Tel Aviv’s oldest Jewish district, Neve Tzedek is young at heart.
With its 19th century gentrified homes, trendy cafés, boisterous bars, beautiful boutiques and exquisite art galleries along its narrow cobbled leafy lanes, Neve Tzedek (“oasis of justice” in Hebrew) is one of Tel Aviv’s most fashionable districts and also where the story of Tel Aviv really began.
By David. E. Kaplan
People believe that the story of Tel Aviv began with a seaside lottery in 1909 but in truth, the story of modern Jewish settlement in this coastal metropolis began nearly two decades earlier with the first house built in 1888 by Aharon Chelouche who arrived in Palestine in 1838 as a young boy with his family from Oran, Algeria.
The writer stood with a group of mostly former South African Israelis outside his house at No. 32 on the street that bears his name and had as our guide, Yair Chelouche, a direct descendent from the father of Aharon, the patriarch of the family – Abraham Chelouche.
“Abraham is believed to have stated before he left Algeria in 1838,” said Yair, “that unlike many others who were migrating to the Land of Israel at that time, “I am not going there to die – but to live!””
Unlike his biblical namesake of 3000 years earlier who came close to suffering the sacrifice of a son, this 19th century Abraham endured the sacrifice of two sons only meters away before he set foot on “The Promised Land”.
“In those days there was no port of Haifa only a beach next to a few coastal villages. And so, small dinghies used to row out to the sailing ships that anchored offshore and bring the passengers ashore. Tragically, one of these dinghies capsized, and Abraham’s young sons, Yosef and Eliyahu, drowned,” related Yair.
After settling briefly in Nablus, Abraham Chelouche moved his family to Jaffa, where Aharon, then nine years old, grew up. Later, when Aharon married and had children, he named his second son Yosef Eliyahu in memory of his two drowned brothers.
“Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche is my great grandfather”, says Yair
Strong Arm Tactics
The Chelouches spoke fluent Arabic and had no difficulty settling into life in Jaffa, a thriving, colourful mainly Arab port town that must have shared similarities with the family’s native Oran.
Young Aharon grew up to be a shrewd businessman – a goldsmith and money changer. His sharp mind and keen eye for a good deal soon made him a wealthy man.
Yair relates a story that has become part of the family folklore: “Aharon calculated that the mineral content of one particular Ottoman coin was worth considerably more than the monetary value of the coin itself, and so he collected these coins, smelt them, and then sold the mineral or used it to craft valuable jewelry.”
Aharon was not only an entrepreneur – but a visionary. Emerging as the leader of the Sephardic community in Jaffa, “He believed,” says Yair, “that Jews should build their own town, and in 1883, bought the first plot of land north of Jaffa that would become Neve Tzedek. This was over twenty years before he joined a group of about 100 people on the sand dunes in 1909 to acquire plots by way of a seashell lottery that became Tel Aviv.”
In those days, indicates Yair, “There were no land surveyors. The seller and the buyer would meet on the land to agree on the size of the land and the price. To measure the plot from one end to the other, the buyer took a stone and threw it, and where it landed was the end of the plot.”
Smiling, Yair continues, “Aharon must have had a very strong arm because the family ended up with a huge chunk of land.”
Reshaping a Landscape
To attract Jews to join his large family, Aharon built a Beit Knesset by his house located today close to the magnificent Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater. Established in 1989, just over a century after Aharon culturally transformed this barren landscape of sand dunes and brushwood, the Suzanne Dellal Center today is the home of dance in Israel and premier presenter of Israeli and international contemporary dance companies. Situated in the center of Neve Tzedek, Yair points out where the original synagogue stood, the water well and a school, and where a plaque remains of the builder’s name – “Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche” – Yair’s great grandfather. “He became one of Tel Aviv’s important builders and apart from building many of the city’s first homes and schools – his most famous construction was the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, originally known as HaGymnasia HaIvrit (lit. Hebrew High School).”
Only a short walk from Neve Tzedek, the cornerstone ceremony of the school took place in 1909, the founding year of Tel Aviv and was the county’s first Hebrew high school. The design was inspired by descriptions of Solomon’s Temple and remained a major Tel Aviv landmark until 1962 when “it was regrettably razed for the construction of the Shalom Meir Tower on Herzl Street,” laments Yair.
One of the most visited tourist sites in Tel Aviv, the Suzanne Dellal Centre’s beautiful and sprawling multi-level campus, consists of four performance halls, numerous rehearsal studios, a restaurant and cafe, and wide plazas that host various outdoor performances and events throughout the year.
Yair points out where his great grandfather’s factory stood – “Fabrique Chelouche Frères”. The name, painted in French and Arabic, was still clearly visible until building started a while ago on that plot, and, standing beneath its place, Yair relates that “the building material produced here was used for most of the early construction of Ahuzat Bayit (Hebrew meaning “Homestead”) the forerunner to the naming of the city – Tel Aviv. “One can still see the brightly patterned floor tiles of Chelouche Frères in some of Tel Aviv’s oldest buildings,” says Yair.
Neve Tzedek boasts a variety of architectural styles from Bauhaus to eclectic and at the beginning of the 1900s, it was the intellectual and cultural hub of Tel Aviv, attracting artists and writers. To appreciate their legacy and the impact it had on the cultural destiny of the future State of Israel, “a visit to the Nachum Gutman Museum is a must,” asserts Yair.
Only a short walk from Beit Chelouche (Chelouche Home), the museum is located on the east end of the narrow cobbled Rokach Street, named after another celebrated Neve Tzedek resident, Israel Rokach, who became the second mayor of Tel Aviv, after Meir Dizengoff. On the way, Yair relates family stories of the political shenanigans in the 1936 mayoral election between Rokach and his opponent – Moshe Chelouche, brother of Yair’s grandfather, Avner, son of Yosef-Eliyahu. Although Moshe won the election, the British High Commissioner intervened in the support of Rokach, and despite the public uproar about British intervention in the Jewish democratic process, “Moshe served little more than a day, while Rokach went on to serve as mayor of Tel Aviv until 1953.”
Rokach would also go on to head the Maccabi World Union, sit as a member of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), serve as an Israeli Interior Minister and be awarded the title of ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’. Rokach’s house in Neve Tzedek is today a museum – possibly the oldest museum in Tel Aviv – and is often used to showcase cultural events.
A Brush with the Past
The Nachum Gutman Museum used to be known as Beit HaSofrim (the Writer’s House) due to the large number of famous writers who lived here and gathered for literary meetings and discussions, such as the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, S.Y. Agnon, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joseph Aharonovitz, editor of the newspaper HaPoel HaTzair (The Young Worker), Dvora Baron, labeled as “the first Modern Hebrew woman writer” and Nachum Gutman’s father, a renowned Hebrew writer and educator who wrote under the pen name S. Ben Zion.
Nachum grew up in the neighborhood, absorbing as a child the local lifestyle and intellectual culture of a young vibrant expanding city. This impacted Nachum’s art enormously, depicting a culturally explosive city in vivid vibrant colors.
Welcoming his visitors, we were ‘met’ by Nachum or rather by one of his large colorful paintings. A juxtaposition of images of Tel Aviv, it captures its iconic architecture, and outdoors way of life as a coastal city, with the sea in the background and ships coming into dock. We see outdoor cafés with people sitting around tables on the sidewalks, chatting, reading and watching the passing show. This is quintessential Tel Aviv – a vibrant city with people on the move. In this sense, little has changed. Gutman captured the essence and spirit of a city that stands the test of time.
“And it all began with a house that now stands at 32 Chelouche street,” Yair reminds us.
Keen to learn more about the personalities of the Chelouche pioneers and how they shaped the future, Yair ‘unveiled’ this intimate heartwarming historical gem!
A Tale of Two Families
When the founder of Neve Tzedek, Aharon Chelouche, was still living in Jaffa, an incident occurred that that would connect two Palestinian families – the Jewish Chelouches and the Arab Samarras – for over a century.
Sometime in the early 1860s, a caravan of merchants passed through Jaffa on camels on the way to Alexandria and neglectfully left behind a young Arab boy. By the time his father Sheikh Samarra realized, the caravan was too far travelled to return.
The young boy was brought before Aharon Chelouche who said:
“No problem, he will live with us until his father returns from Alexandria”
And so, three months later, on the return, his father Sheikh Samarra from Tul-Karem collected his son who, by all accounts, had enjoyed his stay in Jaffa with the Chelouches who had cared for him well.
Nothing more of the Samarras was heard until the Great War of 1917. The Turkish authorities, fearful that the Allies would invade Palestine from the sea, considered Jaffa’s Jews a threat to national security and exiled them inland. The Chelouches, who were exiled to Kfar Jamal near Tul-Karem, found themselves in a pitiful situation. Their funds had run out and had little to eat. Aharon was then 90 years old, and his sons Yosef Eliyahu and Abraham Haim now headed a family that was destitute.
Help then came from an unexpected source!
One day, a pair of camels, preceded by a donkey, appeared on the path. The rider came down from his donkey and asked:
“I am searching for the refugee Aharon Chelouche. Is he here?”
Brought before the old man, the visitor said, “You do not know me. My name is Hajj Ibrahim Samarra. I am the youth to whom you once gave a majida (Arabic: glorious) in Jaffa. Your benevolence will never be forgotten. And I heard that your family were refugees here.”
Hajj Ibrahim then unloaded from his camels, sacks of flower and beans, and leather bags of oil. That young boy left behind in Jaffa nearly four decades earlier, was now a rich man, the Sheikh of three villages.
There was more to come – a lot more!
He invited Aharon’s sons to his home, broke through a hole in the wall with an axe, and removed a red handkerchief holding 500 gold pounds, which he handed over to Yosef Eliyahu – with whom he had played as a child during his three month stay in Jaffa – and said:
“Take it, I have enough. Return it when the war ends, Inshallah. It will be my shame if you do not take the money.”
Yosef Eliyahu thanked him and offered a promissory note.
“Why?” asked Hajj Ibrahim.
“What if we all die in the war,” replied Yosef Eliyahu.
“Then neither of us will need the money,” protested Sheikh Ibrahim.
In 1981, while a student at Tel Aviv University, Yair Chelouche, the great-grandson of Yosef Eliyahu went into the office of his great uncle Aharon Chelouche, named after the founder of Neve Tzedek, who was then Dean in charge of student affairs.
“Sit down Yair” he said, “I have a story to tell you”.
Aharon then related that the week before, an Arab female student had come in to see him about a certain problem. When he saw her surname, he began asking her questions, and not too long thereafter he said to her:
“We are connected by 100 years of history. You have a wonderful family.”
“How do you know my family?” she asked rather puzzled.
And so, Aharon began:
“When your great-great grandfather was a little boy, he was left in Jaffa…”
At story’s end, she burst out crying and the elder Jewish Chelouche and the younger Arab Samara hugged.
Today, while Neve Tzedek still retains its quaint character with colourful buildings and small narrow streets, the district is an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, attracting the rich and famous.
Where “in the old days” its residents included the likes of great literary luminaries like Nobel laureate, S.Y. Agnon, and Y.H. Brenner, pioneer of modern Hebrew literature, in modern times, residents have included billionaire Roman Abramovitch, the owner of the English professional football club Chelsea F.C., and superstar Gal Gadot of ‘Wonder Woman’ fame.
It is little ‘wonder’ that Neve Tzedek, where the story of Tel Aviv began, is once again in the limelight – attracting residents, investors, pursuers of culture and tourists.
Yair, who created in colorful concentric circles the family tree for the a Chelouche family reunion (2004) that attracted over 500 members from Israel and abroad and held at Beit Chelouche, relates:
“It was wonderful meeting all my family, young and old, and who all descended from our patriarch, Abraham Chelouche, who not only founded a dynasty, but whose progeny helped create this great city of ours – Tel Aviv.”