Living in the Jewish Quarter

by Leah Abramowitz

For the past 20 years, my family has had the privilege of living in the Jewish Quarter, the beautifully reconstructed section of the Old City of Jerusalem, where Jews have lived for centuries.

Without noticing it, a whole generation has grown up who know no other home but the lanes and byways of the Jewish Quarter. To these youngsters it is as natural to “run down to the Western Wall for a prayer service” as it is for us to wonder at this miracle. They climb the domed rooftops as other kids climb trees; run along the ramparts of the ancient Turkish walls on scavenger hunts, hardly aware of their historical importance; and learn to guide bewildered tourists talking unidentifiable languages to the religious and archaeological sites of interest.

I’m amazed that we’ve all turned into amateur archaeologists and historians. When I was growing up in St. Louis many years ago, I couldn’t think of a more boring subject than archaeology. But when an ancient Roman road is discovered under your house; and next door the aristocratic Herodianneighborhood where the priestly clan lived gradually emerges; and the synagogue you pray in is believed to have been established by Nachmanides in 1267, you can’t help getting excited by “digs.”

The privilege of living where our ancestors trod is brought home to us every time we pass the magnificent synagogues of yesteryear or hear a guide describe the midnight prayers of the Kabbalists of Beit El several centuries ago. It is intensified by our own son who studies at a seminary right next door, carrying on a tradition not only in context but in location as well.

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When we first moved into the Jewish Quarter in 1972, much of the area was still rubble. There were less than 100 Jewish families living here then, and there was a great feeling of commonality. The kids felt that they were like collective farm-dwellers in an urban setting. They traveled to school in the New City together, proudly called themselves B’nei Chomot (Children of the walls), and enjoyed the special attention the residents of this unique neighborhood receive. Even today, tourists still photograph the kindergarten tots on “the first Jewish slide in 2,000 years within the Old City.”

Gradually the neighborhood took shape. We watched the renovations of many old ruins, and the construction of new buildings where the old could not be salvaged. The Society for the Renovation of the Jewish Quarter, which was given a government mandate to rebuild the area, took pains to retain the special character of the old places.

Our apartment is built around an inner courtyard whose harsh stonework has been relieved by rooftop gardens and trees. There are bay windows overhanging the cobbled lanes, arched passageways, stone embellishments, and “bridge-rooms” which connect two buildings (and from which naughty children throw down toys on unsuspecting pedestrians walking underneath). There are also two public squares where neighbors congregate to chat or watch the children play. A feeling of community permeates the region.

Today there are 700 families and many students living in the Jewish Quarter. There are three schools and many yeshivot. There is a constant stream of visitors to the neighborhood. Day and night, people pass under our bay window on their way to the Western Wall, sometimes yelling to each other without realizing that it’s also a residential area and someone may be trying to sleep at 3 a.m.

The stream becomes a tidal wave during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate festival days), Tisha B’Av, Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) and increasingly, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The Western Wall dominates our lives. There is always something going on down there — a military ceremony, a special prayer meeting of Russian Jews, a demonstration, or culmination of a tour. We receive many more visitors than we would otherwise: people just stopping in on their way to the Western Wall… and could they please use the bathroom, get a drink, leave a heavy
bag or change the baby?

Like our forefathers before us who always had a large jug of cold water ready in the summer and a finjan of hot water on boil in the winter, we’ve learned to keep supplies, especially during the holiday season.

* * *


The most accessible part of the holiest spot in the world also has an irresistible attraction for the spiritually inclined. Many Jewish youngsters searching for an identity and an answer to life’s meaning have been “picked off the Wall” and directed to colleges of Jewish studies.

We are often asked to take visitors on Shabbat and we see a lot of mixed-up, knap-sacked travelers passing through Israel on their way to India or Europe, looking for “a happening,” an experience. Many of them are serious-minded young people, who have never had an opportunity to learn about their heritage.

It is very gratifying to see how they change, solidify, and become [serious adults] after only a few weeks of Torah learning. Sometimes they are joined by brothers and sisters and even parents, who are impressed and educated — so that sometimes, whole families become changed, over time, by what started as a casual visit to the Western Wall.

We, too, have been changed by residing near the Western Wall. We feel much more than the average Israeli citizen the linkage of the ages, and the continuation of our generation with the past. As evidence of the Jewish presence 1,000, 2,000 and even 3,000 years ago is dug up, our roots with this part of Jerusalem is ever strengthened. From the wonder of our visitors and the special relationship that strangers have with the Jewish Quarter today, we realize just how lucky we are to be living here day after day, year after year.

As first-grade classes from all over Israel pass under our bridge-room on their way to celebrate receiving their first siddur; as soldiers finish their grueling 70 kilometer hike as the peak of their training course in the Jewish Quarter; as rabbis and heads of state pay tribute to our nation by visiting this most holy site on their official visits, the inevitable question engages me: “Why me? How did I and my family merit the mitzvah of living here, when so many generations could only face eastward and pray to return?”

Rather than understand this incredible privilege, I can only hope that my children and children’s children will continue to appreciate the fact that after so many years, we are home at last.


American-born Leah Abramowitz is a social worker and freelance writer living in the Old City of Jerusalem. Article reprinted with permission from Jewish Action (Summer 1992), published by the Orthodox Union –

June 7, 2008 | 3 Comments »

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  1. The first feeling I had the day I was inducted into the IDF, was what a privilege to be part of a reconstituted Nation and into the a Jewish national Fighting Force after a short Lapse of 2000 years,for me it was an emotional high, that hasn’t left me after all these years. In the swearing in ceremony of the IDF every new recruit is given a rifle and a Tanach, which is part of every soldiers kit. I still have mine.

    No people love their Land like the Jews here. The land is an integral part of each of us and we to the Land. It is not by any accident that no non Jew has stuck here and made the lad fruitful and beautiful. Only the Jew has taken to the land and made it what it is. There used to be a joke here that the only thing the Arab ever created was a desert.

    Re the Jewish quarter:

    The following is an excerpt from Dr. Israel Eldad’s book The Challenge Of Jerusalem. Dr. Eldad was one of the three leaders of the Lechi after the assassination of Avraham Stern. Dr. Eldad died in 1996.


    On the Temple Mount and below it, there occurred one of the most exciting and odd events. General Motti Gur, the conqueror of the Temple Mount, reports: “The Mountain is in our hands.” The Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces (Rabbi Shlomo Goren), gripped by enormous emotion, blows the shofar at the Western Wall. With fluttering heart, the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, speaking from the heart of the entire nation, pronounces the “shehechianu” blessing. Shehechianu – “Who kept us alive and sustained us” – to stand again before the Wall. The Wailing Wall – a memorial of the destruction. An Israeli soldier pressed against the Wall and bathed in tears became the symbol of victory.

    What is going on here? At the Wall? Why not on the Temple Mount? Who at that time thought of Halachic restrictions? Certainly not Gur and Eshkol and the weeping soldier and those masses that began to flow to the Wall. It was not Halachah that prevented them from ascending and celebrating on the Mount. Two thousand years of EXILE channeled them and us and the river of their – our – stormy emotion to the Wailing Wall, a truly surrealistic spectacle. Here was rationality inside the irrationality of the miraculous victory. A forced emancipational Zionism overcame a redemptional-historical Zionism.

    The soldiers of Tzahal break through the Lion’s Gate, only now giving to the gate’s name its true meaning. They break into the Temple square. With their commanders, they storm its length and diagonally cross its wonderful and great expanse. And that search for the way to the “Wailing Wall”…They ask the Arabs: How does one go down to the Wall?..The Arabs are scared and show them the way, the steep steps to the “Mughrabi Quarter,” and the liberators descend to the narrow lane. These soldiers, conquerors of the Temple Mount, as if possessed by a dybbuk , run down to the Wailing Wall, to the Wall of Tears and cling to it in glowing passion and deeply moving tears. This is the most dramatic and most photographed scene of the Six Day War, and from it a tremor spreads through the people and the entire land, through the towns and villages and to the fronts still bathed in fire. We have returned to the Kotel !

    Had we broken through the Jaffa Gate or the Zion Gate, had we reached the Kotel on the way to the liberation of the Temple Mount, then one might understand, sure it’s natural. But no. The Mount was conquered first. We were on the Temple Mount, and spontaneously, without orders from superiors without thinking or planning–we went down to the Wall.

    And this Wall is not even a wall of the Temple, but part if the wall with which Herod surrounded it. Its entire sanctity derives from prohibitions forced on us by foreign usurpers, preventing us from ascending the Mount. It is a reminder, a memorial, a substitute. Hence it is a Wailing Wall, for it reminds us only of the destruction, of the disgrace if being below, with our enemies on top. For 2,000 years this fabulous mountain waited for its Jewish liberators …finally they come to it, but what is happening here?…Why do they run down to the Wall? Why, holding, the genuine thing, do they want the substitute?

    And so we have come to the restoration of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. The ears cannot grasp what the mouth is saying. “There is a ‘Jewish Quarter'” in Jerusalem. There is an Armenian Quarter, an Arab Quarter, in the midst of Jerusalem. In Prague–yes, in New York–yes, but in Jerusalem? A Jewish Quarter?

    But to return the main point: The Temple Mount was conquered and not liberated. We are down below and our enemies sit above as if we are not living in the State of Israel, as if we are not in charge in the age of Tzahal . We deal with the recidivism of an exilic soul. Zionism had two sources: a positive root in the sovereign will to redemption, to return, to renew our days as of old, and a second, negative root, in escape from oppression, in the despair of emancipation. It is this second one that won. For truly Zionism was forced on us. Even this miraculous war, with its liberation of Jerusalem, was forced on us to our shame.

    And so, to the extent that memories and emotions played a role–and they certainly did–they were memories and emotions that went as far as the Wall of Teras. They did not go higher than that Wall, not to the establishment if decisive facts in Jewish redemptive history. The Mount was liberated–and abandoned.

    An intimidated, wavering rabbinate shaped by exilic traditionalism joined hands with a political establishment on which the entire issue had been forced, and who could not forget that its main demand had always been free access to the Wailing Wall. Behold, this was now achieved.

    There was yet another factor. Was it not clear, as a matter if course, that should the city fall into the hands of Jews –even if the mosques on the Temple Mount should survive the battles–that the Temple Mount itself appropriated and removed from the control of the political-religious-nationalist Waqf, with its incitement to kill the Jews?

    Would one not expect that Jews, following both Halachic prescriptions and their generations of longing, renew their prayers on the Mount? Could anything be more natural? After all the Hasmoneans and the Zealots fought for the Temple Mount, not for the Wall.

    But no: the Jews abandon the Mount and go down to the Wailing Wall. At that moment, it dawned upon the Muslim Arabs that the battle might be over, but the war was not. There was no decision, and the heart of El Quds remained in their hands.

  2. In 1998, I was 24 y/o , and I took my first international trip from America to Israel. For 18 days alone. (The interrogation at the airport was fun)

    I spent over a week in the Old City. What a fascinating place.. so much history.. so much sad history of the abuses and crimes against the Jews. It was a little meloncholy , walking around in the new Jewish Quarter..asking fate why it is that after all the hard work the Jewish people have done in restoring thier nation. why can’t they live in peace . why must they be confronted with the worst barbarians in history?

    My favorite place was the Western Wall plaza.. i would sit there all day and just watch what was going on. I got to see the Hasamonion Tunnels.. that was amazing to see the face of the original wall made to look like giant bricks , and seeing the majestic bricked up arch way.

    I did go up to the Temple Mount and see what the evil Muslims have done to it. I refused to give them any money to go inside any of their structures of hate. And I was praying in my mind… my little small silent protest to their abmonination.

    I can’t say I found the Israelis to be the warmest people… some of them would recoil like I had AIDS when they found out that I wasn’t Jewish-American.. just American.. but nonetheless I gained a true respect of Israelis by witnessing with my own eyes their achievements , all done under the threat of constant war.