Montefiore 40 St., corner of Karl Neter St. – home of Meir Moshe Meir 1932-1949
Meir Moshe Meir, a Baghdadi businessman, was born in Basra, Iraq in 1877. His father, Moshe Meir and his mother Rachel, according to family folklore, had difficulties in raising their children, and hence handed the new-born over to the mother’s sister, Rahma. Rahma raised Meir as her own child, and as an adult, he looked after her and kept her in his house, where she lived until her death.
Being an entrepreneur at heart, Meir moved to Baghdad as a young man, and with him, his aunt. In Baghdad he prospered and built a cigarette and matches manufacturing business, an industry common among the Jews of Baghdad as reflected in stories by Baghdadi authors like Sami Michael and others. Soon he bought a large house in Ibn Halal Street in Taht el Taqia, a prosperous Jewish neighbourhood, which today, according to Iraqi Arabs who are in the know, has declined into a poverty-stricken slum. In this house, he lived with his wife Massuda (1890-1966), daughter of Sarah and Joseph Ezekiel, and fathered nine children.
Meir with Moshe, the son who studied and settled in England. 1925
Through his business travelling, Meir Moshe Meir saw the momentum of settlement in the Land of Israel, and to his and his family’s good fortune, he was a visionary, and emigrated with all his family and belongings 18 years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, before the 1941 pogrom in Baghdad (the Farhood). Much before the hurried exodus of “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah” (1950-1951) when more than 95% of Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel penniless after being forced to give up all their assets, an operation executed by Shlomo Hillel, later a minister in the Israel Government, him too with a family link to the Meir family.
Baghdad’s Jewish community was probably the oldest diaspora Jewish settlement in history, with a continuous history dating back to the expulsion of the First Temple in Babylonian times. The Jewish community was part of Baghdad’s fabric and culture, influential in building the city. To leave to the then poverty and disease-stricken Land of Israel was considered by them a strange and unnecessary act – Baghdad was their home. So in 1930, Meir Moshe Meir sold his home and his businesses, hired a convoy of taxis, and took the entire extended family with him, including his old aunt Rahma and two married daughters with husbands and children. His youngest son was four years old. One son was already an adult and was studying medicine in Birmingham, England. His younger six children studied in Tel-Aviv high-schools such as Gymnasia-Herzliya and Alliance.
In Tel-Aviv, Meir went into the banking business and also owned orange groves in Tel-Nof (then Arab village Aqir). Although he made his home in Tel-Aviv, like many in that era, he believed that the major metropolis would rise in the Gedera/Tel-Nof/Ekron region, not on the sands of Tel-Aviv. Years later, the groves, almost 50 acres, were expropriated by the state of Israel for military purposes. The family member who still owned this land, David Smooha, received some compensation (some say pitiful compensation) for his loss. Ironically, the author of this discourse spent some time in this military base when he was a young conscript, but didn’t even know he was walking on family owned land.
Where does the name Tel-Nof come from? It was the name of the company owned by Reuven Schenzvit, the crook convicted for the murder of engineer Yaakov Zwanger in 1937. Schenzvit was marketing parcels of land under the false pretence of building there a major city by this name, a catchy name with a similar ring to “Tel-Aviv” which he probably assumed would speed-up marketing. The murder took place by the boundary of Meir Moshe Meir’s orange grove. Much was written in the local and international press about this “Orange Grove Mystery”, espionage, etc. But save as to the geographical proximity to Meir’s grove, there is no link between this affair and our story or the people mentioned therein.
But here we must leave Meir Moshe Meir’s business and turn to the story of the house in 40 Montefiore Street.
Daughter Aliza (left) with friends. 1940
The house was constructed in 1928 for Reuben Davidson, whereby according to its 1927 plans, there was a permit to build three rooms, two balconies and a kitchen. The building licence also included a wooden shed which was stated not to be used for dwelling, but only as a shed for the duration of the building activity.
Daughters Aliza and Seniora. 1940
At that time there was already a growing municipal awareness of the need to enforce city planning and to encourage construction that would raise the city’s profile. According to Modi Bar-On’s TV series “Tel-Aviv Jaffa”, this momentum was led by architect Yehuda Megidovich, Tel-Aviv’s first municipal engineer. The municipal supervision policy was formulated in his immortal sentence: “First they will build, then we will survey” – very much a Tel-Aviv-style utterance. This lenient policy was first and foremost implemented by Megidovich himself, who while serving as the city’s municipal engineer also continued to practice as a private architect, so said Bar-on. Megidovich was leading the eclectic style that was generated by the trends European residents brought with them, and the Middle Eastern style they encountered locally.
Montefiori, the Facia and Fence Posts preserved as per the original
The house in 40 Montefiore Street, which appeared briefly in the second of Modi Bar-On’s TV programs, is one of those impressive street corner buildings. The building is protected under Tel-Aviv’s preservation list, and the information document within the Tel-Aviv archives states one of the criteria for its preservation as “being part of the portfolio of an architect of substance which represents a certain period and a certain style.” But the identity of this heavy weight architect remains unknown.
Shortly after arrival in Israel, Meir bought the house from Davidson. The house was expanded for the needs of the family and had 8 rooms. (It is probable that the second story was constructed at that time, but this information is not available.) In 1942 a basement was added to the building.
Meir Moshe Meir died rather young, in May 1943 aged 66, and was buried in the Babylonian Community section of the Mount of Olives. On his last day, he won a legal dispute against the British Mandatory authorities for the expropriation (much before the State of Israel did the same) of part of his groves for the purpose of establishing a military air base, RAF Aqir – as per the name of the Arab Village. After leaving Court, as he walked down the street, and probably due to his agitation, he suffered a massive cardiac arrest. It was told that, upon seeing this elegant man walking down the street dressed in a suit and a tie, two policemen standing-by fixed their gaze upon him, as this was quite an unusual sight in those days, whereupon in front of their eyes he collapsed onto his knees and keeled over dead on the sidewalk of Allenby Street. So the policemen reported.
Subsequent to his untimely death, the house remained in the family hands for a while, registered in the name of Meir’s daughter Sabiha Hayu. This is not surprising, Sabiha’s husband Joseph,
was Meir’s right-hand in business. The beneficiaries in his last testament were his four sons only. And what about the five daughters? Well, that was the norm of Jewish life in Iraq in those times.
With probate, the house was sold. The date of sale is not clear, but probably it was in 1949.
From the author’s point of view, being Meir Moshe Meir’s grandson, this is where our story ends. Nevertheless, it is always intriguing to observe what happened to this beautiful house thereafter, the home where the author’s mother Aliza grew up.
The house was sold and became the offices of Neve Oved Ltd., a company dedicated to the creation of accommodation for agricultural workers. Neve-Oved intended to make substantial structural changes to the building, but as they decided to move to other premises, this intention that was never carried despite having obtained all the necessary licences.
In 1969 the house was bought by Amnon Rozenstein & Co. Ltd. and was leased to a leather goods company and later to a bank. Amnon Rozenstein & Co. Ltd. fell on difficult times and were in liquidation proceedings in 1990.
The house was then bought by renowned chef Israel Aharoni and businessman Modi Ben-Shah who launched there a prestigious restaurant “Tapuah Zahav” (the Orange), a French gourmet restaurant. A visit to the restaurant out of curiosity left the author disappointed, there was nothing to see and it was impossible to conjure up images of which child lived in what room. All interior walls were demolished so as to create a large expanse with a spacious feeling. Aliza, who was still with us at that time, emphatically refused to pay a visit to the restaurant.
After renovation – 2016
In 2003, ownership passed to Abraham Farhi Investments Ltd., who converted the house back to its original intended purpose – a residential property, containing a number of apartments. In 2012 the owners received a permit to build another floor. According to the permit, the owners may operate a restaurant on the ground floor.