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The mystery of English place names in Israel - SOLVED.


Tomorrow, we’re going to visit our friends who live in… Tzfat?  Tsfat?  Maybe its ultra-weird English name, Safed? 

No problem, though, we’ll just catch a bus from where we live in Kiryat… no, make that, Qiryat… hmm, or Qeeriyat… Shemuel.  Shmuel?



English place names here can make you crazy.

If you’re lucky, the English version bears some resemblance to the actual place name, ie what the people who live there call it.  Sometimes, it doesn’t.  

A minor example:  Haifa.  Before I lived here, I had no idea, really, if it was a “H” or a “Ch” at the front.  Is it “Hi” as in, “Hi, howya doin’?”  Or “Chhhhhai” as in “Le’chhhhhayim!”  (turns out it’s a Ch)

Some places are impossible to guess.  For various historical linguistic reasons, even one of the most currently newsworthy areas, the Gaza Strip (let’s think of it as part of Israel for a moment) is actually called Aza in Hebrew. 

Blame it on the Crusaders

But the city spelled “Acre”?  Let’s pronounce it Akko.  I think that one is the Crusaders’ fault.

Safed?  Hmm… better pronounce that one Tzefat.  If you’re Ashkenazi and not going anywhere other than shuls and graves of holy people, you may be able to get away with calling it Tzefas, but don’t try it in the rest of the country.

Some of this is the fault of Christianity, which has popularized these ridiculous names.  It’s hard to unlearn 2000 years worth of Bible study.  Here are some of the good place names Christians have ruined permanently.

Joppa?  Say it Yaffo

Tiberias?  Teveria.

One of my favourites, for the way it fails to trip of the tongue, is the now no-longer-a-town, Capernaum… or, in Hebrew, kfar Nachum.

Halfway through her school year, our older daughter started referring to the city where she lived, most pretentiously, as Jer-oo-zalem.  Another Crusader / Christian legacy, I’m sure.  The rest of us stuck with Yerushalayim.

Sometimes, Israelis are so confident in the rightness of their pronunciation that they act like they don’t care a bit how it’s written in English.  After all, it’s right there in Hebrew character, and Hebrew (unlike English) is a totally phonetic language. 

So who needs English?

English speakers, that’s who.

Somebody has already (in Hebrew) beaten me to the punch with this article (here’s the Google English version) to complain about street signs here in the Krayot, with a pretty funny collection of signs spotted in Kiryat Bialik, considered one of the “nicer” Krayot… but not, I guess, in terms of its English literacy.


Yes, they have spelled the name of one of the world’s best-known Israeli military leaders and statesmen “Mina Aham Begin.” 

Remember, these signs were all collected from the SAME very small city.  Somebody in City Hall could probably just keep a list of all the street names and consult it when they need to order a new sign.

The secret – revealed!

But they probably do more like what they were doing in the passport office where we happened to be waiting for another reason a few weeks ago. 

Here is the secret of English place names in Israel and how they come to be so very, very wonky.

When the clerk had to transcribe a person’s name into English for his passport, she called out to the office in general, “How do you spell ‘Danny’ in English?” 

When one of her clerk friends started guessing (wrong; she left off the extra “n”) I called out the answer from where I was sitting in the waiting area.

The guy was doing about thirty passports, I think, for every living member of his family, and eventually – literally after 40 minutes - we left in disgust.  But not before helping out with the spelling of 5 names in English that would have been transcribed disastrously wrong had we not been sitting right there at the time.

THAT, my friends, is how street signs are made in Israel. 

I have solved the mystery, and here is how it happens:  the clerks call out to their friends, “How do you spell ‘Menachem’ in English?” … and whoever answers first calls it.

More signs of madness

One that really drove me crazy when I saw it in person was a street in the Old Port of Jaffa (Yaffo?) named after famous French guy Louis Pasteur. 

image image

(“How do you spell PASTER?” the clerk called to her friend.)

(I took this picture myself while my sister was begging me to come see the sites; I knew it would come in handy someday!)

It’s not like this is hard.  He himself personally wrote his name every day in English (well, French) characters.  So on the sign, you spell it… like he spelled it.  Apparently, that type of standardization and reliance on others goes against the Israeli spirit.

One of the wonkiest signs I turned up is nearby in Haifa, though I haven’t seen it in person:  Captain Steve Street / Rechov Keptin Steve.

You can see the main illuminated sign above, but what I love is that sometimes in and around Israel, we’ve seen these smaller signs that don’t light up but do tell you a little bit about the person for whom they’re named.  Usually they’re a general or politician, but occasionally, you come across something interesting.  Perhaps someday soon I’ll go there in person to figure out what this sign is telling me.

image image

In the meantime, I have the Internet, which tells me – in this article from December, 1966, that he was a Spanish captain who brought “illegal immigrants” during the British mandate (those are the article’s quotes quotes, not mine; to me, they were actually illegal at the time; it was just a bad law):

The street… was named “Captain Steve Gate” for Captain Esteban Hernandorene, who was known to the “illegal immigration workers” as “Steve.” Born in Spain in 1905, he died in Haifa last year after serving the Zim lines where his son is now an officer.

Attending the ceremony were Jewish seamen, veterans of the second wave of prestate immigrants, naval officers and Catholic clergymen. The latter took part because Captain Hernandorene had been a Catholic. Poet Nathan Alterman said of the Spanish hero that “we shall yet read songs and poems of this fleet small and grey, and of you, too, Captain.”

Now there’s a story (to read more, here’s Captain Steve’s story in his own words).  I guess there is one, behind every one of those wonky street signs and place names.

Want to know something else weird?  Did you catch the name of that poet?

Here’s where I got off the bus this morning to walk in to work.


Natan Alterman Street.

Until I sat down to write this, I had no idea who he was either.

Not only is there a story behind every place name… but it seems they’re all connected in this tiny, besieged land of ours.  Pray for the peace (piece?  peece?) of Jerusalem and the country that surrounds her.

To the stories, to the connections, to the wonky street signs… to life.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I don't remember the title but I remember seeing a book (in English and in Jerusalem) that gives a brief background on all the street names in Jerusalem. I saw it in the last couple of years so it should still be available.

    1. That would be awesome, especially since there are many street names that are ubiquitous throughout the country. The truth is, I don't spend a lot of time in bookstores because a) my Hebrew isn't good enough to find anything I'll enjoy reading and b) there's not enough English to make it worth my while. But I will try googling around and see if I can find it.

  2. a, I think it's called "Street Names"

    This post is included in Shiloh Musings: Parshat Pinchas Havel Havelim, which is our weekly round-up of international Jewish and Israeli blog posts. Please read, comment and share, thanks.


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