Mekor Haim: The one-street enclave tucked away in Jerusalem

The first settlers came a year after the 1923 land lottery.

View of Mekor Haim. 10/2/2004, David Keter.  (photo credit: COURTESY HAVA AHARONI AND KETER FAMILY)
View of Mekor Haim. 10/2/2004, David Keter.
 A newcomer to Jerusalem may find the boundaries of the Mekor Haim neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem shrouded in mystery. Where exactly does this small enclave begin and end, you may ask? 
If you walk 700 meters from the Oranim Junction along Mekor Haim Street to Zeret Street, where it ends, you will solve the enigma. You may also pass a tiny side street or two.
A weathered synagogue dating back almost a century and a few vintage stone houses framed by trees – these unpretentious landmarks remain in a time warp along the neighborhood’s sole main street. Though the synagogue exterior is largely neglected, it is well-appointed inside and in daily use. Incidentally, as a stone plaque above its interior door reveals, its first communal leader was the well-known Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Tikochinsky from Bialystok, Poland. Now interspersed among modern apartment buildings, and overshadowed by the Hadar Mall and the Talpiot Industrial Zone to the east, these historic elements reflect a certain incongruity. 
The originally narrow street – dirt road, to be exact – was built parallel to the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway line, just 50 meters westward. Nowadays the neighborhood is bordered by Mesila Park to the west and is basically an extension of Baka. A few almond, fig and pomegranate trees peek out among the conifers. 
Mekor Hayim (as it was originally spelled) was named for Hayim Cohen – an ardent Bukharan Zionist born in Grodno, Czarist Russia. Cohen made his fortune from the oil wells of Saratov and Baku. The second time he visited the Holy Land in 1914 was to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary in a meaningful way. He was only 64, since he had married his wife Malka, then 16, at age 14. He and his children donated a substantial sum to the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement to buy a parcel of land. Its president Menachem Ussishkin subsequently transferred all of that organization’s funds to the JNF, which bought a 120-dunam (30-acre) plot of land in southwestern Jerusalem just before World War I. 
In 1920 the religious-Zionist Mizrachi movement developed the dangerous but strategic area, surrounded as it was by hostile Arabs in Katamon to the west, Baka to the east, Beit Safafa and Malha to the south. Sadly, Cohen – who died in 1916 – did not live long enough to see the development.
Pension Rosenbaum, built 1925 (COURTESY HAVA AHARONI AND KETER FAMILY)Pension Rosenbaum, built 1925 (COURTESY HAVA AHARONI AND KETER FAMILY)
THE FIRST settlers came a year after the 1923 land lottery. Mekor Haim originally consisted of around 20 small farmsteads. Its three-room concrete houses had red shingle roofs. Each family received a two-dunam plot for a house, garden and orchard. Some built cowsheds or chicken coops. Initially, there was only one central water faucet, guarded by a watchman, then two. Later, cisterns were built in each garden. 
A factory was set up early on to manufacture building blocks and cement. The fortress-like, newly built synagogue at no. 42 and the next-door house were used for shelter during the Arab riots of 1929. The two odd-looking projections on its roof served as Haganah positions, while its primitive alarm system is still in place. A 1930 sulha or reconciliation was but short-lived, and in the 1930s constant attacks continued from Beit Safafa. According to a 1931 British Mandate census, Mekor Haim had 202 inhabitants dwelling in 41 houses, up from the figure of 30 families recorded in 1925. Early residents included laborers, artisans, businessmen and government officials. 
Some surviving buildings of interest include the former Pension Vardi of the Rosenbaum family at no. 21. This guesthouse offered many amenities, such as “water in every room” and balconies, and even announced bus transport into town. Moreover, it boasted the only telephone in the neighborhood. The building underwent a number of changes over the years and also served as a Haganah position. The late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz ran Yeshivat Mekor Chaim there for a decade from the mid-1980s on before moving it to Efrat. Nowadays it houses the Sudbury Democratic School with 130 students.
Another surviving building was the home of the Keters, a founding family. The sketches in this article are the work of their son, the late David “Dodik” Keter, an engineer and gifted artist. In the Hebrew documentary describing the growth of Mekor Haim, Keter relates his childhood memories: their involvement in the Haganah, how his father built a croquet court to ingratiate himself with British army officers, while buying vital weapons from the Arabs – and from the British too – and storing them in the backyard. His memories also included a surprise gift of Cadbury’s chocolate and occasional five-o’clock parasol parades of the ladies down the main street.
The late Zipora Aharoni also settled in Mekor Haim with her husband and two sons in 1927. She too recalled those early years on film, not forgetting the hardships and lack of water. “It wasn’t a neighborhood. It was a field,” she complained – replete with thorns, thistles, rocks and an abundance of mice. However, her daughter Hava Aharoni, was born in 1946 to gentler vistas – for a while at least. Still residing in her family’s spacious stone house where the Greek consul once lived, Hava fondly remembers open fields and wide green spaces, carpeted with flowers most of the year. 
“I was surrounded by nature,” she says. “It was a very supportive and friendly community.” 
Her father even served a term as mukhtar or head of the village during the British Mandate, though he was also employed in the Government Printing Office in Jerusalem.
Keter family home, built 1930 (COURTESY HAVA AHARONI AND KETER FAMILY)Keter family home, built 1930 (COURTESY HAVA AHARONI AND KETER FAMILY)
Keter family home, built 1930 (Keter family home, built 1930 (
HAVA TOLD In Jerusalem how her parents were pianists and that in the 1930s her father had played in regional hotels in Amman, Damascus and Beirut. After he joined the Beirut orchestra, the Aharonis even spent two years living and working there. 
Hava was born on Mount Scopus shortly before the War of Independence. The house opposite the synagogue where she lived until age three was soon included in the action. The Haganah clandestinely improvised a hiding place for weapons there by digging under its bathroom floor. One day, warned of an impending British raid on the house, Zipora rushed out to the fields to discard the pistol she found in the slik (cache). Though the British soldiers found nothing incriminating, out of spite and frustration they savagely smashed a very expensive violin that belonged to Hava’s aunt. The aunt’s reaction is not on record and may have been unprintable.
Another time when the Haganah planned to blow up the flour mill in nearby Beit Safafa as a reprisal for the numerous Arab attacks, they needed a sturdy rope to bundle their sticks of dynamite together. When Zipora offered them her pitifully thin clothesline, they had a good laugh and tried elsewhere.
Hava, who has lived in her present home since 1949, pointed out the bullet holes in its northern wall from Arab firing during their 1948 retreat. Her main doorway is an original metal one. The stones fanning out above it are examples of the British crown style of the period. The old kettle near her door was one of two used by her father to bring tea to the soldiers in the fields at night.
During the War of Independence, most Jerusalem neighborhoods endured the prolonged Jordanian Arab Legion siege that began in December 1947. Mekor Haim too endured a lengthy siege, and suffered five serious attacks with heavy losses. Whereas older residents were evacuated with women and children, younger ones remained to repel Arab attacks. Even when bolstered by Haganah recruits, they comprised a mere 70 fighters. 
After a second attack on the San Simon monastery by the Palmah strike force succeeded against major odds, Mekor Haim was finally liberated together with Baka and Katamon on May 2, 1948. Unfortunately, most of its houses were left in a ruined condition. Only four of the original families continued to reside there, but later some homes were repaired and rented for key money.
After the Six Day War, Arab sniping upon the area finally ceased. The Talpiot Industrial Zone was then developed, ending the neighborhood’s isolation. In the mid-1980s, the Jerusalem city council established zoning laws to stop the encroachment of commerce and to preserve the residential character of this unique area.
Having survived a stormy history, Mekor Haim today is a quiet neighborhood ideally located near key shopping areas and transportation lines. It may become even more desirable in the near future when the convenient new light rail line to Talpiot is up and running.  
To learn more about Mekor Haim, enjoy a walking tour. I did one (on Zoom) recently with Gabi Raiss (052-443-9359), an expert guide on Jerusalem neighborhoods.