Tourist attractions at your front door

Yet-to-be-discovered points of curiosity are scattered all over Jerusalem.

311_gate  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Because Jerusalem is built over so many layers of civilization, the city has countless known, as well as yet-to-be-discovered tourist attractions literally at the front door of every resident of the capital.
The same could probably be said about the rest of Israel. But even forgetting about those antiquities which have thus far not been unearthed, most of us regularly walk or drive past places that are filled with historical or other interest without even realizing what they have to offer.
During the summer, Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, working together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, launched a series of inner-city walking tours that were held on Fridays, primarily for weekend visitors from other parts of the country, but also for locals driven by curiosity.
I signed up for the “Shtetl” tour, which curiously enough did not include Mea She’arim. The reason for this quickly became apparent.
Our tour guide, Rafi Kfir, told us that groups are not welcome in Mea She’arim. This was a polite way of saying that the overwhelming majority of women in the group (as well as some of the men) would offend the modesty standards of the neighborhood’s residents, and to go there would simply invite trouble.
A Jerusalemite who was born in Batei Ungarn, one of the most famous parts of Mea She’arim, was disappointed. She had lived there till age 21, and implied that she had never been back. She was curious to see if it was still the way she remembered it. Knesset Yisrael, where we did go, was more or less the same as it had been, she said.
Her family had been scattered in all the areas in which haredim lived in Jerusalem, and it was really no big deal to walk from Mea She’arim to Knesset Yisrael or to any of the other places where she had relatives. “In those days we didn’t take buses, we walked,” she said.
When some 30 of us gathered at Beit Avi Chai before the tour, Kfir asked if anyone present was religiously observant. Only two hands were raised.
The reason for his question was not idle curiosity or an icebreaker, but a means of guessing the level of Jewish knowledge of the participants.
While it is true that a lot of people who don’t practice religion are nonetheless conversant with rules and customs, there are others who are woefully ignorant.
For instance, one of the women in our group wanted to know the meaning of shtetl, which is one of those Yiddish words which are almost universal.
Kfir decided to test our knowledge with regard to another frequently used word, and asked if we knew the meaning of kollel.
Most of us were certainly familiar with it, but made the mistake of defining it as a yeshiva for married men. Indeed it is today, but it wasn’t always.
The explanation conveyed by Kfir was that it originally applied to people who came from the same place. After all, people coming to a new country, especially one that was nowhere near as developed as Israel is today, wanted to live with others of the same background who spoke the same language and shared the same values.
Batei Ungarn is a prime example in that all of its original inhabitants came from Hungary, and even the people who live there today can in most cases trace their lineage to Hungary.
But the underlying reason for the formation of kollel communities, Kfir continued, was that most of the people were impoverished and relied on financial support from abroad. Such support was often earmarked for people from a specific community, and the best way to get a share in funds coming from abroad was to live within a certain group.
Rabbi Yosef Rivlin, who was the secretary of the Jewish community in the Old City of Jerusalem, was one of the first people to leave and live outside the walls. He was among those who pioneered the establishment of the Nahlat Shiva neighborhood.
Rivlin established an umbrella organization that was responsible for the disbursement of funds to Ashkenazi communities. The organization still exists today.
He was also a pivotal figure in the establishment of other new neighborhoods.
Some of the city’s early neighborhoods were fully financed by philanthropists and known as Batei Nedivim – the Houses of the Philanthropists. The donors established rules as to who could live in these houses and for how long.
The communities were divided into hassidic and non-hassidic. The latter were known as prushim. Hassidim didn’t live in houses allocated for prushim and prushim didn’t live in houses allocated for hassidim, but their small neighborhoods were often right next door to each other, as is still evident in Knesset Yisrael which is less than five minutes walk from Mahaneh Yehuda.
Certain facilities, such as the mikve (ritual bath) were shared by prushim and hassidim, because in such close quarters, there was no point in having more than one mikve.
The small neighborhoods were built around courtyards which were relatively safe playing areas for children and which offered relief from the claustrophobic smallness of the houses which rarely had more than two rooms and often comprised only one room. Whole families are still living in such confined quarters.
Kfir told us that it used to be commonplace for childless philanthropists to provide housing in Jerusalem for poor families so that someone would say Kaddish for them when they died.
Sometimes such housing was provided for a limited number of years so as not to encourage idleness and dependence on others. When one family vacated, the house was made available to another needy family.
Although there are trees and a few shrubs in Knesset Yisrael, there are hardly any flowers. According to our tour guide, flower gardens were almost nonexistent in Jerusalem’s haredi neighborhoods.
The reason for this, he said, was that there was a legend among the haredim that Jerusalem must remain fragrant. Flower gardens require fertilizer, and fertilizer smells, so there are no gardens.
The attitude about smell does extend to the general environment. From the few open doors in the area, we could discern that the houses were spotlessly clean, but there was ample evidence that the residents were not concerned about the dirt and the garbage outside their doors. Members of the tour commented on this and were told that is commonplace in many haredi neighborhoods.
The exterior environment is appalling and the air filled with the stench of rotting garbage strewn in stairwells, while the apartments are generally well kept.
There are many alleyways leading from different directions to Knesset Yisrael, but the gate at the main entrance is permanently locked. The reason for this, said Kfir, is that during the War of Independence an Israeli soldier was killed close by, but it was too dangerous for anyone to try to evacuate the body. A message was somehow conveyed to the community leaders of Knesset Yisrael that as religious people, it was their obligation to bury a Jew who had died on their doorstep. They gave the soldier a proper religious burial just inside the entrance to the neighborhood, but in so doing contaminated the area for any Jew belonging to the priestly tribe – the kohanim. Members of the priestly tribe are supposedly descended from Aaron, the High Priest, who was the brother of Moses. kohanim become defiled if they come into physical contact with dead bodies, even if those bodies are already buried. To prevent kohanim from unknowingly becoming defiled, the elders of the community locked the gate, so that no Kohen could pass the burial place of the soldier.
Less than two minutes’ walk away is the tiny community of Munkatsch Hassidim, who are reputed to be amongst the most stringent in their religious observance. We didn’t see any of them but it was interesting to note how close they were geographically to the center of town and to its secular temptations.
One of our group, a Jerusalemite, said that she walked past the Munkatsch houses several times a week, and had never known what they were.
She said that in the future, whenever walking anywhere in Jerusalem, she would pay more attention to her surroundings, and would take care to read any explanatory notes on plaques that are affixed to certain buildings.
Before Kfir left us to our own devices he took us to what is now the affluent haredi neighborhood of Sha’arei Hessed where there is still a well into which people can cast their sins on Rosh Hashana.
Sha’arei Hessed was once a very poor neighborhood, but one that was almost exclusively Ashkenazi. Non- Ashkenazim were not welcome, although a few managed to penetrate, possibly because there was a Yemenite community very close by.
On Shabbat everyone brought their cholent to a communal baker’s oven, which remains as a reminder of bygone times even though it is no longer in use.
Even without a friendly and informative guide, walking through the back streets of Jerusalem, or any other place for that matter, can be a stimulating experience.
Many of us tend to stick to main roads because we are subconsciously afraid of the unknown and of getting lost. But sometimes the road not taken is the one which is the most interesting. It’s worth taking the risk.