Two Lives II (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. To Jews, it was the War of Independence. To Arabs, it was a-Naqba (the catastrophe). Two Israelis, one Jewish and one Arab, reflect on the events of 1948. Returned Home "I was born in this house. This has always been our home." For nearly 200 years, except for the years between 1948 and 1967, when the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control and off-limits to Israelis, Rivka Weingarten's family has lived in this massive complex at 6 Or Hahayim Street in the Jewish Quarter (rova) in Jerusalem's Old City. She is now 85 and a half years old: "Don't forget 'the half,' my dear" - "at my age it really matters and I'm not ashamed of it." Ensconced on a brocade-upholstered, antique Italian-style sofa, elegantly dressed in a flowing soft-silk floral jacket and black skirt, her silver hair styled full and wavy, her nails perfectly manicured, she is still a very handsome woman. Her face is remarkably unlined, revealing little of what she has been through. "When I came back here in 1967, after the exile from the Old City in 1948, I promised that I would reestablish the synagogue, rebuild the apartment, and create a public space for people to know." Educated in Hebrew and English, she mixes languages freely, tossing in Yiddish and Arabic expressions. She talks about herself with humor; about her family and her city she speaks with reverance. Jerualem is the main character of her story, and her narrative revolves not around time but around the life of the Jewish Quarter and her family home. Jerusalem is the protagonist she has loved and mourned. The home in which Rivka Weingarten lived and lives is one of the oldest structures in the Old City. In fact, it may be one of the oldest in all of Israel, and is at least 600 years old, she says. According to legend, the "Ari" (the Kabbalist Isaac Luria) was born here. The walls are over three feet thick; the rooms are small yet cavernous, with 25 feet domed ceilings. On the ground floor, Weingarten has established the Old Yishuv Court Museum, dedicated to retelling the story of life in Jerusalem in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the second floor, she has refurbished the "Or Hahayim" synagogue, which is again in use today. On the top floor is her own two-room apartment refurnished as it might have looked in the 1930s and 40s when she grew up there. Upon her return in 1967, nothing remained. She collected furnishings and bric-a-brac from secondhand stores and peddlars. A gramaphone with a large brass speaker sits on a table; old-style clocks hang on the walls alongside pictures and portraits in formal frames. Incongruously, a goldfish tank is tucked into one niche, with an airconditioner in another. A fax machine and a sleek LCD screen are off to the side. In someone else's hand, the eclectic collection might seem intriguingly retro. For Weingarten, it is solemnly authentic. Weingarten was 25 when she fled the Old City in her bedroom slippers. Her mother's family came to this home in the mid-19th century at the behest of the famous rabbi, the Gaon of Vilna. They were the first Ashkenazim to settle in Jerusalem in hundreds of years. Jerusalem at that time, says Weingarten, was "pitiful, small, neglected and dirty. My mother's family were people of means - silversmiths. They purchased this compound, which included a synagogue established by Rabbi Haim Ben-Attar, a revered Jewish scholar, a man of good deeds from the 18th century, as a family home and synagogue. And what you see today is only half of it - the rest was destroyed in 1948." Weingarten has written a historical book about her family's roots, self-published and entitled "In the Service of Jerusalem." She grew up as a pampered oldest daughter in a well-to-do religious family. Her father, Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten was a fourth-generation Jerusalemite, who did well in business and real estate ventures. He came to the compound when he married Rivka's mother, who inherited the home because she was an only child. "Ah, what wonderful parents I had," she says. "My father - ah, my father. How I miss him. He was head of the Committee of the Old City and was largely regarded by the Arabs and the British as the Mukhtar (Arabic for community leader) of the Jews. "And ask anyone about my mother, and they will tell you that she was an angel and a tzadekket, a righteous woman, who spent her life doing acts of charity and kindness. And she had many to care for, because in WWI, nine members of our family died of starvation, including her parents and her sister and brother-in-law, and so she had to take care of their young children, too." Her mother established a soup kitchen for the poor of the Old City, and Rivka and her two sisters helped her. And in the evenings, as it grew dark, they would carry the "pot of pots" (in Hebrew, a play on the words "Song of Songs") to be brought to the homes of people too infirm or too ashamed to come to the soup kitchen on their own. "I would love to show you the pictures," she says. "Once we had many pictures. But we don't anymore - they were lost when we were forced out of the rova. The Arabs looted everything. But I don't mind, I am not angry at them. Jews looted, too. That is the way it is in war." Many prosperous families left the Old City before 1948, but the Weingartens remained and lived well. They even had a telephone - a rare commodity in those pre-state days - and they had the only radio in the Jewish Quarter. Weingarten moved freely through the streets and alleyways, among Arabs and Jews. Her best friend, she recalls, was an Armenian girl the same age. They slept at each other's homes, and celebrated each other's holidays. "I know how rare that was. It would be even rarer today. But my father taught me that Arabs are people. It's really that simple. In Genesis we learn that God created man - not Jews or Arabs or Hottentots. Man." But they lost contact when Weingarten left. Once, soon after the war, they arranged somehow to meet on either side of the concertina wire that separated Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem. They waved to each other and cried. When Weingarten returned to the rova, her friend was gone. "I never saw her again. I don't know what happened to her." Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.