Restored beyond former glory

David Amar World Center portrays culture, history, traditions of N. African Jews, grew from Rabbi Ben-Shimon’s center for J'lem’s nascent Moroccan community.

By
June 9, 2011 21:19
Mishkenot Sha'ananim synanogue

Mishkenot Sha'ananim synanogue 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Ask almost anyone in Jerusalem to point you in the direction of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and you’ll be directed to look for the windmill in the neighborhood facing the walls of the Old City. Mishkenot Sha’ananim was the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls. It was built for the poor by Sir Moses Montefiore with funding provided by an American Jew, Judah Touro. Between 1948 and 1967, Mishkenot Sha’ananim was the target of a great deal of Jordanian sniper fire, with the result that only the poorest of the poor were willing to live in what had become no-man’s-land. Due to being under constant attack, Mishkenot fell into appalling neglect.

After the Six Day War, mayor Teddy Kollek decided to revamp Mishkenot and turn it into a showplace. To enhance its appeal, he transformed it into a guest house that hosted visiting musicians, painters, writers and other creative individuals who came to Jerusalem to seek the muse. In later years, there was the addition of the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center.

Mahaneh Yisrael, situated opposite the present-day Hebrew Union College, was the second Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City. It is a hop, skip and a jump from Mishkenot, but most people would be hard pressed to say where it was unless they lived in the area more than 20 years ago.

Unlike Mishkenot, which was more or less a charitable enterprise, Mahaneh Yisrael was a private endeavor initiated by Moroccan-born Rabbi David Ben-Shimon, who also practiced charity.

Ben-Shimon put up a somewhat grand edifice in what was then a barren area but is today among the choicest pieces of real estate in Jerusalem, with the still-under-construction Waldorf Astoria as a next-door neighbor.

Last Sunday the David Amar World Center was officially inaugurated in that place, a center that will offer seminars, lectures, poetry readings, liturgy, exhibitions and other activities to foster a sense of pride in North African Jews in general and Moroccans in particular.

The story of how the World Center came into being begins with Rabbi Ben-Shimon.

BEN-SHIMON WAS a leader of the Mugrab or Moroccan community as distinct from the pure Sephardi (Samech Tet) community, which some 160 years ago ruled Jerusalem with an iron fist and was superior in influence and numbers to the Ashkenazi community.

Born in Rabat, Ben-Shimon, the son of a well-to-do merchant, showed leadership potential at an early age and was also an excellent scholar. In the mid-19th century, at the age of 28, he left Morocco for Jerusalem. Notwithstanding his relatively young age, he already had a large following of disciples, several of whom accompanied him to the Holy City. Here, too, his learning, his wisdom and his charisma attracted increasing numbers of followers. Ben-Shimon didn’t like the way the Sephardim kept trying to put him in his place, so he decided to take his community of Moroccan immigrants out of the Old City and relocate it in a new neighborhood.

Poor as they were, Ben-Shimon’s people followed him into the wilderness of western Jerusalem, building single-story dwellings around his magnificent building that included a synagogue, a Talmud Torah and a meeting room.

The whole of Mahaneh Yisrael was built around an open courtyard, with the entrance of each home facing the courtyard. It was as close as one could get in those days to an urban kibbutz or moshav.

Although they lived outside the Old City and had their own study facilities, the men of Mahaneh Yisrael continued to return to the Old City to study at the Tzuf Devash Yeshiva. “Devash” is an acronym for “David Ben-Shimon.”

The Moroccans were soon joined by other North Africans who wanted to break away from the Sephardi yoke. All other Sephardi communities, namely those from Turkey, Greece and various parts of southern and central Europe, were under the supervision of the Eda Hasfaradit B’yerushalayim.

It should be remembered that in those days, major religious movements had tremendous power because so many of the people were impoverished and depended on them for housing, small monetary disbursements and other necessities. Because of this, they were hesitant to go against them for fear that they might lose what little they had.

Ben-Shimon felt responsible for the families around him and sent emissaries to Jewish communities in Islamic countries to raise funds for his community and its institutions. He was not the only one to do this. Nearly all Torah institutions in the Holy Land had people who traveled abroad on their behalf to collect money.

Ben-Shimon regularly distributed food to the needy and took care of widows and orphans.

Scrupulously honest, he published what today would be regarded as a newsletter, in which he listed the donations he had received and on what this money had been spent.

Notwithstanding the personal attention that he gave to the needy, he continued to write and to teach, and his reputation was such that people from outside his community flocked to hear him and study with him.

Unfortunately, he did not live to a ripe old age but died in 1879 in his mid-40s. He is buried on the Mount of Olives.

Following his death, his work was continued by a community council that had been appointed some years earlier. His disciples continued to study in the synagogue and the Talmud Torah.

During the War of Independence, the area, like Mishkenot Sha’ananim became part of no-man’s land. Ben-Shimon’s building remained standing but was looted of its contents.

In the interim it fell into disrepair, but it was restored to some extent after the Six Day War.

Further improvements were carried out some years later. Around 20 years ago there was a major improvement at an investment of some $2 million in what came to be known as The World Center of North African Jews. Both a cultural center and a museum, in the course of time it was visited by thousands of soldiers and schoolchildren.

Four years ago, World Center activists began talking about the need to renovate and enlarge the premises and to bring the building into the 21st century, while maintaining and teaching an ancient heritage and training young leaders to take important roles in the community. A year later, after 17 years of operation, Haim Cohen, the chairman and director of WCNAJ, tells In Jerusalem, it was closed to the public as the expansion and improvement work began.

It has also undergone a change of name. It is now called the David Amar World Center in honor of David Amar, a wealthy Moroccan Jewish businessman who served as financial adviser to King Hassan II, the father of Muhammad VI, the present king of Morocco.

THE CURRENT renovations cost in the vicinity of $3 million. When this interviewer, who has seen the work in progress, looks incredulous that the sum is so small, Cohen explains that the infrastructure was already there and that many people working on the project, himself included, are there in a voluntary capacity.

Not so some 24 artisans who were brought in from Morocco and have been working assiduously in an area set aside in the building for use as a temporary workshop. There, they have produced the wonderful Moroccan mosaics that are so prominent inside and outside the building, as well as the ornate alabaster carvings that are part of the Moorish décor and some of the exquisite woodwork. The mosaics are everywhere – as inlays on staircases, at the base of columns, on the floors and fountains, even in the elevators and bathrooms.

The building that was originally three stories high is now four stories high. An extra floor was added as a continuation of the original architectural style, with some traditional furnishings, as well as ornamental and ritual objects imported from Morocco.

Unlike many other buildings that have had floors added, the addition here is seamless, with no visible indication that it was not always this way. The interior of the building is also built around a square.

Aside from anything else, says Cohen, the building and what it offers in terms of seminars, lectures, poetry readings, liturgy, exhibitions and other activities will foster a sense of pride in North African Jews in general and Moroccans in particular.

The Moroccan community has long lived under a stigma. There used to be a term in Israel “Marokai sakin” (literally, Moroccan knifers, portraying a stereotype of violent immigrants), says Cohen, observing that this negativism is so ingrained, that the public is either unaware or has forgotten the rich Moroccan Jewish culture, as well as that of other North African Jewish communities.

Even people of Moroccan background are often ignorant of the richness of their heritage, he says.

The aim of the people associated with the World Center, he clarifies, is to revive and preserve the cultural heritage of North African Jews by, for instance, teaching them ethnic music and what Cohen calls “Moroccan Yiddish,” which is a form of Arabic spoken by Moroccan Jews and can be compared with the difference between Ladino and Spanish.

There will be permanent exhibitions, such as ethnographic displays of ritual objects and traditional clothing worn by Moroccan Jews, as well as changing exhibitions such as a photography exhibition of Jewish life in Morocco, which is currently on view. A trilingual library and lecture room has been reserved for the teaching of Andalusian-style poetry and prayer.

A state-of-the art audiovisual center and CD library enables researchers or laymen to access almost anything about the history and heritage of North African Jews. There will be no slides in the audiovisual center, says Cohen, because the idea is to present North African Jewish life as something that is living and animated, not something that belongs to a past era. All the visuals will be videos of different aspects of Jewish life, such as a typical North African Jewish wedding or a Mimouna celebration.

Every effort will be made to avoid stagnation, and writers, artists and entertainers of North African background will be encouraged to visit frequently, to read from their works, to show their paintings and sculptures and to perform.

People running the center will not be allowed to rest on their laurels. They will maintain regular contact with North African Jews living in other countries, with the aim of initiating and developing new programs based on the Jewish life cycle.

There will also be an archive of recorded testimonies and documents about life in the old country and properties that were abandoned without compensation when Jews had to flee.

The houses that once led into the courtyard were demolished several years ago and were replaced by two large high-rise buildings that are partly commercial and partly residential. One of the buildings will have a spacious restaurant or a coffee shop that faces the center’s beautiful courtyard with its many colorful flower beds and Moroccan-style fountain.

These two buildings that face Rehov David Hamelech, which have been under construction for five years, are only now approaching completion and look as if they had always been part of the World Center.

THOUGH STILL requiring work, the center was officially opened last Sunday in the presence of President Shimon Peres, former president Yitzhak Navon, who is honorary president of the center, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Mayor Nir Barkat.

Also present was former MK Rafi Edri, who presented the center with a Torah scroll to be housed in the small Tunisian synagogue inside the building. The synagogue, donated by the Jewish community of Clemson, will not be used on a regular basis but only on special occasions.

Activities in the center will be conducted primarily in Hebrew and French and possibly Spanish, says Cohen, but he cannot pinpoint when these activities will begin.

Despite the fanfare with which the center was inaugurated, it will take some time before it is open to the public. There is still much to do to complete the work. Moreover, adds Cohen with a smile, “For what we have in mind and in relation to the number of inquiries we have received from all over the country, the center is already too small, and we will have to expand yet again.”

He does not elaborate on whether this means building upwards or outwards or renting space in one of the buildings standing on land where the houses surrounding the center once stood. For that matter, no decisions have yet been made as to the hours the center will be open and whether there will be an admission fee.

What is certain is that in its new form, the center is yet another jewel in the crown of Jerusalem, easily accessible through King David, Agron and Hess streets.

Cohen predicts that it will be a major tourist attraction because of its proximity not only to the Waldorf Astoria but also to numerous hotels a few minutes’ walk away. Tourists who come for conferences or business meetings and stay in the city for only a day or two will welcome the opportunity to see something so impressive so close by, he envisages.

The glorious garden patio has already become an attraction.

Cohen, who spends much of his time on the site, has frequently found clusters of people in the courtyard at all times of the day and night admiring the beautiful flowers and smelling the roses.

Why is such a center necessary? Although many North African Jews suffered discrimination and humiliation in the early years of the state, says Cohen, “Today, we’re all Israelis from a mix of backgrounds. If we don’t do anything to preserve our heritage, it will die out.”


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