President Navon's former neighborhood has a human face
Updated: Jan 7
Text and photos by Daniel Santacruz
The Navon boys, Yitzhak and Victor, aged approximately nine and 11, respectively, are wearing sailor suits. In the background, a beach in Tel Aviv. To their right, the rest of the family: Yosef, the father; Miriam, the mother, oldest daughter Mazal; and grandmother Ben-Attar.
The description of the photograph (above) reads: “A family holiday (…) We rented a large room with a balcony in a house opposite the ‘Casino’ for a few days (…) It was great.” The author: Mazal Linenberg Navon. The date: 1926. Where to find the picture? On Hermon Street, a few meters from Agripas Street, one of the entrances to Ohel Moshe.
The photograph is one of two that can be seen in two places in that neighborhood, where the Navons lived beginning in 1925.
Yitzhak would would serve as the fifth President of Israel between 1978 and 1983 as a member of the centre-left Alignment party.
At the suggestion of a Ladino expert I interviewed for an article, I visited Ohel Moshe six years ago. Now, with the death of president Navon, it was time to pay another visit to the neighborhood. And I remembered the photographs of the Navons: sepia, frozen in time.
A quiet neighborhood of small houses and narrow pedestrian streets, it is separated from noisy Mahane Yehuda, the famed outdoor market, by Agripas Street. Rectangular-shaped,
Ohel Moshe has three rows of houses that originally included 64 apartments. It had gates
in all entrances. Both Ohel Moshe and Mazkeret Moshe, another neighborhood next to it, the product of the generosity of philanthropist Moses Montefiore, who founded them in June 1882.
The former was for Sefardic Jews, the latter for Ashkenazi Jews.
The Navons were one of hundreds of families, most of them Ladino speakers with roots in Spain who called it home. After the Expulsion from that country in 1492 thousands of Jews lived in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, choosing Palestine as the final destination. Then Ohel Moshe.
Stories told on walls
The story of about 35 families who resided in the neighborhood is told in more than 30 plaques, accompanied by photographs that hang on the façades of the houses. They all are bilingual, Hebrew and English, some written by children of the residents.
The plaques give the place a human face and are part of a project called Photograph in Stone. In 2002, when Ohel Moshe and Mazkeret Moshe turned 120 years, Devora Avidan, who worked then for the Lev H’air Community Administration, the neighborhoods’ community center, organized a meeting of former residents. Hundreds attended and contributed some 600 pictures for the project.
“I took pictures of the pictures and decided to put them on the walls of the houses so people knew who built the neighborhoods,” said Avidan. “It was better that putting them in a book.”
The money for the first 20 pictures was donated by Uzi Halevy, who died recently, added Avidan. The children of former residents paid for the rest.
Halevy was the grandson of Benjamin Halevy, chairman of the Ohel Moshe Quarter Committee and beadle of the local synagogue. A picture of Benjamin and his wife, Sultana, taken in 1911, can be seen on Ohel Moshe Street.
The descriptions on the plaques are rich in charming details. For example, we learn that one of the first residents, Rahamim Shoshan, was a gifted mandolin player, cabinet maker and "popular socially.”
We also learn that another pioneering family, the Pessahs, David and Rebeca, had roots in the Balkans, where large numbers of Ladino-speaking Jews went after the Expulsion. David was a merchant and a gabai,
Sarah a devoted wife who “spent much time and energy in caring for the needy.” Their families had lived in Palestine for five generations.
One of the founders of Ohel Moshe, Avraham Sasson, was a businessman who owned stores in the Old City and had 13 children. He was also in charge of the neighborhood’s management.
One of the intellectuals of the neighborhood was Shlomo Yisrael Shirizly, author of about 120 books in Ladino as well as in Hebrew, and publisher of three newspapers in Ladino, Hebrew and Yiddish.
The most famous of the residents was, perhaps, Yitzhak Levy, composer, singer and compiler of Ladino romansas.
Tevye the Dairyman was a fictional character created by Sholem Aleichem. But Ohel Moshe had a real one: Avraham Cohen, born in Jerusalem, a member of the tenth generation after the Expulsion and father of six.
11 Gilboa Street
Most of the current residents don’t know where the Navons lived or when they moved out.
But point to a house on 11 Gilboa Street, white walls, blue door, with a photograph and a plaque on the façade that tells the history of the family.
The setting of the photograph is formal. Father wears tie and a fez. Mother, a black dress. Victor smiles, embraces Yitzhak. Yitzhak is serious. On the plaque, Linenberg Navon talks about the genealogy of her parents. Both sides of the family traced their origins to medieval Spain. The first of the Navons in Israel, Rabbi Raphael Ali Navon and his son Hanun, went to Jerusalem in 1670.
The Navon family settled in Nicopoli, Bulgaria, following the Expulsion. Rabbi Yaakov Ben-Attarm his wife and daughter Miriam arrived in Israel from Azmoor, Morocco, in 1884. Their sons, Haim and Shimon, were born in Israel. After leaving Spain, the family lived in Portugal, moving later to Morocco.
Ohel Moshe was the inspiration for president Navon’s famous musical, Bustan Sefaradi (Ladino for "Sefardic Orchard"), wrote Linenberg Navon, on the plaque. A small park by the same name is located a block from the house. “A great neighborhood. Neighborhood? A nursery! There we felt like one big family. A Garden of Eden for children. The men were clever, with a great sense of humor, witticisms, proverbs and idioms in Ladino. The women were full of charm and spoke sweetly,” she wrote.
Professor Yitzhak Levy, a Jerusalem resident who specializes in Israel’s Sefardic history, has interviewed Ladino speakers in Yemin Moshe and Ohel Moshe for his Youtube channel and believes that there only five left in each. “They are all old,” he said. One of the subjects of his interviews was president Navon, who for several years was president of the National Authority for Ladino, created by the Knesset in 1997.