Transformed by the train: Jerusalem’s Bak’a neighborhood
An isolated farming outpost until the arrival of the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway 125 years ago, the area now boasts some of the capital’s most splendiferous buildings
A few years ago, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund) introduced the world to a new and different Blue Box. You may remember the old ones: they were blue and white and had Keren Kayemet LeIsrael written on the front in Hebrew. The money you shoved into their slots was sent to the JNF, charged with land reclamation in Palestine.
The idea of purchasing land in Palestine using coins collected in a box was first presented in 1884 by an early Zionist, German Professor Zvi Hermann Shapira. Nothing came of it at the time, but it is said that during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Theodor Herzl removed his hat and asked delegates to fill it up with money – thus contributing towards the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
In order to raise funds for the KKL, established during that same congress, a bank clerk from Galicia put a box in his desk and wrote on it “Keren Leumit” (National Fund).
The results were so astounding that he suggested Zionist officials use similar boxes in order to collect donations.
Not long afterwards, tin collection boxes known as Blue Boxes in English and “pushkes” in Yiddish began making their way into Jewish homes and communities all over the world.
The pushke factory was located in a gorgeous neighborhood that tourists rarely see and even Israelis often ignore.
Although the neighborhood’s official name is “Geulim” it is known by almost everyone as Bak’a.
For centuries, Bak’a’s land was used for farming; houses located this far outside the Old City were rare. One exception was the summer home built by wealthy property-owner Sheikh Muhamad El-Halili in the 17th century, a villa surrounded by vineyards and gardens.
Nothing much changed until 1892, when a train began operating between Jaffa and Jerusalem. The tracks ran right next to today’s Bak’a, and with the development of commerce in the area, wealthy Arabs began moving in. Then, during the War of Independence, the Arab population of Bak’a abandoned its homes. And from 1948 to 1967, when Bak’a was situated on the hostile Jordanian border, almost all of the residents were brand new immigrants with nowhere else to go.
After the Six-Day War, middle-class families realized the neighborhood’s potential and began moving in, while these days Bak’a is experiencing an influx of affluent European and American immigrants who build new homes or renovate older ones. Indeed, when we stroll through the neighborhood, we hear more French and English than Hebrew.
Bak’a is located right next to the tracks of a train that traveled to Jerusalem until the late 20th century. The station was abandoned for over a decade but, fortunately, workers began its restoration in 2010 and at the same time developed a marvelous park. Called Park Hamesila, it is lined by sweet-smelling grass and includes a flat walkway originally five kilometers long (and today nearly eight) that is perfect for bikes, wheelchairs and strollers. Altogether a wonderful addition to the Jerusalem scene.
During a jaunt along the tracks you see the railroad’s signal box, whose white wall sports an old photograph and part of a newspaper article from 1892 with the quote “thunder and noise. . . the train to Jerusalem has arrived!” The signalman sitting in the “box” controlled the semaphores, the light signals, and the interlocking equipment that ensured safe operation of the trains.
A few meters past the signal box, a dome peeks over the vegetation. It tops a round cement structure, one of many built by the British during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939 and dubbed “pillboxes” because of their shape. This one would have been put here to guard the railroad against Arab violence.
Along Baka’s HaRakevet (Train) Street there is a lovely Arab-built villa where new immigrants were housed – one family to a room – after the War of Independence. The structure has retained much of its rich, original look, from the arched entrance to the beautiful windows; an added story is totally without character. It has since been transformed into a synagogue called Sha’arei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven).
Originally the home and workshop of an Arab tanner, the synagogue on Yael Street was established in 1948. Founders were Holocaust survivors, many of whom moved to Jerusalem from other parts of the country in order to work in government offices and institutions. The building features a stunning lintel and, inside, beautiful arched ceilings.
Yair Street also features a small monument to three Bak’a residents killed in cold blood on October 21, 1990. That morning, an Arab terrorist bent on killing Jews walked into the tranquil Jerusalem neighborhood of Bak’a. In his hands he wielded a 16-inch knife.
Unarmed soldier Iris Azulai walked out of her house, on her way to her base. She had gone only a few steps when she was accosted by the terrorist – Omar Said Salah Abu Sirhan. She fought back, but Abu Sirhan stabbed her repeatedly until she was overcome. Like her attacker, Iris was 19 years old.
After murdering Azulai, the terrorist caught sight of Eli Altaretz, whose arms were full of plants that he was carrying to his nursery. Altaretz, too, was stabbed to death. Off-duty policeman Shalom “Charlie” Chelouche heard screaming, ran outside, and shot in the air before wounding the assailant. Then he, too, fell victim to Abu Sirhan’s blade.
On the corner of Yael and Barak Streets stands the very unusual Beit (House) Francis. The first floor, with its wide arches, was built at the end of the 19th century by a Christian Arab family possibly named Francis; additional stories, in a totally different style were made in the 1920’s, while the gable appeared during recent renovations.
Shimshon Street is chock full of splendiferous buildings that housed both important British officials during the Mandate, and wealthy automobile dealers. Next to a stunning home at the beginning of the street is a structure decorated with a variety of colored tiles. This was once the British Consulate and today houses the French Research Center in Jerusalem. Founded in 1952, the Center serves as a home base for French archeologists working in Israel.
Magnificent buildings line Baka’s Derech Beit Lechem (Bethlehem Road). On the corner of Yehuda Street a superb edifice built in 1930 was renovated some decades ago into a boutique hotel with over 30 rooms. The gateposts of another, far more modest house on Yehuda Street are topped by sculpted lions gazing at one another, while the living room picture window is made of stained glass. Built long ago by a wealthy Arab who moved to America in 1948, this is the dwelling of Lithuanian-born Aharon April, world-renowned Israeli artist, sculptor and art teacher.
Yehuda Street is also home to the famous Pelech (Spindle) High School. Founded in 1963 by Rabbi Rosenbluth and his wife Penina, Pelech was meant as an alternative to contemporary haredi girls’ high schools. Pelech started out in a clubhouse, moving from one inappropriate location to the next. Finally, in 1976 Pelech was offered this three-story building, at the time abandoned and totally dilapidated, on condition that the school would carry out the necessary renovations.
From the beginning, a wide variety of subjects were taught at Pelech, including mathematics, physics and compulsory Talmud studies. This angered the Haredi establishment, which proclaimed the school off limits. But more modern orthodox families were delighted to offer their girls a less parochial and far broader education than was available elsewhere.
Renowned educator Alice Shalvi was principal for 15 of Pelech’s most formative years. Shalvi, winner of the Israel Prize in 2007, introduced an atmosphere of creativity, democracy, and social commitment into Pelech, which is, today, one of the highest rated high schools in the country.
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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