Book Review: Jewish Journeys in Jerusalem

    October 2010            
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Jewish Journeys in Jerusalem: A Tourist’s Guide

By Jay Levinson, reviewed by Jmag Staff

Toronto: Key Publishing House (2010)
ISBN: 978-0-9811606-7-2
In US $ 24.99
In Israel NIS 90

Jewish Journeys in Jerusalem is a fascinating introduction to Jerusalem’s 3000 years of Jewish history. The author first provides a guide to religious services, then he covers the many tourist sites that even long-time residents might not have visited.

In the first section there is a wealth of practical information for observant Jews, including notes about the eruv and t’chum Shabbat, how to find out where a cohen can and cannot walk, and where to ask halachic questions almost 24 hours a day.

The second section is particularly interesting, covering both religious and “Israeli” places to visit. The grave of Nicanor is one example.

As the Talmud (Yoma 38a) describes, Nicanor traveled from Alexandria to bring gates for the Second Temple. He loaded two bronze gates on a ship, but a large wave threatened the vessel. Nicanor cast one gate overboard, but the sea continued to rage. Then, he declared that he should be thrown into the sea with the second gate. Suddenly, the sea became calm. By a miracle the first gate appeared when the ship arrived in Akko. Some said that a sea monster spit it out. Others claim that the bronze gate became attached to the underside of the ship. In any event, the Gates of Nicanor were installed on the western side of the Women’s Section in the Second Temple. Eventually, gold-colored gates were put on all of the entrances to recall this miracle.

By the accounts of Josephus, the gates were truly impressive. Estimates are that they stood forty cubits wide and fifty cubits high.

In 1902 Sir John Gray Hill, a wealthy English lawyer, built a house on Mt. Scopus overlooking Jerusalem in one direction and the Dead Sea in the other. He had traveled to Palestine every year since 1887, and in 1889 he bought the land in question. The view was magnificent, but thirteen years went by before Gray Hill and his wife decided to build. Lady Caroline Emily Gray Hill (1843–1924) was an artist, and this was by all measures an ideal location for her studio. As one visitor later described the view from the house, it was a “vision of beauty.”

During construction of the house, however, something totally unexpected occurred. Workers found an ancient cave. The area was excavated, and an important discovery was made—ossuaries with bones and jewels. There was no question to whom the burial area belonged; written are the words, “Nicanor from Alexandria.” The burial grave is open to the public inside the Botanical Gardensd of Hebrew University (Mt. Scopus Campus).

Another example, this time of an “Israeli” site, is the cable car to Mt. Zion. When the British departed Mandate Palestine, they essentially left both Jews and Arabs to fend for themselves. Each side tried to defend the territory already held and take additional turf. One strategic point was Mount Zion, which the Harel Brigade of the Palmach captured on 18 May 1948 as part of a broader campaign to break the siege on the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter was lost, but Jewish forces retained their foothold on Mount Zion. The question became how to bring supplies to Mount Zion without being exposed to Arab gunfire and without trekking up or down the mountain. Initially a narrow tunnel connected Mount Zion with Yemin Moshe, but the restricted width was cumbersome, and the steep incline was difficult.

In December 1948 Uriel Hefetz, later to serve as a senior officer in the IDF Engineering Corps, proposed a steel cable 200 meters (650 feet) in length and suspended fifty meters (165 feet) above the Valley of Hinnon. Cars making the trip in two minutes each held a maximum weight of 250 kilograms. (550 pounds). One end of the cable was on Mount Zion; the other end was in the abandoned St. John’s Ophthalmic Hospital on Derech Hebron just below Yemin Moshe. For six months the cable was raised at night then lowered before daybreak, so the operation would go undetected. Until 1972 the cable car was kept in readiness in case its operation would once again become necessary. Recently the operations room and one of the cars have become a museum.

The book is rich in historical data, some of which have implications in the current political arena. The Mughbrabi Gate to the Temple Mount is one example.

The Western Wall Plaza was once in the Moghrabi neighborhood, built during the Ayyubid period. The area takes its name from the Arabic word meaning “western”—no, not west of the Temple Mount, where it is located. Rather, the name is from the homeland of the original Moslem occupants, Morocco, which is located in the western part of the Islamic world.

The Ayyubids, under the leadership of Saladin (1138–1193), conquered Jerusalem from the Christians of the First Crusade; they were later defeated by the army of the Second Crusade. A remnant of the neighborhood is the Moghrabi Mosque on the Temple Mount, which today houses the Al-Aqsa Museum. (No, do not try to visit. Treading on the Temple Mount is forbidden according to Jewish Law.)

After the Israeli capture of the Old City, Gen. Moshe Dayyan (1915–1981) ordered the destruction of the impoverished houses of the Moghrabi neighborhood quickly under the cover of the night, before there could be international objection. One building was left standing at the end of the area farthest from the Western Wall in the northwest corner of the leveled neighborhood—the “Police Station.” The structure had been a private Arab residence under the auspices and ownership of the Abu Meddein “Moroccan” Islamic Council.

The former residents of the Moghrabi neighborhood were declared refugees, and King Hassan II (1929–1999) of Morocco offered to absorb them into his country, their traditional home of previous centuries.

Soon the “Police Station” became an office of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and in later years the Israel Police took over most of the edifice and gave it its informal name. In 2007 the crumbling building was demolished by construction workers to build a new police station and visitors’ center.

As soon as crews started to dig, historic artifacts were found under three or four meters (ten to twelve feet) of landfill.

Unearthed was part of a street similar to the Cardo, beneath which there are the bases of pillars and the floors of several stores. This was evidently a street from the later period of the Second Temple. If one were to continue further south on the street, one would presumably reach the small Roman-era pedestrian gate not far away in the Old City wall.

Numerous Mamluk coins were unearthed, as compared with the very few Roman coins. A possible explanation is that any Roman coins were gathered by the Mamluks. Another reason to be cautious in evaluating the findings is that there is apparently a lower stratum from the First Temple period; it is still being studied Another reason to be cautious in evaluating the findings is that there is apparently a lower stratum from the First Temple period; it is still being evaluated. The excavations are continuing and are not yet open to the public.

Concurrently, the Moghrabi Gate to the Temple Mount became structurally unsafe. Its reconstruction is now a subject of political controversy.

There is virtually no end to the rich historical detail found in this book (available in editions printed in both Israel [Shanky’s, Rechov Petach Tikva 17, Jerusalem] and the United States [,]). It is “must” reading for every Jew interested in Jerusalem.


from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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