By Joe Yudin
I used to wander around Neve Tzedek in the early 1990’s. The buildings were falling apart, the roads were riddled with potholes, but it still had that cultural feeling of the immigrants and the artists who lived among them who had settled there in the 50’s & 60’s. It was a charming, but rundown neighborhood. There were a couple of great bohemian bars, a few funky struggling galleries and some pretty cool flea market type thrift shops. It seemed that there was a “For Sale” sign on every other dilapidated building, and I was positive that this neighborhood would be the next big deal in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately for me I was just a twenty something year old soldier making a few hundred shekels a month without a cent to my name and my parents had no interest investing in their adventurous sons adamant proposal to invest in Tel Aviv real estate a few years before Israel’s foray into capitalism. So there was no way I was going to buy one of these needed to be condemned and renovated, historical buildings. Luckily for all of us there were those people who could see past the grime and neglect of these buildings, some older than 100 years, and not just renovate them, but fight city hall and developers from knocking them down and replacing them with skyscrapers. A compromise was reached and room was made for a few modern apartment complexes and many of the original buildings have been restored to their 19th century grandeur.
Today Neve Tzedek is a very happening place. You can visit top notch galleries, museums, restaurants, bars, boutique hotels, and stores that sell top Israeli designer jewelry, clothing and accessories. The asphalt on the roads and alleyways has recently been torn up and replaced with newfangled cobblestone. Lastly, the buildings, both residential and business are undergoing massive renovation and restoration and the neighborhood has never looked better, if you can overlook a few misplaced skyscrapers going up that is. A great place to start the tour is at the Suzanne Dellal Centre. You should do this tour with a map.
In 1869 the Ottoman authorities paved the first road between Jaffa and Jerusalem. A prominent Jewish family from Jerusalem, the Rokach family, secured the rights for tolls on the road. In 1870 the Alliance Israélite Universelle was established along the newly paved road just southeast of what would become Tel Aviv and the agricultural school of Mikve Yisrael was born. It was created in order to help bring French-Jewish culture and agricultural know how into the Land of Israel for the early pioneers. In 1886 Shimon Rokach secured this land where we are now outside of the Jaffa city walls after witnessing the horrid sanitary conditions in the Jewish Quarter of the city. He created two societies which aided Jewish settlement outside of the confines of Jaffa: B’nei Zion & Ezrat Yisrael. In 1892, as the railway opened nearby, the Alliance constructed both a boys and girls school during the Second Aliyah (the great Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1904 and 1914) of idealistic, mostly Russian Jews, built this campus consisting of the Alliance and Yechiely Schools as well as a teachers college. Many artists, writers and even a prominent newspaper established themselves in Neve Tzedek during this period. The houses built had a French-European feel to them with courtyards for cooking and laundry all built one attached to the other so the buildings themselves would act as a fortress against Bedouin marauders. During the Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939 this was a dangerous place, wedged between the Arab city of Jaffa and Jewish Tel Aviv and most of Neve Tzedek’s population relocated to Tel Aviv proper and Neve Tzedek lay abandoned until the 1950’s.
Standing in the middle of the square at the Suzanne Dellal Center you will see dozens of citrus tress interspersed with small canals of water feeding them. This is symbolic of the Jaffa orange groves planted outside of the city walls which became a symbol of the Labour Zionist pioneer movement, shedding off the old world Jewish stereotypes and refashioning the Jewish image into the farmer-laborer as was the case in the bible. The exit from this square to the west will take you out to the French style restaurant Suzanna, one of my favorites, on Shabazi Street which is the main drag of Neve Tzedek and home to bars, shops and restaurants. On the northern side of the square is a beautiful mural to which the likes of Aaron Chelouche, Shimon Rokach, Joseph Brenner, S.Y. Agnon and 19th century Zionist Rabbi Avraham Kook are painted. Also check out the depictions of the railway, Chelouche Bridge, Jaffa orange orchards and other early Neve Tzedek personalities and events.
These two buildings originally schools, which now house dance companies, including the world famous Bethsheva Dance Troupe were once secret Haganah and Irgun training grounds after World War II. Behind the Girls School to the east is a well where Menachem Begin launched a retaliatory attack on Jaffa in April of 1948, leading to the flight of most of Jaffa’s Arab population and the incorporation of Jaffa into the State of Israel. Here is an excerpt from his speech before the attack:
Soldiers of the Irgun! We are going to conquer Jaffa. We are setting out on one of the decisive battles in the struggle for Israel’s independence. Know who stands before you, remember who you have left behind. You face a cruel foe, who wishes to destroy us. Behind you are our parents, our brethren, our children. Strike at the foe! Aim well! Spare ammunition! In this battle, show no mercy to the enemy, as he knows none towards our people. Spare women and children. Spare the life of anyone who raises his hands in surrender. He is your captive. Do not harm him…
Go back to the square between the old school buildings to the mural and exit Yehieli Street there between the gelato and pottery shops. Notice the small little park as you turn right on Chelouche and the second left onto Rokach. Rokach and the next street over to the north, Stein Street, are the first two streets built in Neve Tzedek by the original 48 families. Walk up this road to house #36 on your right which was Shimon Rokach’s house. Rokach is the one who bought this land from Chelouch. Rokach would always be the first one in the morning to begin work on the new Jewish suburb and he would fill up 100 sandbags himself each day in order to level off the sand dunes. This unique house was slated for demolition in the late 1970’s until Rokach’s great-grand daughter and famous Israeli-feminist sculptor, Lea Majaro- Mintz, stepped in to restore it and turn it into a museum. Check it out.
Continue down Rokach, cross over Pines St. and then stand on the corner of Yehudah HaLevi St. Check out the beautifully restored houses all around you from 19th century brownstone to 1930’s Bauhaus. Continue walking on the same side of the street until you are opposite #28 & 32 Pines Street. These two houses called “The Twins” were built by Aaron Chelouche for his two sons from prefabricated materials and are amongst the first built in Neve Tzedek. Walk between the two buildings on Sharabi Street which is in my opinion one of the most beautiful streets in Tel Aviv. From there either wander back to the Suzanne Dellal Center, or turn right on Neve Tzedek Street to Sharabi Street which is the main drag or turn left on Neve Tzedek Street to the corner of Stein where you will find the Nahmun Gutman Museum of Art. Check it out.
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