Streets with an opinion

Pass historical buildings, the sites of Jerusalem's first cinemas and legendary eateries on the capital's Hillel and Shamai roads.

Rehov Hillel 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Rehov Hillel 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Two famous Jewish sages with opposing views lived in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period. They were Hillel the Elder - known for his liberal interpretation of Jewish law - and Shamai, a hard-core conservative. So it is no wonder that the two streets bearing their names that run parallel through the Holy City's downtown area are as different as apples and oranges. Visit both with a walk in the center of Jerusalem's downtown that begins at the bottom of Rehov Hillel. Your first point of interest is a small vaulted structure on the sidewalk that provides shade in summer and shelter from winter rain (if only we have some). Commonly seen above the graves of Muslim sheikhs, it no doubt belongs to the Muslim graveyard that is located across the road. Behind the structure is the large, white Beit Ha'itonaim (itona'im = journalists), headquarters of the Israeli Press Association. Its official name is Beit Agron, after Gershon Agron, mayor of Jerusalem from 1955 until his death in 1959. A man of action who fought with the American-Jewish Legion during the First World War, Agron later became a correspondent for several British newspapers and served as head of Israel's Government Information Office when it was established in 1948. He also founded the very prestigious Palestine Post (known for the past 58 years as The Jerusalem Post). A wonderful family restaurant, Spaghettim, fills a side wing; the main building hosts the Time Elevator, an audio-visual production popular with tourists. Adjacent to Beit Agron is the plaza known as Kikar Hahatulot, or Cats' Square. Filled with visitors during the evening hours, this is the place to buy inexpensive jewelry, hookah pipes and all kinds of knickknacks. Merchants tell me that the city has plans to destroy the site, and, indeed, the square is included in a plan for the Museum of Tolerance - whose construction plans have been bouncing between the courts and the Municipality. Directly behind the square stand lovingly renovated buildings (with added stories) that belong to Nahalat Shiva, for you are on the southern edge of this historic neighborhood. Established in 1869 as the third Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls, Nahalat Shiva was named after its seven (shiva) founders. Look to the right as you go by one end of its main street - Yoel Moshe Salomon. Today a pedestrian mall, the street's shops and restaurants, winding lanes and picturesque courtyards have been charmingly restored. Pass the one-story edifice on the corner of Yoel and Hillel and feast your eyes on the exterior of the next building. Walk into the alley to see one side and note the beautiful windows. Then return to Rehov Hillel, a plaza and the complex at No. 27. Be sure to take a look at the entire complex: Absolutely stunning, it originally belonged to a 19th-century German Catholic hostel and girls' school. Two stone gateposts are all that is left of the high, thick wall that surrounded the compound. Residents enjoyed meals taken in the 19th-century, high-ceilinged chamber whose vaulted ceilings and walls were covered with breathtakingly beautiful drawings. Although they have never been retouched and their colors are darker now than when they were originally painted, the pictures are still a glorious sight. The German inhabitants were expelled by the British during the Second World War. Upon their return, they moved to another splendid complex across from the Damascus Gate (Schmidt School and guest house). Today, the compound houses the Museum of Italian Jewish Art, whose most prized possession is a magnificent synagogue dating back to 1701 and built by the Jews of Conegliano Veneto. The Jews of Italy, who for centuries had been crowded into ghettos and forbidden to practice most professions, were finally 'emancipated' in 1870. Many moved to the cities to work and study, leaving houses, furniture and synagogues behind. The exquisite synagogue in Conegliano Veneto was abandoned in 1900. During the First World War, when the Austro-Hungarian army conquered part of Italy, they took over Conegliano Veneto. Some of the soldiers were Jews, billeted there over Pessah. When the unit's rabbi learned of the synagogue, he opened it up to his men for prayers - and picture-taking next to the entrance and the ark. Later on, some of these same soldiers were instrumental in bringing the synagogue to Israel. This is a living museum, and services are held in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. So are weddings, along with concerts (in the former hostel's dining hall). And at summer's end, visitors throng to the courtyard for the Italian Festival, with music, food and evening entrance to the museum. The museum is open Sunday through Friday. Ask to be shown the dining room! If you lived in Jerusalem during the 1970s and early 1980s, you will no doubt wax nostalgic as you continue up the road. To your left, inside the shop that is now a Blockbuster, you descended stairs into the Orna Cinema (the balcony was located inside today's store). The Aroma coffee shop, across the road, was the site of the Orgil, and other movie theaters were located to your right, in what was known as the 'passage.' Indeed, this was the hub of Jerusalem nightlife for decades until cinemas were built in the Malha mall and in Talpiot and the cinemas here were replaced by shops, restaurants and pubs. Do you remember the Shekem department store? Bank Beinleumi, on your left as you continue to climb, was Jerusalem's Shekem at a time when you begged your friends who were serving in the security forces for the stamps that gave discounts on all kinds of items. Walk up to the corner. Across King George Avenue stands the Froumin Building, home of the Knesset until 1966. The Ta'amon coffee shop, on your side of the street, was established in 1938. The Brits loved it, and it became a favorite meeting place for Knesset members when parliament was in session. In later years, this became the place to go to meet artists, singers, journalists and Jerusalem's bohemia. Now cross Hillel and begin descending. When built in the late 1930s, the building with square lines at No. 26 was the celebrated Eden Hotel. It offered exquisite cuisine and was considered one of the leading hotels in the city. In fact, until the Knesset moved to its permanent home on Givat Ram, this is where members from outside of Jerusalem generally spent the night. Turn left on Rehov Hahistadrut, then right on Rehov Shamai. One of Jerusalem's foremost 'institutions' is on your left - the 54-year-old Ta'ami. A small restaurant with very inexpensive, delicious home-cooked Israeli food, it is popular with everyone from politicians to street cleaners. This is not a place to linger over your meal - indeed, the sign in the window says, 'You can swallow, but don't chew!' If there aren't any free tables, you will sit with other diners in any empty chair. Legend has it that in the past, as you finished swallowing, you were already on your way out to make room for the next customer! (Open six days a week for lunch.) To your right, you can't miss the large McDonald's. It is in the adjacent 'passage' that two more Jerusalem cinemas were located. Directly to your left, a little street connects with the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, but you keep descending, passing electronics stores, a well-established hairdresser and a butcher shop. As you continue downhill, look straight ahead of you to the building at the end of the street. The writing in big charcoal letters on the wall reads 'Tmol Shilshom' in Hebrew, after a famous book by S.Y. Agnon that translates as 'Those were the days.' Follow the signs on the wall to reach the quaint dairy restaurant located inside a building over 130 years old. Here, where books line the walls and the atmosphere is cozy and inviting, you can sit with your laptop, read or eat at your leisure (unlike your experience at Ta'ami). Grab a list of events: literary evenings take place in both Hebrew and English. Return to Rehov Hillel, turn left on Yoel Salomon (the lovely pedestrian mall) and walk to the end. Don't forget to browse through the shops and, if you haven't dined at Ta'ami or Tmol Shilshom, enjoy the variety of eateries.