During the War of Independence in 1948, when it appeared that Israeli forces might capture the village of Ein Kerem, most of the Arabs living there abandoned their homes. Five months later the fledgling Israeli government started settling new immigrants from Iraq, Morocco and Yemen in the deserted houses; soon afterwards bulldozers began widening the village’s main road.
Legend has it that when a bulldozer knocked down one of the houses, two containers filled with gold – stashed away before its previous occupants departed – were discovered in the ruins. And, goes the story, the phantom gold quickly disappeared, never to be seen again.
Anyone who has ever walked the picturesque lanes of Ein Kerem will understand why this enchanting little community is the stuff of which legends are made. Eventually incorporated into Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, Ein Kerem is a mystical anachronism within a noisy, modern metropolis. Blessed with captivating old-fashioned homes, wildflower-covered slopes, open spaces and a luscious green valley it is a throwback to quieter times.
Aside from its position as one corner of a Jerusalem-Bethlehem triangle, its pastoral aura may be the reason why many scholars identify Ein Kerem as the biblical village of Beit Hakerem: “Flee for safety, people of Benjamin! Flee from Jerusalem! Sound the trumpet in Tekoa! Raise the signal over Beth Hakerem!. . .” [2 Jeremiah 6:1].
Although that identification is sometimes disputed, Jews certainly lived in this ancient village during the Second Temple period: not long ago, a couple doing repairs in their home discovered a Second Temple era mikve (ritual bath) in the basement. Christian tradition names Ein Kerem as the birthplace of John the Baptist, and the site of a meeting between Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth.
Besides splendid churches, quaint little alleys and a plethora of old-world charm, Ein Kerem today also boasts art studios and cafes that attract tourists from all over the world – including Israel itself. Indeed, instead of taking people on the standard Ein Kerem tour to a variety of traditional Christian sites, we now show them through narrow residential lanes featuring unique workshops and studios, and the gallery/home of Ruth Tzfati, the neighborhood’s biggest advocate.
We like to begin any tour of Ein Kerem on HaMayan Street, at a new overlook which offers a lovely view of the enormous Hadassah Hospital complex, the Church of the Visitation, and, across the valley, pastoral slopes sporting stone homes that are often centuries old.
World-renowned artist Yitzhak Greenfield is one of a fascinating group of artists that live and work in Ein Kerem, and are happy to receive visitors. Greenfield immigrated from New York in the 1950s as a member of the Shomer Hatzair movement and lived on Kibbutz Gal’on. Afterwards, with his wife, he moved to Ein Hashofet. But Greenfield relocated to the then pioneering community of Ein Kerem half a century ago, and has been here ever since.
An artist ever since childhood, he later studied with some of the world’s most renowned artists and sculptors. Greenfield’s creations are exhibited, among many others, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Israel Museum.
One of his specialties is print making, where pictures are made with a plate instead of a brush. In addition, Greenfield works in oil, acrylic and water color on canvas and paper.
Although for years he taught at the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum and at the Art History Department at the Hebrew University, today he teaches privately at his studio. Lately he has been focusing on landscaping and kabbalah – both of which are evident in the many of the works on display.
A few years ago, Jerusalem’s Artists’ House held a retrospective of Yitzhak Greenfield’s works. “What exactly is a retrospective?” I asked the 84-year-old Greenfield during a visit to his studio a few weeks ago. Basically, he answered, it sums up a lifetime of work.
Well, it may have been too soon for Greenfield’s retrospective – for he hadn’t yet finished creating. Indeed, he says, “I continued working, and haven’t stopped since.”
BeHefetz Kapea is an enterprise named for the biblical phrase “She seeks wool and flax and works willingly with her hands” (behefetz kapea – Proverbs 31:13). It was founded four years ago as a center of traditional handicrafts by the Hadar Kleidman, daughter of a photographer and the artist who designed the Mahane Yehuda Market.
As far back as the biblical era, relates Kleidman, and in addition to their regular housework, women worked together to spin thread, produce cloth, and weave baskets. Kleidman felt that it was important to preserve both the crafts themselves and the spirit in which they wore created: “And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands. . .” Exodus 35:25.
Women from all walks of life, and from all over the country, come here to learn these ancient skills. Walk-ins are invited to watch handicrafts in the making, with the different crafts dependent on the season. On Mondays women can join the workshops for free. Handcrafts are sold at a little, new shop.
Jeweler Tzadok Yehuda is located inside the same complex. Yehuda, it turns out, fashioned jewels for years before discovering that his grandfather had been a silversmith in his native Iraq.
Yehuda focuses on jewelry with an ancient flavor and sells his unusual designs – made of silver, gold, or a combination of the two – right out of his workshop.
Although born in Mamilla and raised in Nahlaot Shiva, Ruth Tzfati never really felt connected to Jerusalem. She moved to the Sharon area, where she became intensively involved in journalism.
Eight years ago, however, something brought her back to the Holy City. And as she wandered around the neighborhoods where she had grown up, she felt like she was seeing Jerusalem for the first time – with the excited new eyes of a tourist. She talked to people in the markets, in their workshops, in their stores and their houses. Her vow to bring her new insights to others resulted in production of an attractive booklet on Jerusalem, full of unusual tours, and eventually publication of a volume filled with stories about Jerusalem’s colorful population.
Especially fascinated by Ein Kerem, Tzfati decided to bring a taste of the village into her lovingly restored dwelling. The complex in which it stands belongs to artist Emanual Kleidman, (father-in-law to Hadar of Hefetz KaPea). Kleidman, who divides his time between Europe and Ein Kerem, once produced a large series on trees and plants from his yard and Tzfati displays a few of them on her walls. Also on exhibit in her living room are works by other Israeli artists, including lovely musical instruments built by Shmuel Gafnan (who designed the “Crazy House” on HaYarkon Street in Tel Aviv.)
When people stop by, Tzfati tells them how she experiences Jerusalem and relates stories about Jerusalemites who, she says, never stop amazing her. Among them is Yitzhak Sasson, who never studied art but nevertheless designed and sold jewelry from a simple stand in the pedestrian mall and today owns one of Jerusalem’s most successful jewelry shops. Or she may talk about Tzippora Bar Rashi, a convert to Judaism who lives on a narrow lane in Ein Kerem. Bar Rashi, who manages without electricity, proudly sows and reaps her artown grain, and then grinds it into flour on a millstone.
Ruth Hand Painted Tiles and Gifts is found beyond a blue gate with a faded sign. Ruth Havilio has been painting since she was very young: her brother owned an antique store and she would create designs on the furniture. Later, although she studied environmental design at the Bezalel School of the Arts, Havilio ended up in Paris perfecting the art of painting on porcelain tiles.
While Armenian artists first paint on clay and add a glaze afterwards, Havilio’s technique is different: she paints on top of the glaze and then burns her tiles at 800 degrees. The final product, as you will see when you stop in, is superb. Because she lives next to the studio, it is almost always open and she welcomes visitors.
One complex along the charming lanes of Ein Kerem belongs to the Alegra Hotel. Nearly a century ago it was inhabited by a Christian Arab named Jabra Rahil and once-religious Jew Alegra Bilo.
When they married, in 1929, Alegra’s father mourned for seven days, dumping ashes on his head. Yet the couple seems to have lived happily ever after in the Arab village of Ein Kerem. Restored a few years ago as a boutique hotel, it positively exudes atmosphere and tranquility – just like the neighborhood itself.
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.
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