Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ramban in Jerusalem and the Jews Who Lived There 1267-1967

Nadene Goldfoot
1,132 years after Bar Kochba's  last stand in Jerusalem, in 1267 CE, Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman "The Ramban" from Gerona, Spain  entered Jerusalem and saw what the overrunning of the Tartar hordes had done to this precious city.  Tartars were from the Genghis Khan and the Russian Empire who were moving eastward.  They were made up of people of Siberia, Turkestan, and Mongolia from across the Great Steppe to the Caspian Sea to the Ural Mountains.  In 1240 the Mongols had invaded Syria and were successful in 1260.  Some Mongols engaged in raids as far south as Jerusalem and Gaza.  They had taken Aleppo and Damascus in Syria.  They then invaded Hungary in 1285 and were again successful in 1300.  . 

Whole quarters were either ruined or empty, and there were only two people there that he could find, two brothers who were dyers by trade.  There in their home, 10 or more people were gathered from outside Jerusalem for the Sabbath and holiday prayers.  Rabbi Nahman, known as the Ramban, lived there as well.

The Ramban, one of the greatest Rabbis and greatest scholar, was horrified at the condition of the Holy Land and of Jerusalem, so wrote to his son for help in finding a good place to have a synagogue.and finally found a restorable hall.  He also encouraged outside Jewish communities to return and resettle in Jerusalem. He reminded people that the Bible said "We will not forsake the Land to others of the nations" from Numbers 33:53.   He himself stayed for a year, then moved to Acre, but his synagogue was the start of Jewish Quarter.

Most houses grew through the centuries and had chicken coops or kitchen shacks added.  Many walls looked like stony patchwork.  What would be a basement to us looked like caves, but the upper rooms were airy and beautiful.  People moved there from all over the world but most were from Samaria and the Galilee until the mid 1500's when the Sephardic influence became dominant.

During the 17th century a Jew converted to Islam after quarreling with his community leaders. He then built a mosque on his own plot and its minaret stands on the Street of the Jews.

In 1622, Rabbi Yeshayahu Ha-levi Horowitz came from Prague, a city today in Czech Republic but then a city of Bohemia.  In 1700 Rabbi Yehuda Hechassid and Rabbi Hayim Malach brought a large group from Russia and some settled.  Hechassid had made the first down-payment on the site and then died 5 days after his arrival.  When the community couldn't make the next payment the Moslems burned the small synagogue and imprisoned the Jewish leaders.  The Jews paid interest on the debt for 120 years until it was cancelled by order of Ibrahim Pasha.  In 1741 Rabbi Hayim Ben Attar came from Morocco to settle and was followed by a group of Italian families and immigrants from Egypt and Damascus. 

Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt took over Jerusalem in 1831, a liberal-minded and far-sighted man who had fought the Ottoman Empire.    At this time 40% of Jerusalem was still empty or in ruins.  He allowed Jewish and Christian immigration hoping to jolt Palestine out of the Dark Ages.  Churches and synagogues were then built. From 1852, the population more than doubled.  Jews were the largest single religious group at the time of the first census.  Jews started living outside the walls as well.

 By 1870's the Jewish Quarter looked so much better.  The great domes of the Hurva and Tifereet-Israel Synagogues rose high above roofs and cupolas.  The German Square was an absorption center for immigrant families built with contributions from German and Dutch communities.  Nearby was the great Sephardic Yeshiva, Porat Yosef, and hospitals.  Homes and apartments were built.  The Jewish Quarter sent out their own caravanserai-Khan Khalili twice a week to Hebron and once a week to Safed and Tiberias. 

In 1886, the Synagogue of the Ramban was expropriated by ruling Turks.  Synagogues were not allowed to be higher than the nearest mosque.  At this time two new synagogues were built; the Synagogue of the Prophet Elijah was one.

This renewed start continued until May 28, 1948 when the Old City was taken over by Jordan. Then the Arabs systematically destroyed the Quarter and desecrated Jewish holy places both in and around this walled city. It had once occupied one fifth of the old city. The two main streets were Habad and Street of the Jews.  By 1948, 2500 Jews lived in the Old City including students . Some  Arab families moved into  Jewish homes.  Then the invading Arab armies took over.

After the June 1967 Six Day War Israelis returned to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and they saw that Jordan left a broken and jagged walls of the Hurva Synaogue that had been rebuilt in 1854 and then  halted once more by order of the Sultan until Sir Moses Montefiore  renewed permission.  It was finally completed in 1864 and named the Hurva "the Ruin" in memory of its burned first structure. 

Resource:Jewish Digest December 1975, Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem by Gabriella Rosenthal condensed from Israel Magazine and then again by me.
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