Continue on Mazeh Street to No. 49 and take special note of an ugly cement wall. This, and others like them, are the reason that entrances to stairwells in Tel Aviv were often dark in the 1950s and 1960s. The walls, which were built to protect entrances to apartments, were very thick and left only a narrow passage into the building.
Today, of course, new houses often have bomb shelters.
But when early houses in Tel Aviv were constructed, the War to End All Wars had already taken place. No one expected another war over Palestine. So during the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign, walls like these sprang up all over Tel Aviv. When shells flew, or when warning sirens sounded in the late ’40s, ’50s and during the Six Day War, Tel Avivians lucky enough to have protective walls sat on the floor inside the building and next to the stairs, waiting for it all to be over. My husband, born in Tel Aviv and my guide for this Street Stroll, clearly remembers cowering with his neighbors inside the entrance to his building when the siren sounded on October 31, 1956, the third day of the Sinai Campaign. That’s when an Egyptian warship entered Israel’s coastal waters and began shooting at targets on land.
Across the street, the house at No. 50 is pretty sadly neglected. It does have one redeeming feature, however: a large modern clock.
Enter the courtyard at No. 41, on the corner, to find that it was built with three large wings around a garden that is in terrible shape today. You are looking at Engel House, dating back to 1936 and famous as the first house in Tel Aviv to be built on stilt columns.
The architect was Zeev Rechter, who had just returned from studies in Paris and had picked up some modern touches that he added to the Bauhaus design so common at that period.
Named for the contractor who built it, Engel House was spread out over a large plot and shaped like the Hebrew letter “het” – an upside-down U with straight lines – that opened onto Mazeh Street. Residents had their own workout room and garden on the roof, which was partially shaded by a pergola. All kinds of important people lived here at one time or another, including the woman who founded the Tel Aviv Opera.
Today, this is one of the most dilapidated structures in Tel Aviv. What’s worse, perhaps, is that over the years the bottom level was blocked by a dirty brick wall.
Before you cross Rothschild Boulevard again, gaze into the distance to view what was once the tallest structure in Tel Aviv: a water tower built in 1924 at the highest spot in the city. Someone added a hanukkia on top, making it even taller. As you head toward it, stop to view the stunning apartment house at No. 38 Mazeh. The water tower is next door, at No.
Undergoing restoration at the moment, the water tower supplied the city for over a decade. Its height made it a strategic asset, and for many years the tower served as an observation point.
Walk on, to enjoy all kinds of interesting/elegant/ unusual buildings. The house at No. 20 Mazeh is enchantingly eclectic; No. 31 delightful and No. 27 has a strange exterior “thermometer.”
You have reached No. 13, today a parking lot for ambulances. But in the 1950s and ’60s, this was where you came for “urgent care” – if you fell down, got a fever, or needed emergency treatment you found the help you needed in this old, neglected building that was called Magen David Adom Station.
The wall next door hides a lovely playground, great if you are taking this Street Stroll with kids. Then continue on, and when the road intersects, swerve with the sidewalk on your left and look right. This astoundingly beautiful twin structure is the Chelouche Gallery for Contemporary Art.
Originally only one story high, the complex was built in 1922 as an apartment house. Two floors were added in 1925, with a bridge, turning it into symmetrical twin buildings that were used for Tel Aviv’s first School of Architecture. Later abandoned, it was restored about a decade ago and is an absolute feast for the eyes.
Turn left, onto Yavne Street, then left onto Nahmani Street – and you have come full circle.