When it was founded in 1877, the Beit Yaakov neighborhood was further from the Old City of Jerusalem than any other community. Indeed, although located only two kilometers west of Jaffa Gate, it was surrounded by wilderness. Wild animals roamed the fields, thieves appeared night and day, and residents lived with the constant threat of an Arab assault.
One day a gang from the Arab village of Lifta attacked the tiny neighborhood. Shouts from the residents and their cries for help were so loud that they reached the nearest settlement: Mazkeret Moshe, established in 1883. One of the settlers went to his cupboard, took out a shofar, and the sounds Jews hear in the synagogue on the High Holidays — tekia, trua, and tekia gedola — reverberated in the air. Never having experienced anything so eerie, the frightened Arabs took to their heels and ran.
On paper, Beit Yaakov was supposed to contain 70 houses, as it is written: all the souls of the house of Jacob that came into Egypt were threescore (60) and ten. But, in the end, the neighborhood grew very slowly, and five years later there were fewer than two dozen dwellings.
These first houses were small, two-story structures that faced Jaffa Road with little gardens on today’s Avissar Street. One complex on Avissar Street holds both synagogue and Torah study center.
The synagogue was constructed together with the first houses in the neighborhood using funds — over 10,000 grush — donated by elderly British kosher butcher Yehuda Leib/Levitas. The decorations are unique, for paintings of holy Jewish sites are integrated into murals on the walls.
Beyond the synagogue stands a deserted stone structure that once served as the neighborhood’s community oven. You prepared your goodies, took them to the oven, and the baker shoveled them inside.
The second story of one building served, at one time, as a temporary home for homeless Jerusalemites or travelers stuck without a place to spend the night. There were several conditions however: you couldn’t stay longer than 30 days, and you had to pay a (very) small sum to help with maintenance. Since it was actually part of a synagogue, people called the place “Havale’s Synagogue ” for the widow – Hava Miriam – who dedicated the house to the welfare of strangers.
These days, unfortunately, the streets in historic Beit Yaakov are disgustingly run down and dirty. According to Hila Smolyanski, director of the visual arts department at the Jerusalem Municipality, that’s exactly why this particular area was picked for a very special project.
Thirty artists took part in the project, called Tabula Rasa (“blank slate”).
Some of the artists are well-known, exhibit in galleries or have their own show rooms.
Others are gifted and established graffiti artists; all were taken on a tour of the streets and told to create something that suited the neighborhood.
Art is scattered on the walls, on poles, balconies, doors and shops, with several long-necked girls pictured on an abandoned electricity cupboard. There are paintings all along the bottom wall of the exclusive MachneYuda Restaurant (eat within two hours, pay through the nose and get out). Past the restaurant, artist Itamar Flor carved a portrait into the cement wall clearly depicting the owner of a nearby kiosk. And outside the pub and coffee shop across the street are murals bursting with life and activity.
HaDekel (Palm) Street, deep in the neighborhood, is particularly interesting. Entering the street, you are faced with two huge, scary faces. Murals are everywhere, especially on the shutters of closed shops. A long wall is covered with grazing sheep, nearby a wolf waits to devour them. Just past a water meter cupboard decorated with adorable little figures, a unique balcony bottom is covered with a poem and a mural. The tomato mural is inscribed with a play on Hamlet’s speech: To be or not to be…, reads “agvaniyot or lo liyot – tomatoes or not to be.”
Some of the houses on Avissar Street which face Jaffa Road are located right next to a Light Rail Station and across from a Discount Bank. During the mid to late 19th century, the plot on which the bank stands today held the flourishing fruit and vegetable Beit Yaakov Market (later, of course, it would become the Mahane Yehuda Market – see In Jerusalem’s teeming Mahane Yehuda, rubbing shoulders (literally) with everyman).
Arab farmers from the surrounding villages would load their donkeys with produce, set up tents and huts, and sell their crops to Jerusalem residents. Next to the market stood the last carriage and wagon stop for passengers and goods traveling to the port city of Jaffa. It was, of course, the first stop if you were coming from the other direction.
Beit Yaakov Street more or less runs from north to south, ending (or beginning) on Agrippas Street with a fabulous corner mural that accurately depicts the people, the kiosks and the buildings in and around the Mahane Yehuda market. So cunningly drawn so that it seems to take on three dimensions, the mural was produced by 12 artists from a Lyons-based group called Cite de la Creation. Even from a distance, drivers stuck in traffic on Agrippas Street gazing at the mural find it difficult to distinguish between the actual and the artistically created balconies, produce and windows.
On top of the realistic falafel shop, a bustling, colorful market is full of people – some of them real characters. The third story features shoppers cruising the stands in a marketplace that looks suspiciously like the Old City’s Roman cardo. And, above all that: the crowded houses of the market neighborhoods.
But there is even more to this wonder, for it stretches horizontally onto the beginning of an unnamed alley leading into Beit Yaakov. Here, a child is depicted drinking fruit juice, and her “laugh” is positively contagious! Behind her, one of the two men smoking is an obvious fan of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team. And further into the alley, two “electricians” come out of the door that warns: danger – high voltage.
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.