A living museum

In the past 40 years the Jewish Quarter has been transformed into a thriving neighborhood.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The Hurva Synagogue once dominated the skyline of the Old City, but it and the entire Jewish Quarter were systematically destroyed by Jordanian forces after they took control following the War of Independence. The Jewish population had fled, but after the decisive victories of 1967, the Israeli government immediately began to resettle and rebuild the quarter. Today, the Hurva Square, in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, has shrunk to half its normal size to accommodate the rebuilding of the adjacent synagogue, finally under way after decades of delay. The rebuilding project is just the latest sign of a 40-year undertaking to reestablish, maintain and administer the quarter as a living Jewish neighborhood and tourist attraction. "Really, when we got the area, everything was completely destroyed," says Nissim Arzy, director-general of the Jewish Quarter Development Company (JQDC). "The Jordanians, between 1948 and 1967, simply demolished it... and more than that. It was symbolic to destroy the Hurva Synagogue; [they did it] three days before they drove out the Jews, and they said it would be a sign that the Jews would not come back." The JQDC was set up following the Six Day War as an independent government agency to oversee the Jewish Quarter, and was immediately faced with the daunting task of creating a viable neighborhood from a ravaged area that also happened to be an archeological treasure trove. "There was a question then, a very serious one: How to build?" explains Arzy, a former mayor of Bat Yam who himself participated in the liberation of Jerusalem and has held his current post for almost four years. "One idea was to build without regard to [what had been there before] 1948 - after all, it was already 1967 - and the other was to build it exactly as it had been. The solution was Maimonides, the middle path, to build it like a quarter of the Old City but with the construction of a new city. So today, you feel you are in the Old City, but it is also modern. For example, when we found the Cardo, we thought: 'What was the Cardo during the Roman era?' It was a road, and on the two sides were shops, and if you enter it today it's a road with shops on both sides." A master plan was drawn up that incorporated the old streets and buildings, many of which retained their previous function. The new Porat Yosef Yeshiva, for example, was built on the ruins of its previous location and was designed by Moshe Safdie. With few exceptions, new residences were completed before being sold, and returning residents who had lived in the quarter prior to 1948 were allowed to return to their old, newly rebuilt property. The bulk of the quarter's reconstruction was completed within 16 years. "We started to build offices, yeshivot, apartments, houses, shops... and then we found wonderful artifacts from all the ages, from the First and Second Temple periods, from the Romans and from the Byzantines. The rich priestly class lived in the area during the Second Temple Era, and we found wonderful things," says Arzy. The archeological discoveries made after 1967 included physical evidence of the destruction of the Second Temple as described by Josephus and a fortification wall built by the returning Babylonian exiles mentioned in the Book of Nehemia. Building and keeping track of the new-old residences in the quarter proved to be a challenge and the company is still working on registering all the units with the Israel Lands Administration. Many of the apartments share common walls, ceilings or floors in unusual ways due to the multilayered nature of the buildings, and some houses were later found to have been expanded illegally by residents digging downwards and discovering a pit or old room from another strata. Because the Jewish Quarter has been continuously inhabited for centuries, discovering graves - a common problem during construction - is a rarity. One of the main goals of the JQDC was to transform the Jewish Quarter into a "living museum," where the history of the Old City would be apparent for all to see, but the company also maintains several museums that charge admission, which go to cover the agency's operating costs. Much of the JQDC budget comes from property it owns in greater Jerusalem that it rents out to the city, as well as rental fees from commercial property and the two parking lots in the Jewish Quarter. According to Arzy, the agency is totally independent from Kikar Safra and although it is nominally part of the Construction and Housing Ministry, it only receives money from the government for special projects such as the Hurva Synagogue. In addition to new buildings and archeological finds, the rebuilt quarter needed residents. "It was difficult to bring people to live here after '67," explains Arzy. "At the beginning of the period, the director decided that if someone from the US wanted to buy a house here, we wouldn't sell it. There was a fear that Jews wouldn't come here, that foreigners would buy up all the property and there wouldn't be Jewish residents here." Real estate in the Jewish Quarter includes some of the most desirable properties in the world; rentals and property for sale are known to be available only for hours at the most, not days, weeks or months. The JQDC officially owns the entire quarter and those who buy property technically lease it for only 49 years. In keeping with the original 1967 decision, only Israeli citizens may purchase real estate, and all purchases, rentals or transfers must be approved by the JQDC. "The population has changed from the beginning," says Arzy. "Once, there were very few haredim; there were more religious Zionists and secular residents. Little by little more haredi families moved in and then in a certain period, in the 1990s, a lot of haredi immigrants came from America." Today, there are 600 families, or about 2,500 Jewish residents, out of 34,700 total residents in the Old City. "But at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 20,000 Jewish residents, out of 37,000 total. That means, back then it was mostly Jewish in the Old City, and not just in the Jewish Quarter," he adds. Arzy is reluctant to talk about property values today. "I can say it's a pity that I didn't buy here, because today the prices are astronomical. To my knowledge it's the most expensive real estate in Jerusalem. An apartment I know, a house opposite the Western Wall, was sold recently for $5 million." As the development got under way, the quarter began to attract a diverse group of early residents, some of whom had lived there until 1948. Others were pioneers or spiritual seekers, drawn by the seemingly miraculous events of the Six Day War and the return of the Temple Mount to Jewish control. One American who moved into the quarter early on is Reuven Halevy, who arrived as an itinerant spiritual seeker in 1974 and never really left. "It's a miracle, it's unbelievable," he says, sitting on bench in the Hurva Square squinting into the afternoon sun. "I went around the world and lived in all the wonderful places, but if you're really into God you can see the light comes down here... I get to pray every day at the Kotel [Western Wall]! "In '74-75 there was nothing, it was all leveled, flat. A few people came... it was the cheapest place to live, there were great prices and it was a different world then, a village. It was very friendly with the Arab [Muslim] quarter... it was amazing." According to Arzy, the Jerusalem Municipality is responsible for providing electricity, water and garbage collection for the quarter, but the JQDC maintains a dedicated staff member whose role is to "go around the quarter, to look for trash and to call the city and tell them where to come and clean." But looking around the square at the passing crowds, Halevy expresses his dismay at the jumble of construction equipment and materials in the square. "Couldn't they have put a mural there or something?" he asks rhetorically, while admitting that the JQDC built up the quarter "decently" by attempting to "leave things as they were" and that it is amazingly clean considering the amount of traffic it receives. ANOTHER EARLY arrival was Mayer Schwartz, 80, a retired professor of botany and desert studies, who came to the Old City in 1972 with his wife and children. "It was very difficult; it was so dirty and dusty. Within a few years, new groups came, and half were secular. It was something special then; there was a feeling of togetherness. It was like a kibbutz, everyone helped each other and it was very nice. For example, after the Yom Kippur War, they wanted to close the health clinic, because they said there weren't enough people, so we arranged that there would be one 'sick' person there every day to keep it open. And the relationship with the Arabs was good; it was very relaxed in the Old City. Today, there is a barrier between the Jews and Arabs. In the '80s, the population changed and different groups came [to live in the Jewish Quarter], but there was always the feeling that to live here was special." "It was a free place, and now it's a religious place," says Joseph Langer, who runs a small electronics shop in the quarter with his wife Ruth. Langer, an Etzel veteran who fought in all the Israeli wars until the Yom Kippur War, moved into the Jewish Quarter in 1979. "It isn't easy to be here, and those who weren't religious didn't understand the meaning of the Old City, so they went to easier places to live in." "There was a plan to make the quarter two-thirds secular and one-third religious, but it didn't happen," explains his wife as she rings up an order in the shop. "There are still some secular people here; they also are emotional [about the Jewish Quarter]. It's a wonderful place." Langer adds, before slipping out for an early Minha service, that many of the newer religious residents are Americans but that "these people had money, luxuries, and they left all that to live here and they did very well." The building was still going on when Dr. Richard Jaffe, a successful podiatrist, came to the Jewish Quarter in 1985 for the summer and decided to stay. "My wife and kids stayed and I commuted back and forth from [from California] at first. The basics were already built then, but on the other hand, they were still finishing the streets, and we were still hooked up to the east Jerusalem electric company... at the first drop of rain the electricity would go off. We actually got gas lighting because it happened so often, especially on Shabbat. It was uncomfortable, but we weren't pioneers. I was the first American podiatrist to come to Israel, and a lot of things came together at once... we rented for a while until we got it together to buy a place." Now Jaffe has his own clinic in the center of town, and all his children are married and having kids themselves. Like many residents, he has been very happy to live in the Jewish Quarter. "We have a lovely community... there are quite a few Americans moving in, very fine people, and we still very much enjoy living in the quarter and plan to continue living here. People help each other and it's a real community; you have to walk in and out and you constantly run in to people you know. Over the years, even if you say hello to someone once in a while, after 10 to 15 years you know that person... Honestly, it's been a bit like a dream, it's been a great honor to be able to live in such a place and I'm happy my kids grew up running around in these streets. "In '85 it was mostly religious Zionist, and that certainly went through a big change. A lot of the original Rova [Jewish Quarter] people decided that they would leave... about seven or eight years ago the Menahem Zion Synagogue, a place full of professors and political people just emptied out, and the people who came were haredim... it's been very interesting. It's less homogeneous today than it was in those days, but the stories that I have heard is that when they really designed the place, they wanted it to be an artists' colony, and it had a certain romantic quality, which it doesn't have [anymore]." Jaffe does sometimes find it difficult to live in the Jewish Quarter, however. "A lot of people have come and opened restaurants, especially right before you come to the stairs before doing down to the Kotel, with tables out in the way. The streets get so bad, it's slippery from the fat on the stones... people don't come to the Rova to have a schwarma at the Kotel, it shows no planning. "The Rova is the biggest tourist site in the country, and it's difficult. If you have a life where you have to drive in and out every day, it's a hassle, but now, with David's Village opening up with lots of shops, and with the light rail coming, there will be a lot more people around, but I don't see planning being done. I think the people who live here would here would agree. Still, tourism has come back, and they are making the area of the Kotel extremely beautiful; they are renovating the area and the tunnels and it's really fabulous." THE JQDC actually has a number of elaborate projects on the drawing board, such as a combination hotel, shopping center and underground parking complex on the site of the visitors' parking lot, which would lead to cars being totally banned inside the Jewish Quarter proper. Other plans include the restoration of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue (another big synagogue destroyed in 1948) and a series of continued renovations of the Western Wall area, including the addition of elevator access from the Jewish Quarter and a total redesign of the main security entrance. The company has seen its share of controversy as well and at times its continued usefulness has been questioned. The State Comptroller's Report of 1992 noted that the JQDC's existence was no longer tenable because the rebuilding was basically completed, and in 2004 the Knesset State Control Committee discussed the issue and recommended that the company be incorporated into the East Jerusalem Development Company, a sister organization with some overlapping spheres of influence. In addition, the JQDC has long been accused by Jewish Quarter residents of neglect and has been blamed for lack of basic infrastructure and general services. The company has also been accused of abetting the haredization of the quarter, especially after the controversial 1999 sale of the historic Beit Rothschild building (which houses the JQDC offices) and the nearby archeological park and old German hospice to haredi organizations. Director Arzy seems to relish the JQDC's independence and is upfront about the company's controversial proposal to extend the JQDC's jurisdiction to the entire Old City, which according to him would be good for both the Jewish and Muslim residents and would help keep the entire Old City in Israeli hands. During the second intifada, the Jewish Quarter went through a drastic decline in visitors. "It was difficult," remembers Schwartz. "Thank God, there weren't a lot of bombs here, and there were a lot of miracles. There was a time when nearly everyone in the quarter had a weapon, and we wanted [the Arabs] to know it... everyone knew everyone else, and that helped. For a long time there were no tourists and the quiet was very difficult. Even today there is a problem, as a lot of people are afraid to come." Rabbi Yitzhak Sokol and his family came to live in the quarter in 2001, at the height of the intifada. Sokol, who spent 30 years learning at the famous Lakewood Yeshiva Kollel, was returning from a solo trip to Israel when his flight - and all flights - was redirected from US airspace. His plane had to make an emergency landing in Zurich. It was September 11, 2001, and in New York the Twin Towers were burning. "The planes were full, and there were thousands of people [stranded] in the hangars. It was one week before Rosh Hashana, and so I decided to come back to Jerusalem," he recalls. "I was in the Jewish Quarter, and someone told me that there was a place open and no one had lived there for 14 years. It was one of the eight to 10 apartments that overlook the Kotel and the Temple Mount. They said I had one hour to decide [if we wanted to rent it] or else someone else would take it. The Torah portions [around that time] are full of mention of Jerusalem... I couldn't find Lakewood or New Jersey... I called up my wife and she said 'okay.'" Amazingly, the Sokols were able to quickly arrange things and were all living in the apartment by that Succot, just a few weeks later. "I pray every day down in the tunnels near the Holy of Holies," he says. "It's the source, for me."