The Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is an essential stop on any Israel Itinerary. I lived there for six years and still consider it home. On our walk through the cobblestone alleyways and back streets of the Rova (as it’s called in Hebrew), almost 4000 years of history will pass before our eyes. Along the way, we’ll try to peel back the layers and understand how it could be that his great city has remained fixed in human consciousness for millennia.
Our first stop takes us back 2700 years to the days of the Prophet Isaiah, King Hezekiah, and Sanheriv the Assyrian conqueror.
First Stop: The Broad Wall
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 Jerusalem’s long history 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 finding 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.
We continue under the houses of the Jewish Quarter towards the Roman Cardo.
The Roman Cardo
The Assyrians failed to destroy Jerusalem but the Babylonians who followed them succeeded. After seventy years of exile, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great proclaimed freedom for the Jews (as predicted by Isaiah centuries before). The first Jews to return to Jerusalem found a city in ruins and foreign occupiers determined to sabotage the reestablishment of a Jewish state.
Despite the difficulties, the Jews persevered, securing an alliance with Alexander the Great, defeating his successors in war and building up their city into a wonder of the ancient world. Pliny the elder wrote of Jerusalem in Herod’s day:
“Hierosolyma longe clarissima urbium Orientis non Iudaeae modo – Jerusalem is by far the most illustrious city of the East at large, not just of Judea”
After the end of the Bar Kochva Revolt, Emperor Hadrian plowed Jerusalem under and rebuilt it as a pagan city, calling it “Aelia Capitolina,” combining 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 its length: a forum, baths, and a temple to Venus which the Byzantines later converted to the Sepulchre Church.
In the 1970s, Professor Nachman Avigad, based on studies of the Madaba Map (above) 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 beating heart of the Jewish people.
Today, the Cardo has shops, galleries and restaurants, as well as a large-scale replica of the famous Madaba Map.
Following the Roman expulsion, Jerusalem was nearly emptied of Jews.
The Ramban Synagogue
It wasn’t until more than a thousand years later than the first well-known Jew returned to Jerusalem. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, was exiled from Andalusia by the Spanish King James I of Aragon and spent the last years of his life in Israel.
When he arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, he saw a city in ruins. He wrote to his son:
Great is the neglect and vast is the destruction… The entire Temple is utterly ruined, Jerusalem is thoroughly destroyed… And we found a house in ruins built with marble columns and a beautiful dome and we took it to the synagogue because the city is abandoned and anyone who wishes to take from the ruins can help himself… but even in it’s destruction, it is an exceedingly good place.
in 1967, seven centuries after the founding of Ramban’s synagogue, the shul was rededicated by the Jews returning to the Jewish Quarter. The Ramban is now the central synagogue of the Rova.
The Hurva Synagogue
The 18th century followers of the charismatic leader Rabbi Yehuda HeChossid first built the central synagogue of the Jewish quarter. They arrived on a Thursday, by Friday their fell to his sick-bed, and on the following Wednesday he passed on. leaderless, his followers’ debts mounted until the Arab landlords violently evicted them.
Almost 100 years later the students of the Vilna Gaon, the Peirushim, came to Jerusalem to reestablish the Ashkenazi Jewish community there. They dressed as Sefardi Jews to circumvent the ban on Ashkenazim. Once in the city, they rebuilt “Reb Yehuda’s ruin” with financing from the Baron de Rothschild. The second synagogue was destroyed by the Arabs in 1948.
Following the reunification of Jerusalem, plans were put into place to rebuild the synagogue. Reconstruction ended in the Spring of 2010; the Hurva once again serves as a centre of prayer and learning in the Holy City.
Four Sephardic Synagogues
With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Sephardic community in Jerusalem multiplied 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.
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.
Batei Mahase Square
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.
The Temple Institute
In 1967, Yisrael Ariel fought with the paratroopers to liberate the old city of Jerusalem. When he arrived at the Temple Mount, he was certain that the age-old prophecy to rebuild the Temple was at hand. When Moshe Dayan handed religious control of the Temple Mount over to the Muslims, Ariel was dazed.
He set out to personally do whatever he could to reestablish the Temple in Jerusalem. To that end, he founded the Temple Institute to research the laws of the Temple and construct new vessels for service there.
Today, the Temple Institute’s brand new presentation centre features a collection of authentic copper, silver and gold vessels for use in the third temple as well as a kosher altar, shewbread table, menorah and kiyor.
Aish HaTorah World Centre
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