The charming neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek: Heartwarming love stories and remarkable firsts
Neve Tzedek is the first Jewish neighborhood “outside of the walls” (Walls built by the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area at the time). Today it’s located in Tel Aviv-Yafo. Evenly divided between the ancient, port-city Yafo, and the newer, modern Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv was officially founded in 1909, but Neve Tzedek was established back in 1887, way before the city of Tel Aviv even came about. Neve Tzedek has an astonishing story behind it, that goes beyond the gentrified facade it holds today. From people that changed the course of history to personal, heartwarming stories; let’s dive in.
The First Train Station
The first train station, contrary to popular belief, isn’t actually in Jerusalem - but in Tel Aviv. Or in Neve Tzedek, to be more precise. The Ottoman Turks had little interest in the city’s development, so they gave that job to the French, who built the station in 1890.
In 1892, the construction officially came to an end, and the first ever train station in pre-state Israel was built.
The seemingly First Station in Jerusalem is an exact copy of the one in Tel Aviv. The first one was built in Tel Aviv and the last one in Jerusalem. It’s kind of amusing that we don’t have a direct train connecting between the two cities today, isn’t it?
Back then, the station had trains going to cities like Damascus, Beirut, and Kahir. It was great for trade and commerce purposes. But after the War of Independence, and ever since Israel was officially established in 1948, those connections were lost.
Neve Tzedek; Against All Odds
Speaking of the Israeli War of Independence, it isn’t so obvious that the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek survived and remained after it. A very similar neighborhood; the first Arab neighborhood outside of the walls, called Manshia, was wiped out.
Both neighborhoods found themselves bearing the brunt of the war, taking tremendous amounts of damage. Manshia was destroyed In the 70’s, and its remnants were covered up with grass. Right before the order to destroy Neve Tzedek was executed, they decided to preserve it instead - and that’s why we have the pleasure of touring there today.
The neighborhood has gone through a major overhaul over the last 100 years, and today has very different character compared to 1887. It managed to turn itself around, from being an irrelevant neighborhood in Yafo to a hustling and bustling, colorful neighborhood In Tel Aviv-Yafo. It is actually one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Tel Aviv today, housing very valuable real-estate.
The First Hebrew Speaking High School
As we’re walking through Neve Tzedek, at some point we’ll notice a tall building in front of us: Migdal Shalom Meir. Before that modern building was built, that plot of land was home to the first ever high school that taught in Hebrew; The Gimnasia. Most schools at the time were established by private organizations and taught in German, French, English or Arabic.
After a few years, two of the school’s graduates got to live every student’s dream; to destroy the school. All jokes aside, in 1959, the two contractors bought the land, destroyed the school and built the first ever skyscraper in Israel. Migdal Shalom Meir actually held the title of the tallest building in the Middle East for a short time.
They later realized the mistake they’ve made by wiping away such an important, historic landmark. This mistake led to the founding of “Shimur” (preservation); A council that preserves world heritage sites, which designed their logo in the shape of the school’s facade.
Life a Hundred Years Ago
If you notice the way many houses in Neve Tzedek are built, they’re all very elongated. Being the first Jewish neighborhood outside of the walls, they tried to build their houses to imitate a wall. Living there wasn’t entirely safe, and precautions had to be taken.
The locals had a method for alerting each other about danger or emergencies; they would tie a string, that stretches out through multiple houses, and hang a bell on it. Whenever anyone needed help, they would ring the bell and everyone would be alerted. That was their version of a siren.
Three Love Stories:
Shlomo Abulafia and Rivka (Freiman) Abulafia are married. But the society they live in, in Rishon Lezion, isn’t very tolerant of them being a couple, as Shlomo is a Sephardic Jew and Rivka is an Ashkenazi Jew.
So, they decide to move to Neve Tzedek in 1895. At the time, in most major cities in Israel, each ethnic group worked, prayed and lived separately. Neve Tzedek, however, had a more accepting environment and Shlomo and Rivka felt comfortable enough to build their home there.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon:
Shlomo and Rivka rented out their attic to an aspiring young writer. Back then, there was no “Israel’s Got Talent”, no Youtube and no Instagram. The only way to be a star was to become a famous writer.
One day, this hopeful writer was looking out of the attic window and spotted a girl in the Chelouche family garden, named Margalit. So, he did what was common back then; he went to the Chelouche family house and confessed his love for Margalit, to her father. He, of course, asked him what his job is. Upon hearing his dream to be a famous writer, he sent him back home, worried he’s not going to be able to financially support his daughter.
Brokenhearted, the young writer goes back to the attic and writes a romance novel - “Tmol Shilshom”, that later becomes very famous among the Jewish community. That guy was Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Also know as Shai Agnon), first Israeli Nobel Prize winner. In fact, he’s the only Israeli to this day to win a prize in the Literature department.
Dating a Hundred Years Ago:
Texting obviously didn’t back then, so young lovers had to be creative in coming up with forms of communication. I present to you, the 1890’s version of texting your partner: “my parents aren’t home”:
Windows in Neve Tzedek had a custom, double-sided curtain handle. One side of the handle had the face of a woman and the other of a man. That way, a girl could signal to her significant other, from the outside, as to whether or not her father was home. If the handle showed the face of a woman, they would know the coast is clear.
Illustrations: Ira Ginzburg, Sasha Iudashkin
Neve Tzedek Collection of Art Prints is Coming Soon.