Is this the same Israel my grandmother knew? To be fair, it was still Palestine when she arrived from Serbia as a 4-year-old in 1903, the sole surviving child out of the eighteen her mother had brought into the world. Eighteen in gematria, the numerological system by which Hebrew letters are assigned numbers, is the value of the word chai, meaning life, so it was fitting that she live.
At the time, and since the sixteenth century, Palestine had been in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, whose influence had been felt not only in the architecture but also in its government. The governor of Jerusalem, Palestine’s capital, was called the Mutasharif, and was directly responsible to Constantinople. He was advised, however, by a district council, the Majlis Idara, in which Latin Orthodox, Armenians, Protestants and Jews participated. Though Jews in Serbia were no longer persecuted by the end of the nineteenth century, my great-grandparents had likely been amazed to find that here they actually held a voice in government.
My grandmother, Clara, quickly improved her Hebrew, for her family was of Sephardi descent and thus spoke Ladino, a Spanish-based patois, at home. She learned Arabic too, coming into contact with many Jews from Arab countries who, like her, had immigrated to the Holy Land. She also rubbed shoulders with Muslim and Christian Arabs, for her mother was a midwife and often attended Arab women on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where my grandmother and her parents had settled. Indeed, Jerusalem was a melting pot of languages, religions and cultures.
My grandmother would soon learn that Jerusalem was not merely the city of the Jews, as her bible told her, nor of the Muslims, as the Turks saw it; it was the city of the world. The Christians alone provided a display of the dizzying variety of sects within one religion: Latins (Roman Catholics), Franciscans, Georgians, Armenians, Abyssinians, Jacobites, Syrians, Nestorians, Copts. And though they all shared portions of the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, each version had its own church or monastery with its own rituals and its differentiating architecture, from the five onion-shaped towers of the Russian church of Gethsemane on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, bearing twice-crossed crosses, to the Church of St. Anne in the Old City, built in the 12th century by the Crusaders.
The Jews, too, could be divided into different categories depending upon origins – Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi – levels of devoutness (secular, Hasidim, Neturei Karta) or political bent (Zionists, socialists), and as such, there were myriad Jewish settlements, such as Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Yemin Moshe, Nahalat Shiva, Mea Shearim, Mahane Yehuda… In the year 1900, there were about sixty separate Jewish quarters in Jerusalem alone, and seventy synagogues.
Jerusalem had, in fact, come a long way. In 1000 B.C.E., the Judean king David had claimed a mere mountain village in Canaan as the capital of the Israelites and had named it Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Since then, it had been in the hands of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Tartars and, during my grandmother’s time, the Turks. At its heart was the Old City, separated into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters, built by the emperor Hadrian in the second century.
Outside the walls, however, there were the German Quarter, the Greek Colony, the American Colony (where many Swedes had settled), the Hungarian Houses, the Russian Compound, and the Arab Abu Tor quarter. There was the Austrian hospice, and the St. Louis hospital built by the French, as well as the English, German, Italian and Rothschild hospitals that flanked a main artery called Hanevi’im, or Prophets, Street. There was an Arab school for girls, Talita Kumi, built by Germans, and the Syrian orphanage, built by German Protestants but named for orphans of the massacres of Christians in Syria. Nearly every religion, tribe and nation had left its mark on Jerusalem.
By the turn of the 20th century, the population of Jerusalem was estimated at forty-five thousand, including close to eight and a half thousand Christians, a similar number of Muslims, and approximately twenty-eight thousand Jews. (Though estimates vary: Ottoman census figures were often for districts rather than cities; many avoided the census to avoid taxes and military conscription, and nomadic and foreign citizens weren’t included.)
Thus, Clara, who presented a talent for languages, would learn many, including Greek, French and Italian, just from hearing them spoken so much on the streets. She would also sample recipes for foods exotic to her, and discover how to navigate among the many and varying customs of the different classes and ethnicities.
But perhaps one of the most important things my grandmother learned was tolerance. In the diverse and vibrant community of Jerusalem, the different cultures were for her a draw, not a drawback. She reveled in her ability to speak varying tongues, delighted in tasting different dishes, and appreciated and respected the many faiths which surrounded her. She did not view a priest or an imam as lesser than a rabbi. She befriended Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, living and working side by side with them.
Sadly, promises made to both Jews and Arabs that the land would be bequeathed to them upon the end of the British Mandate in 1948 made rivals and enemies of the former neighbors. Jerusalem, City of Peace, would eventually become a site of war that has lasted decades and claimed countless victims.
Politics may be a thorny issue, but tolerance and respect for the diversity of one’s fellow inhabitants should not be. A city such as Jerusalem is holy not just because it is home to myriad religions but because it is a symphony of different peoples. This was the Israel my grandmother had known. This was the land her parents had sought and in which she had thrived. A land for all. A city, and hopefully a country, of peace.