Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (aka the Ramban) was a brilliant Torah commentator. In 1263, after winning a debate with Catholic clergy on the relative merits of religion, he was summarily expelled from his native Spain.
Four years later, the Ramban and some of his followers traveled to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem.
“What can I tell you about the Land of Israel?” he wrote to his family. “Jerusalem is more desolate than anywhere else. We found the remains of a house, built on marble pillars and with a beautiful dome and we took them with us to build a synagogue…”
The first street in the city’s Rehavia neighborhood was named for the Ramban, whose synagogue was to prove the focal point for renewed Jewish settlement in the Holy City.
Almost all the other streets were named for an eminent Spanish/Sephardic personage as well, an interesting choice since within just a few years the neighborhood would be inundated with Ashkenazic immigrants from Germany.
Established in the early 1920’s over a wasteland owned mainly by the Greek Orthodox Church, Rehavia was one of five garden neighborhoods planned by architect Richard Kaufman in Jerusalem. Most of the houses were built in the International Style that was then popular in the Rhineland. And the language on the street soon became German — or Hebrew with a very pronounced Teutonic accent.
Pianist Michal Zmora, director of the music department at the Israel Broadcasting Authority for 23 years, grew up in Rehavia. As a child walking home she would pass house after house on Ramban Street and hear the self-same classical concert coming from the radios in each. It seems that the German immigrants who built Rehavia in the 1930’s were passionately addicted to “culture” (pronounced “cooltura”).
Pedantic about dress, with an abhorrence of dirt, always on their best behavior and scrupulous followers of any and all rules, the new German immigrants were perfect butts for old-timers’ jokes. It was especially easy to laugh at the Germans because they seemed to lack any sense of humor. Even today, anybody who does things strictly by the book is called a yekke, the name bestowed upon the new immigrants by the locals. But we like what they brought with them: Schlafstunde – the afternoon siesta, and the custom of afternoon coffee – and the resulting rash of coffee shops.
Near the top of Ramban Street stands a windmill, erected by the Greek Orthodox Church some 150 years ago. When in operation, it ground wheat from the fields in the area into flour to feed Orthodox pilgrims visiting the Holy City.
Prominent architect Erich Mendlesson bought the windmill in 1935. Mendlesson, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, lived there off and on with his wife until they moved to the United States in 1941.
Several decades later, when the windmill had begun to seriously deteriorate, the City decided to tear it down. Massive protests by Jerusalem residents prevented this travesty and eventually the powers that be decided to keep the windmill and build a shopping center underneath.
Rehavia’s first dwelling, completed in 1924, is near the top of the street (#14). It was built by Eliezer Yellin, the son of David Yellin (a famous educator and grandson to one of the founders of Nahalat Shiv’a over half a century earlier). It was Eliezer Yellin who named the neighborhood for Moses’ grandson, “Rehavia”.
The only one of the vast Yellin clan who did not go into the humanities, Eliezer Yellin became an engineer/architect and eventually designed many of early Rehavia’s houses. Note the unusual architecture: Although the style is International, it features all kinds of local touches from arches and capitals to the pillared porch at the structure’s entrance.
Yellin’s British wife Talma was a Bentwich, whose grandfather Herbert helped shape the Balfour Declaration and served as attorney to Sir Moses Montefiore; her brother was the first attorney general in Palestine’s Mandate government and one of the founders of the Hebrew University. Each of her 10 siblings was a musical prodigy and Talma, who played the cello, was no exception.
A section of the house juts out in front. This was a salon especially designed by Yellin for weekly concerts in which Talma and other artists performed for the cream of Jerusalem society. This cosmopolitan audience included not only Jews and Arabs, but British higher-ups and German visitors.
Beit Molcho further down (#20) was one of the first houses in Rehavia. It was built by Sephardic shopowner Yitzhak Yehuda Cohen for his daughter Simha and her husband, Saloniki-born Yitzhak Raphael Molcho. Molcho, an ardent Zionist who immigrated in 1919, was crucial in the advancement of Sephardic culture in pre-State Israel, and in 1943 was sent on a mission to help Greek refugees in Istanbul.
During the mid-1930’s Beit Molcho became Kafe Rehavia, one of the first modern coffee shops in the city and a gathering place for intellectuals, artists, and British officers. Kafe Rehavia held dances and concerts — even on the Sabbath — and after a multitude of ultra-Orthodox demonstrations a few decades later it was forced to close its doors.
On the same street, Gan Eliezer Yellin was planned by Kaufman as a playground. Since there were as yet no children in Rehavia, it was rented out temporarily as a tennis court which its German-born sport enthusiasts called Tennis Platz. The location was so convenient that when the first babies turned into toddlers, the neighborhood committee refused to turn it back into a playground. A small portion was rented out to a flower shop that is still in operation today, and eventually a few playground items were added, along with a sculpted giraffe.
Built in 1924, the lovely dwelling on the corner of Ramban and Rehov Ibn Ezra belonged to Gad Frumkin, the only Jewish Supreme Court justice to serve during the British Mandate. Frumkin is also famous for resigning his post as chairman of the neighborhood committee when it refused to return the Tennis Platz to the children.
The house – today a yeshiva – features a multitude of mid-eastern elements, including arched windows and pillars topped by Assyrian capitals. However, the Frumkin home was unique: it boasted radiators and sliding doors brought from Berlin. The sign “Havatzelet” (lily) over the door at #26 was a gesture to his father, who published a historic newspaper of that name for over 40 years.
The four-story house at number 30 is built over the 1925 home of Arthur Ruppin, who dedicated his life to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Designed by Yellin, the original building was one story high; a squat yellow rotunda that served as the gardener’s residence can still be seen in the garden.
Menachem Ussishkin was one of the giants of the Zionist world. In 1922, when he began a 20-year term as chairman of the JNF, he was housed in a grand two-story villa near the Old City Walls. Absolutely exquisite, the house had been built by Swiss missionary banker Jacob Johannes Frutiger, who called it “Mahanaim” for the biblical verse “When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.” [Genesis 32:2].
In 1927, however, a severe earthquake damaged the British High Commissioner’s residence in Talpiot. The British commandeered Mahanaim and replaced Ussishkin with the commissioner. Ussishkin, a very strong, single-minded personality who had no doubts about his own worth, was highly insulted. So he inscribed the name “Mahanaim” over the door of his new home at #32 Ramban.
On the great man’s 70th birthday, and over the objections of the neighborhood committee, he managed to change the cross street named for Yehuda Halevi (a Spaniard, and one of the greatest Jewish poets of all time) to Rehov Ussishkin. Old timers will tell you that if you got up early enough in the morning you would find Ussishkin busy polishing the street sign.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.