The Roman emperor Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. Since then, Jews were barred from living in the city. It was the Muslim conqueror Omar who invited them back in the 7th Century, and since then there has been a continual Jewish presence. Between 1948 and 1967, when the Jordan occupied the Old City, the Jewish Quarter was a rubble heap. The Jordanians had systematically destroyed almost all the Jewish buildings.
Since then, the Jewish Quarter has sprouted anew. It is now home to over 2,000 residents as well as, yeshivas, galleries, restaurants, and synagogues. Even the previous Quarter’s destruction at the hands of the Jordanians had a silver lining: it enabled archaeologists to examine the hidden layers of history that had been hidden underneath.
Let’s explore some of the sites of the Jewish Quarter. The walking tour takes about two to three hours. Most of the sites are accessible to people in wheelchairs.
The 18th century followers of the charismatic leader Rabbi Yehuda HeChossid first built the central synagogue of the Jewish quarter. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice over the following two centuries. Reconstruction ended in the Spring of 2010, and the synagogue once again serves as a centre of prayer and learning in the Holy City.
During two weeks of intense fighting between May 15th and 28th 1948, two mass burials occurred just outside the Batei Machase square. Ordinarily, it is forbidden to bury Jews within the Old City walls, but since the quarter had been under siege for some time and there was no foreseeable way to remove the bodies, a special rabbinic dispensation was given for a temporary burial.
Forty-eight defenders and residents were buried there, including 15-year-old Yaffa Harush and 9-year-old Nissim Gini. Before the fall of the quarter, the survivors erected a memorial heap of stones – גל עד (Gal Ed) in Hebrew. In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited, the bodies were exhumed and given a proper burial on the Mount of Olives. The street on which the memorial was placed was named Gal Ed.
In 19th century Jerusalem, most of the Jewish residents of the city lived off a system called the Haluka (the dole). Jews living in the diaspora contributed to a communal fund called a Kollel which was distributed to Jerusalemites by local rabbis. The Holland and Deutschland Kollel (HoD) took note of the cramped and unsanitary conditions in the city and established the Batei Machase apartments. Each apartment was auctioned off to a poor family for a three year stay, after which they were expected to give up the apartment for the next resident.
The Rothschild House, in the square outside the Batei Machase houses, was built by the Baron Edmund James de Rothschild. Between 1948 and 1967 it functioned as an Arab officer’s school, and now it houses the Talmud Torah Aderes Eliahu. Jewish children play in the square outside under the blue Jerusalem sky.
With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Sephardic community in Jerusalem increased rapidly. In 1586, the Ramban synagogue was closed, leaving the Jewish community at large without a place to pray. Four Sephardi Synagogues were built one next to the other in a section of the Jewish Quarter.
The understated exteriors of the synagogues belie the brilliance of their interior decoration, and certainly the inner beauty of the communities of Jews who prayed there. Relics of the future Moshiach, handcrafted wooden holy arks imported from Italy, and the story of life and hope in the Jewish quarter await visitors to these symbols of Jewish life in 19th century Jerusalem.
The beautiful kabbalistic yeshiva of Beit El was built in 1757, around the same time that the growing Sephardi community built the Middle and Istanbuli synagogues. It was a beacon for the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) attracting Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. Luminaries like Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, the great Yemenite Rosh Yeshiva, and Rabbis Avraham Gershon of Kitov and Menachem Mendel of Shklov, students of the Baal Shem Tov. It is said that Eliahu HaNavi came regularly to study with Rabbi Sharabi. The front doors of the Yeshiva are crafted from beautiful sculpted metal, evoking kabbalistic and biblical themes.
After the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, Emperor Hadrian plowed Jerusalem under and rebuilt it as a pagan city, calling it “Aelia Capitolina” after himself (his clan name was Aelius) and his pagan god, Jupiter Capitolinus.
The Cardo, meaning “hinge” or “axis”, was the central commercial street in the new colony. Shops lined the wide colonnaded road, and monumental Roman institutions punctuated it’s length: a forum, baths, and a temple to Venus which the Byzantines later converted to the Sepulchre Church.
In the 1970s, Professor Nachman Avigad excavated the Cardo. He wanted to preserve the Roman road for visitors to see. Today, it serves as poignant visual proof of the eternity of the Jewish people: Though Rome is long gone, Jerusalem remains the beeting heart of the Jewish people.
Today, the Cardo contains shops, galleries and restaurants, as well as a large-scale replica of the famous Madaba Map.
After the liberation of the Old City in 1967, Israeli archaeologist began to dig around the ruined Jewish quarter. The dozens of vivid remains from the Second Temple Period continue to delight visitors to the Quarter even today, but one find stands out among the rest.
Excavators were amazed to uncover the remains of a large, broad wall near the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The wall dated to the time of king Hizkiahu (Hezekiah) in the 8th century BCE. They knew the famous story of Sancheriv (Sennacherib)’s siege of the city and his defeat by divine intervention. Archaeologists had long thought that 8th century Jerusalem was a small provincial town and certainly not a large city, but this find utterly disproved that minimalist concept.
Even more astounding was that the wall passes through the foundations of houses, which are still visible today. Indeed, the prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah) described how the king demolished houses to finish the construction.
י וְאֶת-בָּתֵּי יְרוּשָׁלִַם, סְפַרְתֶּם; וַתִּתְצוּ, הַבָּתִּים, לְבַצֵּר, הַחוֹמָה.
You counted the houses of Jerusalem; you demolished the houses to build the wall. (Isaiah 22:10)
The Broad Wall is my favorite stop on the Jewish Quarter tour. I love to see the love of wonder in the eyes of people who come to hear the fascinating story of Hizkiahu and Sancheriv.
The Hurva wasn’t the only great synagogue of 19th century Jerusalem. A year after construction of the Hurva was finished, ground broke on the grand Hassidic Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue, or as it was known to the locals, the Nissan Beck shul. It received it’s two names from it’s two main benefactors, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin who raised the money in Russia, and Rabbi Nissan Beck, who worked tirelessly on the ground to see the shul built.
During the War of Independence, the synagogue served as a defensive post of the Hagana. Local arab irregulars under the command of the maniacal bomb-maker Fawzi el-Kuttub attacked the building and blew a gaping hole in its side. As the Arabs were too busy stuffing loot down their pants, the Hagana were able to re-take the synagogue, but it fell again under the irresistable pressure of the Jordanian Legion. Once they had captured the synagogue, they blew it sky high.
Next door to the ruined shul is a Karaite Synagogue, still in use. Karaites are a heretical sect founded in the 9th century by Anan ben David. When the position of exilarch (essentially the Jewish king in exile) came available, he was passed over in favour of his brother Hananiya. Miffed, he responded by founding a splinter sect, based on rejecting the age old authority of the rabbis.
The Karaite synagogue in the Jewish Quarter was first built during the Fatimid Caliphate of the 10th and 11th centuries. The Jews who prayed there were expelled by the Crusaders in 1099 along with the other Jews of Jerusalem.
In 1974, Rabbi Noah Weinberg OBM founded the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in a small apartment in the Jewish Quarter. Since then, Aish has grown into an international organization with 27 branches on 5 continents.
In 2009, construction was completed on the Aish HaTorah World Centre, facing the Western Wall. Visitors are treated to the best view of the Kotel in the Old City, the world’s largest model of the Second Temple, and a colourful glass installation by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Free drop-in classes present Judaism in a unique and engaging light.
Dedication opportunities are still available for the upcoming Explorium of Jewish History, which is set to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel
The Western Wall (or the Kotel in Hebrew) is a part of the humongous retaining wall that Herod built for the Temple Mount in the 1st century BCE. For thousands of years, Jews around the world yearned to see it’s stones with their own eyes and offer a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple that once stood on the Mount above.
Words are inadequate to describe the experience of seeing the Kotel for the first time. It is the national monument of the Jewish people, and the symbol of our yearning for the world to return to the state of perfection it was made for.