The Times of Israel recently reported that a “kid on a school trip” found a 2,000 year-old coin in the Shilo stream in northern Samaria. It dates from the reign of Herod Agrippa, the last king of Judea and grandson of Herod the Great. Ruling between 41-44 CE, he was hailed (according to Josephus) as “Agrippa the Great.”
Because the coin, both sides of which were displayed, instantly looked familiar I immediately turned to my own small collection of ancient Jewish coins, purchased on frequent trips years ago from antiquities dealers in Jerusalem’s Old City. My two favorite shops, one hundred yards apart along the Via Dolorosa, were owned by Mahmoud, close to Lion’s Gate, and Ibrahim, near my favorite outdoor cafe. Mahmoud had been my first antiquities teacher, permitting me to sit quietly and listen to him identify an ancient jug or tiny juglet that tempted a potential buyer. Ibrahim, often playing board games with a friend in his tiny store, always encouraged me to browse his shelves while he focused on his next move.
In return for my interest (and, I assume, purchases), I became the beneficiary of ancient history lessons and visits to nearby holy sites. I vividly recall Mahmoud’s invitation to view the spacious cavern beneath the Temple Mount, holy space to Muslims and Jews but now accessible only to Muslims (who, to reinforce its Islamic exclusivity, built an underground mosque). Ibrahim took me to Bethlehem and Nablus, and to Hebron where the Israeli soldier guarding the entrance to the Machpelah shrine looked carefully at me and my passport, wondering (I imagined) why a Jew would have an Arab guide to the most ancient Jewish holy site in the Land of Israel.
During a visit to Mahmoud’s shop I was enchanted by a pair of ancient red juglets, little more than an inch high, one round and the other tapered to a pointed bottom, both with tiny handles. An enticing pair, they were not inexpensive and I debated which one to add to my collection. I finally chose the tapered one. But that night I felt nagging regret that I had left its companion behind.
I returned to Mahmoud’s store the next morning and told him that I wanted to preserve the pair together. He looked troubled, clearly having a silent internal debate. He told me that he had planned to take this juglet home for his private collection. If he had, he would not have returned it to his shop. But he forgot, so he would sell it to me. Decades later, the juglets occupy a conspicuous place of honor in my antiquities collection, between a Canaanite fertility figure and coins from the 1st century war against Rome and the Bar Kohkba revolt.
For an altogether different experience than the Old City offered, I occasionally walked from my Rehavia apartment to Mea Shearim. There I encountered the Haredi world that my grandfather had rejected when he emigrated from Romania to the United States nearly a century ago. Like a Jew in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City, I was a stranger to this vibrant neighborhood of Orthodox Jews, pulsating with energy, noise and movement.
One day, now nearly half a century ago, I noticed a street-level store with nothing on display in its glass-front windows. Curious, I ventured inside. Behind a table at one end, surrounded by shelves filled with cartons and stacks of papers, sat a husky balding man wearing a kippa, who waved his hand in what I took to be a gesture to sit in a nearby chair. So I did.
During every visit to Jerusalem for the next twenty-five years I made my way to David Ezra’s store to sit and talk – and buy another copper bowl, pitcher or – once – a pair of Shabbat candlesticks that had a metal piece stamped “Warsawa” beneath its base. I still wonder whether it might have been one of the few Jewish survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Despite his gruff manner, especially with strangers – one of whom had the misfortune to try to bargain and was immediately commanded to leave – David was always kind and welcoming. A refugee from Iraq, he had fought with the Irgun during the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and suffered a serious injury that confined him to a wheel chair for the remainder of his life. Once he knew me as a frequent – and faithful – customer he invited me (as had Mahmoud and Ibrahim) to his home, where I joined his wife and nearly a dozen children for their raucous Purim celebration.
Over time, sadly, Mahmoud left Jerusalem for Germany and Ibrahim and David died. Jerusalem has never been the same without these friends and generous hosts who taught me in their own distinctive languages about Jewish and Moslem history, culture – and hospitality – that I could never have learned anywhere else. Zikhrono livrakha.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, to be published in February by Academic Studies Press.