Jerusalem’s Streets: Stories Behind the Names
Updated: Jan 13
My brother-in-law and I have a fun sightseeing ritual which we have been performing for the past number of years. Every time he visits Israel, we grab a few hours – and a few books about Jerusalem’s neighborhoods and streets – and off we trek to another section of Jerusalem to learn about the people whom the streets were named after. I thought you may enjoy reading about one of our experiences and what our subsequent research revealed.
While strolling around Rechavia, one notices a pattern in the street names of the community: they are almost all named after sages of the Golden Age in Spain. A few examples are Radak, Ibn Ezra, Saadia Gaon, Ramban (Nachmanides), and Ben-Maimon (Maimonides or Rambam) – parenthetically, the street was named Ben-Maimon and not Rambam in order to differentiate it from Ramban, which sounds very similar.
Why was Yehuda Halevi, one of Spain’s most prominent scholars, philosophers and poets during the Medieval Period, missing from the street names?
The answer is that Yehuda Halevi Street originally existed, but in 1933 the name was changed to Ussishkin Street. There are a number of stories circulating why and how this name change occurred.
The most famous legend goes as follows: Menachem Ussishkin was one of the leaders of the Zionist movement. As one of the opponents of Herzl’s plan to build the Jewish State in Uganda, he worked tirelessly to organize and settle the Jewish population in Israel. He championed the revival of the Hebrew language and was one of the founders of the Hebrew University. For the last twenty years of his life, Ussishkin was the chairman of the Jewish National Fund. Ussishkin undoubtedly deserved to be honored with a street named after him. But wouldn’t it make more sense to name a new block after him as opposed to changing an existing street’s name?
A little history is in order: A few years earlier, Ussishkin unilaterally decided that the street where his beloved Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael or KK”L) was headquartered should be changed from Shmuel Hanaggid Street to Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael Street. He magnanimously didn’t remove the original street name altogether; rather, he transferred the name Shmuel Hanaggid Street to a nearby block. In retrospect, this episode was a hint of what was to come.
In 1933, on his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided that it made most sense to him to change the name of the street where he lived, and rename it after himself. That very night, Ussishkin brought in some of his workers to tear down the street signs bearing the name Yehuda Halevi and put up the new street signs. To ensure that no one would consider taking down these new signs, he immediately hired artists to fashion colored ceramic signs for building corners, emblazoned with the name of the new street.
Notwithstanding Ussishkin’s actions, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi was not forgotten. When the Old City was returned to Jewish hands in 1967, the steps from Misgach Ladach Street to the Western Wall Plaza were renamed in his memory. This was an extremely appropriate idea as, according to tradition, Rabbi Halevi was fatally run over soon after he immigrated to the Holy Land, while kissing the ground near the Western Wall.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.