Beit Hakerem – My kind of town

‘There is a spot of earth supremely blest, A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest… ”

BEIT HAKEREM, 1925. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
So wrote an 18th-century poet named James Montgomery in a poem he called Home. Israel is a country of immigrants, many of whom still refer to London, New York or Morocco as “home,” no matter how long they have lived here. I was born in Melbourne, Australia, but today when I say “home,” I mean Beit Hakerem, the lovely tree-lined suburb of Jerusalem that came into being in 1923.
I have seen old photos of a barren, rock-filled tract of land without a hint of green. So I daily give thanks to its founders – a group of teachers and professionals who transformed it to the oasis it is today of gardens and trees, flowers and pocket parks. And friendly people of all kinds, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Likud and Meretz, all living together in harmony and mutual respect. It is a model of what community living should be.
Beit Hakerem began to be settled when Jews moved out of the Old City as a result of the 1929 Arab Riots, with a further fillip after the 1936-1939 vicious attacks on them. Professionals, particularly teachers, started to build the new suburb. Kadish Yehuda Leib Silman, the Hebrew writer and satirist, who also devoted his life to teaching, was one of the founders.
A narrow lane, with steps leading down to the next level, is named after him, right at the beginning of my street, Karmon, where it joins Hehalutz. At the same junction (we’ll whisper this part) used to have a red light outside it during the British Mandate period. The ladies of the night who worked there were so popular with the British soldiers, and so adept at getting information from them, that the Shin Bet enlisted them as agents. But we won’t dwell on that as today it is a very respectable house indeed.
There are many landmarks in Beit Hakerem. The very modern domed synagogue with stained glass windows, on Rehov Beit Hakerem has several minyanim (prayer quorums) every day beginning at 6 a.m.
Across the road, on Hamagal Street, is the renowned David Yellin Teachers’ Seminary. It once fulfilled an important role in the activities of the Hagana, serving as a recruitment center and regional command point. It later functioned as a training center and a hiding place for weapons.
THE COMMERCIAL center was once a collection of tradesmen’s huts, but now is very modern with a large supermarket, beauty salons, boutiques, dry cleaning store – all your shopping needs under one roof. It is known as Kikar Denya, Denmark Square. A plaque in several languages reads: “In October 1943, the Danish people and the resistance movement defied the Nazi Occupation of their country to rescue their Jewish fellow citizens. During 10 nights, almost all of Danish Jewry (over 7,000 people) were ferreted across the Oeresund in fishing boats and small craft to safety in Sweden. Danish courage and Swedish generosity gave indelible proof of human values in times of barbarism. Israel and Jews everywhere will never forget.”
Old people sit in the newly renovated square in the shade of olive, pine and white oleander trees. Children climb the street sculptures near the flower seller. Sometimes there are street fairs. It’s a meeting place where you’re sure to be greeted by a neighborhood friend. Every Simhat Torah there is a procession from all the local synagogues to Kikar Denya, and everyone is invited to join the dancing and merriment.
On my street, five Jerusalem pines (pinus halepensis), the tallest forest trees in Israel, stand sentinel outside my building. There is a vacant lot further down where you can find wildflowers in spring. Hyssop (ezov in Hebrew and zaatar in Arabic) sometimes appears there, and is wonderful eaten with bread and olive oil. The herb mallow also makes an appearance after a good rain. During the siege of Jerusalem, women made soup and salad from its leaves. In April, if you’re lucky, you might also find red poppies and tiny cyclamens between the rocks. There is fragrant rosemary in almost every garden.
Home is where the heart is, and mine is firmly entrenched in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem. It is indeed the “house of the vine.” Whatever street or alley you traverse, you’ll find a charming garden being tended and you’ll be greeted with a smile and maybe offered cuttings of the plant you admire. Sweet is the smile of home, and for me, that’s Beit Hakerem. It’s my kind of town!
The writer is the author of 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant (now a movie titled The Golden Pomegranate). Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]