By Vardah Littmann Photos by Rimonah Traub
When beholding the thriving, growing metropolis that Jerusalem is today, it is hard to imagine that just a hundred sixty years ago, if you had looked out of a peephole of the Old City of Yerushalayim, you would have seen utter desolation. An Arab population of a few hundred semi-nomads lived in the southern Silwan (Shiloach) area, where there were a few local Arab farmers farming some small plots for grapes and olives. Far off to the west, you could view the monastery tower of Ein Kerem encircled by a tiny village. Other than that, the surrounding countryside was harsh and barren. For miles around in all directions, all one saw were thistles and thorns, stones and more stones.
Within the city walls, the Jewish yishuv, numbering about 8,000 people, lived in appallingly overcrowded conditions. There was literally no place to move. Open sewers ran though the streets, emitting a horrendous odor and transmitting disease. The homes were tiny, dilapidated hovels, many without even a window. The Arab landlords kept raising the already high rentals; there seemed to be no solution to the dire housing situation.
In 1845 the Rabbanim and the community leaders of Jerusalem bought land in the surrounding countryside in order to expand the living area of the yishuv to outside the walls. But later that same year, the Sultan was swayed by malicious gossip about the yishuv and issued an edict forbidding foreigners from owning land beyond the walls. This edict effectively curtailed the expansion for many years to come.
The Force Behind the New City
Three Jews, who were not members of the yishuv, were the catalysts for the foundation of the New City: the noted British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore; Judah Touro; and Gershom Kursheedt.
Sir Moses Montefiore was an imposing man, over six feet tall. The Jews of the yishuv referred to their patron as “HaSar Montefiore” (Minister Montefiore), a title perpetuated in Hebrew literature and song. He was an Italian Jew whose family had moved to England. Not only was he head of the English Jewish community, but Queen Victoria had knighted him. He eventually went on to become the Sheriff of London, a position of honor and power. Yet despite all this, he remained a shomer mitzvos of great yiras Shamayim. In the prime of his life, he retired from his successful financial career and decided to dedicate himself to aiding his fellow Jews. For more than half a century, until his death at the age of 101 in 1885, Sir Moses championed the cause of rights for Jews throughout the world. His love of Eretz Yisrael and especially Yerusha layim was legendary, and it is said that he wore golden buttons on which he had engraved the passuk “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim …”
Sir Moshe came to Eretz Yisrael a total of seven times — in 1827, 1839, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1866 and finally in 1875, when he was already ninety-one years old — he always traveled with his own shochet, sefer Torah and minyan. At the site of the windmill in Yemin Moshe, a replica of the carriage Sir Montefiore used in his travels is displayed. The original carriage was brought to Palestine from England, but it was destroyed in a fire in 1986.
Judah Touro, an American Jew, was the son of a Sephardic Rabbi who had amassed a fortune as a commission merchant with investments in steamships and real estate. When he passed away in 1854, he bequeathed $410,000 (some say $60,000) to the Jews of Jerusalem to be administered by Montefiore.
Building Mishkenot Shaananim
On a visit to Eretz Yisrael, Sir Moses Montefiore was encouraged by Harav Shmuel Salant to do all he could to build outside the walls. In Sivan 1855, Sir Moses traveled to Constantinople specifically to further this cause. In a personal audience with the Sultan Abdul Majid, Sir Moses received a special dispensation enabling him to buy and develop land outside the walls of Jerusalem.
In Av 5615 (1855) Sir Moses Montefiore visited Yerushalayim and, in conjunction with its Rabbanim and community leaders, it was decided that he should try to purchase the tract of land beyond the walls, opposite Mount Zion. This was the nearest plot to the Jewish Quarter that was suitable for building. Inquiries yielded that this piece of real estate belonged to Ahmad Aga Dijar, the previous mayor of Jerusalem. On Sir Moses’ second visit to Eretz Yisrael, a personal friendship had developed between the English lord and the then-mayor. Dr. Leopold Loewe, Montefiore’s personal secretary, recounted the details of the purchase of the plot of land that would later become Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It would seem from Loewe’s report that this Ahmad Aga Dijar must have been a gilgul of the biblical Efron, orat the very least, his descendant! At first,
Aga Dijar claimed that he would give the land to his dear friend, Sir Moses (who was like his brother), as a gift. For a few days Ahmad Aga Dijar insisted that he was giving the property to Sir Moses for free. On the day of the sale, the negotiations lasted nearly all day. Suddenly, the Arab said that if Sir Moses would give him a little gift of a thousand pound sterling (an enormous sum of money in those days), he was ready to go with him to the kadie. On the spot, Sir Moses counted out a thousand pound sterling in cash. Together with Ahmad Aga Dijar and his party, Sir Moses and his entourage went to the British consulate and drew up a
contract. They then went to the Moslem court to register the sale.
The funds used to buy the plot comprising 38,000 square meters came from the money left by Judah Touro. In fact, the official name of Mishkenot Shaananim is Batei Yehudah Touro. The following words were inscribed in the center of one of the buildings, on the top of the stone façade: “In the year 5620 to Creation, Mishkenot Shaananim was established by Sir MosesMontefiore, with the money bequeathed by the benefactor Judah Touro — may his soulrejoice in Gan Eden — from the holy community of New Orleans, in America, may Hashem protect it.”
In the founding charter of Mishkenot Shaananim, the residents are enjoined to recite tefillos and learn
mishnayos daily in memory of Touro, and to honor the day of his yarhtzeit. After the land was purchased, Lord Montefiore had a stone wall built around the whole property. It took forty Jews two weeks to build the retaining wall.
The cornerstone of the first two buildings was laid on the 5th of Elul 1855. A copy of the sale contract and Yehudah Touro’s ring were placed under the keystone. It was originally planned to build a hospital on the plot, but this idea fell through as Baron Rothschild had just opened the first Jewish hospital within the walls.
Nothing further was done with the land till Sir Moses and Kursheedt returned to the Holy Land in 1857. They asked the people of the city what they needed most. The reply was “Housing.” So when Sir Moses returned to England, he sent an architect, W.R. Smith, to draw up blueprints for the building. (Later, a Jewish architect
and builder, Rabbi Yosef Rosenthal, took over.) The long structure Smith designed was built of the best Jerusalem stone, which was quarried by Arabs from Bethlehem. The residents nicknamed the roof “Tarbush” (the red, flat, domed hat worn by the Turks), as it was made of red tiles imported from Marseilles. The ornate
iron arches and grilles were ordered by Montefiore from his hometown of Ramsgate. To this day, the inscription, “G.S. Culver, East Kent Metalworks, Ramsgate, England” can be seen on the pillars supporting the roof of the balcony. The building cost 6,000 pounds sterling to build — a small fortune at the time. It was claimed that this sum was at least fifty times greater than it should have been, as the architect did not take
the topography of the site into consideration in his draft. Much of the bedrock had to be cut away to enable the building to fit into the slope.
The architectural problems faced by the builders were dwarfed in comparison to the trouble made by the landlords who rented out homes in the Old City, and other fanatic Moslem groups. The landlords were afraid that if Jews started moving out of the Old City, they would lose the income generated by the high rentals in
the walled city. They succeeded in halting the building and invoked a Turkish law that forbade building near the walls, for military and security reasons. Sir Moses had to approach the Sultan once again for another special permit to be able to build. This was granted in 1859.
Eventually the building was completed. Each of the sixteen apartments had two rooms, a kitchen and a storeroom. There were individual gardening plots for each family, and in fact for a number of years, Sir Moshe sent seeds from England to cultivate in the gardens. There was a shul for Ashkenazim and one for
Sephardim, as well as a mikveh and a communal oven. The well had a small, “modern” hand pump from
England — a marvel that people walked specially over from the Old City to see.
Later, during his sixth visit to Eretz Yisrael, Montefiore decided to add an additional building, containing another four apartments. But this building was only completed four years later.
Sir Moshe wanted the residents of his newly acquired land to be self-sufficient and achieve economic independence. He had a number of original ideas to implement this goal. Firstly, a British expert from a firm of millwrights in Canterbury — with all the necessary equipment and instructions to build a windmill — was sent to the HolyLand. The windmill was meant not only to provide a livelihood for many, by providing work, but also to reduce the price of flour for the whole yishuv. (Until this point, the grinding of wheat had been an Arab monopoly, which caused the price of flour to be high). Unfortunately, wind conditions in Jerusalem were not suited to power the windmill, and also the machinery was designed for European wheat, which was much softer than the hard local Israeli product. The mill was used for a while but then it broke down, and due to the invention of steam-powered mills the Montefiore windmill was outdated by 1891.
Anecdotes about the windmill abound, here is just a taste.
Firstly, the local Arab millers sent their kadie to put an evil eye on the windmill. He cursed it that it should be washed away in the first rain. When it survived the rainy season in tact, the Arabs claimed the mill was the work of the devil himself.
A second tale told goes as follows.; the Arabs developed a taste for the lubricating oil on the wings of the mill. They would come in hordes to lick them. It was feared the mill would burn down from the resulting friction caused by the lack of oil. A leg of pork was placed in the oil barrel, causing the Arabs to lose their taste for the oil.
And now for a third story. When the British ruled Palestine they blew off the top of the windmill in an operation dubbed "Operation Don Quixote". Some of their soldiers had been sent to raise the mill to the ground. But when they saw a placard proclaiming a British Lord had built it, being the proper stiff upper lipped Englishmen they were, not wanting to insult the nobility of their motherland, they surficed in taking off the 'kipah'.
Sir Moshe also planted mulberry trees on his land. As silk was much sought after and consequently very expensive at that time, he hoped that the silk-yield from the cocoons of the mulberry worms could be sold to bring in a high income for the yishuv.
Takanos of Mishkenot Shaananim
Thirteen takanos were set out, by Sir Moshe, for the neighborhood. These included, among others, stipulations that the floors of each house must be washed each day; garbage must be put in a special covered
place; the mikveh and its surrounding area must be kept clean; and the tenants must do everything in their power to maintain peace among themselves. In addition, the residents were required to be talmidei chachamim of note.
In order to encourage people to come and live in his new settlement,
Sir Moshe gave the area a name indicating a peaceful dwelling place — Mishkenot Shaananim. The name is derived from Yeshayah 32:18: “My people will live in a peaceful domain and in secure dwellings and in tranquil resting places.” The buildings, with their crenelated bfaçade, were suggestive of the Old City walls and gave the appearance of a fortress, as if to imply they were capable of defending their inhabitants, in the same way as the Wall across the valley.
However, people were not so convinced that the place was secure and did not want to move to the “suburbs.” Today, when we are witness to the expanded Yerushalayim, it is hard to comprehend how far away Mishkenot Shaananim seemed to the residents of the Old City. As noted, nthe landscape around the colony was rough and bleak and there was definitely a justified fear of marauding Bedouins and wild animals that abounded. It was life-threatening to be outside the gates of the Old City after sunset, so Sir Moshe agreed to pay the tenants a yearly stipend of ten gold napoleons. Despite this, many of the residents lived in the new colony during the day but, as evening approached, they returned to the Old City. The fear was quite warranted, as was proved when one resident was murdered on his way from the Old City at dusk. Another person, who was trying to chase away marauders, was killed.
The turning point came when, in 1866, a cholera epidemic raged inside the Old City. At this time Jerusalemites took note that across the Hinnom Valley, in clean, airy Mishkenot Shaananim, the epidemic hadn’t struck. The “part-time” residents of Mishkenot Shaananim then decided that beasts in human or animal form were less menacing than the deadly plague, and moved into their homes outside the walls.
Once Mishkenot Shaananim was inhabited, it gave courage to the people of the yishuv to start moving to other settlements beyond the walls. Mishkenot Shaananim became the foundation stone of the New Jerusalem, and the large, expanding city wesee today is the direct result of this neighborhood. It was the beginning of the fulfilment of the verse in Zechariah 2:8 “Prazos teisheiv Yerushalayim ... — Jerusalem
will be settled beyond its walls.”
Published in Hamodia 9 December 2010