On Agrippas Street, Jerusalem built to the sky and feuding synagogues multiplied
One of the earliest Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City has been revived in recent years, but retains its historic charm
Agrippas Street is one of the oldest, but busiest byways in Jerusalem. But until the late 19th century, it was just a tiny path alongside a patch of ground owned by an Arab who didn’t want Jews on his property and took pleasure in shooing them away. Then one dark night in 1875, Jews from the newly established neighborhoods adjacent to the property got together, worked until dawn, and turned it into a public thoroughfare.
The new road became known as BILA – an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “overnight” or “been laiyla”. Later on the name was changed to Agrippas, perhaps because 2,000 years ago or so, King Agrippas II paved the city’s streets with marble.
All sorts of tiny, historic neighborhoods extend out from Agrippas Street, like picturesque little Even Yisrael. Dating back to 1875, Even Yisrael was the sixth Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The name Even Yisrael (stone of Israel) has two origins. The numerical value for the Hebrew word “even” is 53 — exactly the number of homes that were planned for the neighborhood. But there is also a biblical connection to the name. A passage in Genesis reads: “But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Stone (even) of Israel” [Genesis 49:24].
Built with money and the initiative of the future residents, most of the settlers erected two-room dwellings with a little yard that held the kitchen and the dining room. Houses also featured cellars for storing wine, coal and oil. The main courtyard was the hub of life for the neighborhood, for it held a synagogue, ritual bath, ovens and cisterns. As there were no gates at either entrance to the neighborhood, people walking between Jaffa Road and Rehov Agrippas often made their way through the lively little community of Even Yisrael. Although some of the houses have become galleries, workshops or stores, the neighborhood still retains much of its charm.
One side of the main courtyard features a single three-story building, dating way back to the beginning of the neighborhood. It belonged to American millionairess Rebecca Levy. Known to locals as “the house of the Widow Levy”, it is considered to have been Jerusalem’s first skyscraper.
A winding alley ends at the Sephardic Orphanage, founded in 1908 after the Ashkenazim (Jews from eastern and western Europe) had already built two orphanages of their own. Children lived and studied — in Hebrew — at the orphanage, learning both religious subjects and secular ones. The building has two stories, and when Turkish and German troops took over the building during World War I they used the ground floor and courtyard for stabling and exercising their horses. Today the structure houses one Ashkenazic and one Sephardic synagogue along with a kollel (institute for religious study).
Across the street, an arched entranceway leads into the Sukkat Shalom neighborhood, established in 1888. Since its founders were mainly Yemenite Jews who worked in construction, they were able to put up most of the neighborhood’s houses by themselves. The name comes from a verse in the Bible: “His tent [sukka] is in Salem [Jerusalem], his dwelling place in Zion” [Psalms 76:20].
Bordering Sukkat Shalom, a two-story edifice in the neighborhood of Mishkenot Yisrael houses two synagogues. In the beginning, this was a one-story synagogue in which two different groups held a minyan (daily prayers). Apparently, however, the more veteran group took so long at its morning prayers that newer worshipers had to cut theirs short. This caused a major rift, solved when a benefactor donated money for a second synagogue atop the first.
Nearby, a magnificent reddish building on Mesilat Yesharim Street is known as Beit Mazya (Mazya House). Russian-born Aharon Meir Mazya was a doctor, a linguist and a rabbi. His first stop after immigrating to the Holy Land in 1888 was in Rishon Lezion, where he became physician to area settlers. At the beginning of the 20th century he brought his family to Jerusalem, where he constructed this lovely villa. Employed as a doctor at Bikur Holim Hospital, he also ran a clinic in his home. Nevertheless he found time to author the first medical dictionary in Hebrew – creating Hebrew names for medical-related terms.
For decades the building was home to a variety of educational institutions. During Mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term in office, it was bought by the City, which performed massive renovations as part of an effort to bring culture back into the center of town. In December, 2011, exactly one century after its construction, Beit Mazya opened as a venue for three theater companies: the veteran Jerusalem Group, mainly female actors and directors; Psik, which performs comedy del’arte with a Jerusalem content; and Incubator, young, brash and exciting.
Two blocks away stands the complex known as Batei Rand. Rabbi Mendel Rand was a hassid from Galicia, Poland, who arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. He brought great wealth from his native land, where he owned farms, forests, and sawmills. After landing in Jaffa he made his way to the Old City of Jerusalem, where he bought a large plot of land, built a house, and settled a number of his hassidic followers in rent-free apartments.
Around the same time, another rabbi — Yaakov Broyda — moved to Jerusalem. In 1902, he donated a large sum of money for a neighborhood in New Jerusalem that would carry his name. There was one condition, however: it was meant solely for mitnagdim (ultra-orthodox Europeans who opposed Hassidism).
Rabbi Rand was quite upset when heard the news, or so they say. Soon afterwards, he bought the lot adjacent to Batei Broyda and constructed an apartment building with two stories and a beautiful synagogue. Each apartment had one or two rooms with a tiny kitchen area. Three cisterns were central to life in the neighborhood: two were for drinking water and a smaller one was used for laundry. Incredibly, Batei Broyda looks almost exactly as it did a century ago, including an outdoor mikva which is not a ritual bath, but a sink for purifying dishes.
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.
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