The Urban Village of Nachlaot

One of the most fascinating areas in Jerusalem is Nachlaot close to Mahane Yehuda Market.   Its winding lanes and alleyways reveal a variety of architecture, hidden courtyards, artists’ studios and a proliferation of synagogues.

The original residents arrived in the late 1870’s to escape the overcrowded  and unhealthy living conditions in the Old City. The first community built was there was Mishkenot Yisrael.  Sir Moses Montefiore, the British Jewish philanthropist, established  the first community outside the Old City  walls at  Mishkenot Sha’ananim. He then created two Nachlaot communities, Mazkeret Moshe, for  Ashkenazim followed by  Ohel Moshe  for Sephardim in 1882. Three others  were also named in his honour. In 1900 Jews from Syria arrived and 1925  the Yemenites established Nachalat Achim. Nachlaot ultimately comprised 23 groups including Kurds, Greeks, Persians, Italians, Armenians, North Africans plus Ashkenazim from various countries.

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Dedication to Sir Moses Montefiore at the entrance of  Ohel Moshe.

Walking through the narrow cobbled streets one can readily bring to life the rich tapestry of cultures living together harmoniously from the photographs and texts mounted on the house walls telling of the families that once lived there.

Daniel Senior’s family were expelled from Spain in 1492, fled to Turkey and eventually came to Jerusalem. He lived in the Old City, running a vegetable shop in partnership with an Arab. As one of the first to move to Ohel Moshe, then surrounded by fields, he was regarded as the Mukhtar (Head of the Village).   His home comprised one room, on top of which he built a second and then a third – the ground floor eventually becoming a store. 

Rabbi Binyamin Halevy’s family fled from Spain to Livorno Italy where they remained for 240 years, coming to Jerusalem in 1732. Halevy’s descendants became scholars, rabbis and community leaders.  One was Chief Rabbi.  It was he who supervised the re-building of a water and sewage system for Nachlaot damaged by earthquake. He made a huge contribution to Jewish life  and was an ardent Zionist. Another was an emissary who, in 1882, travelled to India to investigate the Black Jews of Cochin whose history dates back to the 12th century.  He returned declaring that they should be allowed to convert to Judaism although it took until 1950 for the majority of them to reach Israel. Halevy’s descendants are ninth generations Israelis.

Others commemorated in the plaques are  Rabbi Shalom Hadaya,  who chose to live there because “They speak Ladino, which I do not understand, so I will not be able to hear slander” (Lashon hara), and Avraham Cohen – the Dairyman for Nachlaot – whose family have now lived in Israel for ten generations.Navon familyG_9419.JPG

Photo and text of Navon’s family.

The first Sephardi Israeli president, Yitzchak Navon, was born in Ohel Moshe in 1921, descended from Spanish Jews who settled in Turkey after fleeing Spain. They moved to Jerusalem in 1670.   As well as being a diplomat and academic, Navon was an accomplished author and reminiscences of his childhood in Ohel Moshe  provided the inspiration for his play Bustan Sephardi ( Sephardi Orchard) in 1970.

Written in Ladino, (a Spanish based language spoken by Sephardi Jews) it is the longest running play to appear at Habima Theatre where it ran for 28 years.  It celebrates, through stories and songs, the vibrant life of Ohel Moshe in the 1930’s.

At one time there were 300 synagogues in Nachlaot, probably the largest number to be built anywhere in the world in such close proximity. Some were simply a room to accommodate the 10 men required for communal prayers. Today there remain around 100  offering a choice of  prayer services to suit all tastes.

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Interior of Ades Synagogue     

Jews from Aleppo built the Ades synagogue, renowned for its unique liturgical style and baquashot (pleas) – a cycle of Cabalistic poetry sung at 3am Shabbat mornings during the winter months. Apparently it plays to full houses and for one brief moment I considered going to the service, but common sense prevailed, added to the fact that I have never been known to rise before 9am.   Instead I visited the synagogue at a respectable hour, found the door open and  was permitted to enter and take photographs.  The interior is exquisite – the Ark  occupies the entire eastern wall and is made of carved walnut inlaid with mother of pearl.  It was brought from Damascus over 100 years ago.  A mural adorns another wall, created by one of founders of the the Bezalel Art School.

ADes aron kodesh..jpg  Ark of the Ades Synagogue

The Or Zarua synagogue (1926),  in Spanish North African style, is now a historic preservation site, and nearby is the Chessed Ve Rachamim ( Kindness and Mercy) Sephardi synagogue, with its richly decorated interior and depictions of the Twelve Tribes and the Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valour) poem on  its frontage.  The building is eclectic, resembling something from Grimm’s fairy tales, but it was still surprising to discover that it had once been a pub. Not something that one normally expects to find in Jerusalem, akin to the fish and chip shop that I discovered in Mahane Yehuda.

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Front of Chessed ve Rachamim Synagogue

90 years ago a local butcher, Isaac Emosa, persuaded the pub owner to vacate the premises immediately  with an offer of £10 sterling.   One of Emosa’s descendants, Cantor Mori Emosa leads the services today – it is said that his  ‘utterly precise cantillation’ is operatic aria.(quote:Jacob Solomon)

After WW1 6,000 people lived in Nachlaot. New immigrants arrived in the 1920’s but many preferred the newer neighbourhoods and Nachlaot became home to those who rented properties – the area became neglected.  Following the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), more arrived, including Jews who had been thrown out of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City by the Jordanians and Jews fleeing from North African countries.

After the reunification of the City in 1967,  the population increased rapidly but then fell to 4,000 by 1988 as it had  become a slum. Fortunately in 1991 the area was selected for renovation with grants available from the municipality.  This created a new lifeline for Nachlaot and today it is a melting pot of artists, musicians, new age hipsters and health gurus who mix seamlessly with traditional religious  communities.

Exploring and researching Nachlaot demonstrated just how fortunate it was that those early visionaries followed their dream, crossing continents,  often trekking across mountains and deserts to reach their promised land. One cannot imagine their trials and tribulations en route, but they arrived, and in doing so contributed significantly to the development of the country.

It was also invigorating to meet some of the impressive young people who are today dedicating their lives to regenerating a love of Zion in the hearts of their contemporaries.

They aim to restore some of the values and joy in Judaism that for many has  been lost. I spoke with David Abitbol for whom the  Abrahamic  tradition of hospitality to strangers is ‘a cultural imperative’.  He and his wife Ayo invite visitors to their home each Shabbat where up to 20 or so people are hosted by this warm, energetic and intelligent couple.  The bonus is that they are both excellent cooks who spends much of their time exploring the world of food with the emphasis on nutrition and health. David is an avowed ‘foodie’ who set up a website called ‘Jewlicious’.

Ayo (studying for her Masters in natural resource management), recently hosted a chocolate making workshop and gives yoga lessons (not at the same time) and the couple help to organise music and cultural events.

Music however  is not new to Nachlaot – well known performers Ehud and Yossi Banaiand Aaron and Yonatan Razel, lived there. On my last visit whilst walking down a peaceful lane I heard fascinating sounds emanating from a building – this turned out to be ‘Ethnic Musical’ a studio specialising in  promoting Central Asian music from countries such as Persia, Armenia,Turkey and Azerbaijan. They sell a beautiful range of locally made ouds

2017-01-11 16.06.28.jpg ( see above) and I also learned about the Kamanche, the Persian Tar and the eight stringed Tanbur (instrument of lovers) – all new to me. I also met some musical devotees who,  when asked why they chose to play these instruments, responded – “the instrument chose me”. Several of the customers are descendants of the original Kurdish Jews for whom this music would have been familiar.   It was moving  to see how the owners of Ethnic Musical  are revitalising traditional music from the original dwellers of Nachlaot and simultaneously enriching the lives of the vibrant  young community that now lives and works there.

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