Ice café at Aroma. Waffles at the Waffle Factory. An ancient race of giants.
Which of these doesn’t belong?
Actually, they all do. And they’re all connected by one of my favorite streets in Jerusalem – Emek Refaim.
Winding through the German Colony, Emek Refaim is home to pizzerias, coffeehouses, yummy bakeries, and shops hawking everything from gourmet dog treats to a rubber spatula to replace the one you accidentally burned beyond recognition in your holiday apartment, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. But the meaning of the street’s name evokes very different images – because Emek Refaim translates literally to “Valley of the Giants” – or, perhaps, the equally discomfiting “Valley of the Ghosts.”
Here’s the part where you say, “What?!” (At least, I did.) So let’s explore together what Emek Refaim signifies.
“Emek,” meaning valley, is the easier part to explain. Emek Refaim refers to a real valley, one that leads from Jerusalem down to the Valley of Elah (which is, incidentally, the spot that David fought Goliath) and that is part of a millennia-old route connecting the coastal plain with the hills of Judea. The land was among that offered by Joshua to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh when they complained that their share of the Promised Land was too small, and later served as a stronghold of the Philistines. But the word “Refaim” is a bit more complicated.
Apparently this valley, and this part of the ancient route, was associated with a race of giants known as the “Refaim” – and the street name maintains vestiges of this association to this day. We first hear of the Refaim in the Book of Genesis, when the Elamite King Chedorlaomer defeats them in the city of Ashterot Kanaim; he must not have vanquished them entirely, however, as God later singles them out as one of the peoples to be exterminated during the Israelites’ conquest of the land. In the Book of Numbers, we meet one of the Refaim by name – King Og of Bashan, who was according to Jewish legend either the grandson of a fallen angel, a survivor of the Flood saved by Noah in order to serve as a slave to Noah’s descendants, the alter ego of Abraham’s faithful servant Eliezer, or some combination thereof. After Og and his army declare war upon the Israelites approaching their city, God delivers the enemies into Moses’s hand – and Og himself suffers a most ignoble death when the mountain he carries upon his head, intended as a weapon to crush the Israelite camp, is hollowed out by ants and slides down over his eyes, rendering him blind. As the giant stumbles into camp, Moses swiftly dispatches him by striking his ankle with an ax. While Og and his fellow Refaim are almost certainly mythical, here’s a pretty amazing fact: The Bible describes Og’s enormous bed as nine cubits long and four cubits wide – similar in dimension to the ancient stone dolmens that rise from the earth in areas traditionally inhabited by Og and the Refaim.
If the notion of a race of fabled giants leaves you cold, you might not be too crazy about the alternate translation of Refaim: ghosts. The prophet Isaiah spoke of “Refaim” being stirred up in the underworld, and the Canaanite and Ugaritic languages support an identification of the word with spirits of long-deceased ancestors. There’s even a totally farfetched but totally captivating idea that these dead ancestors could have possessed some sort of saving powers – thus accounting for the linguistic similarity between “Refaim” and “Rofiim” – healers.
Do you believe in giants? Do you believe in ghosts? Or do you just want to stroll a beautiful and lively avenue, sip an ice café, and buy a new rubber spatula? Whatever your answer, you’ll find something to delight you on Emek Refaim.