What was Jerusalem like in the 1950s? A hypothetical letter home

Kaleidoscope and cacophony: If I had written a letter to my parents back then

 Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street in 1950.  (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street in 1950.
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The kaleidoscope is amazing: Kibbutzniks in khaki shirts and shorts, and old-fashioned cloth caps; important-looking people with old tired suits and badly pressed shirts and ties, and worn but polished shoes. Both the kibbutzniks and the pen-pushers carry briefcases. That’s where the lunch sandwiches are.

The chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, wearing a Prince Albert frock-coat and black shiny top hat, walks down King George Avenue. The rabbi has a beautiful white beard and is quite handsome, though he is just medium-height. I must admit it was a thrill to see him, and a bit of a wonder to see him in those fancy clothes. He’d been chief rabbi of Éire (Ireland) before, so maybe that’s how the chief rabbi is expected to dress in what was once the British Isles.

I have also seen the Sephardi chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, who traditionally bears that magnificent title: Rishon Lezion. As Dad will explain to those of you who are weaker in Hebrew, it means “The First in Zion.” Impressive, almost biblical. He wears a black gown, or – forgive me – cassock trimmed with silver elaborate embroidery along the chest, and a kind of two-colored turban, blue below and black above, with a stripe of white or maybe a silver chain looped around from its crown. A black-uniformed beadle – he is called kawass – with silver buttons gleaming and wearing a red fez with strings dangling down walks before him, wielding a silver-headed, metal tipped ceremonial staff, all lacquered black. He swings it out and bangs it down in a rhythm that you’d believe goes back to the presidents of the Sanhedrin 2,000 years ago. You can’t beat the Sephardim in preserving the dignity and robes of recalled power!

I am waiting to see Ben-Gurion go into the Knesset, which is downtown in a building that was once a biscuit factory.

There are Kurdish men sitting on the curbside near Zion Square. Each has a padded cushion on his lower back and very strong cloth bands by his side. These men are so sturdy that they can carry a refrigerator up four flights. North African patriarchs with beards and café-au-lait or olive-colored skin are covered in long beige woolen djellabas with hoods, like the hooded monks from medieval times. They speak guttural Hebrew and pronounce “sh” as though it were “s.” Sev’a (seven) instead of shev’a.

 Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim (credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO) Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim (credit: MOSHE PRIDAN / GPO)

In Mea She’arim, the very Orthodox neighborhood, all men are bearded, and wear various styles of peyot (sidelocks). These range from beautifully curled earlocks to long, straggly, unkempt straight hair running parallel to the beards almost to the shoulder. Some peyot are barely visible, tucked unobtrusively behind the ear. All women wear either wigs, or often just put on cloth kerchiefs covering every single hair. Some men wear woolen, below-the-knee-length coats of blue or black, and the hassidim are clothed in shiny black gabardine caftans. They, the hassidim, wear a black rope made of cotton stranded together (a gartel) around their waists, to separate “the spiritual from the physical.” They must take it off at night, because I see lots of children in their area.

The kids all look like little adults. The boys wear the same kind of hats as the men, except for a few who wear a cap, like children wore in cheder in Poland. You would recognize the word spodik.

The old-time Jerusalemites in Mea She’arim – six, seven generations in Jerusalem – wear yellow-or-gray striped kaftans, and white stockings up to tucked-in knee-breeches. Little boys have white pointed beanies with a little pom-pom on top. The women dress in dark colors. The little girls are beautifully dressed in red or purple velvet Shabbat dresses, and bows in their hair. All told I felt that I was in the shtetl. Over their narrow streets the balconies seem to merge, and are all bedecked with laundry, and always, always on a sunny day, the bedding is airing out on the rails.

Kaleidoscope and cacophony

The kaleidoscope of color is accompanied by a weird cacophony unique to Jerusalem. Little raggedy children with burning dark eyes run wildly down the streets with huge piles of newspapers under their little arms. They race each other towards the customer, shouting gutturally the names of the afternoon papers: Yediot. Yediot, Yediot Aharonot, and just as throatily Ma’ariv, Ma’ariv, Ma’ariv. They are children of poverty who I hope one day will rise, if not from rags to riches, then from poverty to a good life.

Older men stand in kiosks, shouting an incantation sounding like ham-tarry-botnim, which is Hebrew for “hot fresh peanuts.” And other middle-aged men with lined faces stand at bus stops, trying to sell their wares through the bus window. They chant menta mastik shokalad, menta mastik shokolad, a mantra for making a few pennies and which means, as you must have deduced, “mints, chewing gum, chocolates.” Other stooped men, often bearded, sit at street corners with small portable shoeshine stands; I have my shoes polished out of pity. Poverty there is: women sitting on the main streets offering to repair carpets and clothing.

Not much car traffic – who can afford a car? Along Ben-Yehuda Street there are few black taxis. The drivers are mainly wounded ex-soldiers who receive priority for taxi drivers’ licenses. One of them makes a very early turn to Tel Aviv with that day’s Jerusalem Post, hot off the presses. The buses have hard wooden seats and rattle along exhaling dark fumes into the street.

The soldiers look to me like Boy Scouts, so young, 18 years old. Boys and girls. One showed me his rifle. Next to the serial number on the breech were three emblems: the double-headed eagle of Kaiser Wilhelm, the swastika (which gave me the creeps) of the Nazi army, and a Star of David. For some reason, it brought tears to my eyes.

You can’t cross from Jewish Jerusalem to the Arab part, which is occupied by Jordan – even though that’s where the Christian Holy sites are, the Muslim mosques where the Temple of Solomon stood, and of course, the Kotel. There are high concrete walls on the streets leading to the Old City to prevent snipers from the Old City’s crenelated firing positions from taking potshots at pedestrians. Thus the Old City of Jerusalem and the Wall, the Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital and the cemeteries on the Mount of Olives are closed off to Jews. The government had to find old buildings available in the city to use for the hospital, and find space for the lecture halls and labs of the university. Now, if zaydeh, instead of Mr. Mandelbaum, had bought a house at a certain place in Jerusalem that today is the crossing point for the UN and diplomats, it could have been called Applebaum Gate.

Politically, Dad, you’d like it. Labor is in power, and Ben-Gurion is very popular. He is so identified with creating and building the State that when newcomers run into bureaucracy – and it’s pretty heavy here (a mixture of overlays of Turkish, British and Polish/Russian that the founders brought from Eastern Europe), they curse everything, but first B-G. The price of fame and making history. Nonetheless, they’ll vote for him, almost like voting for the Davidic line. Good thing his parents named him David.

The labor union movement, Histadrut, controls many facets of life, and provides health care, housing (massive projects) and cultural services to its members. The other groupings, like the religious parties and the right-wing organizations, do the same, but the government is bypassing them as well and building massively together with the Jewish Agency.

With all of this, and probably many sad and bad things I have not yet seen, there is a pulse here, you feel the vitality, a kind of powerful, very Jewish sense that we will outlive our enemies and these tsores. There is an evolving ethos: we’ll show all of you what it means to be the New Jew. ■

Avraham Avi-hai has lived in Jerusalem since 1953. This is an imaginary letter to his parents that he might have written home at that time.