Snuggled between the posh Rehavia, European quarter and the noisy and colorful Jerusalem market, Mahane Yehuda, stands the Nahlaot neighborhood, one of the most if not the most vibrant and coveted district in Jerusalem.
Nahlaot is not only a piece of history, whose roots go back to the late 1800’s, when a series of burgeoning tiny neighborhoods were constructed outside the Old City walls (where overcrowded conditions and lack of sanitation called for new urbanization projects). Nahlaot provides a timeless experience to visitors and locals alike. Walking on its narrow streets of cobblestone, amid ancient buildings with arched windows and thick walls, one is transported to a different time frame, where life transpired at a slower pace, where neighbors relied on each other for help and Shabbat was announced by the blowing of the Shofar. Housewives then hurried to the neighborhood’s communal stone ovens to secure a space for their pots of Chamin, or Cholent, often adding a ribbon to the lid for easy identification. By Shabbat morning, the neighborhood exuded a delightful smell of home-made cookery.
The History of Nahlaot
Today, many things have changed in Nahlaot, while others seem to have defied the laws of time. For one, the different areas comprised within the district still maintain their original names. Mishkenot Israel was the first neighborhood established in 1875. Mazkeret Moshe was founded by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1882, as the first Ashkenazic neighborhood, followed by its Sephardic counterpart, Ohel Moshe, right next to it. Ohel Moshe was the home of former Israeli President, Itzhak Navon, whose famous piece Bustan Sepharadi (Sephardic Orchard), was inspired by his early life in the colorful neighborhood. By 1900, a Syrian community settled in Nahlaot and constructed its famous Addes synagogue, based on the original Halep model. Mishkenot Israel, founded by the Yemenite community, South of Bezalel St, still operates its original tiny, one room synagogues and the ancestral Yemenite chanting resonates in the streets of Nahlaot on Friday night. Reb Aryeh Levine’s original home is located in Nahalat Ahim. The Rabbi was famous for his acts of loving kindness, as well as for visiting the sick in hospitals and imprisoned Jewish underground members, locked in the nearby Russian compound, way before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Varied and different Jewish Nahlaot communities are easily identified within Nahlaot’s eclectic human fabric by the names of their synagogues, which today amount to roughly one hundred. The Knesset Aleph, Batei Broide and Batei Rand neighborhoods house the original followers of the Vilna Gaon, under whose influence, 500 families made Aliyah to the Land of Israel from Lithuania, between 1808 and 1812, as well as members of Old Jerusalem and Hassidic traditions. Many of their buildings are constructed around a common patio, where girls wearing black stockings and skirts down to their ankles can be seen, pushing strollers or carrying shopping bags to the crowded quarters, comprised within two or three streets. Signs asking visitors to dress modestly and avoid taking photos on Shabbat abound around these enclaves. While these Ultra-Orthodox communities keep to themselves and prefer to avoid outside influences like television and internet, they are known to show tolerance towards other members of Nahlaot, who take care not to provoke them. The Or Zaruah synagogue was built by the Ma’aravim community (North Africa) in 1926 by Rabbi Abraham Aburbeh. The original building located on Shmuel Raphaeli St. in Nahalat Ahim, was declared a historic preservation site in 1989.Rabbi Aburbeh was appointed chief Rabbi of Nahlaot from 1924 to 1951 and was succeeded by Rabbi Rahamim Levy until 2013.
Blending old and new
Due to its central location, close proximity to the Mahane Yehuda market and short walking distance from the center of town, Nahlaot is in high demand by students, New Age hippies, young families, artists and musicians, as well as new religious zealots from North America and Europe. It is not uncommon to hear the sounds of saxophones and clarinets, playing in nearby houses or better even, on the streets of Nahlaot or in the Mahane Yehuda market, where street concerts, magician and pantomime shows are on offer for everyone to enjoy. The Barbur gallery, a not-for profit space, offers artists and film makers a venue to exhibit their wares and talents.
The neighborhood is unusual and has its own unwritten laws. People congregate on street corners to talk until the break of dawn, others throw spongia water (water used to clean floors) out of the window, quarrels ensue; in short, the neighborhood is full of folklore and bears the imprint of a vibrant People, who enjoy living by day and by night.
Religious Pluralism at its Best
Come Shabbat, a siren is heard around the neighborhood. Small local bars and shops close their doors and loud activities come to a halt. Newer synagogues, such as Kol Rina and Maayanot open their doors to hundreds of young worshippers, all dressed in pretty colorful clothes and Shabbat Zemirot, Carlebachian style are chanted loudly, both in and out doors. A street minyan operates on the courtyard of Bet Ha’am, Gerard Behar arts center, where Adolf Eichmann’s trial was carried out in 1961 and which was later renovated into a venue for dance troupes and theatre performances.
Not everyone observes Shabbat in Nahlaot. By Friday sundown, many young people migrate to the nearby Saccher Park to practice Acro-yoga, Tai Chi and other martial arts or to play guitar and drums and partake a Shabbat picnic meal on the grass.
Nahlaot -the Trendiest Place to Live
The fact that almost all Jerusalemites want to live in Nahlaot does not come as a surprise. But the rental market has skyrocketed over the last two decades. Gorgeous one hundred year old, one room Arab homes with high ceilings and arched windows, whose original structure included a kitchen and bathroom in the patio, converted inner patios, standing above ancient sewerage systems, add an extra room to many illegal structures; refurbished bomb shelters, windowless studios, electric wires exposed, mold on the walls and cockroaches, aside opulently refurbished original Jerusalem stone buildings, all of the above going for exorbitant prices, in short, a Landlord’s Paradise where demand way exceeds the offer.
So if you are looking for a pad in Nahlaot, don’t hesitate! Consider yourself lucky if you find an apartment, as another fifteen people will be ready to grab it. Surprises will come later but the experience of living among such a friendly crowd, who are always ready to give a hand and invite you for a Shabbat meal is certainly worth the inconvenience of living in a one hundred year old home, where the tiny bathroom called shiruklahat, will allow you to relieve yourself and take a shower simultaneously, thus saving precious time before morning rush hour.