An idea for an inexpensive and stimulating tiyul would be to visit the Gonen neighborhood in Jerusalem, the best time for exploring the area being daylight hours. The area is charming, with
magnificent homes and gardens. Dating back to the British Mandate, Katamon was dubbed the Flower
Garden of Jerusalem. The birds that annually pass through Jerusalem on their way across the Rift from Asia to Africa find shelter in the trees of the area, filling the branches with exotic birdsong.
I once heard Harav Avigdor Miller say that things such as gardens do not have to be yours in order to enjoy and savor them. In fact, you can take pleasure in them at no cost … while the owner has to pay for the upkeep. The beautiful St. Simon Park found in Gonen is definitely worth a visit. Situated in southern Jerusalem, Katamon is located between the neighborhoods of Talbiyeh, Kiryat Shmuel, the Greek Colony and Givat Oranim.
Others say the name derives from the fact that the area was originally founded kata (under) the monoss (monastery). In Greek, kata tõi monaster iõi means “under the monastery.” This is referring to San Simon Monastery which is in the southwestern part of the suburb and in whose shadow the neighborhood was first started.
The truth is that there is a Hebrew name for the area — Gonen — yet more than 60 years have elapsed and the old Arab name is still in use, as in so many other areas such as Talbiyeh, Abu Tor, and so on.
This neighborhood is relatively new, starting from the end of the 19th century, and was first built in the area of today’s Gonen Tachtit, adjacent to the German Colony in Emek Refaim. Emek Refaim is mentioned in sefer Yehoshua (15:8) as being at the outskirts of Jerusalem, in the territory of Yehudah, the first tribe to receive its nachalah. In Shmuel II, ch. 5:18-20, we find that when the Philistines heard Dovid had been anointed as king over Yisrael, they encamped against him in this valley. Dovid conquered them, but they then came up against him once more, again camping in Emek Refaim.
Both times, Dovid inquired of the urim v’tumim whether he should counter the Philistine attack. Chazal say that when Dovid declares in Tehillim 119:105, “Your word is a lamp for my feet” he is stating that he would never dream of even entering into battle without first consulting Hashem’s word through the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol.
Hashem’s commands and show his ability to control his emotions and fulfill his mission, underlining
his great spiritual perfection.
Our Sages say the bakha is a tree whose top is filled with thorns. This shows that when Klal Yisrael experiences suffering, there is also suffering Above, as it states in Tehillim 91:15, “I am with him in suffering.” Metzudos says the bakha are mulberry trees. In many gardens of Gonen there are mulberry trees, reminding us of Dovid Hamelech’s era. (Today, many want to uproot them because of the mess they make.)
Other scholars identify the bakha with the mastic plant (Pistacia lentiscu), a small evergreen shrub or tree. The word bakha appears to be derived from the Hebrew word for crying/weeping and is thought to refer to the tears of resin secreted by the mastic plant. A sad weeping noise occurs when this plant is walked on and its branches are broken.
In 1881 Carson Werder, a worker at the American consulate who became a ger tzeddek, encouraged Jews to buy in the area. But there was a general lack of will to live in the place. An Arab real estate agent tried to interest Jews in the area by offering parcels of land of half a dunam at 5 grush (agorot) a week. Yet, there were no Jewish takers. It was mainly Christian Arabs who bought the land and started gradually building there. By 1914, a total of five homes had been built in the region.
From 1924 onward, the buyers were mostly affluent Christian Arabs, who built large mansions there. By 1948 the population was 85 percent Arabs (mostly Christians and a few Muslims) and 32 Jewish families. Arabs and Jews lived in relative peace. But after Nov. 29 of that year, Arab gangs started terrorizing Jews. In December 1948 a Jewish doctor was murdered in cold blood by Arabs. A university student, Zinger, was butchered by Arab ice factory laborers near the plant on Rechov Chizkiyahu Hamelech, leaving a childless grieving widow, who never remarried.
In response, the Palmach sent 32 boys — one to live with each family — to retain a Jewish presence in the area. If Katamon would fall, all of southern Jerusalem would be lost. With the help of Hashem, the Palmach managed to retain Katamon by capturing the monastery, in what was called Operation Yevusi.
Almost all the streets are named in connection with the 1948 War of Independence, including Rechov Palmach and Netiv Zohara (named for the first female pilot in the Israeli army; she was killed in 1948 while in service, and for many years women were not accepted as pilots in the IDF).
Rechov Nillie 7 housed the Bais Yaakov seminar (high school) of Yerushalayim from 1948 onward. Rav Hillel Lieberman wrote to Frau Sarah Schneirer, saying he wanted to open Bais Yaakov in
Eretz Yisrael. She greatly encouraged him. In 1944 a cornerstone was laid for the construction of a
Bais Yaakov seminar on land that had been purchased for this purpose in the vicinity of the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik.
The 1948 war put a stop to all these efforts though,, as the Jordanians captured the area, and the school was eventually set up in Rechov Nillie 7. Girls learned in two shifts because of lack of space. This was the case until about 1965/6, when the seminary edifice of the Yashan, off Rechov Yirmiyahu, was built. The dorms of the American girls learning at Sarah Schneirer remained at Nillie 7 until 1975, when they moved to Rechov Sorotzkin. Also dorming in Nillie Street were the Israeli out-of-town girls.
The primary school grades Alef, Bet and Gimmel were originally in Rechov Lachish and the higher
grades were in Rechov Halamed Hei. The school then moved to Palmach 57. This building is of
Bauhaus architecture. As time went on, the lower grades had fewer and fewer students, so girls came
in from the Rechavia area and the school was renamed Bais Yaakov Ha’Ari, which it remains to this day.
In 1930 Gonen became the first suburb of Yerushalayim to have running water. Water was brought from the Solomon pools in an exposed pipe that stood on concrete legs, and reached Rechov Tzidkiyahu Hamelech and then traveled onto Rechov Palmach. In 1937 electricity was introduced into the area.
On the night of January 5-6, 1948, the Haganah bombed the Semiramis Hotel. This put great fear into the Arabs and they left Katamon. It was an outright miracle! At that point of the war, when there was no food — Yerushalayim had no flour, no sugar and no water — Hakadosh Baruch Hu engineered it that the wealthy area of Katamon should be captured. The rich Arabs in the area abandoned their homes, which were stacked with sugar, flour and all sorts of other edibles. This cache was used in the coupon distribution and saved the starving people of the besieged city.
Some 1,500 refugees of the Old City were evacuated to Gonen. They set up many shtieblach; including
Boyan, Slonim, Chabad, Karlin and Satmar. These shtieblach are not there any more. Until 1967 there was a very large Satmar community on Rechov Tzidkiyahu Hamelech. When the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, zy”a, came to Eretz Yisrael, he settled in Tel Aviv. However, each year from the beginning of Tammuz till after the chagim he stayed in Katamon, at 20 Rechov Tzidkiyahu Hamelech.
The shtiebel of Breslov was housed in this splendid building (until it moved to Gush Shmonim), and was still around long after the others had left. Today the population has changed, and many Anglos now daven in the shtieblach on 4 Rechov Hashayarot, with minyanim every 15 minutes.
Erlau is a Chassidus of Hungarian origin. Their unique path is to follow Ashkenazic tradition, blended with chassidic customs based on the teachings of the Chasam Sofer. In 1953 the Erlau yeshivah and community were founded in the neighborhood. Starting at first in a few rooms that were purchased in the building of the former Syrian Consulate on Yotam Street, the yeshivah eventually expanded to the whole building. It included a dormitory and orphanage for Holocaust survivors and students from needy families. In 1961, a new building named Ohel Shimon — Erlau was constructed in the empty lot adjacent to the yeshivah. In addition, an Institute for Research of the Teachings of the Chasam Sofer and his pupils and descendants, was opened. Erlau remains a chassidic presence in the neighborhood to this day.
Neve Yaakov, founded in 1926 in northern Jerusalem, had to be abandoned in 1948. Its refugees settled in Gonen and established a shul. The talmidim of Yeshivat Porat Yosef were taken into captivity by the Arab Jordanian Legion. Yeshivat Porat Yosef itself was not spared from the, barbaric Arabs’ hands. They utterly destroyed the building and set it on fire. After the war’s conclusion in 1949, part of the student body moved to Gonen and set up a yeshivah. At one point, there were two Porat Yosef yeshivos — one in Geula and one in Gonen. The latter’s teaching staff was mostly Ashkenazic and included Harav Shlanger and Harav Kopshitz.
Rav Ben Zion Yadler (the Yerushalmi Maggid) established the Gra shul in Gonen for those who found it too difficult to live in Yemin Moshe under constant fire from Arabs, as Yemin Moshe is situated
opposite the Old City walls.
In 1948 the escapees from the Arab fury in the area kever Shimon Hatzaddik, were moved to the San Simon area (called San Simon possibly in reference to Shimon Hatzadik). They also built a shul
and called it Shimon Hatzaddik.
The Misgav Ladach hospital on the southern edge of the neighborhood was first established in 1854 in the Old City, on the street of the same name. It was founded to enable the Jews to be independent of Christian missionary hospitals and funded by the French Rothschild family. The name derives from Tehillim 9:10: “And Hashem will be a fortress (misgav) for the oppressed (ladach).”
In 1948, when the Jordanian army captured the Jewish Quarter, the hospital was destroyed and then relocated to Katamon, where it operated as a maternity hospital. In 1987 it moved to a three story,
modern medical center on Chizkiyahu Hamelech Street. Due to the fact that the nonprofit Sephardic organization that owned Misgav Ladach hospital went bankrupt, it closed in 2002. The building was purchased, renovated and reopened by Kupat Cholim Meuchedet, and is now a Meuchedet diagnostic center.