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Arts & Culture Prominent Tel Aviv Family’s Story Told Through Resuscitated Museum

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The small, historic district of Neveh Tzedek began as a groundbreaking real estate development in the dunes north of Jaffa in 1887. Today the district of gorgeous, renovated early-20th century houses and small modern apartments is some of the most valuable real estate in Tel Aviv. The Rokach House offers a window on one the founding families and on life in late-19th- and early-20th-century Turkish Palestine.

Lea Majaro-Mintz, 79, runs the Rokach House, a museum of historical objects and photos of her family and the Neveh Tzedek district. The museum includes a second-floor theater, along with paintings and sculptures of nude, middle-aged women on the walls and in the small courtyard garden, all done by Majaro-Mintz.

Majaro-Mintz’s ancestors, of Polish Chasidic origins, came to Palestine in the early 1700s. They included the family of Rabbi Israel Bak, who arrived in 1832 from Berdichev, Ukraine and became an important printer in Safed.

Majaro-Mintz’s grandfather, Shimon Rokach, was the driving force behind the founding of Neveh Tzedek and its development as the first Jewish residential neighborhood outside Jaffa, well before the first buildings of Tel Aviv went up around it beginning in 1909.

The first 10 houses built in 1887 had toilets and kitchens in separate courtyards, a milestone in Turkish-ruled Palestine. The development was called “Little Paris.”

The land was bought from local Arab sheiks by the Chellouche family, one of the richest Jewish families in the region, according to historian Tom Segev’s book “One Palestine, Complete.”

The family shunned participation in the pre-Zionist building plan, one of the first in the area, but did offer good payment terms to the settlers on the parcels of land that were being developed, Majaro-Mintz says.

In the house is a large photo from 1897 of Majaro-Mintz’s grandfather, his wife and their children. One of the children — Israel Rokach, a stern-looking blond boy — became the second mayor of Tel Aviv, serving from 1923 to 1953.

What happened to the Arab families who sold the land?

“I don’t know,” she says. “That was 120 years ago. But I have found the graves of my ancestors one by one on the Mount of Olives” in Jerusalem.

Majaro-Mintz’s grandfather planted 135 acres of orange groves along the Yarkon River, shipping the produce from Jaffa to Great Britain beginning in 1904. He wasn’t the first Jewish orange farmer, but was part of the first Jewish group to export its own oranges.

“You see, the Second Aliyah people who came in 1906 considered that the old-timers from long before the First Aliyah in 1881 did not work,” Majaro-Mintz explains. “They thought they only studied and prayed.

“I had to show this was not true,” she says. “There were always Jews here working and building.”

Majaro-Mintz’s father, a doctor, moved to the Old City of Jerusalem to treat poor Jews and Arabs, and gave the Neveh Tzedek building to B’nai B’rith and the city of Tel Aviv in 1928. She grew up in the Old City and continued to live there as an adult, but couldn’t exhibit her statues and paintings there.

“The religious people asked me if I prayed to the statues,” she says with a frown. “They were serious. Some of them were not too bright.”

The house was a kindergarten until the 1950s, then the neighborhood became a slum. The house was abandoned as the city developed northward.

“I was always coming around and watching the whole area falling apart,” she says. “People stole everything from the house. Only the red cupola remained on the roof. People saw it from the train going by and knew they were going by Neveh Tzedek.”

The city of Tel Aviv decided to renovate the district instead of demolishing it, and the house received landmark status in 1975. Renovation began and continues to this day throughout the district.

Majaro-Mintz and her husband Yitzrach, 84, live in and operate the museum and theater on a lease with B’nai B’rith that ends in two or three years — nobody is sure exactly when.

“There are no plans for the Rokach House,” says Rifka Farhi of the Tel Aviv City Engineers’ bureau. “The property is private and it is a landmark building. Therefore it cannot be touched.”

Farhi added that there are plans to increase tourism to the district that have never been mentioned in the press.

“We want to build a walkway from the beach to Neveh Tzedek” she said, “but for the moment, the problem is the beachfront hotels, which obviously are not going anywhere. We want to attract more international tourists.”

“We send them groups,” says Daniella Davin of the Tel Aviv tourism office. “The Rokach House is the milestone of the Neveh Tzedek tour. We think Lea and her team are great. And the history is more than just a real-estate story.”

Some 1,000 people visit the museum every month, according to manager Rivka Lev.

“This is a historical and cultural service,” she says. “But we don’t know what will happen in the future.”

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