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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Jerusalem of My Childhood©

By Rebbetzin Leah Binka
As Heard by Vardah Littmann     

  I usually give a series of four lessons about the 'Yerushola'yim of my youth’. So you see there is much to say. I recently gave the course to a class of girls in B’nei Berak. At the end of our last session they asked to be photographed with me. Well what can I say, I have been a teacher for 45 years and this was the first time ever that the girls in a class I gave wanted to be in a photo with me. It seems the subject matter of the lesson must have really impressed them…. 
The Apartment with the Beautiful Floor                                                        
I was not born in Eretz Yisrael as you can maybe hear from my accent. I came when I was two and a half years old, two years before the start of the Second World War. When we arrived in Jerusalem, you could not rent an apartment anywhere. There was only one month in the year called Mucharem in Arabic when you could rent a home. Since we missed this date by two months, we lived in a hostel of apartments on Rechov Dovid Yellin.

Here each family had a room with a weensy kitchen. We stayed at this location until we moved to our apartment two buildings away, also on Dovid Yellin Street. As my parents could not afford a mover, they shlepped everything by themselves.

When they needed to fetch the rest of their few worldly possessions, they had to leave me alone for a short while, babysitting my year-old brother.  When they returned I was shedding copious crocodile tears saying, "Such a beautiful floor, such a beautiful floor...” The truth be told it was a beautiful floor, like a carpet with little colored mosaics.

Since we had come from Europe, we had looked for a neighborhood that was slightly more luxurious then the regular Yerushalami schunot. At the time, many of the houses did not plumbing and water was brought home in a big jug called a janazeh. (For example my friend who lived in the Old City in Batei Machaseh did not have running water.) But our building had taps and running water. The rooms were bigger and higher then usual.

A Kaleidoscope of People

There was a kaleidoscope of different types of people in our neighborhood-- from the secular intelligentsia to people who barely knew how to write. Let me bring you an example from our neighbor. She wanted my mother to take a job translating for someone. My mother refused, feeling inadequate. She told the neighbor: "This job needs a more intelligent person then me."  Answered the woman: "When you get dressed for Shabbos, you are very intelligent." She meant to say that my mother was very “elegant.”

On the one hand, there were very Charedi Jews who were great talmidei chachamim. Some were very extreme in their views. There were even those who called the Bais Yaakov schools, “Bais Esav.” One older neighbor said to me, "Lealeh, you think you are learning in a school of tzadikim, but in actuality you learn in “Bais Esav.” On the other hand, we had neighbors who were totally secular Jews who were very far away being observant.

In order to show you the contrast, I will illustrate with two construction workers who lived in our building. One of these men went to shul each Shabbos and put on tefillin each day. On his return home from work,  he would turn on the radio and stay glued to it all evening. The second construction worker was totally secular.  

The teacher Tovah Miller lived in the building adjacent to ours. There was a worker who worked in the Dead Sea Corporation and only came home once a month. There was also a family whose daughter was married to the son of our school doctor, Dr Rabinowitz. She spoke on the radio station Kol Yerushalayim about health care. I can’t exactly remember what her husband did, but his brother was the famous meteorologist who forecast weather reports. A different neighbor was a musician in the police band. As you can, we were all types of people living in same place.

The Residents of Zichron Moshe

Zichron Moshe was not a cohesive neighborhood with each building different from the next. Many doctors lived on our street, and the future Chief Rabbi, Rav Nissim, also lived here. Mr. Katzir a president of the State, grew up here, as did his brother, Professor Katzir, who was killed in a terrorist attack in an El Al plane.

There was an also a number of important Rabbonim. Rav Shmuelevitz, zaltzal, lived in Zichron Moshe when he first came to Eretz Yisrael. Also, the Beis Yisrael, zatzal, had his home here and close by lived the Imrei Emes, zatzal, as well as Rav Shag, zatzal.
Rav Herman, zatzal, of All for the Boss lived close by and gave a daily shiur in Ein Yaacov attended by people of the neighborhood. A relative of mine was an adherent of Rav Herman. He told me that Rav Herman would often ask him to help him bring benches from the Zichron Moshe Shul to his home to accommodate the numerous guest Rav Herman hosted. 

Next to Rechov Chofetz Chaim there lived a large congregation of Gruzinim (Georgians), then called Georgim. They had a Rav who was from their own ranks. One of these Gruzinim was a British Mandate policeman. His term of service stated that he could take off to say Tehillim with the children whenever he wanted. To this day, I see before my eyes all the neighborhood children he used to gather in the shul which resounded with the sweet songs of King David. The children would recite the Tehillim with great enthusiasm as he, in his uniform, conducted the show.
Brisker Rav
There was an Ashkenazi person called Rav Moonish, who encouraged the children to answer “Amen” by distributing sweets to any child who answered  “Amen” in a loud voice.

The Rosh Yeshivah of Slonim, the author of Nesivos Sholom, HaRav Noach Berezovsky, lived on Rechov Chofetz Chaim. The Rav of Brisk lived at the end of the street near the Edison movie theatre. We were privileged that “our eyes should see our teachers,” when the Brisker Rav would walk up and down the street each day.

The Games We Played

The children had a special hawiay schonatie (neighborhood experience) not found today in the area. This was a result of different factors.  Since the apartments were small, the washing of laundry and its hanging were done outside in the chatzer (courtyard). So everyone would congregate outside.

Most of the homes did not have toys. Mothers did sew and put together dolls from old shmattes, but that was about it. The children would gather the tops of cigarette boxes and use them as cards and dominos. At a later stage, chewing gum wrappers were used. 

In fact all odd papers that were found were used for games. I felt so bad for my younger siblings that I took a game of monopoly from a friend and copied it for my brothers over a period of two months.
A friend gave me an old torn cardboard on which I drew a “drafts” board. The black “soldiers” were brown bean kernels, and white beans served as the white “soldiers.” The children played Hide and Seek among the buildings and Amsalam which involved hitting a peg. No one bought Chamesh Avenim (Five Stones) in a toy store; they simply found five similar stones and used them in this popular game. When we played Cops and Robbers, the English influence was apparent. We said “Ends Up!” not knowing it was “Hands Up!”

We sang street songs.  One of them went like this: "Catherine the holy, Catherine the holy, to who do you pray?/ To the G-d of Yisroel, do you pray?/ One hit and you are down,/ Two hits and you are down,/ Three hits and you are dead."

A Vibrant Life on the Streets

Circumstances had it that daily living was mainly in the streets. The ice seller sold in the street, so we stood in lines to buy ice. Ditto with the gas seller. During war times we needed to stand in lines in the streets for rations of water and food. We stood in line near Mayan Shtub, from five in the morning, for stockings and socks. For chickens, we stood in lines from the early morning hours in Machaneh Yehudah.

Until this day I am dark skinned. As the oldest in the house, I wanted to help my mother, so I was the one who always went to stand in lines. As a result I was very brown and suntanned. One morning I left very early, even before breakfast, to stand in line. My mother sent some food to me with my brother.

At the corner of the street, a man had a large tub of boiling water on a primus, in which he boiled corn-on-the-cob and sold it to the neighborhood children who delighted in eating it. At that time people were not so aware of the worms in corn-on-the-cob.

The sweet shop belonged to a Rav Gefner who sat all day and learned in front of an open Gemara. The sweets were different from today. There was a sweet we called onek yeladim, and it was only until I was older that I realized that the name was oneg (enjoyment of) yeladim. It was sold in a brown bag and was like the sherbet of today. 
Then there was banbahlik, a round ball with different colored sweets in the center. They also sold old apples covered in candy and pieces of “leather” (dried apricot spread).

The Arabs came with their wares of sabras and dates, and items that are unknown today-- zororos and chamnenalan. Zororos are small wormy apples, while chamnenalan is a wreath made of  pea-like fruits that were roasted in the fire.
Sachlav was a pudding for sale, and a Jew named Shmuel sold a sweet drink (srus) out of a large copper drum. Such a drink is still sold today in the Old City.
The makolet was run solely by Rebbetzin Mecharkom, while her husband sat all day in the Zichron Moshe shul, crowned in tallis and teffilin. He learned all day with someone who had been one of the Chofetz Chaim's students. The second makolet belonged to Zimberlis whose children became great talmidei chachamim.

The Jewish Underground

It was the period of the Jewish underground groups. A slick (shipment) of arms was discovered in our street by the British and confiscated. When the Etzel members came for their weapons and found them gone, they were heartbroken.

A sixteen year old boy named Robowitch, who lived on our street, was captured by two English policemen and brutally killed. His mother never stopped crying for him. The son-in-law of a family in our building was a member of the Etzel. He was sent to Africa by the British and later in life became a member of Knesset.

The Gur Yeshiva

At first, the Gur Yeshiva was in Beitei Varsha, in the home of Rav Rizeman. Then it moved to Rechov HaChabashim and later a building was built to house the Yeshiva on Rechov Shwartz/ Sfas Emes. The Yeshiva was forced to close during World War Two because there was no money to buy food for the boys.

Through a series of unbelievable miracles, the Imrei Emes escaped Nazi Europe and reached Eretz Yisroel. He asked that the Yeshiva be reopened. Since it was impossible to receive funds from an where abroad at that time, the Rebbe asked each person of the Yishuv to give as much as they could, even if it was a very small amount. People made the effort and the Yeshiva reopened.

We came from Lodz and until our aliyah, my father was supported by his father-in-law. The family still sent us money from Poland until the War broke out, and then the money stopped coming. 

The 1948 War of Independence

There was a great food shortage during the 1948 War of Independence in Yerushalayim. However, Divine Providence would have it that my father was a baker. During all those years, he had a special permit from the British and could move around despite the blockades they imposed.

He gave bread in abundance to Rebbe R. Dovid Twersky, the Admor of Rachmastrivka, and also to
Yeshivas Sfas Emes. He tried to give bread to as many people as he could. One of my friend’s uncles was a milkman, and she brought us milk in exchange for bread. Another friend's parents owned chickens, so she came with quarter of a fowl and took bread. This barter system worked excellently.

Living where we did on Rechov David Yellin, we were located in the center of town. Bombs fell here, and our apartment was used as a bomb shelter. A while ago I returned to my former home and realized that there really was no reason for it to be used as a shelter more the any other apartment. True, there is another floor above ours, but one room of our home was underneath the open mirpesset of the above flat.  

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