Jerusalem of Old: Lots of Women Living a Simpler Life

Pre-state Jerusalem did not have much gold, but it did have copper samovars and the 'Light of Life,' as the Old Yishuv Museum attests.

The Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, which was tastefully rebuilt after 1967, evokes little of the very distinctive atmosphere and culture the neighborhood possessed in the pre-1948 era. Accommodating 2,500 permanent residents, nearly all strictly Orthodox Jews, the quarter is filled with renovated homes and greatly enhanced Ottoman-period buildings around shared courtyards that follow the old street patterns. Many residents are relatively affluent, in line with the quarter’s current high value of real estate. And you, the visitor, are as likely to hear American-accented English as Hebrew.

The Old Yishuv Court Museum captures the quarter’s pre-1948 associations with simpler living and even poverty as well as its diversity. The Old Yishuv, the religiously based community that predated the Zionist movement, was predominantly Sephardi for most of the last 500 years, though Ashkenazi influences and acculturations made themselves felt later on in the nineteenth century. Their faith was rooted not in the secular Zionist but in the Messianic future, which they always believed to be imminent, and was deeply woven into the fabric of daily living.

This world view is intimately and very acutely sensed as you walk into the static time machine of the museum, located on 6 Ohr HaChayim Street. With eight main rooms around a small courtyard, its residents included the famous sixteenth-century kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), and Haim ben Attar (1696-1743), who came from Morocco and was known after his widely-studied Torah commentary, Ohr HaChaim (the Light of Life). Both have synagogues named after them in the courtyard, which survived the war and have been incorporated into the museum. More recently, this building served the residence of Rabbi Abraham Haim Weingarten. Led into Jordanian captivity in 1948, he and his family lived to return to the courtyard and restore it to its former character and atmosphere in the form of this museum, which has been open to the public since 1976.

The themes of the first few rooms are surprisingly female in emphasis. Look out for the solid-fuel-fired metal pots for washing clothes, the traditional wood-slatted meat-koshering board, the copper samovars, the lovingly-sewed dresses for festivals and weddings, and the deep chest for the bride’s trousseau. This was because females greatly outnumbered males in the Jewish Quarter up to at least the end of the nineteenth century. Bachelors between 20 and 60 were not eligible for residence, according to the rabbinic-backed Jerusalem Regulations published in 1842. They were not made to safeguard the rabbis’ nubile daughters from Romeos, but to prevent additional poverty in the critically overstrained quarter. It appears to have been assumed that being without a wife meant being without financial means. Full-time Torah study was a calling reserved for the highly gifted, at any rate in Sephardi circles. Indeed, previously-unknown single male arrivals were given about six months grace to tie the knot before being shown the exit.

The exhibitions in the eight rooms rather belie what were the living realities for most people in the Jewish quarter. Many of the artifacts, especially the divans and elaborate trousseau chests were the preserve of the better-off. However, the sad-looking toy “whip and top” scrap-metal wheel and wire appendage in the courtyard was probably more typical. So were the local grocer’s and herbalists’ pestles, mortars, weights, scales and abacus.

In any case, each room typically served as a room for a whole family. So eight families would have been sharing the courtyard in this type of building. At night, the living space would give way to the unfurling of bedrolls. Indeed, it was the gross overcrowding, hygiene issues, and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that led to the slow, but steady exodus from the Jewish quarter to life outside the Old City walls.

Indeed, the Jewish population of the Old City declined from some 8,000 in the 1860s to 2,000 by 1948, fewer residents than there are in today’s Jewish Quarter.

Allow one hour for your visit. The museum is at 6 Ohr Hachaim Street, Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem. Tel. 02 624 1610. Open Sunday-Thurday 10:00-17:00 (summer); 10:00-15:00 (winter); Friday 10:00-13:00. Entrance fee, reduction for families. Enter the Old City though Jaffa Gate, turn right towards the Armenian Quarter, continue though Ararat Street to Ohr Hachayim Street. The Old Yishuv Court Museum is on the right.

Jacob Solomon