In 1920, Herbert Samuel became the first Jew to govern the Land of Israel in 2,000 years. The Jewish population of Palestine was thrilled, many believing that the Messiah had come. Thus when Samuel attended prayers at the Hurva Synagogue during his first year as High Commissioner, and recited the passage from Isaiah “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God,” the entire congregation burst into tears.
But the Jews hadn’t reckoned on Samuel’s overwhelming desire to prove his impartiality. In fact, so “impartial” was Samuel, that he limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. He also appointed as the Grand Mufti (Islamic religious leader) of Jerusalem a man who promoted Arab nationalism and collaborated closely with the Nazis during World War II.
Large photographs of the High Commissioner in Palestine, along with other fascinating historic photos and documents, are displayed in the golden lobby of Jerusalem’s Herbert Samuel Hotel. Located in Nahalat Shiva, the city’s third oldest neighborhood, the fashionable hotel is one of four brand-new additions to what has become a major tourist hub.
Nahalat Shiva’s first houses were ready for occupation in 1869. But situated as it was in a wilderness with absolutely no protection, potential residents from the crowded, filthy, disease-ridden Old City were afraid to move in. When they finally did, they found it charming, with one-story structures featuring a common courtyard. Here children played while their mothers exchanged gossip and recipes.
As the decades rolled by, however, the historic neighborhood deteriorated badly. Indeed, it became such an eyesore that in the early 1970’s the Municipality decided to tear it down. Fortunately, Jerusalemites fought the good fight, and in the end most of the neighborhood was stunningly restored.
The Herbert Samuel Hotel replaces an 11-story high-rise that most recently housed the Zion Hotel and Bank HaPoalim. The bank, which faces the Square, is unchanged. But the rest of the structure was renovated from top to bottom and re-opened in the middle of last year, an elegant establishment where guests breakfast on the top floor while enjoying a fantastic view of the city.
Halfway down Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, in the heart of the old neighborhood, Kikar HaMusica (Music Square) ) was built over a once-pleasant plaza that had become more of a public toilet. Today, following a massive cleanup and facelift, the square features restaurants, coffee shops, and live outdoor music in a variety of genres that diners and passersby can all enjoy.
Kikar HaMusica was the handiwork of two people: Laurent Levy, a French businessman who invested in the venture, and Eldad Levy (no relation), a musician who put it all together. They both had the same dream: Since music is good for the soul, touches the heart and brings people together, there should be music in the heart of Jerusalem.
Levy also purchased property around the square and plans to build a School of Music, along with a hotel that has a musical theme. But one other ambitious undertaking in the Square – the unique Hebrew Music Museum – has been up and running since last April.
Over the millennia, when the Jews wandered all over the world, they were exposed to a wide variety of instruments and the musical sounds they produced. Hundreds of them are on display in the museum, including several that were played in Nebuchadnezzar’s court over 2,500 years ago: Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “. . . As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe . . . you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” Daniel 3:5
Visitors have their choice of touring with a group, or wandering around on their own with headphones and electronic tablets. Either way, you learn the history, traditions and development of over a hundred instruments, and listen to the sounds that eventually resulted in both Jewish and Israeli music. Among the added attractions are sophisticated multi-media exhibits and fascinating games.
Most of the museum’s seven chambers are so authentically designed that they deserve a special visit even if you are not interested in music. You begin in Central Asia (which includes, of course, Babylonia), and move on to Morocco, Iraq-Syria, the Balkans, Europe and Africa-Yemen.
The Hebrew Room, last on the tour, boasts a model of the Temple or, rather, a combination of the first and second Temples. Visitors take a virtual trip inside, watching as Levites play music, just as they did in that long-ago era.
Across Solomon Street, Jerusalem’s very first vegan restaurant is doing a roaring business. Owned by the people at Village Green, a popular vegetarian restaurant, it offers only food that is not produced by animals – not even honey.
We had thought that vegan was a synonym for “healthy”, but their customers’ health is only the second reason for the restaurant’s existence. Most important, according to owner Barry Sibul, is the moral consideration of not exploiting the world’s animals. Vegans have found plenty of tasty substitutes for meat, eggs and cheese, and the restaurant’s menu is rich, the food both tasty and healthy. Situated in one of the neighborhood’s earliest houses, its garden features a gigantic eucalyptus tree.
Lately, every Israeli I meet that picks up on my North American accent wants to know what I am doing here. Not why I came, but why I have stayed.
As it happens, I know precisely what brought me here, and why I remain. Indeed, I still get all emotional when I sing HaTikva (our national anthem). But when jaded Israelis claim they are dying to move somewhere, anywhere else, I send them to the Friends of Zion Heritage Museum at the southern edge of Nahalat Shiva.
Established by Dr. Michael Evans, a prolific author and a Texas Christian, the museum is meant both to inspire gentiles who believe in the right of the Jewish people to live safely in their homeland, and to show us Israelis that despite the United Nations and the BDS, we are not alone. Along the way, visitors to the museum are reminded that this country’s birth and existence are nothing short of a miracle. And that over the decades, along with constant persecution, there were times when gentiles stood side by side with the Jewish people.
Many an Israeli has steered clear of the museum, afraid that it may have a missionary message. But there is nothing “Christian” about it. Rather it is a learning experience generated by the most fantastic technological means imaginable.
You begin next to a 24-meter wrap-around screen showing stunning aerial views of the Promised Land and playing a surround-sound score that throws in parts of the Exodus theme. From then on, you pass from strangely lit rooms and sights to the “time elevator” with a sound and light show and into a chamber where heroic non-Jews like Orde Wingate speak to you about their lives.
While many of the figures whose stories are told are well known, quite a few are not. Visitors discover that Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara saved over 3,000 Jews during the Holocaust. They learn that in 1844, in a book that sold over a million copies, Professor George Bush (ancestor to two American presidents) called for a return of the Jews to their homeland in the Land of Israel. And they find out about John Henry Durant, a 19th century Swiss businessman dedicated to the idea of a Jewish return to Zion and one of the few gentiles invited to accompany Theodor Herzl to the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
I could have done without the call for (voluntary) donations at the end of the tour, and would have liked far more time to learn, in detail, stories of these remarkable Christians instead of being herded from one site to the next. And a hefty discount for Israelis would have been nice… But although some of my Israeli friends thought there was too much emphasis on Zionism – something that bothered me not one iota – I found the museum stirring, educational, and exciting at the same time. I should think you would, as well.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.