Tag Archives: Jerusalem

From the Schocken Library to Villa Schocken

Schocken Library conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.
Schocken Library, Jerusalem, conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.

A few years ago, on a tour of the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, we walked through a security gate and past the entrance of the Prime Minister’s (PM) Residence. Further down Balfour Street, but still within the secure area, guide pointed out the Schocken Library. It’s a private research facility that now belongs to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The library is an unimpressive building—two stories, no balconies, square in front. Aside from a strange tall curved window sticking out of the south side, the building looked neither architecturally nor historically interesting. I almost forgot about it. 


But recently, the Schocken Library was open for public tours during the “Houses from Within” event. Allen and I went, and ended up seeing more than just a library.

Zalman Schocken’s rare book collection

Zalman Schocken was not a religious man. As the publisher and a patron of  Martin Buber, he had read Buber’s edition of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s stories. The book changed his view of Judaism from a set of rigorous practices to Judaism as a tradition and a culture.

So Schocken started collecting Jewish books. He didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but every time he heard about an old book he bought it. He started in his home town of Zwickau, Germany, and then widened his search to all of Germany. Eventually he collected books frolm all over Europe, and even in British Mandatory Palestine.

By 1932, he had a substantial collection of rare books. Conditions in Germany were becoming difficult for Jews. He needed a permanent home for his collection. What better place could there be for a vast collection of books about Jews and Judaism than Jerusalem?

At that time, Eric Mendelsohn, one of the most renowned architects in the world, had recently made aliyah. He was happy to accept Schocken’s commission to design both a house, to be called Villa Schocken, and a library for the book collection in the new Rehavia neighborhood.
By British law, the exteriors of buildings in Jerusalem had to be the local cream or pink limestone, today called “Jerusalem stone.” That law is still in force, and gives the city its uniform appearance. In the 1930s, all buildings were constructed of stone blocks. But Mendelsohn’s buildings were concrete faced with limestone.

The Schocken Library

After a brief introduction about Schocken and Mendelsohn, our guide Alon, led us through the building. He mentioned several times that

The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas. At the Schocken Library, Jerusalem.
The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas.

Mendelsohn always combined practicality with design. Alon showed us the cloakroom in the back hall. The line of coat hooks along the wall is not unusual, nor is the grid for umbrellas. However, I was impressed by the small gutter running along wall to channel the water that dripped from coats and umbrellas. The polished stone floors found in most Israeli buildings are slippery when wet, so this small detail is important. The drain seems like such an obvious idea. Why don’t more places have drains built into coat rooms, so that rain water doesn’t get tracked into the rooms?

On the second floor is the large conference room/library, which still looks as it did in the 1940s. The long north side of the room features glass-fronted shelves packed with old books. A row of windows runs along the top of these cases. The other three walls are locked wooden cabinets, from floor to ceiling. In the middle of the long wall opposite the glass fronted bookcases, a glass-walled alcove filled with bright sunlight juts out from the room.

The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.
The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.

The room highlights Mendelsohn’s concern for combining the aesthetic and the practical. Direct sunlight can damage old books, and the room was designed so the sun would not shine directly on them.

Nonetheless, the room was full of natural light. The east and west walls of the room have no windows. The high windows above the bookcases allow indirect northern light to enter the room. Because the alcove faces south, sunlight floods it all day. Its shape, however, prevents direct sunlight from touching the books, no matter if they are on the shelves or one of the tables.

The line of the wooden dividers in the bookcases continues across the room as dark stripes in the pale stone floor. On the other side of the room, the supports of the wooden cabinets continue the line up to the ceiling. The locked wood cabinets hold more books.

Alon called an elderly man to the lectern. After introducing himself as Danny, he showed us two photos. The first showed him at age five sitting on the front steps of the library. He explained that his mother had been

The garden in front of the building.
The garden in front of the building.

the librarian, and he often came to play.

The second photo was of a model of the area in the 1940s that his father, an engineer, had constructed of small blocks. It showed the Villa Schocken, its spacious gardens, and Balfour Street. Because of all the construction in the last seventy years, Danny had to run his finger along each street to orient us. Then he pointed to the corner of Villa Schocken. “This is where my family lived.”

When we walked out gate, Danny’s friend suggested they go see the building where he had lived as a child. He demurred—the building had been changed, it was in the compound of the Prime Minister’s house, the guards wouldn’t let them in. But she insisted. What would it hurt if they asked?

They agreed when I asked if we could accompany them.

Villa Schocken

To leave the secured area, we had to go past a chayal (male soldier), a chayelet (female soldier), and a security guard which, of course, shouldn’t be a problem. However, the building Danny wanted to show us sat within the secured area. That should not have been a problem either, because the area he wanted to enter was on the other side of a wall that divided the former Villa Schocken from the Prime Minister’s residence.

The friend went to the soldiers and explained we had just toured the Schocken Library. She pointed at Danny and said that he wanted to show us where he grew up.

Danny showed them the photo of his father’s model. The soldiers peered at it, and after turning it upside down, they identified the streets.
The security guard asked to see the other photo, and Danny handed it to him. The young man looked at the picture of the small boy and asked, “This is you?”

The friend answered, “What, you can’t identify him?”

The soldiers looked at the photo of the five year old, at the 85 year old man, and laughed.

A moment later, the chayelet, still looking at the photo, exclaimed, “That’s the library over there!”

Danny had established his credibility. Now he had their full attention. They all wanted more details. Danny explained that his father, an engineer, had built the model. He pointed first to the photo, and then at the dilapidated building to our right, and said he had been born right there, in that room. The family had lived there until 1944 when the British took over the property. While the British were in charge, Jews had not been allowed in the area.

After the British left and the state was established, the building had been used as school. Later, it became a music academy. Now it was simply an abandoned building.

The soldiers let us approach the building. It was tricky going; like many abandoned properties, it was surrounded by a collection of trash. We picked our way through old bottles, bits of wire, and discarded paper cups, to the ground floor window, and peered through the dirty glass. The room we saw was large. Papers were strewn all over the floor, as if it had been ransacked by someone looking something valuable. This had been the main room used by Danny’s family.

He carefully made his way to look in a second window. “This was my room,” he said.

The guards had not followed us. They must have deemed us harmless. As we exited the area, they nodded at us.

I wondered what they would tell their friends that evening. No, nothing exciting happened at the PM’s place—no terrorists (Thank God!), no obnoxious demonstrators today. Just a bunch of old people who came to see where one of them used to live. But the routine had unexpectedly changed. A boring shift guarding the small side entrance to the street along the PM’s residence, had turned into an interesting day.

Karaites: A Different Way of Being Jewish

The "Temple" area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.
The “Temple” area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.

Like most Jerusalemites in the holy city, I had often walked past the Karaite Synagogue. Sometimes I even wondered what it was like inside, how it differed from synagogues in which I have prayed. Last week, I got to see.

At the time, all I knew was that the Karaites rejected the Talmud and two thousand years of Rabbinic tradition. Shulie Mishkin, our guide for the morning in the Old City, mentioned they are similar to the Saducees and Essenes of the Roman period. However, as a distinct group they first appeared in Jerusalem in the 7th or 8th century. Karaites have lived in Jerusalem since. They called themselves ”Lovers of Zion” and believed it was important to live in Jerusalem, even in its destroyed state. Their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley contains graves from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. 

When we arrived at the museum, Avi, the Karaite representative, invited us to sit and watch a short video on the history of Karaism. While in the museum, he said, we would have the opportunity to see the synagogue, but could not enter it for reasons of ritual purity.

Principles of Karaite Interpretation

Karaites consider themselves a branch of Judaism, and allow intermarriage with other Jews. They believe the whole Tanakh (Bible) is holy. Indeed, most of their prayers are from the book of Psalms. As we walked through the museum, Avi stopped several times to explained their customs in detail. The three foundations of their religious observance are the Tanakh, analogy, and tradition. Because the Tanakh gives no details about how many mitzvot are to be carried out, many commandments need explication. Rabbinic Judaism relies on certain principles of interpretation that are enumerated in the Talmud. Karaites use only analogy to explain the laws.

Avi gave us an example, using the line from the Sh’ma: “uk’shartem otam–You will bind them [my commandments] upon your arm and as totafot between your eyes.” This was interpreted by the Rabbis as meaning we should put on tefillin when we pray in the morning. These small boxes of animal skin contain certain paragraphs of the Torah written on parchments. The Karaites, however, do not wear tefillin. In B’raishit, it says that Jacob’s soul was k’shura, bound up, with the soul of his youngest son, Benjamin. Karaites point out that here K-SH-R is a spiritual, not physical, bond. Using analogy, they hold therefore uk’shartem means spiritually binding the words to the body. Thus the boxes with words of the Torah are not necessary.

Further along in the room we saw an exhibit of Karaite tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corners of any garment with four corners. Two differences between their tzitzit and those of mainstream Jews were immediately apparent. The knots are tied in a different pattern, and the blue thread is prominent.

Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.
Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.

In D’varim (Deuteronomy), when God commands us to tie fringes on the corners of our garments, it is specified that the fringes include a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed the identity of the blue dye was lost. To compensate, two traditions arose. Some Sephardi Rabbis held that the color blue is more important than the specific dye used. Accordingly, some eastern Jews continued to tie tzitzit with a blue thread. Most Ashkenazi Rabbis however, ruled that in the absence of the traditional dye, the tzitzit should be plain undyed wool. Like the Sephardim, Karaites feel that the color is more important than its source, and they tie blue and white tzitzit on four-cornered clothes.

How the Karaite Calendar Differs from the Standard One

The calendar, and thus when holidays are observed, also differ. The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar cycles. New months begin at the time of the new moon. However, the major festivals (Succot, Passover, and Shavuot) must be celebrated at specific times in the agricultural cycle, which is governed by the movements of the sun.

When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer existed, there was no one to proclaim the new month or to reconcile the lunar year with the solar one. A new type of calendar was required. Somewhere between 320 and 385 CE, Hillel II, also known as Hillel the Younger, calculated the calendar that we still use today. The Karaites, however, adhere to the calendar as it was originally practiced. New months begin only when the new moon is sighted.

Karaite experts go out into the fields in late winter to check the state of the growing barley before proclaiming when the month of Nissan will begin in the spring. Passover must be celebrated at the time of the barley harvest. Avi pointed to a large photo of men checking the barley in the field. Stalks of barley at different stages of ripeness were below the photo, with explanations of what the experts looked for. If the grain in the fields looks like it will ripen in March, they declare that the month of Nissan will be proclaimed when the next new moon is sighted. If the barley is not sufficiently mature, they rule that an extra month is needed. A second Adar is proclaimed at the next new moon. The start of Nissan is then proclaimed when the following new moon is sighted. Thus, the lunar year is realigned with the solar one. 

The Karaite Synagogue
The "hall" area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.
The “hall” area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.

Following our tour of the museum we descended another floor to see the synagogue. A window to our left allowed us to peer into the synagogue and see its “temple.” This is a raised area in the front where the Chazan stands to lead the prayers. Cohanim also stand there to bless the congregation. The sanctuary contains no chairs. The congregation stands or sits on the floor for most of the prayers, and bows down at appropriate points. The lack of chairs made their sanctuary look empty, but waiting to be filled, with people, perhaps, or with the sound of prayer. 

The sanctuary had no windows, and was below street level, so a multitude of lamps hung from the ceiling. This, of course, led to a question. One of the big differences between Karaites and those they call Rabbinites relates to the use of fire on Shabbat. Karaites hold that absolutely no fire may exist on Shabbat. Mainstream Jews believe that fire is acceptable if it was lit before the Shabbat and nothing is done to change the fire. Thus we have warmth and light in our homes and synagogues on Shabbat, while the Karaites have neither. If they cannot light the lamps on Shabbat, how do they see to read the Torah and pray?

To his credit, Avi did not duck the question. It is disrespectful to pray in the dark, he said, and therefore, it is permitted to light the lamps and use electric lights on Shabbat. Artificial light can be used only in adherence to some very specific rules, which he did not go into. I wondered if his air of discomfort with his answer was because discussing the use of light on the Shabbat was too close to Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law. This was the only point in an hour and a half at which he seemed less than confident during his explanation.

Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.
Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.

As we walked out of the building, one of the women in our group noticed the mezuza attached to the door post. It was a small thick metal plaque of the Ten Commandments. “What’s written inside?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Avi. “It’s empty. The metal plaque itself reminds us to observe God’s commandments.”

So at the end, although we have many differences, nonetheless Karaites are similar to those who observe mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. We all keep the commandments in the way we believe God meant them to be observed.

(Although Karaites do not observe Chanukah, Avi added, “We do eat sufganiyot, because that’s Israeli.”)


Following Pilgrims’ Route to the Temple Mount

Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach to Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to Temple Mount.

The “Tours with the Investigator” follow a set pattern. The archaeologist introduces himself and gives a brief introduction. Then he takes off at a rapid pace, because if we are to hear everything he wants to tell us, he must be quick. Our destination? A white sheet metal wall with a sign that says, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Archeological Excavation. Danger. Do Not Enter.” He pulls a large ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the padlock on the barrier, and motions for us to enter. The he locks it behind us.

Nahshon Szanton unlocked one of the barriers on Maalot Ir David, and told us to go down the stairs. We walked down and down, to three or four stories below street level, through a hole in the rock, and into a large tunnel. Lit by a string of light bulbs hanging from a wire, the tunnel stretched several hundred meters in each direction. Its lower sides were crudely plastered, the upper walls and roof held in place by a double metal arch. A chain conveyor belt hung from one row of arches—it looked like it traversed the length of the tunnel. Nahshon asked than no one take photographs since the work has not yet been completed. He does not want to see the first publication of his discoveries on Facebook.

All of us on these tours are archaeology groupies. We have all been to dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeology sites in Israel. We could tell from the large size of the neatly cut rectangular stones that we were standing on Roman pavement. The original Roman pavement. It still seems incredible to me that I can walk on streets that have been here for two thousand years. Nahshon is sure he is excavating the Pilgrim’s Route, the road pilgrims followed from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) to the Temple during Roman times. But when he started digging where we entered, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He needed more evidence than a few Roman style paving stones in a spot that seemed right.

There is an axiom in archeology: Not finding something is not evidence that it is not there. Negative evidence is meaningless in the context of the past. If you didn’t find anything, it may only mean you did not look in the right place.

Sometimes the “right place” is a matter of a few centimeters.

From 1894 to 1897, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund sponsored Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Campbell Dickie. Their goal was to uncover some of the history of Jerusalem. In just a few years, Bliss and Dickie managed to discover parts of Roman Jerusalem’s southern wall, the drainage channel in the Tyropoeon (or Central) Valley, and parts of the road from the Pool of Shiloah to the Temple Mount. These are all significant finds. About two thirds of the way up the hill from the pool, they dug out the corner of a few steps. They concluded that these steps were the entrance to a building that fronted the road. But by excavating exactly in that spot, they did not uncover the whole structure of the steps. Another meter further, they would have found something even more interesting.

But before we walked down the road to see Bliss and Dickie’s work, Nahshon needed to explain some things he had found. From the Pool of Shiloah, two roads appear to ascend toward the Temple Mount. So far, the archaeologists are unsure if they are two separate roads, or the two sides of one very wide road. Additionally, the excavated part of the road goes only part of the way up the hill. People who want to follow the Pilgrims’ Route to the Kotel Plaza have to walk in the old Roman sewer the rest of the way. (You can see the road and sewer under it in this video featuring Nahshon. It was published on YouTube a few months after he led our tour of the site).

Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the road from the Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the Pilgrims’ Route from the Pool of Shiloach to the Temple Mount.

Since the Romans always constructed sewers under streets, it is reasonable to assume that the old road overlies the old sewer. Nahshon moved a large stone and lifted a thick piece of wood, uncovering a hole. We peered down and saw a paved tunnel beneath us—the Roman sewer. Later, as Nahshon was talking, we would hear voices floating up through  some of the holes in the pavement. He interrupted himself to comment on them, “Tourists.” 

The question of major importance that Nahshon wants to answer is who built the road, and when did he build it? Among the most important clues in dating findings are layers of destruction. In Jerusalem, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a thick layer of black ash remained. Anything below this destruction layer must have been in place before the 9th of Av 70 CE. Archaeologists get very excited about finding a destruction layer, especially when, as in the case of this road, the ash lies right on top of what they want to date.

They also look for other things to help them date construction—pottery, coins, glass, stone vessels, bones, organic matter. The latest thing you find under something gives a clue to when it was built. The coins Nahshon and his team found dated from the fourth decade CE, somewhere around the year 30, at the time of Pilatous.

Investigators often use the rulers’ and writers’ Latin names, which are unfamiliar to those of us who do not read Latin. Apparently, we were supposed to recognize Pilatous, because he stopped and asked, “You know who is this Pilatous?”

A man standing behind me replied, “He killed their god.”

From the murmur around me, I realized that most of us were putting it together at the same time—that Pilatous, Pontius Pilate.

Satisfied with our reaction, Nahshon continued the history lesson. Although he said he is not a historian—“I work with details”—he showed his firm grasp of the history of Roman Judea.

Every Roman leader had to build. They built to honor the new Caesar, they built to further the glory of Rome. Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Syria for only ten years, but in that time he was responsible for several significant construction projects. Because water is always in short supply on the edge of the desert, Pilate decided to bring water to Jerusalem from south of the city, and built the upper aqueduct. Additionally, he built the street on which we were standing.  Most likely he built the Pilgrims’ Route to curry favor with the Jews.

We walked a short way down the street, to a set of steps standing in the middle of the tunnel. These are the three steps Bliss and Dickie had found. At their base, they look like the bottom of a monumental stairway, the kind that leads up to a Temple or important building. Bliss and Dickie had thought they led to a shop or a home. But Bliss and Dickie had uncovered  only the corner of the steps. Nahshon’s team has excavated the steps in their entirety. They do not lead to a doorway; the top is flat.

So why were they built? Steps this large and well built must have served an important purpose. The Romans sometimes constructed such platforms to support a pillar topped with a statue. But there is no inscription on the steps, nor are there any remnants of a pillar.

The archaeologists looked for a parallel structure somewhere, but didn’t find anything. Then a member of the team remembered his Gemara studies. A Braita, a statement by an early Rabbi, described an Even Toane, a stone of testimony. This was a specific covered place in Jerusalem where people could seek lost items and announce items they had found.

Could this be an Even Toane ? Nahshon smiled. He pointed out that in Jerusalem there have always been things that are found only here and nowhere else. It could be the Even Toane, or it could be something we don’t know anything about.

He admitted he wanted to say yes. “If I were a youth group leader,” he said, “I would point to those steps and say ‘Here you see the Even Toane.’ But I’m not, I’m an archaeologist.”

Touring Sha’are Hesed with the First Grade

Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha'are Hesed, Jerusalem.
Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha’are Hesed, Jerusalem. Marah Chanah is the one who isn’t eating a red popsicle.

This year is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem. Every organization and institution in the country seems to be recognizing the event. Special tours, concerts, lectures, and conferences are being held. Those who don’t support the reunification have planned protests and threaten violence.

Last week the Etrog Public Religious Elementary School in Givat Ze’ev, attended by three of my granddaughters, held “Jerusalem Day.” The whole school came to Jerusalem. Since each child needed to have an accompanying adult, I was enlisted to be the adult for one granddaughter. The teacher gave me permission to join them at the Kotel, so I didn’t have to take a 6:30 AM bus from Jerusalem to Givat Ze’ev in order to join them for the bus trip to Jerusalem.

Taking a whole school for an outing requires excellent planning, superior organizational skills, and a large measure of good luck. Etrog was a little deficient in all three. The schedule was too tight. They were supposed  to leave the school at 7:30 “exactly.” Prayers at the Kotel would be at 8:00 “exactly.” This timing was unrealistic. Just unloading 17 buses at the Dung Gate and getting everyone through security would take half an hour. When I arrived at the Kotel Plaza, a little after 8, they had not yet arrived. I sat down and read some Psalms as I waited.

Over the next half hour clusters of children wearing bright blue Etrog School t-shirts with accompanying adults filtered through security into the plaza. Adina had claimed me as escort, so I just hugged her sisters and then followed Morah (Teacher) Chana and the rest of the first grade.

Our first stop, of course, was the bathroom. Like other public restrooms in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, it was spotlessly clean. I don’t know how the city does it, but no matter what time of day, the bathrooms are always clean and usually well stocked.

And then we went to the women’s section of the plaza.

The girls classes did not have an organized prayer service. Small clusters of girls sat together on the ground or pulled white plastic chairs into a circle to say the morning prayers. Other girls asked for paper on which to write a private message to God. They then inserted their plea into already-stuffed cracks between stones of the wall.

I intended to complete my prayers at the Kotel, but I was too distracted to give them the attention they require. I was busy keeping one eye on Adina, who is good at disappearing in a crowd, and one eye on her teacher. Morah Chana is short and thin, but I quickly learned to recognize her black vest and the comb holding her long brown hair.

After about a half hour at the Kotel, the teachers started gathering their classes to leave. Outside the Dung Gate, a long line of buses waited for us. Each class had its own bus to its assigned neighborhood, which the children had already learned about. The children would describe events that had occurred there. Yocheved and Sara went to Har Homa, the farthest southern part of the city. Yael and Danny went to Bayit veGan, just a little west of where we live. Adina and I headed for Sha’are Hesed, located between center city and the Mahane Yehuda shuk. During the bus ride, Adina took out her speech and read it twice. That was in addition to the three times she had read it before leaving home in the morning and the three times she had read it at the Kotel. Her part was three sentences long. She probably had it memorized by the time it was her turn to speak.

Our first stop, however, was the plaza in front of a theater/school complex. There  the girls ate their snacks and ran around. There were plenty of low walls and stairs—a perfect place for six-year-olds to expend some of their excessive energy.


The original 1909 gate to Sha'are Hesed.
The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed.

Sha’are Hesed (Gates of Loving Kindness) was one of the early neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Jerusalem, which was still dangerous and unsettled. At the time, new neighborhoods were built so the walls of the  houses formed a wall around them. A gate was closed and locked at night for security, to protect residents from bandits as well as from wild animals. The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed still stands, even though it is no longer closed at night.

After Morah Chanah said a few words, the first girl read her piece. I was only a few feet away but barely heard her. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t on this tour to learn about Jerusalem; I was there to spend time with my granddaughter.

Sha’are Hesed was built as a neighborhood for religious Jews, and remains so today. We passed many small synagogues and yeshivot as we walked, winding our way past as many significant sights as possible. The teacher pointed out the former home of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the great Rabbis of the last generation.

One of the girls read a famous story about Rabbi Auerbach. A student asked for permission to take a few days off to go to the Galil to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim, holy ones. Rabbi Auerbach replied that whenever he wanted to pray at the grave of a Tzaddik, he took the bus to the military cemetery at Har Herzl, about twenty minutes away. All the people buried there died fighting for our holy land—they are all Tzaddikim.

On the wall of one synagogue is a sundial, placed there so the men would know the correct time for prayers. It was made by Moshe Shapira, who also built other sundials in Jerusalem. This sundial, however, is only correct until around noon because of the angle of the wall.

Now it was Adina’s turn to speak. She must be shy in class, because her teacher asked if she really wanted to read. Adina hadn’t practiced her part all morning to be skipped over.

Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.
Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.

She nodded yes, and then, standing next to Morah Chana, and without looking up at the rest of us, she read about Moshe Shapira the clock maker, in a loud clear voice.

“Kol hakavod!” said the father standing next to me.

“You read that so beautifully!” I said to her. She smiled at us.

Two blocks later we stopped at a makollet and all the girls got popsicles. We then walked to the nearby Wolfson Towers, five buildings, 14 to 17 stories high. The buildings unfortunately block the view of the Knesset and the Valley of the Cross that residents of Sha’are Hesed had enjoyed before the towers were built.

Because of the steepness of the hill, the entrance to building at the end of KKL street is on its seventh story. The roof of the sixth floor meets the street in a large plaza which features a pool and Beating Heart, a sculpture by Yaacov Agam. The girls sat by the pool to finish their popsicles.

By now it was noon, the scheduled end of the trip to Jerusalem. At this point, Danny was still wandering around Bayit veGan with the third grade, and Sara was stuck in Har Homa with the fifth grade. Since a six year old could not be left at the school by herself, I told the teacher I would accompany her. Several parents objected. I had apparently already done more than a Savta’s duty by touring Jerusalem with them. One of the fathers insisted he could take Adina to his house to play with his daughter until Sara or Danny returned.

So I walked back up the hill to one of my regular bus stops. Later in the day Sara reported that Adina, normally a perpetual motion machine, was passed out on the couch.

While I learned about Sha’are Hesed with the first grade, I also know that I did not see or learn enough about the neighborhood. I plan to go back to see it all again.

A Modern Grave in the Kidron Valley

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley
The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley

The view of the Old City walls above us across the Kidron Valley was impressive. We could see the terraced steep hill we had recently walked down. The tan color of its retaining walls is punctuated by dark green bushes and small trees. The crenelated city wall stands on the top of the hill like a crown. The Old City is on one of the lower hills of the Mountains of Judea; from the top of the Mount of Olives you look down on it. The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is located near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, in the Kidron Valley. From there, the city looks like the peak of the mountain range.

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. From the road just below the city walls, it looks like a large rectangular entryway, held open by two limestone pillars. But from the foot of the Mount of Olives I saw that appearance was deceptive. The columns are merely decoration, carved out of the same rock as the rest of the cave. The actual entrance is on the side. We clambered up some rocks, then ascended three short metal stairways to enter the tomb. From there,we climbed an interior stone stairway.

The central large room is well lit in the late afternoon, as the sun shines in through the pillars. From the inside, it is clear that they serve no structural purpose—they are part of the rock from which the cave was cut. But they do look nice, and the space between them offers a beautiful view of the Old City.

Several smaller caves branch off from this main interior central space. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean period, when the tomb was built, the dead would have spent their first year in a side cave. Later their bones would have been gathered and placed in stone ossuaries, which remained in the burial cave.

This is one of the few ancient tombs whose identity is known. The names are carved in Hebrew in the architrave, the space above the columns. The inscription translates as: “This is the tomb and the nefesh of Elazar, Haniah, Yoezer, Yehuda, Shimon, Yohanon, the sons of Joseph son of Obed, Joseph and Elazar the sons of Haniah, priests from the sons of Hezir.”

The tomb, the man-made cave where we stood, is the place for the physical body to lie in eternity. It was built during the period when Greek influence on beliefs was prevalent. This included their belief in the separation of body and soul. Thus, a “nefesh,” a special structure to house the soul of the deceased (his nefesh), was constructed behind the tomb. Other tombs from that period, such as the Tomb of Avshalom, feature a nefesh on top.

Because of its layout, experts believe that this tomb was most likely constructed the first century BCE. But, the inscription is of a much later style from around 100 CE. Perhaps no official notice was needed when the descendants of Hezir were entombed. Everyone in town knew which tomb belonged to which family. But as the Jews began to scatter throughout the Roman empire, labeling burial sites became necessary. Thus the list of the names of the sons of Joseph the son of Obed was carved .

When we see tombs, it is natural to ask, “Who is buried here?” But the more important question, the one many people do not ask, is “Who deserves something so impressive?”

Our guide, Re’ut, explained that in the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods there were only a few families who could afford tombs this elaborate. The priestly family of Hezir was one of the older families in Judea and

Zachariah's Tomb isn't actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased
Zachariah’s Tomb isn’t actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased

apparently had more resources than most other families. The family of Hezir is listed in the book of Nehemiah. They were Cohanim who returned in the first wave of resettlement of the land in 539 BCE.

We exited the cave and filed into the space between the tomb of the Sons of Hezir and the next monument, that of the priest and prophet Zechariah. He had run afoul of the government of King Yehoash by attacking idolatry, when the first Temple still stood. On the order of the king, the people stoned him to death. The sages of the Talmud considered his death especially bad. In killing him the people had committed seven separate sins. They had killed a priest, a prophet, a judge, spilling innocent blood, which defiled the Temple. They had murdered him on Yom Kippur  which was on the Sabbath, thus desecrating two holy days.

Like many other recognized burial places in Israel, the tomb of Zechariah does not hold his bones. It’s solid rock, the nefesh of an unidentified tomb. Apparently, souls did not need empty space within which to dwell for eternity. The the Ionic columns and Egyptian acanthus leaf carvings, shows it was carved out of the bedrock during the time of Herod. That was more than five hundred years after the prophet’s death.

I found what was behind Zechariah’s “tomb” more interesting than the structure itself. The space is about ten feet wide, which would have been sufficient for all of us. However most of the area is taken up by two modern graves.

The graves are those of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref 

The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.
The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.

and his wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a follower of the Gaon of Vilna (the GR”A), an influential rabbi in nineteenth century Lithuania. The GR”A encouraged his students to settle the land of Israel long before Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.

The Tzoref family made their to the Holy Land, landing in Haifa in 1811. They first settled in Tsfat, but after the 1813 cholera epidemic, they moved to Jerusalem. Rav Zalman quickly became one of the leaders of the Ashkenazi community. In need of funds, the community sent Rav Zalman to Europe to raise money to support the community. On his way back to Jerusalem, he stopped in Egypt. There he received permission from Muhammed Ali, the ruler of the land of Israel, to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. The original Hurva had been destroyed more than 130 years earlier.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the building whole and in use. He survived a first attempt on his life. The next attempt was more successful—an Arab hit him on the head with a sword. He lingered for three months before dying of his wounds. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, behind Zachariah’s Tomb. The original grave markers no longer exist. The current tombstones were put on the original burial site more than a hundred years later..

Rabbi Shlomo Zalmon’s influence in Jerusalem and Israel is felt to this day through his hundreds of descendents. His son Mordechai changed the family name from Tzoref (silversmith) to Salomon, in honor of Rav Zalman. One grandson, Moshe Yoel Salomon, founded the city of Petah Tikve. He was among the first people to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Following the 1863 cholera epidemic, he and six friends built the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva (Homestead of the Seven). Today Nahalat Shiva is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. It is a vibrant area with two new boutique hotels, and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating. It’s a great place to go to buy gifts- shops sell jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and Judaica.

In the national cemetery on Har Herzl, there is a monument to victims of terror. Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s name is listed there, the first victim of terror in modern Israel. As we walked back up the hill, I wondered what he would have thought of today’s city. It’s a far cry from the crowded walled city he knew. But I think he would have been proud to pray in newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the architectural highlight of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city.

From Hospital to Cultural Center: Hansen House in Jerusalem

Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick's buildings.
Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick’s buildings.


Throughout history lepers were feared and stigmatized. They were often forced to wear bells around their necks to warn others of their approach. They were forbidden from entering cities. Many visitors to Jerusalem in the 19th century were disturbed by the sight of lepers clustered outside the city’s Zion Gate.

One tourist, however, turned her dismay into action. Baroness Augusta von

Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room of Hansen House, Jerusalem
Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room

Keffenbrinck Ascheraden provided funding to build an asylum for people with leprosy. The asylum, located near where the US Consulate is today, opened in 1867. Twenty years later, a new asylum opened between the fashionable Talbiyeh neighborhood and the German Colony. Designed by the renowned architect Conrad Schick, it was named “Jesus Hilfe” (Jesus Helps). However, everyone simply called it the “Lepers’ Home.” Like the other buildings designed by the self-taught architect, the four story Jesus Hilfe is both beautiful and functional. It combines European design with Arab elements, such as arched windows.        

In 1950, the Israeli Ministry of Health took over administration of the asylum and renamed it “Hansen Government Hospital.” In medical circles leprosy had become known as Hansen’s Disease, in recognition of G. A. Hansen’s discovery of Mycobacterium leprae, the cause of the disease. M. leprae is similar to its close relative M. tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis. Both organisms grow and reproduce very slowly. Therefore, curing a mycobacterial disease requires treatment with several antibiotics for six months to more than a year.

Once they could be cured with antibiotics on an outpatient basis, the residents at Hansen’s Hospital were discharged to home as quickly as possible. They returned to the old Lepers’ Home outpatient clinic for regular checkups and treatment, if needed. A few patients remained at the hospital until 2000. At that time, the last four residents were transferred to nursing homes because they had nowhere else to go. Today, two hundred patients from all over the country receive treatment for Hansen’s Disease at Hadassah Hospital’s outpatient clinic.  

Today, the Hansen’s Hospital building is neither an asylum nor a hospital. After the last patient was discharged, the building fell into disuse, partly because it carried the stigma of leprosy. A friend recalls that during her childhood no one in the neighborhood ever walked on the same side of the street as the Lepers’ Home. Recently the rehabilitated main building reopened as a media and arts center.

The Jerusalem Development Authority, which renovated the hospital building, is now working on the other structures in the complex: the doctor’s house, outbuildings, and gardens. The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s graduate programs, Mamuta group for contemporary art, and the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund have all moved into redesigned spaces in the large building.

The day we toured the newly renamed Hansen House, it was full of people. Besides those who regularly work there, dozens of teenagers attending a computer workshop filled eight rooms. Several other small groups were also touring the complex. In the garden, fourteen crafts people had set up booths to sell jewelry, colorful knit baskets, leather purses and belts, hand sewn clothing, and handmade wooden toys. The stigma of disease seemed gone, destroyed in the process of updating the complex. The resident artists who conducted tours of the building were the only ones who mentioned leprosy.

The name “leprosy” still invokes ancient fear of a disease associated with frightful deformities, one that connotes contamination and impurity. It seemed to strike randomly and could affect anyone. The Bible refers to a condition called tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy.” Although some of its symptoms, such as swelling and red spots on a person’s torso, are similar to those of leprosy, there are distinct differences between the two conditions. Unlike leprosy, tzara’at could also infect houses and clothing. Tzara’at was a considered a symptom of a moral failing, usually gossip and speaking badly about other people. Treatment included isolation outside the community and specific purification rituals. Interestingly enough, if the swellings and spots were distributed all over the body, the person was not considered to be affected. He remained within the community.

The conflation of tzara’at with leprosy, which was common in the Middle East and Europe, was a disservice to the sick people. Isolation from their communities and being shunned by all who saw them neither helped them recover nor protected their community. Hansen’s Disease is extremely hard to catch. Almost no family members or caretakers of people with Hansen’s Disease have ever developed the disease themselves. The manner in which M. leprae spreads is unknown. Even today, according to the World Health Organization, no one is sure how it is transmitted.

The former Lepers Home in Jerusalem is already being used as a cultural center, even though the renovations are not yet complete. Art exhibits and crafts fairs take place regularly. A long room on the roof level has been refurbished to be used for community events. It was once used as a children’s playroom and for drying clothes in the winter. When we visited, the guide said the room was authorized for gatherings of fifty people or less. When they finish building another emergency exit on the outside, it will accommodate audiences of two hundred people for concerts and films.

Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem
Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem

On the first floor, two rooms have been turned into a permanent historical exhibit. The staff dining room features a large glass-topped wood table and chairs. The original white china tea set in the middle of the table looks as if it is waiting for the nurses to come in at tea time. A washing machine stands in a corner ready for the next load of patients’ sheets, and a treadle operated sewing machine is between two windows. The large arched windows on two sides of the room admit ample light.

Across a small hallway from the dining room, is the doctor’s examination and treatment room. The doctor’s appointment record lies open on the desk, waiting for him to make his next entry. A tall glass case of clean instruments gives us a glimpse of treatments that may have been required. There are even a few pill bottles in the case, but if any pills remain inside them, they are sure to be well past their effective dates.

The saddest exhibit is the small case labeled “Patients’ personal belongings.” It contains a small light blue purse with a few coins spilling out of it, a long out-of-date Egged bus ticket, part of a letter written in German, he top portion of a telegram.

Patients' belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital
Patients’ belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital

My gaze kept returning to the wedding photo in the upper left side of the case. Who were these people? Had the bride or groom been a patient here? Or was this from a family member’s wedding, an event the patient had not been able to attend? Perhaps it was the only memento of a family that never visited after admitting the sick person to the home. It must have been very important to have been kept so long by a lonely resident whose family never came, not even to pick up belongings left after death.

Thank G-d we have antibiotics to treat M. leprae today.

Children at the Israel Museum

School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
School group learning about the Byzantine period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

On a cold rainy Wednesday morning in December, I went to the Israel Museum (IMJ) with my class from Pardes. We were, by far, the oldest organized group in the museum. Everywhere we went, we crossed paths with groups of children, brought by their schools.

I knew that schools take advantage of the resources of the museum to teach students about history, art, archeology, and religion. When I have taken my grandchildren there, they often express interest in seeing specific things. Last winter on a visit to IMJ with then nine year old Yocheved, she led me to the theater in the Shrine of the Book. She wanted me to see the movie about the time traveling girl. She had seen it when she was there with her class earlier in the year. Then we went into the large white-domed part of that complex to see the documents themselves. As is her practice with any exhibit, she raced through it, allowing me to time to read maybe a quarter of each explanatory sign under the vitrines. Yocheved told me that her school would bring her to the Israel Museum four times that year, and four more times when she was to sixth grade.

When my grandsons were eight-and ten-years old,  I took them to climb a

In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum
In front of the Aron Kodesh of the 1700 Vittorio Veneto synagogue at the Israel Museum

special exhibit. “Bambu” was a construction of bamboo sticks that looked like a forty foot high nest built by a very large messy bird interested in architecture. We had arrived early and instead of just sitting around waiting for our turn, Yakov asked to go see the synagogues which have been brought to the museum from other countries. Not only did Yaakov know what he wanted to see, he led the way to the exhibit.    

So I wasn’t surprised to see groups of schoolchildren in the museum. I was surprised to see the number and variety of groups. In the lobby, a group of preteen Arab girls, dressed in navy jumpers and white blouses, dark slacks modestly covering their legs, was supervised by teachers wearing hijabs. Quartets of teen aged boys raced to complete their worksheets about specific exhibits in the area of Roman antiquities. A corner of the room displaying portions of Byzantine churches and mosaics was occupied by ten or twelve year olds sitting on the floor in a large circle, listening to an explanation of the history of the period. As we walked through a hall that displayed clothes associated with birth, marriage, death, and other life events, we tried to avoid being run over by six or seven year olds being hurried through the room by the teachers.

Leaving the museum, we huddled in the semi-protected walkway waiting for our bus. We were passed by a seemingly endless procession of young children from an Arab school, rushing through the rain from their buses.

It’s wonderful to see all the children. They will grow up understanding the depth of history in this land. They will appreciate the diversity of cultures in this country, the archeological evidence left behind, and the variety of experiences that can be expressed through the arts.

Rockefeller’s Contribution to Jerusalem

Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister
Tower of the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem, as seen from the cloister

The Number 1 bus to the Kotel goes past the driveway of the Rockefeller Museum. Its collection of antiquities from the land of Israel makes it one of the great archeological museums of the world. On my trips to the Kotel, I had seen the top of its tower above the trees, but I had never seen the whole building except in pictures. I’ve wanted to visit it for years, but because of the matzav, the situation, I have been too nervous to go on my own. It is in an Arab neighborhood, which makes the trip a little scary. When I finally went there this week with my class from Pardes, we were accompanied by an armed escort.

My nervousness is valid. Over the last year and a half, Arab terrorists have attacked Israelis in the area more than twenty-five times. While we were in the museum an Arab stabbed a policeman in the head with a screwdriver about a block or two away. A policeman who saw the attack shot the Arab attacker to prevent him from injuring other people.

There are some who say that the Arabs have a right to protect what they feel is land stolen from them by Israel. However, that is not the root of the problem. Arabs killing those they consider interlopers did not start in 1967. In 1938 one of the most prominent archeologists of the time, G. L. Starkey, was murdered by an Arab while on his way to the museum’s opening ceremony.

My visit to the Rockefeller was on a tour associated with my course, “Sages of the Mishna.” We were there to learn about the Roman and Byzantine periods during which the sages lived, from about 100 BCE to 220 CE. We couldn’t help but notice the magnificent architecture of the building itself, even though it is much more recent than the antiquities it holds.

The hill on which the museum stands is opposite the northeast corner of the Old City wall. Looking east you can see the whole of the Mount of Olives, from Silwan in the South to the Hebrew University in the North. This was the spot Godfrey de Bouillon chose for the camp of his army of Crusaders before attacking Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives in those days was probably covered with trees. I wonder if he appreciated the view. Or was he too busy planning the slaughter all the Muslims and Jews in the Holy City? Crusader descriptions of the aftermath of the battle revel in the amount of blood they shed.

More than eight hundred later, after a trip to the Middle East John Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, decided that Jerusalem needed an archeological museum. Archeologists had been excavating in and around the city since the mid-19th century. They had taken many of the best finds back to their home countries in Europe and the U. S. Breasted felt that since the Ottoman empire had fallen and the British had replaced the Turks as rulers of Jerusalem, it would be safe to keep antiquities closer to where they had been found.

Breasted approached John D. Rockefeller and convinced him to fund a museum in Jerusalem. Some of the two million dollars Rockefeller contributed went to buy the site from the al-Halili family, who lived on the hilltop.. The British High Commissioner appointed Austen St. Barbe Harrison, the chief architect of the Mandatory Department of Public Works, to design the new museum. Construction took eight years. The British named it “The Palestine Archaeological Museum,” since it was in British Mandatory Palestine. It officially opened in January 1938 and almost immediately became known as the Rockefeller Museum.

Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum
Bas relief of the meeting of Asia and Africa in Israel, over door of Rockefeller Museum

Rockefeller got his money’s worth. The building is magnificent. The British had already decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced with the local limestone known as Jerusalem Stone. Harrison designed the building to be a combination of the best of Eastern and Western architecture. To carry out the theme, Harrison commissioned Eric Gill to carve bas reliefs in the stone. A bas relief above the entrance to the building depicts Asia and Africa with a palm tree, the ancient symbol of Judea, between them.

The building is wrapped around a lovely cloister that features a pool. Between the arches of the cloister, on both sides of the pool, small bas reliefs depict a symbol for each of the cultures that controlled the Holy Land in historical order. For example, a boat riding curly waves symbolizes the Phoenicians and a winged horse with a human face symbolizes the Muslims.

Bullet holes in wall from 1967 Six Day War
Bullet holes in wall from 1967 war

At the east end of the cloister, you can see bullet holes in the wall. The damage perhaps symbolizes the Israeli period. On June 6, 1967, IDF paratroopers fought their way through several Arab neighborhoods and arrived at the Rockefeller Museum. They were to spend the night there, and then, possibly, attack the Old City.

Meanwhile, an army officer notified Dr. Avraham Biran, the Director of the Israel Department of Antiquities that the Rockefeller was now in the hands of the IDF. Within a few hours, Biran, Nahman Avigad and Yosef Aviram, three of the most respected archeologists in Israel, were at the museum. They, along with brigade commander Colonel Motta Gur, had arrived in an armored vehicle. As they toured the museum for the first time in almost twenty years, the archeologists were joined by some of the exhausted soldiers. It must have been a surreal experience—listening to a lecture about antiquities, given by experts, as bullets periodically flew through the exhibit halls breaking windows and display cases.

They all noticed that the exhibits were exactly as they had been in 1948 when the Jordanians had captured half of Jerusalem. The only thing that had changed was that the Hebrew signs had disappeared. Some of them were plastered over. But in one exhibit hall, high on the wall, you can see the original Hebrew lettering with a rectangular frame. Several horizontal brown stripes line are also visible within the frame. The brown marks are the remains of scotch tape which held a paper covering the Hebrew lettering, hiding it from the sensitive eyes of visitors.

The exhibits themselves are fascinating. In each hall the exhibits are arranged chronologically according to their historical period. Pictures of the excavations or tels where the items were found hang of the walls above the end of the exhibit cases. The legends explaining the exhibits are typed on paper brown with age.

In addition to the items found by archeologists, there are some unusual

Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church
Lintel from front door of Church of the Holy Sepulcher Church

exhibits. The carved stone frieze from the lintel above the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the hall devoted to Christianity. At one time when the Church was being cleaned and renovated, the frieze was removed and brought to the museum for safekeeping. But when it was time to return it, a dispute erupted. Under the “status quo” agreement for Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, only the sect that owns an area of the church can clean or fix it. Since the Christian groups could not agree as to who owns the area above the door, the magnificent frieze remains at the Rockefeller Museum.

A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aksa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938
A panel from ceiling beam of Al Aqsa Mosque, which the Waqf replaced in 1938

The Muslim Hall displays carved wooden panels that decorated beams in the Al Aksa Mosque. The style of the carvings indicate they probably date from the eighth century C.E. In  1938, when the Waqf decided to renovate the mosque, they planned to discard the intricately carved panels. Someone from the museum heard about the project and convinced the Waqf to donate the panels. That is something that could not happen today.

The Rockefeller is now part of the Israel Museum (IMJ). Official ownership of the museum and its exhibits, however,  is still undetermined. A sign on one of the outer doors says “Government of Palestine Department of Antiquities,” although the Israel Antiquities Authority has its offices in the building. Therefore the IMJ has not removed any of the exhibits or made any improvements, such as adding central heating, to the museum. Since it was a cold rainy day when my class toured, and it felt freezing inside.

Someday, in the course of some negotiation or other, the museum will officially end up Somewhere. Whether or not it is in Israel, or in Palestine, or in some as yet unknown political entity, it will still be a beautiful building full of interesting finds. And maybe then it will be renovated. At that time, people who come won’t have to wear coats, scarves, hats and gloves to see the amazing antiquities.

Archeologist Shows Byzantine Jerusalem

Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in ancient Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under the site of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter

Much of Jerusalem and the area around it is basically one big archeological dig. In some places, like the Givati parking lot, it is a standard open excavation. In other places, like the Rova, the Jewish Quarter, much of what current excavators seek is hidden under buildings. Thus, the archeologists’ work is a matter of happenstance and serendipity.

Although it seemed like a disaster in 1948, the destruction of most of the Rova by the Jordanians was actually a gift to historians and archeologists. So many buildings had been destroyed and rubble was everywhere. Therefore, when the Israel recaptured the city in 1967, rebuilding had to start with clearing up and sorting through the remains. Nahman Avigad, a well respected and experienced archeologist was in charge of the first phase. For several years, reconstruction was done only with shovels. What they uncovered changed our pictures of Jerusalem back to the time of the book of Genesis.

Excavations in and around the Old City continue today. Our knowledge increases in fits and starts. Construction of new buildings always begins with a salvage dig, to find out what was on that site before.

Megalim, the Institute for Study of Ancient Jerusalem, is sponsoring a series of tours led by archeologists about finds in the city. Each “Tour with the Investigator,” features the supervising archeologist of a site. He discusses his project and what they have found at the dig itself. It is conducted in Hebrew, of course.

At the end of November I went on a tour led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld. When he met us, he told us his major field of interest was the Byzantine period. We would see remains of Byzantine structures in several places in the Jewish Quarter.

Oren, as he insisted we call him, describes himself as being the recipient of a nes, a miracle. Near the end of his doctoral studies at Hebrew University, he had to decide on a dissertation topic. His interest in the Byzantine period led him to examine two projects of the Emperor Justinian: the Cardo and the Nea Church.

The Cardo is the main north-south street in all Roman cities. Jerusalem’s Cardo had not yet been completely investigated. A major question remained: was its southern half Roman or Byzantine?

The Nea Church, the largest in the Middle East, was completed in 543 CE. It was largely destroyed about 70 years later when the Persians conquered Jerusalem in 614 CE. Many of the large stones that remained were taken to be used in construction in other parts of the city a few decades later.  Thus stones quarried and used by the Byzantines  can be seen incorporated into buildings from the Umayyad Muslim period.

At the time he started writing his dissertation, no one had examined the archeology of the Cardo or Nea Church incorporating contemporaneous Christian, Muslim, and Karaite texts. Nor had anyone yet fully compared their structure to other known Byzantine Churches or Roman and Byzantine Cardos. His work would change the conception of the size and layout of Jerusalem in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, and help us understand life in the city in the late Byzantine and early Muslim periods.

With that introduction, he led us into the basement of the Hurva Synagogue. I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the Second Temple period mikveh and the small Roman street that covers part of it. After pointing out these features, and explaining their significance, Oren led us into an area behind us. We stood there, fifty people crowded onto a small wooden platform, and looked down at the continuation of that Roman street. When I was in the Hurva basement less than a year ago, the street extended a few feet to a wall. The guide spoke for less than two minutes. Nothing to see here; we moved on.

Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue
Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue

Now that street extends much further. It still ends at the wall, but the wall has a hole in the middle through which you can see that pavement continues. The wall also has a wooden ladder leaning against it. And at the top of the ladder is another hole in the wall, through which one might crawl into the lighted area beyond it.

Oren explained to us that as part of his ongoing investigations of the Cardo, he visited all the modern shops on the eastern side of the street. Then he used the word nes again. In one jewelry store, he noticed the peak of an arch, filled in with other stone, coming up through the floor in the back. When he asked the proprietor about it, the man replied that behind the arch was an empty space. The man used it as a safe, to store things.

That was the clue Oren was looking for. With the store owner’s permission, his team broke through the wall, and found the continuation of the street we saw under the Hurva Synagogue. I don’t call that a miracle. That’s a scientist immersed in his work. He knows where to look and what questions to ask to find the missing parts of the story he wants to piece together.

After exiting the synagogue, we walked across Hurva Square to the Street of the Karaites. We stopped in front of a one story tall stone wall, pierced by several arched openings. This was once the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, which rivaled the Hurva in size and beauty. The top of its dome was even higher than that of the Hurva. The story is that the congregation ran out of moneyduring its construction and could not complete the building. In 1869, Emperor Franz Joseph stopped in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt. Noticing the synagogue, he asked Rabbi Nissan Beck why it had no roof. The Rabbi supposedly replied that it had removed its hat in honor of the Austrian Emperor. No doubt amused by the rabbi’s words, the Emperor donated money to build the dome.

The synagogue stood tall on the Old City’s hill, taller than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque. During the War for Independence, the Jordanian Legion systematically worked its way through the Jewish Quarter. On May 21,1948, they destroyed the Tiferet Israel Synagogue. Only part of the front wall remained recognizable amid the rubble.

Looking down into completed archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt in the Rova of Jerusalem's Old City
The archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt

After standing as a reminder of the destruction for more than sixty years, the synagogue is about to be rebuilt, almost exactly the same as originally. Oren had the privilege of conducting the salvage dig to determine what was under the ruins. He pulled some keys out of his pocket and unlocked the padlock that secured the sheet metal fence around the site. We filed down the metal stairway to stand on the boardwalk on one side of a very deep pit.

From inside we looked up at the arches of the doors on street level. The arches will be incorporated into the reconstructed synagogue. People coming in will enter the new building through the original nineteenth century doorway.

The excavation, which is now completed, took several years because it had to be done painstakingly. Examining each layer required removing everything above it. Therefore, they systematically documented everything. Once a layer was fully excavated and examined, the archeologists dug out the next layer down. Gradually they moved down through the layers, finding artifacts from successively earlier times

In the synagogue basement level they found the mikve and the boilers that warmed the water. Heated mikvaot were rare in the nineteenth century, so this Ottoman period mikveh was famous.   Artifacts were found from many earlier periods as well, including the twelfth century Mamluk.   Findings from the Byzantine period included a white mosaic floor and a wall fresco. They also found the continuation of the street from the Cardo that ran under the Hurva. Below the Byzantine layer was a thick layer of black ash. The layer of ash this deep was evidence of the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

Below the ash they found artifacts dating back to the times of Second and First Temples. Oren told us about finding a broken stone, half hidden in the black ash. As they cleaned it, he saw that it had an inscription on it–two lines written in Aramaic. As he began to decipher the ancient Hebrew script, he realized that this was an official weight belonging to a member of the family of Katros. He reminded us that a similar weight was found many years ago in the ash layer of house not too far away. It also belonged to the same family, which makes sense historically. The Katros family is mentioned in the Bible as having been responsible for weights and measures in the Temple. He still sounds moved by uncovering something with directly connected to the Temple.

Learning how archeologists are recovering our past is always fascinating. Listening to them tell about it, at the site where they discovered the evidence, and hearing the excitement in their voices, makes it immediate. Even if I don’t understand every word, I catch that sense of wonder.

And if that archeologist says holding a Temple period relic is a miracle, I’m not going to argue with him.

Jerusalem’s Hauma Station in Progress


Architect's depiction of the Jerusalem station for Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast rail
Architect’s depiction of the Hauma Station in Jerusalem, for Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast rail

For the last five years, we have watched the new high speed railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem being constructed. Major sections of it in the Mountains of Judea are visible from Road 1, the major highway between the two biggest cities in the country. From one week to the next we’ve witnessed bridges gradually working their way over valleys and seen evidence of the tunnels being bored through mountains.

When the high speed rail line is finished, in 2018, the trip between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be 26 minutes long. Today the journey takes about an hour and a half by car, if you are lucky. With the train, people will be able to live in one city and work in the other, without sitting forever in traffic jams.

We’ve also watched the new train station being constructed. It will be called Hauma Station, because it is located across the street from Binyanei HaUma, the International Convention Center. The sheet metal wall around the building site has kept us from monitoring its progress closely. Additionally, most of the station building will be underground, so even without the temporary wall , we wouldn’t be able to observe the construction process.

In late September, however, the secrecy was broken during Open House Jerusalem. Someone, perhaps in the Ministry of Transportation or perhaps in the contractor’s office, decided that the new train station would be open for public tours. Like all the other events during the Open House, tours of the uncompleted building were free. We just  had to register in advance. 

The tours were led by workers at the site, wearing their bright yellow work vests. 

Shimshon, our guide to the train station
Shimshon, our guide to the train station

Our guide, Shimshon, a project manager proudly stated that the project is being brought in on budget, at seven billion NIS. The Hauma station is now estimated to be completed by Pesach 2018. However, like most Israelis, I am skeptical as to whether or not it will be completed on schedule. After all, the original estimated completion date was 2008.

Constructing this rail line, the largest and most challenging building project in the country’s history, has required solving many problems in innovative ways. For example, to allow animals living in the Jerusalem Forest to cross the tracks safely, several wide “green bridges” are being built over the tracks. Teams of civil engineers, consulting with geographers and geologists were able to work through many issues. But they also faced issues unique to building in the Holy Land, and needed to consult with archeologists and Rabbis. And, obviously, environmentalists had their say as well.

One major design problem was the change in elevation. Tel Aviv is at sea level, while Jerusalem is 786 meters (2578 feet) above sea level. The rise is almost imperceptible for the first half of the trip, The halfway point is only 103 meters above sea level. However, the terrain from here to the Jerusalem terminus does not permit a uniform grade

In some places the grade is too steep for a fast train. In others, the tracks would have to follow sharp curves around the sides of the mountains, which is not acceptable from an engineering standpoint. The route problem was solved by using tunnels and bridges. From Modi’in, in the foothills of the Judean Mountains, to Jerusalem, in the heart of range, the trains will never travel on the earth’s surface.

Additionally, they decided to place the train platforms in the Jerusalem station far underground– 80 meters (262 feet) below street level. It will be one of the five deepest train stations in the world.

Shimshon easily recited numbers and statistics. The railroad line goes through five tunnels totaling 37 km, including the longest tunnel in Israel, 11.6 km (7.2 miles). It also crosses ten bridges, totaling 6 km., including the highest bridge in the country, over the Yitlah Stream. You can see it from Road 1. It is scary high, 97 meters (318 feet). When I ride the train, I may decide to bury my head in a book when crossing that bridge.

Most of the escalators are not completed yet,but this one was actually working
Most of the escalators are not completed yet,but this one was actually working

Most passengers will travel between the station entrance to the train platform on an escalator. An escalator that descends 80 meters is too frightening for most people, Shimshon said. I silently agreed with him. The escalator in the Dupont Circle metro station in Washington D. C. is 57 meters long, and it scared me. Passengers here will therefore travel on a series of three escalators, each 40 meters long, transiting one level each. After we had viewed the train platform, we ascended on an escalator. It was about as long as I care to travel on a moving stairway.

Small children, travelers with heavy luggage, and people using wheelchairs need a different way to move between levels. So the escalators will be supplemented by elevators with a capacity of 33 people. These will whisk passengers down from the entrance to the platform in about 20 seconds. Although the elevators travel at a high speed, the ride is designed so there is no sensation of speed. Indeed, when we rode the elevator down, I could barely feel it stop or start. The doors closed, and a few seconds later they opened dozens of meters below the starting point.

The station tunnels can be used as bomb shelters for 5000 people.
The Hauma station tunnels can be used as bomb shelters for 5000 people.

The lowest level we went to was the one above the train platforms. Shimshon pointed out a large rectangular sliding door at the entrance to a tunnel. “You see that door?” he asked. Doors like those are on all the tunnels. The Hauma station will be the largest public bomb shelter in the country—it can hold five thousand people. There are arrangements for air and water. All services are under the control of Homeland Security.

Two piers in the middle of the open area rise above the roof. They contain ventilators that bring fresh air in. If there is a fire, they automatically increase the air flow to remove the smoke.

One of the men in our small group asked, “What about earthquakes?”

Shimshon laughed.”Here you are inside the earth itself!”

I’m not sure he realized that was what we were all worried about—being trapped inside the quivering shaking earth during a temblor.

He went on, “The walls are half a meter of concrete. You are protected.”

He’s an engineer. He should know. I just hope I won’t be down there when the “big one” hits.

We walked to the end of the level. Whereas upstairs some of the walls were finished, covered with ceramic or glass tile, on this level all was still dark gray concrete. We looked over a chest-high wall topped by a railing at the train platforms below. They seemed far below us. Shimshon started spouting numbers again. “Those are two platforms. Beyond that wall,” he pointed to our right, ”are two more platforms, the same. There will be a train every 15 minutes. Each train can bring a thousand people. The escalators will run only one direction, timed to train arrivals to take people up from the platforms. Trains will make two stops—Ben Gurion airport and the Haganah Station in Tel Aviv. Behind you, will be a shuttle to Modi’in, also every 15 minutes.”

The whole building was very impressive. I’m sure when it is completed, with shiny tile walls and floors instead of concrete covered with heavy protective paper or construction debris, it will be even more impressive.

I, and probably most other Israelis, hope the estimated opening date is accurate. And we look forward to a quiet half hour trip to Tel Aviv at that time.