Jerusalem's story can be told in many ways. Some regale their listeners with tales of bloody conquests and vainglorious victories. Others describe its massive stones and thick walls. Still others tell of apocalyptic visions and prophetic tales.
But Jerusalem does not belong solely to the zealous or the pious. Last week, in honor of International Women's Day, the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) decided to tell the story of a softer, kinder, more romantic Jerusalem by sponsoring a tour of the homes of just a few of the women who have lived and loved here over the past 150 years.
A group of Tel Avivians joined the walk through the area surrounding the Sergei Courtyard on Rehov Heleni Hamalka, led by guide and buff Orly Ben-Moshe.
The tour began in the courtyard's well-kept garden, near the high, rounded towers. Huddled together for warmth, the Tel Avivians stomped their feet and burrowed their hands into their pockets, unused to Jerusalem's sharp, cold nights.
The infamous Rasputin had lived here, banished by the czar to cool his romantic ardor and political aspirations. But the courtyard also recalls the story of St. Elizabeth. The daughter of Ludwig IV, the Grand-Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth was married off to the Grand Duke Sergei, son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia in 1884.
By then, the Ottoman Empire had already begun to disintegrate, and European powers, including the Russian czar, had political ambitions in the Holy Land. To support these ambitions, the czar would subsidize the masses of pilgrims who made their way to Jerusalem.
Most were poor pilgrims, the majority of them women. The distances were great and the journey hard and dangerous, so the pilgrims remained in Jerusalem for months and even years, living in what is now the Russian Compound.
But others, like Rasputin, were better off and for them, the Sergei Courtyard, which offered high-level, hotel-like accommodations, was built.
Patrons of the pilgrims to Jerusalem, Elizabeth and Sergei were happily married and visited the Holy Land several times. It was Elizabeth who commissioned the large, imposing murals depicting the life of St. Mary Magdalene, which were brought to Jerusalem in 1888 for the consecration of the Church of Mary Magdalene, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, which Elizabeth attended.
The murals still hang in the church today. But in 1906, Sergei was assassinated. Elizabeth became a nun and dedicated her life to charitable work. In 1918, she and other members of the Russian Imperial Family were thrown into a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks, who tossed in explosives for good measure and left them to die martyrs' deaths. In 1920, she was buried, as she had willed, in a crypt below the Saint Mary Magdalene Church.
But her influence continued.
Princess Andrew of Greece (Princess Alice of Battenberg), mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, visited the church and stayed in the monastery in the 1930s. Her wish was to be buried near her Aunt "Ella," the Grand Duchess Elizabeth whose devotion to the church and to nursing and charitable service she strove to emulate. Princess Andrew died at Buckingham Palace in 1969. Her wish to be buried at the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane was finally realized in 1988 when her remains were transferred to her final resting place in a crypt below the church.
And when Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the church, he "suddenly" realized that the British, through Elizabeth, still own parts of the so-called Russian properties in Jerusalem. Briefly, newspaper headlines declared that the Crown intended to claim their stake. But apparently realizing the diplomatic scandal this would cause, the Royal Family changed its mind - at least for now.
Elizabeth was canonized in 1981.
"So that's why we don't have any bobbies in Jerusalem," quipped guide Ben-Moshe.
The group of Tel Avivians smiled appreciatively and moved restlessly, wanting to move on and warm up.
They walked down Rehov Heleni Hamalka, turning right on Rehov Horkanos, past the nails studio where today's Russian immigrants paint on acrylic nails. Boris and Katia, two Russian immigrants from Moscow, were on the tour, too. They listened intently, delighted by the stories. Surreptitiously, Boris gulped down a few swigs of vodka from a small flask and sighed, feeling a bit warmer.
Then they turned right, up a small alleyway, just before Rehov Hahavatzelet and stopped by another courtyard. Today, the house is part of the Hadassah College. But at the turn of the century, the rich and aristocratic Abu Shdid family, one of Jerusalem's most venerable Jewish families, lived here.
Leah, the youngest of the Abu Shdid children, had captured the heart of Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (who became known by his pen-name, Itamar Ben-Avi), son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the first child in modern times to speak Hebrew as his native language.
But Leah's mother, Rayna, wouldn't hear of their love. Ben-Yehuda was poor - and an Ashkenazi, to add insult to injury.
Their love story provided the plot for the Old Yishuv's first media-sponsored soap opera. Writing in his father's newspaper, Hatzvi, Itamar published poems declaring his love for Leah. His father encouraged him - after all, Itamar's unrequited love boosted the paper's failing sales. In the end, Rayna gave in, and Itamar and Leah were married and most of Jerusalem celebrated with them.
Itamar died young and Leah lived for many years, dividing her time between their two daughters - Drora, who married Moshe Hovav and continued the tradition of dedication to the Hebrew language, and Rena, named for grandmother Rayna, who owned the Alba Pharmacy, which still exists just down the street.
"How quaint, how charming," the walkers said as they progressed along the Jerusalem stones, glistening with the hard, heavy raindrops that fell intermittently. Some left the group, heading back for the warm bus. But in between the drizzles, the air was clear and sharp and the group continued on to Beit Ticho.
Well-known to Jerusalemites, what is now called Beit Ticho was built by the wealthy Nashashibi family. It was one of the first homes built outside the walls, set off from Jaffa Road by a magnificent garden. Eventually, ophthalmologist Dr. Avraham Ticho and his wife, Anna, bought the house, turning it into their home and eye clinic.
For many years, Anna was the "woman beside her husband," literally and figuratively. An avid painter, she only allowed herself to paint the good doctor's patients, many of them with eye-patches or sightless eyes.
Yet after Dr. Ticho died, Anna seemed to come into her own and began to paint the flowers and landscapes for which she is so well known. She was awarded the Israel Prize in 1980, but died a few weeks before the ceremony.
"Can't we have coffee here? Can't we warm up here? Please?" the group begged. But Ben-Moshe was relentless, pushing on, promising that coffee and tea would reward the fearless back at the Sergei Compound.
The group moved on, past the parking lot on Rehov Hahavatzelet, where the municipality stores some of its tow-vehicles.
"Are those snow plows?" asked a clueless Tel Avivian. How little do these Israeli foreigners really know about life in their capital on one its actually-rare "snow days."
They forged on across Rehov Hanevi'im, many of its famous buildings now slated for destruction as part of a development plan, and walked into winding Rehov Ethiopia. They stopped at Rehov Ethiopia 3, where in 1914 Dr. Feigenbaum, also an ophthalmologist, raised his family.
Feigenbaum's daughter, Hemda, was one of Jerusalem's great beauties. In well-known verses, poet Ya'acov Orland wrote that Feigenbaum should have been a heart surgeon, so he could repair the broken hearts that Hemda left in her wake. Reputed to have spoken an elegant Hebrew, emphasizing the "ayin" and the "het," Hemda was chosen by the British Mandate authorities to broadcast on their official radio station, providing what they viewed as a more moderate alternative to the radical and incendiary broadcasts by rebel Geula Cohen.
A few meters onward and past the curve, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's home still stands. It was here that Itamar penned his famous poems. When Ben-Yehuda's wife died of tuberculosis, Hemda, her younger sister, offered to marry him and care for their children. An emancipated woman of great drive and conviction, she made it her life's work to support Eliezer and his enterprise.
She learned Hebrew fluently in record time, became a reporter for his paper and in time took over as editor, in order to allow Ben-Yehuda to concentrate on his research of the lost Hebrew words that the reborn tongue required.
Over the years, the municipality has tried to put plaques on the walls of this building, commemorating the Ben-Yehudas. But to some of the haredim who live in nearby Geula and Mea She'arim, the revival of the Hebrew language is nothing less than a sacrilegious heresy and the plaques have been repeatedly torn out of the walls. The municipality has given up long ago, and the holes in the walls are the only testimony to Eliezer and Hemda.
They group then trudged back to Rehov Hanevi'im 64, where British artist William Holman Hunt lived with his wife for many years. When he died, he bequeathed his home to the Russian nun who nursed him when he was ill. The Russian Church subsequently leased the house to Dr. Helena Kagan, the much-admired pediatrician and Knesset member, who founded the Tipat Halav well-baby clinics.
For some time, Kagan's friend, poetess Rahel (Blaustein) lived in a small, stucco cabin in the same courtyard. Rahel, who apparently never loved this city, came to Jerusalem because she was ill with tuberculosis and needed the dry air and because she loved the dashing (and married) Zalman Robashov (Shazar), who was to become Israel's third president.
It was in this small house that Rahel wrote her winsome poem, "The Pear Tree."
It is doubtful that a pear tree actually grew there at the time. But many years later, one of Jerusalem's many romantics planted a pear tree, so that the tourists who come to the courtyard to remember the women who lived and loved here, would not be disappointed.