Among visitors from the Old Country, Emek Refaim in the German Colony is the second-best known street in Jerusalem after Ben-Yehuda. The latter, where you buy mezuzahs and gorge on falafel, is named for a fabled fanatic who helped revive the Hebrew language. Emek Refaim, a three-minute walk from my house, goes back to the Hebrew Bible, and means either “Valley of the Giants” or “Valley of the Ghosts.” According to the First Book of Chronicles, David fought the Philistines here. I count them, too, as neighbors.
In ancient times, the Valley was the breadbasket of Jerusalem, rolling with farms and fields, as illustrated by a verse of the Prophet Isaiah (17:5) about gleaning corn in the Valley of Rephaim. In the 21st century, Emek Refaim Street excels on Friday mornings, with tourists and locals brunching in quaint cafes, trying on arty earrings or sampling goat cheeses at the farmers’ market. Late on weeknights, the most conspicuous clientele are Orthodox teenagers with New York accents — shades of myself when young in Brooklyn — congregating at Burgers Bar. “Welcome to the ‘hood!” exults one such lad one night, high-fiving his friend, as I, the weary Israeli, walk by with my German shepherd.
Eyeing such interlopers, I get a glimpse of how my neighbors see me. Shortly after independence, the fledgling Israeli state settled working-class Jewish immigrants from Morocco and Iraq in houses previously inhabited by German Christians, British Mandate officials and Arabs from old and prosperous families, chopping up handsome villas into rental apartments. The area was officially re-branded Shechunat HaRambam (Rambam Neighborhood) in honor of the supreme rationalist Maimonides, but the name never stuck. Several decades later, the advent of legions of English-speaking Zionist yuppies (“Anglo-Saxons,” in absurd Israeli parlance) did not often sit well with entrenched neighborhood veterans. Local lore tells of one couple from North Africa who practiced a form of Jewish voodoo, hanging burnt sheets and red peppers on a clothesline to thwart the plan of a new American neighbor to merge two small apartments and renovate them. Such is human nature, not least in Israel.
Nonetheless, ever since I moved here from Hollywood in 1988 I have insisted that I live in the best Jewish neighborhood in the world. With all due homage to the Upper West Side (where I once lived too), there’s nothing quite like the synergistic shidduch of community, culture and history available within brief walking distance of my home. Standing on the footbridge by the Jerusalem Cinémathèque, mesmerized for the thousandth time by the Old City walls, musing about David and Bathsheba, Mohammed and Nahmanides, Theodor Herzl and Mel Gibson, I can easily imagine why the Templers, deeply spiritual Christian sectarians from the south of Germany, picked an adjacent location to found, in 1873, the tiny village they called Kolonie Rephaim. On the other hand — though I do enjoy living inside a metaphor — I also salute the Sabra friend who once told me that he liked Tel Aviv better because you can forget it and your tongue won’t cleave to the roof of your mouth (see Psalm 137), nor will your right hand forget its cunning.
The Zionist history of Emek Refaim begins in 1853, when a convert to Judaism named Michael Boaz Israel floated a noble but unsuccessful scheme to improve the lot of indigent Jerusalem Jews. Born Warder Cresson to a wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker family, he proposed “setting up a Model Farm in the Valley of Rephaim, to introduce an improved system of English and American Farming in Palestine.” As he wrote in The Occident, the premier American Jewish newspaper of its day: “It is evident from our most Holy Law that Agriculture is to be Israel’s vocation, when restored to their own land.”
Leaving his family behind, Cresson first landed in Jerusalem in 1844, accompanied by his pet dove, having wangled an appointment as U.S. consul. He was a fervent millenarian who fully expected to witness the imminent return of Jesus, but when the End of Days didn’t happen he rejected his missionary friends and had himself circumcised. Upon his return to Philadelphia, he sought to convert his wife and children, who promptly had him declared legally insane. He appealed the decision and won, then came back to Jerusalem and became a pillar of the Sephardic community, marrying a Ladino-speaking Jewess he reportedly talked to in sign language. He was, I reckon, the first American-born oleh, emblematically meshuggeh. It is a privilege to be in his company.
Speaking of proto-Zionist oddballs, here in the Valley of the Ghosts is a tiny cul-de-sac named for the American journalist and playwright Mordecai Manuel Noah, who in 1825 tried to set up a Jewish refuge called Ararat on an island near Buffalo, N.Y. In the 1930s, on that very street, lived a fellow named Ludwig Buchhalter, a teacher at the Templer school, who also headed the Jerusalem chapter of the Nazi party. Every so often, the party held rallies at the British cricket and polo field, situated directly behind what is now my house. With the outbreak of World War II, the British authorities rounded up the Germans of Palestine as enemy aliens, shipping most of them to Australia, though some were sent back to Germany and traded for incarcerated German Jews.
Today, the memory of the original Kolonie Rephaim is preserved in the old Templer cemetery on Rehov Emek Refaim. Next door, just over the wall from the pool where I do my laps, is a second, more eclectic Christian cemetery. There lie such notables as Rolla Floyd, Maine-born religious enthusiast and tour guide nonpareil, who showed President Ulysses S. Grant around Jerusalem in 1878; and Dola Ben-Yehuda, daughter of Eliezer, who died a few years back at the age of 103. She was married to a Hebrew-speaking gentile named Max Wittmann and had requested to be buried at his side. Her father the diehard Zionist, she told me once in an interview, always said he would rather his daughters marry non-Jews and stay in Jerusalem and speak Hebrew, than marry a Jew and live in New York.
The street I live on is called Hatzfira, named for a Hebrew-language newspaper that was published intermittently in Poland between 1862 and 1931. Aptly, Hatzfira means both “The Dawn” and “The Siren.”
At the corner of Hatzfira and Emek Refaim is a nondescript building that long housed the popular Aroma café, now located across the street, next to the pool; as well as a veteran greengrocer, replaced by a fine little eatery called Tarantino, named for the director of “Pulp Fiction.” That joint was ruined in a fire of mysterious origin. Lately, a sign has gone up at the site promising a new outlet of the Hillel Café, whose branch further south on Emek Refaim was blown up by a suicide bomber in 2003.
Not till I read the architect David Kroyanker’s house-by-house history of the German Colony, published in Hebrew in 2008, did I learn that in the 1930s, the former home of Tarantino and Aroma housed offices of the Supreme Muslim Council headed by Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, implacable foe of Zionism, notorious Nazi collaborator. Many of the shops and restaurants on Emek Refaim are located in Arab buildings constructed during the British Mandate, some of them very beautiful. Burgers Bar, for example, sits on the ground floor of a large house built by a prominent Muslim family that traces its ancestry in Jerusalem to the early Ottoman period. The same family, as it happens, that built the house I live in.
A few of them dropped by a couple of years ago, on a Shabbat afternoon in late summer. Cousins from East Jerusalem and Amman, nice, cultured people. They were strolling through the neighborhood where the two older men, a doctor and a retired banker, had lived as boys, pointing out to the wife of one and the daughter of the other the various houses that had belonged to their clan before May 1948. Earlier that year, Jewish forces had blown up a hotel in nearby Katamon, and killed many Arabs at Deir Yassin; great fear was in the air. Then, said the banker matter-of-factly, came the radio broadcasts from foreign Arab stations, telling the locals to leave their homes for a while, so their armies could invade and make short work of the Jews. “But they did not come,” said the man, who was 17 in 1948, “and we did not come back.”
He invited us to Amman, where we might meet another cousin, a woman who had actually lived in my house as a girl. No, you don’t want to meet her, quickly said the daughter, “She’s majnoun.” Which, as any Israeli can tell you, means “crazy” in Arabic. We shared a nervous laugh, and they left, and I haven’t been to Amman.
In January, at the height of the Gaza war, I was home at my desk when an ominous howling noise, a civil-defense tzfira, suddenly sounded throughout the German Colony and all Jerusalem. Could it be the rockets of Hamas? Was this, again, the chilling specter of Isaiah?
“In that day, the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh become lean … he shall be like the ears that are gleaned in the Valley of Rephaim. Only gleanings shall be left of him …. and there shall be desolation.”
Betting on a false alarm, I switched on the radio. Songs, ads, newscasts of the war against Hamas, safely contained — 40 miles away.
Stuart Schoffman is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation. His most recent translation from Hebrew is the novel “Friendly Fire” by A.B. Yehoshua.
PQ: Standing on the footbridge by the Jerusalem Cinémathèque, mesmerized for the thousandth time by the Old City walls, musing about David and Bathsheba, Mohammed and Nahmanides, Theodor Herzl and Mel Gibson, I can easily imagine why the Templers, deeply spiritual Christian sectarians from the south of Germany, picked an adjacent location to found, in 1873, the tiny village they called Kolonie Rephaim.
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.