Exploring Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Taking a selfie of a selfie in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Eden and Askadar, the Ethiopian girls I tutor,  were reviewing their list of new English vocabulary with me. We were on the page of words that began with S.

It was Eden’s turn to read. “S-el-ef. Atzmi.’ Sehl-ef.” She stared at the English word and its translation a moment and broke into a broad grin, extending her left arm in the air, above her face. “Oh, Selfie!” she exclaimed.

I doubt either girl will ever forget what the word “self” means.

Their recognition of the word “self” reminded me of a wall mural I had recently seen when on a tour of Nachlaot, a neighborhood in Jerusalem. Just past the top of a stairway from Bezalel street I noticed it. Wall murals in Nachlaot are not unusual, but this one was different from most. Instead of a brightly painted street scene or historical mash up, this one looked like a partially colored sketch. It showed a woman taking a selfie. This was an irresistible opportunity—my friend Renee and I took photos of each other taking selfies by the painting.

Although most people refer to Nachlaot as one neighborhood, it is actually a group of 24, maybe 32, neighborhoods that run one into the other. How many you find depends on what you consider its borders. The area’s official name is Lev Ha’ir — Heart of the City — but almost no one calls it that. It is one of the older parts of the New City, with some of its neighborhoods dating back to the late nineteenth century.

Even Yisrael was the first neighborhood in the area, built by Joseph Rivlin in 1882. It consisted of 53 one-story apartments around a courtyard. Mishkenot Yisrael was founded in 1875, followed by  Mazkeret Moshe and Ohel Moshe in 1882, Nahalat Zion in 1891. Each little neighborhood was built for a specific group: Mazkeret Moshe for Ashkenazi Jews, Ohel Moshe for Sephardim, Nahalat Zion for low-income laborers. On the other side of Nachlaot are several areas where more religious communities settled: the ultra-Orthodox Batei Broide and Knesset Yisrael, and the Hasidic Batei Rand. There is an old saying: ”Residents of different neighborhoods get along like brothers, like Cain and Abel.” This may be the reason the each compound is surrounded by a wall.

I often walked through Nachlaot on my way to ulpan class on Bezalel street.

House in Nachlaot, expanded from one story to three stories. There’s a clear difference in the type and size of stones used.

Every day I tried to walk a different route to see the different styles of buildings. Most of them had originally been only one story, but over the years additional floors have been added. Because of historical preservation rules, renovations must preserve the original style. The first floor exterior must remain as is. In keeping with Jerusalem’s building code, the whole exterior is white Jerusalem limestone. However, it is often easy to see the demarcation between the original and new construction. The stone from different quarries may have weathered differently, with older stones being pale tan in color. Stones of one section may be different in size or surface texture.

Over the months, I watched a house on Mazkeret Moshe street gutted and remodeled. The renovations did not touch the exterior walls. Although the building now had new windows, the arched stone openings into which they fit remained the same size and shape. Even the arch over the sidewalk between that house and the opposite one looked the same, although it had been removed and rebuilt.

Because each group that comes to Israel wants to keep its own traditions for prayer, most neighborhoods in Jerusalem have many small synagogues. Nachlaot is no exception. One of the most beautiful in the area is the Syrian synagogue. It is named for the Ades family of Aleppo who built it in 1901 to serve the Syrians who lived in the Nachalat Zion neighborhood.

Jews lived in Syria even before there was a general diaspora of Jews. They traced their origins back to Joab ben Zeruyah, King David’s general. The Jewish community of Aleppo is documented as far back as the fourth century. It was a well-to-do community which produced many scholars. The community thrived until 1948, when the Jews came under attack and had to leave the country. Like most Jews who fled from Arab and Muslim countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they arrived in Israel with only what they could carry. The small synagogue in Nachlaot became the new religious home for some of those who made aliyah.

The interior of the building is richly painted. Much of the original paint faded quickly. A young Bezalel Art Academy student named Yakov Struk restored it for free, no doubt hoping that showcasing his talent in the synagogue would lead to a successful career. Unfortunately, he contracted typhus before he established himself as an artist, and died in 1915 at the age of 34. Even so, his work lives on.

Marble columns painted on wall between windows in Syrian synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Like many Middle Eastern buildings, the synagogue has a pale blue ceiling. The color is supposed to trick evil spirits into thinking they are seeing the heavens and go away.

The upper walls are painted in an intricate design of dark blue on a dark mustard colored background. Two marble columns are painted trompe l’oeil style between each pair of windows. Above the windows, on a background of dark gold, round lozenges depict each of the tribes of Israel. A characteristic symbol of each tribe is enclosed within each lozenge. The symbols are derived from Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his sons, the fathers of the tribes. For example, Judah’s symbol is the lion, because he was blessed as an awesome lion, while Dan’s symbol is the snake.

As beautiful as the paintings are, they are not the focal point of the room. The eye is drawn to the intricately carved dark wood aron and bima. Small triangular and round mother of pearl chips accent the carvings, an unusual and beautiful touch.

Neon lights highlight the Ten Commandments and Aron Kodesh in a Kurdish synagogue in Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Neon lights are would seem to be unusual in synagogue decor. But apparently they are common in Kurdish synagogues. The bright red, yellow and blue lights highlight the Ten Commandments plaque above the aron in a Kurdish synagogue in Nachlaot. The sanctuary has plain white walls, with sayings from the Talmud painted on them in gold. Square brown plaques decorate the balcony wall. They depict the seven species with which the land of Israel is blessed: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and (date) honey.

The more I travel in Israel, the less I am surprised by the variety of houses of prayer. I’ve seen rococo gold decorations in several transplanted Italian synagogues, an intricately painted Syrian synagogue in Nachlaot, a simple stone room in Tsfat, plain painted walls in many small Eastern European style shteiblach, the elegant marble simplicity of the Great Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem, the garish neon of the Kurdish synagogue, the hundreds of stone mosaics that cover every surface of the Tunisian synagogue in Acco. It seems that every style and type of interior decoration has found its way into synagogues. Nevertheless, each one reflects the care of its builders, and the religious feelings of those who pray in it.