Thursday, November 13, 2008

Status quo: Jews lived in all quarters of the Old City

The recent re-opening of the Ohel Yitzchak synagogue near the Temple Mount has again ignited protests from Arabs who claim that Jews are trying to "Judaize" the Old City of Jerusalem.

What most people don't realize is that Jews have lived throughout the Old City, not just in the so-called "Jewish Quarter."

A description of Jewish places throughout Jerusalem was written by the late Rabbi Yaakov Goldman in 1975, and it is a fascinating and important article with many photographs. Here are some excerpts:
Many say to us Jews that, even in the best of days before the establishment of the State, Jews only lived in one section of the Old City, called the Jewish Quarter, and, since there are four quarters, and we have had only one, what claim do we have to sovereignty over the whole of the Old City? Unfortunately, I find that not only non-Jews, but even Jews seem to accept this apparently reasonable 'fact.' We Jews also speak of the "Jewish" Quarter. Even the Israeli government has laid down special regulations about the Jewish Quarter, regarding settlement of Jews, which do not equally apply to the other quarters. I see in this a false assumption, and a great danger if we accept such a way of thinking. For, in actuality, the entire Old City, all four quarters, has been inhabited by Jews for at least the last few centuries. And Jewish population has been, if not a majority, a substantial minority in these quarters, at various points in history.

The Moslem Quarter is described in detail by one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem, who died ten years ago, Ben-Zion Yadler. Rabbi Yadler would go to the Kotel on Tisha B'av at midnight, when he would begin teaching Midrash. Up till twelve o'clock he wouldn't appear - there were too many 'Zionists' who used to come. But at twelve we would all gather together and he would tell us about Jerusalem. I remember once that Arabs began throwing stones at us. He said to us in Yiddish, "Don't be upset. You wanted them to give you back Palestine; they're giving it to you stone by stone."

He writes a full description of what is today called the Moslem Quarter, and says as follows: Not only did the majority of Jews of Jerusalem live in the so-called 'Moslem' Quarter, but, also the more important Jews lived there, rather than in other sections of the city. And he goes on to describe twenty-two synagogues (I've been able to locate practically all of them), many mikvaot and yeshivot, among them, the biggest yeshiva in that part of the city - which is fortunately still standing - Torat Chaim. As you come from Damascus Gate, it's on the left side of El Wad Road. Very strange: it is right on the Via Dolorosa part of the street. (The Via Dolorosa curves at one point, and part of it is on El Wad Road.)

Then you have another big yeshiva, Chaye Olam, with a Talmud Torah of twenty-two classrooms -- each classroom today is an Arab home. (A Talmud Torah consists of eight grades, and here there were three parallel classes.) Part of the building is now unused. That part was never finished because the Arabs brought a case against it in 1927 when the yeshiva wanted to start a new wing. They weren't able to finish it, so they just have the walls up. The yeshiva is close to what is the holiest part of Jerusalem for Jews.

There is another building, very close to the golden-domed mosque, which a Hungarian Jew, who arrived here about a hundred years ago, put up. In that building were two yeshivot called Mishmarot (Watches) because twenty-four hours a day Torah was studied there. Rabbi Yadler described how at midnight one group would come from the farthest corners of Jerusalem and another group would go home at that late hour to a place called Bab-el-Hota, close to the Lions Gate. I was still able to find one or two Jews who lived there in their youth. A synagogue was there, but it's been abandoned for over forty years. You can still see the building near two Turkish baths. One is on the corner of the Bab-el-Katunin, and is called Hamam-el-en; and closer to the Temple Mount, very close, is the second bathhouse. Both of these bath-houses had good mikvaot under the supervision of rabbis. The Arab owners didn't want to lose Jewish trade, and they made special arrangements for mikvaot.
The article also describes many of the Christian holy places in the Moslem quarter and other Jewish sites in the Armenian and Christian quarters. And it has this pertinent observation:

Once again, people are reviving the issue of international control of Jerusalem. Even such an authority as Dr. Kissinger has said that Jerusalem is holy to the three religions. There is a very great distinction. However, for the Christians and Moslems there are holy places in Jerusalem. But the city, as a whole, is not holy to them. However, to Jews the city itself is holy. We have the regulations in the Mishna: "The whole world is holy to Jews; Eretz Yisrael is holier, Jerusalem is still holier, the Temple Mount is holiest." There is a special sanctity that pervades Jerusalem as a city (irrespective of whether there happens to be there synagogues or other holy sites) which is not the same for Islam or Christianity.
Read the whole thing to learn things about Jerusalem that you will not find anywhere else.