From Crusaders to Nazis in a historical stroll on Jerusalem’s Straus Street
Centuries of war and peace, foreign rulers, religious diversity, shopping, bathing and basketball unfold on a short walk along a single street downtown
In 1904, the New York-based Christian Missionary Alliance decided to build a church in Jerusalem. Unfortunately for its plans, the Ottoman Turks who ruled Palestine had decided to halt the construction of any new churches.
Undeterred, Alliance members brought the proposed blueprints to the appropriate Turkish bureaucrat. The Turk looked at the plans and asked what the bathtub-like area was for. “This is a baptistery,” explained the Alliance member, who went on to explain its purpose.
“And what is this other bathing area, underneath?” was the next question. “Another baptistery,” was the response.
“So let’s call your new building a Turkish bath,” suggested the bureaucrat. And the plans were approved.
The Evangelical Alliance Church is only one of numerous historical sites along Jerusalem’s Straus Street, which begins where King George Street meets Jaffa Road. Brightly lit Zoya for example, located on one corner of the intersection, recently replaced a shop called Ma’ayan Shtub. Looking very squat in front of a much higher apartment building, the structure dates back to the early 1930s, and like those on the other three corners boasts a red-tiled roof. Known for its ultra-Orthodox female clientele, drab windows and low prices, Ma’ayan Shtub set up shop here in 1940.
The original clothing store was founded in Germany over a hundred years ago by Yehuda Shtub, who moved to Jerusalem when Hitler rose to power. One side of the tall building towering over the shop is covered by a mural a decade or so old, featuring a future Light Train and a bustling downtown. Jerusalemites laughed cynically for years at the idea that one day a Light Train like this one would actually travel through the streets of the city and reawaken what had turned into a deserted town center. Look at it now: The cynics were wrong.
Across the street, the corner structure was constructed during the Turkish rule of Palestine. But it wasn’t until the British Mandate began that a ceramic tile appeared on its exterior wall. Designed by artists at what was then called the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, it reads “Jaffa Road” in three languages – with English on the top (after all, the British were in charge!)
I still remember when it hosted the inexpensive, homey Tarablus Restaurant. You could only eat there on Shabbat if you bought tickets ahead of time, as the eatery was Kosher Lemehadrin.
One of the city’s most magnificent buildings stands on the corner of Straus Street and Haneviim Street. In 1851, an order of Protestant nuns called the Diakoness Sisters opened a hospital for the homeless and destitute inside the Old City. Just over 40 years later, work began on this modern facility outside the walls. Today a wing of Bikur Holim Hospital, it stretches around the corner to Rehov HaNevi’im.
Across the street, Bikur Holim Hospital was founded inside the Old City in the mid-19th century so that Jews wouldn’t have to patronize the Christian missionary hospitals that had begun to appear. A fixture in the city, and known for its caring staff, Bikur Holim played a crucial role during past terrorist attacks. But it also suffered numerous financial difficulties and in 2012 was taken over by Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital.
Next door, the Evangelical Alliance Church was built from 1907-1913. The interior is very modest, with neither crosses nor Christian images.
For decades, the adjacent parking lot contained the German Consulate, which served as a center of Nazi activity until it was evacuated in 1939. Afterwards, the British turned it into an administration building, which was blown up by the Irgun (a pre-State Jewish underground organization) in 1947. The immense blast damaged the roof of the Evangelical Alliance Church, and blew out all but one of the windows. These were temporarily repaired, and in 1974 a few were replaced with brightly colored stained glass depicting the biblical Seven Species (wheat, barley, fig, pomegranate, olive tree, grape and date). In 1990, during the centennial celebration of the ministry in Israel, the wooden ceiling was restored as well.
The Berman Houses are located further up Strauss Street. Not long after moving to Jerusalem from Russia in 1875, and settling in the Old City, the Berman family ran out of funds. Scholar Halevi Berman’s wife Kreshe saved the day by baking honey cakes and black bread for tourists to the Holy City. Soon she became so successful that her son Yehoshua joined her in the “bakery,” and the business thrived.
In 1880, Yehoshua bravely opened what may have been the first store outside the Old City walls, on Jaffa Road. A decade later he built a large bakery in Mea Shearim; today the family business is located in Givat Shaul.
In 1933 the Bermans built these two houses on Straus Street for their large extended families. Plain they may be, but they hide one of the first – and possibly the only – tennis court in Jerusalem at the time.
Operating behind the grey gate of the structure on the corner of Avigdori and Strauss Streets, Sokolov Gymnasia (high school) opened in the 1930s. Its most famous alumnus: former IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur. It was Gur who led his paratroopers to the Temple Mount during the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967.
Behind the Histadrut (Labor Union) Headquarters on Straus Street is a park sporting a large 13th-century Muslim tomb called Turbet Kamariya. It is believed to hold the graves of three members of the Kameri family who fought the Crusaders. It may also be the burial place of Nebi Ukasha Ben Mohasin, one of Mohammed’s disciples. An abandoned 19th-century mosque and minaret, named for Nebi Ukasha, is found to your right.
Because there was an unobstructed view of Mount Scopus from the top of the Histadrut building, the Israeli army built an army post on the roof. It was manned from 1948 to 1967, when Jerusalem was divided and Mount Scopus was cut off from the rest of the city. From here they could watch as convoys traveled to Mount Scopus with Israeli soldiers – euphemistically called policemen- and supplies. During the 1967 Six Day War, this became headquarters for Jerusalem regiments attempting to take the Old City from Jordan.
In addition to its offices, the building hosted the Mitchell Cinema. It also became home to the Hapoel Jerusalem Basketball Club and was filled with fans during Friday night games.
Beit Straus (Straus House) is located further down the street. Born in Germany in 1848, Nathan Straus was raised in the United States and as an adult was deeply involved in good works — especially in the area of public health. Together with a host of other philanthropic deeds he performed in the late 19th century, Straus prepared and distributed sterilized milk to the destitute of New York, along with groceries and coal.
For years Straus ran a soup kitchen in the Old City, and when an earthquake shook the country in 1927 he sent a huge sum of money to help its victims. Two years later he donated this handsome medical facility, built around a lovely courtyard and graced with a stylish fountain. The entrance still features a stately double stairway.
During Arab riots in 1929, hundreds of Jews were killed or wounded. It was here, at the newly opened Straus Center, that survivors of the Hebron attacks were treated, and found a temporary refuge.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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