No doubt you have heard, perhaps more than once, how the Turks surrendered Jerusalem to a British army cook in 1917. But did you know that there were actually four surrenders?
Three of these historic events took place on more or less the exact spot, at the time an open field on the highest hill in Jerusalem. Called Allenby Square, it is situated in the heart of what would soon become Romema, established in 1921 as the first Jerusalem neighborhood founded during the British Mandate in Palestine.
Intended as a classy neighborhood of 24 houses, Romema was far from the noise of the town and situated between the Arab villages of Lifta and Sheikh Bader. Unlike many other Jerusalem neighborhoods, it was built with private funding. It also differed in a distinct dearth of planning, so it lacks parks and any kind of homogeneity. In the end and apparently for lack of money, just over a dozen grandiose buildings were constructed.
The initiator of the project was Turkish-born attorney Yom Tov Hamon, a district court judge and an expert in Ottoman law and issues concerning land ownership. He was often called in to arbitrate in disputes between Arab landowners in the region. When there was a disagreement about ownership of the land on this hill, Hamon decreed that the plot should be sold — and it was thus made available for a Jewish neighborhood.
The name “Romema” was taken from the Psalms: “The Lord’s right hand is lifted high (romem)…” Indeed, at the time this was the highest hill in Jerusalem – somewhere between 810 and 830 meters above sea level.
Most of the original streets were named for the Hebrew newspapers in print at the time: they included Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s Hatzvi, and HaOr, and renowned Rabbi Ben Zion Koainkh’s HaMeasef.
Most of the houses in Romema that were built after the establishment of the State of Israel are drab and lacking in character. But a few of the elegant original buildings still stand and often have been artfully preserved.
Allenby 2 is both an address and the name of the establishment across from the Square. Two floors added in the 1950s destroyed much of the original house’s charm, but it still boasts lovely window frames and a magnificent entrance. For the past 20 years or so, it has served as a guesthouse conveniently located near the Central Bus Station.
Across from the Central Bus Station on HaTzvi Street stands a house built by Hebron-born lawyer Aharon Mani, scion to a long line of famous Iraqi rabbis. Built in 1925, the ambiance has been disturbed by later additions. But the porch and staircase are magnificent, and fit charmingly onto the corner of the street.
Its nearest neighbor is an elegant domain built by pioneer hotelier Yehiel Amdurski. Absolutely gorgeous, the house was constructed out of red stone brought from quarries in Hebron. Twin porches are held up by Doric pillars, and their inner ceilings are covered by large paintings.
Next door to the Amdurski house stands a dwelling that belonged to the Hefetz family from Bukhara. Less grandiose than some of the others, it has one unique feature: a lintel whose decorative blue and white tiles with a windmill design were brought home by family members after a trip to Holland.
Parallel to HaTzvi Street, Ariel Street has several magnificent structures of its own. One of them boasts four Tuscan (smooth) columns, and a gable above the entrance. The date of construction – 1923 – and the name of architect A. Balog are engraved in large letters (and numbers) on the wall.
A tiny synagogue for Jews from Kurdistan is found at the front of the edifice next door. Four families live in the building, enough, we were told, to meet the minimal requirements for daily worship. Apparently because the synagogue is so small, the women sit out on the porch during prayers.
Adorable people-shaped shutter holders on the windows of this building and several others on the street are collectors’ items today. Brought to this country by German Templers, the iron holders are known by their Yiddish name of menchelach.
Moldova-born Rabbi Fishman-Maimon erected the unusual house across the street. One of the first to appear in Romema, it boasts a unique façade, with a Star of David engraved in stone above the entrance. The date – 1922 – and the rabbi’s first name Yehuda are written inside and around the Star of David. Rabbi Fishman-Maimon was one of the founders of the religious-Zionist movement “Mizrahi”. It was at his urging that David Ben-Gurion established a Ministry of Religious Affairs during his first term as prime minister.
Following the fall of the both First and Second Temples, sages declared that every new building must carry a reminder of that destruction. That reminder was to be an unpainted area one cubit by one cubit (46 centimeters by 46 centimeters) in size. Many observant Jews take this edict literally and leave an unplastered black square on their walls.
Inside this building and at the top of the stairs, a picture is embedded into the walls – on a black background measuring one cubit by one cubit. Its ceramic tiles depict the River of Babylon, weeping willow, harp and all and the text reads: In Memory of the Destruction: If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget…“ (from Psalms 137).
Romema’s HaAdrichal (the architect) Street refers to German-born Ricard Kaufmann, who designed over 150 of Israel’s towns, farming communities and garden neighborhoods, but not a single building in Romema. Some say that residents hoped the sign would tempt Kaufmann into developing their neighborhood.
One of the street’s residences was recently demolished and replaced by an ultra-modern structure. The original house was built by Altar Levine, a pioneer in the insurance business who wrote poems under the pseudonym of Asaf HaLevy.
Altar Levine was found hanging on a palm tree in the yard of his home in 1933, with nary a word of explanation. A solution to the mystery of his sudden demise may have been found in 1991, where a forgotten journal in an Istanbul library contends that Levine was a spy. According to the journal, written by a Turkish commander in Jerusalem, Levine assisted the British during World War I — and helped bring about the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Possibly, say some, Levine’s death was an act of revenge carried out long after the war’s end.
Romema’s founder, Yom Tov Hamon, built the fabulous house on the corner of HaAdrichal and Hamon Streets. Recently renovated, the exterior exterior is a feast for the eyes and features ornamental balconies, a pyramid-shaped metal top, and a roof lined with little pillars.
The tallest structure in Romema is a water tower erected by the British at the beginning of their mandate in Palestine. This was the highest point in the city at the time, and gravitational forces sent water from the adjacent pool into pipes all over the city.
But over the years, Jerusalem developed so quickly that the city required far more water than it had available. From 1934-1936 the British prepared an extensive water system that tapped a few of the Yarkon River’s springs and pumped this life source to Jerusalem. Water was thrust upward to Jerusalem’s main reservoir through a number of pumping stations – a total distance of 62.5 kilometers.
Arabs blew up one of the pumping stations during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and the pipeline was effectively taken out of action. Under Arab siege for months, Jerusalem was without access to water and returned to the system used for hundreds of years: collecting water in barrels on their rooftops.
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.