So here’s my question: If Levi Eshkol were running in elections today, would the party he headed have won?
Probably not. For Levi Eshkol, one of the founders of our first kibbutz, the Hagana Defense Forces, and the Histadrut Workers’ Union, who was the force behind our water transportation system, launched our booming economy, forged our “special relationship” with America and served as prime minister during the Six-Day War, wasn’t a dashing figure, a gifted public speaker or unusually charismatic. Ergo he, and his party, probably wouldn’t have stood a chance – because today it is all about the candidate’s image.
But in the sixties, voters looked beyond the surface. Thus Eshkol was elected in 1963 and reigned as prime minister until his death in office in 1969. During that time, he lived in the Prime Ministers’ Residence, a house on Ben Maimon boulevard in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem – today a remarkable Visitors’ Center called Beit Levi Eshkol.
The house was built in 1933 by Captain Julius Yehuda Jacobs, an English Jew from a Zionist family who held a high ranking position in the British civil administration in Palestine. Russian-British architect Benjamin Chaikin planned the villa, and designed the open-air theater at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus that same year.
Jacobs was unusually honest and straightforward and over the years found himself torn by conflicting loyalties. He couldn’t bring himself to reveal to the British the important secrets he learned from his friends who were members of the Haganah (clandestine Jewish defense forces). And his position in the British Civil Administration made him privy to highly confidential material that would have been extremely helpful to the Haganah.
Finally, Jacobs asked for a less sensitive job, and began working for the British administration in the King David Hotel. When it was blown up by the Jewish underground on July 22, 1946, Jacobs was one of the many victims.
Jacob’s family leased – and eventually sold – the house to the State of Israel. Thus when Israel’s brand-new government needed a suitable residence for prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the 1950’s, this two-storied edifice was chosen.
Eventually the building deteriorated and when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister for the first time in 1974, he and his wife Leah moved to what they considered more appropriate surroundings nearby. In 1977 it was decided to turn the house into a Visitors’ Center that would perpetuate Eshkol’s memory. But for the next 39 years it stood empty, finally surrendering its grandeur to overgrown dry weeds and graffiti-covered walls.
Which is why we were so delighted to find renovations being carried out in 2015 by the non-profit Yad Eshkol organization together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage.
Beit (House) Levi Eshkol opened to the public on December 20, 2016 and is completely wheelchair accessible. Our favorite part of the tour, which takes visitors through the building’s restored rooms, is a film shown in the living room on Eshkol’s life. What makes it unusually interesting is the way that it beautifully mirrors the development of the State of Israel. An ecological garden is maintained by the SPNI, whose offices are on the second floor.
Along the street
Ben Maimon boulevard, the street on which the house stands, was apparently designed by neighborhood residents Eliezer Yellin and Wilhelm Hecker. It was intended as a European style thoroughfare, and although the ambience pales by comparison to Tel Aviv’s Rothschild boulevard, the path in the middle that begins at 32 Ben Maimon does have some of the same features including benches and shady trees – including 80-year old carobs. The early kiosk operates today as a very unique sandwich bar.
Ben Maimon boulevard was named for the great medieval rabbi, scholar, physician and Talmudist Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or the Rambam. The street could have been called Ramban, but that would have been confusing, as the similar sounding Ramban Street is only a few blocks away. (Ramban is the acronym for Moses ben Nahman, another illustrious medieval rabbi).
Houses along the boulevard include the Foner-Hyman House at 30, built in 1932 and designed by the same team that designed the boulevard. Unfortunately, the only original portion that remains, after it was razed in 2003, is the lovely half circular entrance. A photograph on the exterior wall shows what the house looked like in its heyday.
The building next door replaces a two-story house erected in 1935. It is one of several Jerusalem structures that guides take tourists on a tour of the city’s “cursed” buildings. For while some of the country’s most important people grew up on Ben Maimon boulevard in houses nearby, residents of 32 haven’t been quite as successful. The owner was killed in a fire in 1974, for example, and 10 years ago an elderly neighborhood woman suffering from Alzheimer disease was found two weeks after her disappearance on the stairs in an unfinished portion of the building.
Ernst Akiva Simon lived at 35 Ben Maimon boulevard. Simon, a German-born religious philosopher and educator, immigrated with his wife in 1928. Lacking financial resources, they bought a plot on Ben Maimon boulevard – at the time just a dirt path on the periphery of Rehavia. In addition to many other honors, Simon was awarded the prestigious Israeli Prize for education in 1967. The stunning current building looks nothing like the very modest structure put up by the Simons in 1930.
Today resting on its laurels after operating for over 73 years, the Nora Gallery was the first of its kind in this country. The gallery was originally housed on nearby Agron Street, but has been at 9 Ben Maimon since 1954.
After the death in 1980 of Eleonora Wilensky, who initiated the non-profit enterprise, her daughter Dina Hanoch kept the gallery going for the next 35 years. It is closed most of the year, now, but the gallery, which has hosted more than 550 different exhibitions, still participates in the October Manofim Cultural Festival.
Not surprisingly, the house at 8 Ben Maimon looks quite a bit a lot like the building next door (#6). That’s because they were both designed in 1934 by architects Raphael and Dan Ben Dor. The houses belonged to Nassib Abcarius, a very wealthy and highly respected Greek Orthodox Egyptian lawyer who fell in love with a woman 30 years his junior. She was Lea Tannenbaum, and the daughter of a rich, ultra-orthodox Jerusalem merchant.
After an Alexandria wedding, the adoring husband built one house for himself and Lea and another next door for renters. One of them was Daniel Auster, Jerusalem’s first Jewish mayor (he was appointed acting mayor when the city’s Arab mayor was on vacation during the British Mandate in 1937). He was also the first mayor of Jerusalem after the State of Israel was established, resigning in 1951.
Villa Lea wasn’t inhabited by the new lovers for long after going quickly going through the family funds she apparently ran off with another man. The words “Villa Lea,” inscribed by her besotted husband, are still visible above the entrance.
Beit Eshkol Hours:
By advance arrangement, Sunday-Thursday 9-17:00, and once a month on Fridays. Individuals can join group tours at that time. Phone 02-6313091 or write to email@example.com. Cost is NIS 25, seniors NIS 20 and for children 6-18 NIS 18.
Information on Nora Gallery: write to this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.