Oren Ross Oppenheim
Writer, journalist, person

Life in the Jewish Quarter, and the Storm Beyond

If anyone told me that the Jewish Quarter, the Rova HaYehudi, of the Old City of Jerusalem is just a tourist-trap filled zone, I’d tell them to check out Batei Mahasei Square. Hidden away from the Quarter’s main artery of restaurants and shops, near the paved street that snakes down towards the Western Wall, is a large, open plaza built out of Jerusalem stone. The square is lined with a handful of buildings, but there are no shops here. There’s the Rothschild House, built in 1871 for poor families and now housing a children’s school; there’s an ancient Roman-style column that dates back to ancient times; there are a couple of tables with benches and a few houses. Sure, there are a few information plaques, put up by the municipality to provide tourists and residents alike with details about the landmarks in the square, but overall the place feels remarkably genuine, a place where people actually live in peace and quiet—a world away from any sort of tourist epicenter.

Batei Mahase Square. Photo by the author.
Batei Mahase Square. Photo by the author.

A truck rammed into a group of soldiers on a promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem, killing at least four of them, in a vehicle-ramming attack on Sunday afternoon, police said. Police chief Roni Alsheich called the incident a vehicular terror attack. (Judah Ari Gross, Times of Israel; January 8, 2017)

That is, it’s quiet until the school doors open and young children spill out into the square to play. The silence is shattered by the sounds of children running around, playing tag and ball, yelling in high-pitched Hebrew. Laughter fills the air as they run around the plaza, up and down the stairs and ramp by the square’s entrance, weaving in and out of the shade of the few trees in the area. For them it’s normal to call this square their playground; for me, it’s stupefying how this astonishing part of one of the most ancient neighborhoods of the Jerusalem, is full of life again. A plaque in the area tells of how in the War of Independence, in “this square, 30 soldiers and 260 soldiers and 260 civilians were taken into Jordanian captivity… So ended hundreds of years of Jewish settlement inside the city walls” until 1967 (from the Ministry of Tourism sign).

I come to Batei Mahase Square almost weekly, to visit a man I met a few months ago. Towards the beginning of my time in yeshiva, a Shana Bet (Year 2) student introduced me and a couple of others to Yisrael, a home-bound blind man who lives in a small house in the square. His mind is extremely sharp, and he enjoys discussing current events and our lives whenever we visit—that is, when he isn’t challenging us with a stumper on the week’s Torah portion. While in the beginning of the year I felt awkward whenever I came by, by now Yisrael and I are good friends (and I’ve relished the chance to practice my Hebrew with him; he speaks Romanian, Hebrew, and English, but we converse mainly in Hebrew).

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Children outside the Rothschild House. Photo by the author.

 

A Palestinian stabbed and lightly wounded a police officer in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday before being shot and seriously wounded. The assailant, a resident of the West Bank, later succumbed to his wounds. (Nir Hason, Haaretz; December 14, 2016)

I’ve been living in the Rova since I started yeshiva in September, and somehow the uniqueness of where I am—it’s more than just a novelty, it’s something truly special—hasn’t worn off. Not only am I in the city of Jerusalem, that my ancestors sought to return to for two thousand years, that the prayers I say daily constantly reference; I’m living in the Old City itself, steps from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif (I personally respect both religious claims to the site). I walk and run and wander and wonder through the winding corridors and the stone alleyways, every day celebrating the ancient fused with the modern, like when supermarkets are built feet away from Roman ruins and when a nine-year-old yeshiva (mine!) stands next to an old German hospice. I pass by columns dating back to the Jewish Temples; I go by a wall that may have been referenced in the book of Jeremiah; I meet my friends in a square right outside two old synagogues, one that has been continuously in use since the 1500s (the Nachmanides synagogue) and one that was rebuilt from its ruins a few years ago (the Churvah).

I make sure to notice not only the tourist groups and fellow international gap-year students, of which there are plenty, but also the people who live here, who call this gem their home. I must confess: on the second night of yeshiva I was talking with some friends in the Rova’s main square, and we ended up being simultaneously welcomed and told off for being too loud so late at night. But that helped me understand how there’s a vibrant community living in the Jewish Quarter. I see Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) families and Dati Leumi (National-Religious; similar to Modern Orthodox) strolling around, shopping in the Zol Tov supermarket and coming in and out of the Jewish Quarter; on Shabbat, a plethora of people pilgrimage down to the Western Wall for prayer services. I could talk for years about the blaze of light that was Chanukah here, with countless Menorahs shining through the streets.

During Chanukah, many residents of the Rova place their Menorahs outside. Photo by the author.
During Chanukah, many residents of the Rova place their Menorahs outside. Photo by the author.

The Security Council reaffirmed this afternoon that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders. (UN Security Council Resolution 2334)

But I’m not deluded. This is a wondrous place, but it isn’t a paradise. When I first decided to write this piece, I wanted to give a mention to the complicated and often painful realities that pervade Jerusalem. But now, as you can tell based on the snippets I’ve interspersed throughout this piece, I’ve gone down a darker path.

When I heard about the truck ramming terror attack—that happened just this week—it wasn’t just a set of headlines. It’s an attack that happened not too far from where I live, in my own city, to people I care about (IDF soldiers) even though I don’t know them. And the civilian guide who shot at the terrorist was the same tour guide who’s led some trips for my yeshiva!

When I hear about stabbings, in the Old City and outside of it, it feels so close to me. I know the Rova has a lot of security, I know that fortunately I’m safe, but it still unnerves me more than it ever did while I was in America, to know that such terror is happening so close by.

When I hear the UN declare that “East Jerusalem” is an area that shouldn’t belong to Israel, my heart falls. I’m not a hardcore right-winger. I would love to discuss a workable two-state solution or a creative solution to the conflict (not that a workable solution seems to be coming along soon). But to say that where I’m living is illegal by international law, a place that seems so quintessentially Jewish… It’s troubling, to say the least. The discussion can’t end with that resolution; it needs to go on.

Jerusalem is the most complicated place I’ve ever lived in, and even while I’m in the enclave of the Jewish quarter, I recognize that. Even within the other quarters of the Old City, the situation can be tense and complicated. I’m not secluded away from everything else; I’m within the broader picture of Jerusalem and Israel.

But even as I mourn and fear when terror strikes this city, even as I try to understand and combat the fraught politics here, I also don’t want to lose sight of the life and passion here. No matter what tomorrow holds, the Rova is a mosaic of the Jewish people’s past, present, and future, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it.

About the Author
Oren Oppenheim, an aspiring journalist and author, is an alumnus of Ramaz Upper School and Yeshivat Orayta.
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