Postcard from the Edge: Nachlaot, Jerusalem’s SoHo

Should time and circumstance conspire to bring you by plane, train or automobile to Jerusalem, do take a quick detour into the city’s hip, happening, pulsating Nachlaot neighborhood.

The beating heart of Jerusalem, Nachlaot was one of several neighborhoods that were established outside the walls of the Old City in the late 19th century to house the growing Jewish population and relieve some of the overcrowding and squalor of the Jewish Quarter.

At one time, this neighborhood had a higher concentration of synagogues than anywhere else in the world – approximately 300 within a radius of just a few blocks.

By the 1970s, Nachlaot was in disrepair and entrepreneurs were eager to construct high-rise buildings there. But a growing appreciation for this nook’s breathtaking Ottoman-era architecture as well as a public outcry staved off destruction. A major restoration and face-lifting project has catalyzed a local renaissance.

As the generation of religious old-timers who once dominated the neighborhood passed from the scene, Nachlaot began to acquire a new reputation as a haven for artists and musicians, who can often be seen at the nearby Solomon Street pedestrian mall offering their wares.

Nowadays, Nachlaot is a veritable feast of light, color, dance, and occasional mayhem.

With an endless supply of blind alleys, improvised synagogues and sidewalk troubadours, the neighborhood infuses Jerusalem with a checkerboard study in contrasts: tin roofs rubbing up against the neighborhood’s drive to gentrify.

Nachlaot is often compared to SoHo, the mythological Lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its plethora of artists’ lofts and art galleries. Flanked by Jerusalem’s famous outdoor shopping market, Mahane Yehuda, and Ben Yehuda Street just a skip away, it is a buzzing village within a city that’s a kaleidoscope composite of sights and sounds.

Its proximity to Gan Sacher, the largest park in Jerusalem, is yet another reason to visit. The vulgarity-laced pedestrian tunnels, the Monastery of the Cross and the Bonsho (large Japanese bell) are three images that immediately assert themselves when thoughts turn to this kilometers-long strip of parkland.

Separating the Supreme Court and Knesset from Nachlaot, Gan Sacher is a haven for rollerblading teenagers, sunbathing university students taking a break between classes and surprisingly spry Yeshiva bocherim (young men) – known around the park’s basketball courts for their fancy dribbling and behind-the-back passing. An especially arresting sight is that of Sri Lankan cricketers pitching, bowling and batting to their hearts’ content.

For the locals, Gan Sacher offers up huge concerts during holidays and yearly festivals.

If you’re interested in taking a few steps back in time, while simultaneously keeping one finger on the pulse of today’s Jerusalem, you would be well advised to wander through the city’s freewheeling Nachlaot neighborhood.

Other articles by Gidon Ben-Zvi that have appeared on the United with Israel website are available here.

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