After living in Israel for almost 40 years, it took a Welsh friend's house swap with an Irish lady living in Nahlaot to have me visit the Jerusalem neighborhood recently.
I have passed around Nahlaot, founded in l869 and the third Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the city walls, and have driven the busy main road that goes to the center, many times indeed, but have never actually been in Nahlaot.
Never before walked the narrow alleys, never absorbed the very special atmosphere emanating from the quaint buildings with their beautiful potted plant filled courtyards, artistic wrought iron rails and window screens, or visited one of the scores of eclectic synagogues.
I could have done without the dozens of steps one needed to climb here and there but I’m not complaining because there was so much to compensate for the fact that my Welsh friend exchanged homes for a month with an Irish lady living on the third floor with no elevator of course, and situated on a street called the Street of the Steps. I need say no more!
Nahlaot is how the colorful neighborhood is generally known. However basically it is not one neighborhood but a collection of residential areas built between the l860s and the beginning of the l900s. The people living in the different areas were very diverse indeed as were their cultures and way of doing things – including praying – hence the great number of synagogues, some large, some the size of my dining room and some almost miniature.
Amongst the older folk one can find a bit of everything and everybody that makes up the mosaic known as Israeli society. By the l970s the neighborhoods began to become dilapidated, young people were moving away and real estate agents and developers were hovering in the background just waiting for the chance to snap up properties. Their efforts were thwarted however as groups of concerned citizens wanting to protect the buildings and special character of Nahlaot from destruction, began to make their voices heard and renovation became the key word of the day.
In present times, property prices in Nahlaot, where many of the homes consist of only two or three small rooms, are almost as high as the sky rise buildings that have gone up on the outskirts of the neighborhoods, sticking out like thick ugly thumbs when looking out from a 3rd floor balcony over the red roof tops of Nahlaot.
Wandering time in Nahlaot is best either in the early evening, the heat of the day well behind one and before darkness falls, or very early in the morning. For those who are into synagogue crawling there is some good news - if one is prepared to get out of bed at around 03.30, that is. Guides whisk visitors around some of the prayer houses on almost every street corner for a taste of dawn davenning, in the style of Yemenites, Kurds, Galician and many others represented in the neighborhood prayer houses.
These days there are also a number of synagogues that could well be called 'yuppie' catering to young Anglo immigrants and Israeli born hi-tech savvy scooter riding residents who have moved in to what has become a much sought after place to live.
As there are very few areas for parking within Nahlaot, scooters seem to be the chosen mode of transport and in almost every street the two-wheeled vehicles are chained to lampposts or fences – a little like hitching horses outside the watering holes out West, only here it is the Middle East.
The amount of renovation and new building that is being undertaken in Nahlaot is astounding and one needs to look down at the ground almost as much as looking up, as there are piles of building supplies everywhere. New smallish homes seem to fit in quite well with those which have existed for a hundred years or more, attesting to the amount of thought and planning involved in order to get building permission.
Slim and wide arched windows, arched doorways and the use of wooden beams in the interior design of some that I managed to peek into were not only attractive but full of character, which isn't bad considering they've just been erected.
Many of the old timers sit at home with the door wide open in the late afternoon which enables one to catch a glimpse of the smallness of their abodes and makes one wonder how they managed to bring up large families in such cramped quarters but that they did.
Window boxes of honeysuckle give off a sweet scent. A small courtyard off to one side contains a collection of different plants comfortably growing out of old metal kettles and saucepans, all painted royal blue.
In another almost enclosed courtyard with stone steps leading up to the second floor the colorful red geraniums seem even brighter against the light blue painted wooden window shutters.
In some areas blue seems the preferred color for shutters and doors, many believing blue has the power to fend off the Evil Eye. Many of the walls in the older buildings are painted white and as the sun goes down the rays bounce off the walls and tend to give a friendly, warm glow to the courtyards.
Dusk falls and the sound of chanting voices floats across the way from one of the synagogues. Inside the spacious courtyard a few young men sit studying around a wooden table as others sit inside the synagogue – doors welcomingly open – from where the chanting is stemming.
A few minutes later, another synagogue and more singing – through the open windows one can see that Beit Knesset Ohev Tzion is overflowing and it’s a pretty big place. The congregation is a mix of Ethiopians, American tourists, old and young local folk and a large group of Israeli school children sitting cross-legged and taking up every inch of the floor. The young rabbi leading the evening service explains carefully to the guests as he goes along, picks up an oud (lute) and begins to play, leading the diverse worshippers and just the curious in a number of rather upbeat songs. After a while he switches to a zither type instrument and things really start heating up.
It's time to go home to the Street of the Steps, passing more synagogues with people popping in and out at almost the same rate as that at which the small 24 hour supermarket is serving customers on the corner block, a synagogue on either side.
The religious, the secular, the young and the elderly, artists, students and professional folk all blend in with each other in Nahlaot and I for one have been left with a taste for more.