A nook in the gate

Avi Margolin and his colleagues rejuvenate a Jerusalem tour-guiding tradition.

From California’s posh Bay Area to a historical nook in the Old City, Avi Margolin has found his calling as a tour professional. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
From California’s posh Bay Area to a historical nook in the Old City, Avi Margolin has found his calling as a tour professional.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
‘It is amazing that a Jew from upstate New York can stand where the Ottoman soldiers once were,” says Malkah Abuloff ecstatically. “It is unbelievable to work in this place that is 500 years old, and was built in 1538. I feel like I’m continuing history.”
Abuloff is describing a small walk-in closet-sized room that has recently been revived by several energetic tour guides at Jaffa Gate. She, Avi Margolin and Vivian Nadir are hoping to add a new level of service for tourists visiting the holy city.
Margolin made aliya from the posh Bay Area in California and lives in Gush Etzion. For several years after completing his army service, he tinkered with different careers.
“After I got out of the army, I was looking for a profession that combines touring and studying history; every time I thought something would be a good profession I got interested in something else.
When I discovered the tour-guiding program it was a combination of everything I wanted in life… You are only limited by imagination and geography.” For the past year, he has been guiding Jewish youth groups and private tours around the country.
A chance meeting with Yoel Mendelowitz, a Holocaust survivor, paved the way for the current setup. “We were all looking for a challenge that would help us increase the amount of days we could guide. We were fascinated by the location.”
The nook in Jaffa Gate had been in the possession of Mendelowitz since after the Six Day War. Margolin explains, “He took over this space, and has been involved in tourism ventures since the Six Day War, and opened Zion Walking Tours over 30 years ago.And he has been in this location for many years.”
Abuloff concurs. “We are revising his vision of giving Holocaust survivors tours of Jerusalem and reinstating the idea of free tours, which was a matter of pride because he started this tradition – his vision of three-hour tours. As a survivor, he is driven [and wants it to] get off the ground.”
The idea was to rejuvenate a Jerusalem tradition of providing free three-hour tours. “We offer two tours a day at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., each three hours, to the Old City, going to all four quarters, and we visit the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“There is one other main company that does these free tours, but Yoel was doing it first. With us there full-time, visitors can expect a chance to peek in and grab a tour with experienced guides,” says Margolin.
THE NOOK in the gate has a unique history. Before German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem in 1898, the main Jaffa Gate entrance was not the present street, but through the covered gate abutting the street. The nook once likely served as a room for Ottoman guards after the city walls were constructed in 1538. With the Kaiser’s visit, the Ottoman administration agreed to make a breach in the wall for the Kaiser.
Small shops and stores used to be built up to the gate, on the inside and outside of it. When the British took over the Old City in 1917 and received a mandate from the League of Nations to run the country, they seized on the opportunity to “return” the gate to its previous uncluttered existence. They demolished a clock tower atop it in 1922, and razed the shops between 1934 and 1944. The nook, which one supposes had been part of the warren of many little shops, was likely affected.
Margolin hopes that this little location will help them get the word out about other specialty tours. In recent years, as the number of guides has burgeoned, there has been increased competition and tourists are also looking for unique ways to explore Israel. For instance, one guide in Tel Aviv now offers visitors a way to look at graffiti.
He intends to expand on this idea of segmenting the market by offering culinary tours. As a sort of “taster,” he took me down to the Arab shuk opposite Jaffa Gate to a small hole-in-the-wall humous restaurant. It was served in bare-bones style with just fiery green peppers on the side; no distractions or frills like felafel. Good stuff.
Similarly, Abuloff explains that before becoming a licensed tour guide she worked at Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve near Modi’in, and was a lecturer at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens for 10 years. There are many plants in the Old City and Jerusalem that visitors interested in a sort of green tour would love to see. “I know there are a lot of people who after a few days of seeing the rocks and stones, they want to see greenery and fresh air, and connect that to Bible.”
Observing Margolin standing by his nook as the rush of tourists, Orthodox Jews, Arab bread sellers and gaggle of humanity move in and out of the Old City, it is clear this will be a tough row to hoe.
Margolin wears the traditional Akubra Australian wide-brimmed bush hat, which for some reason Israeli veteran tour guides like to sport; he speaks to visitors interested in touring the city. Some haredi children gather next to the nook, looking at the photos displayed. A group of mostly female soldiers stop just inside the gate to listen to a lecture from their commander.
Another day in the life of the Old City.