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Friday, November 30, 2012

Remembering Beit Yisrael of Old©

by Rebbetzin Chana Mintzer as told to Vardah Littmann
My Childhood Home in Beit Yisrael

I was born at home, in Beit Yisrael, with the help of a midwife. In that era good families gave birth at home. Those of a lower standing went to the hospital to give birth. A few years later the situation changed, and the younger children in my family were born in the private hospital of Professor Sadovsky. In this private nursing home, the Belzer Rebbe of today first saw the light of day.

Today I live in the heights of Rechov Strauss. In order to reach Beit Yisrael, I need to descend and descend and descend, and then descend again. It seems to me it must be at least five floors down. But why was Beit Yisrael built in this low spot? After Meah Shearim was built, people could not live there, since malaria that spread from mosquitoes in the nearby swamps was taking a large death toll. The swamps were dried and Beit Yisrael was built on this now dried out land.

 Our family lived in a triangle of three houses in Beit Yisrael. Before World War I my grandfather built one of the first houses in Beit Yisrael, with iron gates that were closed at night. Then my father, Rav Yosef Weinburg, built a home, and lastly my uncle added his section. Today this triangle is part of the grand empire of the Mir Yeshiva. My childhood home, the house where I was born and lived in until the day I wed, now has the distinction of being Beit Shalom of Mir. 

The Beit Yisrael Shuk

Beit Yisrael was a mixed area, as Arabs also lived there. Where the main Yeshiva is today, an Arab family lived. They had a herd of goats. Every evening the master of the house and his goats would take a turn though the nearby neighborhoods (the new Beit Yisrael was already built). He would call out loudly: "Chalib, Chalib, Chalib." Then all the housewives would come out with pots, and he would milk the goats directly into their vessels. This ensured the kashrus of the milk, for only milk that a Jew witnessed being milked can be used. Every Erev Pesach we would give all our leftover chometz to this Arab family. On Motzai Pesach they would come and give us butter. (Butter has no problem of chalav akum.) As you can see, we were on very good neighborly terms with these people.

Where Shomrei Emunim is today, lived a rich pompous Arab, an enfendie (rich man). He was a Chaj, as he had been in Mecca, and therefore he strode around in a green turban to show his loftiness. Every time I passed his home I had a strong urge to see what was taking place there, but as it was surrounded by dogs, I never did sate my curiosity.

There were many Arabs living in and around the area. But at the time of the Arab Riots in 1936, there was an exchange in population-- Jews from the Old City ran away to Beit Yisrael and Beit Yisrael's Arabs went to the Old City. The plot where the milkman and his clan had lived remained empty until the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir came, and Mir was built there.

The road that goes up from Beit Yisrael to the Bucharim is less steep, and that was where many tradesmen had their work shops. Many were from the Edot Hamizrach, and their young children helped them out. Rav Ovadyah Yosef who was a young avreich at the time came and convinced those parents to send their sons to Yeshivat Porat Yosef. Today many of those boys are the dayanim and leaders of the Sephardi community.

There were plumbers, shoemakers, tailors and carpenters. Today there is a whole street of carpenters. This area was built right before World War  II when an Arab called Stabie realized that after the Arab Riots, Jews had stopped buying in the Old City’s Arab shuk because they feared for their safety. (Shuk Machaneh Yehudah was not built yet). This Arab figured that if he opened a big shuk in the Beit Yisrael area, he could cash-in on Jewish trade. So he bought land in Beit Yisrael and Malay Barok (Rechov Baran) and built the shops. But with the commencement of the World War, all businesses closed up and times were very hard. My father had helped to finance the building of these shops which were called the "Shops of Stabie." Eventually the carpenters took over the place.

During World War II my father sent money to Poland to the Slonimer Rebbe so he could marry off his children and continue his weekly tish

Phone Number 25

My father was the head of the community vaad appointed by popular vote. Each colony set up a vaad to take care of its needs. Because of his post my father was given one of the only hundred telephones that there were in the whole of Jerusalem. Our phone number was 25. One took the handle in hand and waited to be answered by the receptionist. When she eventually picked it up, one would say: "My number is 25. Can I be connected to 48?" As the phone might be needed at any time of the day or night, our front door was always left unlocked so people could always come in and phone.

My father had to take care of getting water for the whole neighborhood. We had a ness during the 1948 War of Independence. That winter was very rainy, so the large well in Beit Yisrael filled up, and there was no need to stand in ration lines in our area. In other areas people stood for hours in lines to get a ration of half a can of water per person. Many were killed in these lines. The mother of my friend was killed in such a line.

Father also had to pay the Rav's salary and provide an apartment for him. The Rav was a great man - the Rav of Tepic, known as a gadol b’Yisroel while still in chutz l’aaretz. The Rav knew me very well. Chickens were salted at home. My mother who did not want to rely on herself would send me to the Rav every Thursday, carrying our chicken. From all the times I visited him, he only once looked in a book to determine the kashrus of our fowls, as the shaylas my mother had were not real problems.

Most of the people in Beit Yisrael were not members of Kupat Cholim. (At the time only Histadrut workers and members had Kupat Cholim.) My father had to make sure there was an affordable doctor for the numerous large families in the area. Also he had to support the cheder. All this had to be accomplished without the aid of people paying taxes.

My father was a "go-getter" with many ingenious ideas. He brought water from the well in pipes to the shtiblach where he set up a tap. People took water and paid for it. The revenue was used to pay the Rav and buy him a house, to open a doctors' clinic, sustain the cheder, and pay for many other public needs.

A Majestic Kallah Chair Made out of Wash Basins

New Chasidic dynasties arrived and they needed places to hold court. When the Slonim Chasidus came from Teveria, my grandfather gave them an apartment in our building to start their shetibel. When the Rebbe arrived he said he needed a big building to be built for his needs. So father and grandfather donated a plot of land of ours that was next to our home for the cause. As a result, the most beautiful building was erected for Slonim right next to our home.

There were great Rabbis who lived in Beit Yisrael. When Rav Dushinsky came from Czechoslovakia, he built in Beit Yisrael, in the neighborhood next to Rechov Shmuel HaNavi. Today his yeshiva is located there. At the time of the War of Independence, they had to run away. The Rebbe of Satmar lived in Beit Yisrael when he came to Eretz Yisrael after the World War. It is astonishing to relate that he did not even have a minyan at that time. I saw him light Chanukah candles.

The Rebbe of Zvil was a sublime person and an amazing personality. He, himself, lived in abject poverty, yet he collected money to build a luxury mikva in Machane Yehudah for our Sephardi brothers. 
When the Rebbie of Zvil's daughter married the son of the Reb Ahrelach Chasidim's Rebbe, she sat in our home since the wedding was held in the grand Slonim building. We made her a majestic kallah chair out of two piellas (large metal wash basins in which the laundry was done), covered in sheets. The simcha at that wedding was unbounded. I have rarely seen such happiness. True, the English police needed to be bribed to make sure the Arabs stayed away, but that was just part of my father's job as Rosh Vaad and taking care of the neighborhood. 

An American Jew who lived nearby imported two fridges, one for himself and one for my father. When there were two or three days of Yom Tov, most, if not all, the neighborhood bought their perishables to our fridge to keep them fresh. In those days most people did not have fridges. Even when I got married, I did not have a fridge. Ice was bought from the ice-seller, but by then it was easier to buy ice, as there was a special grip to hold the ice and it was no longer sold in a little bag as had been done in the old days. Before Rosh HaShanah, a ticket was purchased in the ice factory. During the break people went to pick up their ice to put in the ice box. 

Speaking of the refrigerators reminds me of the communal ovens. No one had a private oven. The children carried extra-large trays of beautifully braided challahs, covered with golden egg yolk and sprinkled in sesame seeds, on their shoulders to these ovens for baking le kavod Shabbos Kodesh. Many people baked panim challahs. These consisted of one large challah made up of twelve little challos to commemorate the twelve lechem hapanim breads the Cohanim ate on Shabbos day in the Beis HaMikdash. Likewise, these panim challahs were eaten at the morning meal. The cholent pot was also kept warm in the public oven.

Some families were very poor, and had no way of keeping water hot for drinking on Shabbos. My grandmother set up two large pans of boiling water over neft (kerosene) lamps. In them she placed many glass bottles before Shabbos. On Shabbos morning people would come to us with towels in which we placed the boiling hot bottles so that they could be taken to their homes.

Under Siege in 1948

Many times the English would impose an otzer (blockade). No one could come in, and no one could leave. My father had a special pass so he could take care of community needs. Once a bride and groom could not wed, as they were on different sides of the otzer. Father used his pass to bring the groom to the bride, so that the wedding ceremony could take place.

There were many Etzel members in our area. Many boys had left the yeshivas and joined the Underground. The British police would to try to trap them by imposing blockades.

On the 15 of May 1948, the State was declared. We stayed in our home in Beit Yisrael. The fear was palpable. The Old City was under siege. The New City was under siege. On Friday night we heard the Arab tanks rambling past our home on what is now Kvish Echad. With the help of Hashem, they passed us on their way to the Old City.

We considered the possibility of running away after Shabbos, but where could we go? The whole city was under siege.

My youngest brother was hysterical, and he did not want to stay in Beit Yisrael under any circumstance. He insisted on going to Rechavia. So Mother and the two little ones went to Rechavia, and all the rest of us stayed in our home. I then understood how people did not run away from the ghettos. At home, even if threatened, you are still a person. You have food and a well of water. You are home. But if you leave, you become a fugitive having to rely on the chesed of others which is a terrible feeling.

Helping the Refugees

That was a most awful Layl Shabbos and Shabbos. The chesed of Hashem was great, and after that Shabbos, the Arabs only bombed in the day and not at night. Yeshivas Mir was then only partly built; only the kitchen section was standing. All the Jews that were forced to escape from Shmuel HaNavi Street and its surroundings, and also from places in Beit Yisrael came and took refuge in the half built Mir building. (The Yeshiva itself was then in Achva.) Here they stayed until the ceasefire was brokered. People also squatted in the basement of the Slonim building. 

We started to think how we could help these refugees and make life easier for them. We also made plans to prepare for the next Shabbos. As there was no electricity, the daylight hours were extended by two hours. There was nothing to cook and even worse, no place to cook in. A grate was set up over branches and twigs, and on it was placed a large pot. My sister-in-law found some beans and some of this and that, and she cooked a whole pot of Shabbos cholent for everyone.

Very prudent recycling was done with the little water we had. Firstly water was set aside for cooking. Then the water used for washing dishes was recycled for doing laundry, and then this same water was used for washing the floor. Lastly this sponja water was used to flush the toilet bowls.

In order to receive rations, you had to give in your coupons. Each family had a coupon book that the makolet person had to take and stick into another notebook. For each item a different tlush was needed -one for sugar, one for flour, one for eggs, etc.  You received 150 grams of bread per head. The rationing system started in the days of the British and lasted until 1953 or 1954. For my wedding we received two kilos of meat. Now try to make a wedding with two kilos of meat. When my first child was born in 1950, I was given tlushim to acquire six cloth diapers. At some point American ration cards were added, and they were called "Strips."

Miracles at a Desperate Time

I must relate a miracle that we lived through. There came a point when there was no food - no flour, no sugar, and no water. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu engineered that the wealthy area of Katamon, Givat Shahid was captured. The rich Arabs in the area deserted their homes which were stocked with sugar, flour, and all sorts of other edibles. This cache was used in the coupon distribution, but it got used up and the situation was desperate once again. At that point Rav Herzog, Rav Dushinsky and Rav Nissim were on the verge of surrendering and waving a white flag. Then Bernadot (the U.N. representative) managed to obtain a ceasefire, and Yerushalayim was saved.

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