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Israel Travels

Discover an unsung hero’s many imprints on the holy city of Jerusalem

Rabbi Yaakov Mann was a scholar-turned-contractor who felt Israel should be built up with the work of its residents’ own hands. His influence continues to benefit the capital today

  • The Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem was founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem was founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The entrance to the Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The entrance to the Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem, founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The exterior of the home in the Old City's Muslim Quarter purchased by Moshe Wittenberg in the late 19th century and acquired 100 years later by future prime minister Ariel Sharon. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The exterior of the home in the Old City's Muslim Quarter purchased by Moshe Wittenberg in the late 19th century and acquired 100 years later by future prime minister Ariel Sharon. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Shaarei Moshe or Batei Wittenberg neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Shaarei Moshe or Batei Wittenberg neighborhood in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Entrance to the Wittenberg/Sharon house in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Entrance to the Wittenberg/Sharon house in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The cave at the tomb of Simeon the Righteous in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The cave at the tomb of Simeon the Righteous in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Interior of the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Interior of the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem was founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem was founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The first Lamel school was located on Misgav Ladach street in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The first Lamel school was located on Misgav Ladach street in Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Mezuzahs are tiny pieces of parchment containing verses from the Torah. They sit inside decoratives cases and are fixed onto doorways outside, and often inside, Jewish homes and businesses around the world.

Traditionally, mezuzah scrolls are placed on a slant. Yet in 1902, after putting the finishing touches on the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yaakov Mann attached the institution’s mezuzahs vertically to the doorways.

Hospital director Dr. Moshe Wallach, an Orthodox Jew, was furious and consulted one of the city’s most prominent rabbinical authorities. That eminence replied that if the person involved was the learned Rabbi Yaakov Mann, there was absolutely nothing to worry about. When Mann heard about Wallach’s anger, he joked: “Not everything has to be crooked! It is better to have at least something that is straight.”

The first time I heard Mann’s name was at the municipal citizens’ advice bureau where I volunteer. During a discussion with two colleagues — brothers-in-law — about an art exhibit at the old Shaare Zedek building on Jaffa Road (the hospital moved to its current campus in the Bayit VeGan neighborhood in 1980), they mentioned that their wives were direct descendants of Mann, who was responsible for the hospital’s construction.

Research into the rabbi and his endeavors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries revealed that he had helped build nearly a dozen neighborhoods and institutions in Jerusalem. Indeed, this unsung hero was so prolific that some contemporary sources described him as the “Builder of Jerusalem.” Others called him the “Jerusalem Expander.” And just about everyone considered him the “Father of Manual Labor.”

Mann was born in 1849 in Rzeczyca, Belarus, at the beginning of a worldwide cholera pandemic that killed over a million Russians. While Mann was still a baby, the family moved to the village of Kamenka. Since the family planned to immigrate to the Holy Land in the future, Mann’s grandfather traveled around with his three sons trying to earn money for their passage.

Exterior of the Lamel School in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

As soon as he heard the news about the plague, the grandfather returned to Kamenka, but all he found was a ghost town. Along with other residents, it seemed the entire family had perished. Then, suddenly, they heard a baby cry. Miraculously, tiny Yaakov had survived.

In 1859, Yaakov, with his father and stepmother, finally made it to the Land of Israel. The young Mann had already built a reputation as a child prodigy which preceded him to the Holy Land, and he was immediately invited to study at the most prestigious institutions in Jerusalem. Indeed, he could have continued with religious studies for the rest of his life, or taken up the offer of the city’s chief rabbi and sat on the bench of the religious courts.

Mann, however, believed that Jews should build up the Holy City through actual physical labor. And for the rest of his life, although he continued to study at night and even during the day when the opportunity arose, most of his time was spent renewing the city. Possessed of a natural talent for engineering, Mann trained himself in all elements of construction, stone cutting, and architecture.

The cave at the tomb of Simeon the Righteous in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

On his first job, Mann was asked to solve a problem involving an ancient burial cave attributed to a Jewish high priest known as Simeon the Righteous (or Shimon HaTzadik, in Hebrew). Candles lit by the hundreds of worshipers and pilgrims who frequented the cave burned so much oxygen that the air inside would become unbearably stuffy. All that was needed was ventilation, so Mann dug out a hole in the far wall and the problem was solved.

In 1875, he landed employment overseeing construction of the Mishkenot Yisrael (Dwelling Places of Israel) neighborhood, part of what is now known as Nahlaot. One of the first neighborhoods to be erected outside the Old City walls, Mishkenot Yisrael was named for the biblical passage from the Book of Numbers, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Rabbi Yaakov Mann, fore, photographed in Jerusalem in 1901. (Wikimedia commons/ Yosef Wallach collection)

Like others built in that era, the neighborhood had its own central courtyard with a mikveh — or Jewish ritual bath — a communal oven, and a synagogue. It also had water cisterns whose cement openings protruded well above street level. Quite a few courtyard cisterns still exist, including the one in Mishkenot Yisrael, but have been sealed so that no one will fall inside.

Mann’s next position was also as an overseer, this time during construction of the Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood named in honor of that great philanthropist Sir Moses (Moshe) Montefiore and established with a fund set up in his memory.
Founded in 1882, with houses whose backs faced the outside to create a wall around the neighborhood, Mazkeret Moshe was considered cutting-edge for the times. Well-known educator and journalist David Yellin lived in the neighborhood for a few years, and on one exciting day was able to relate that the Turks, who ruled the Land of Israel at the time, had even put up a mailbox.

All of the laborers and stonemasons working on the new neighborhoods were Arab, so Mann, who believed that Jews should be the ones to build their Holy City, began teaching young locals how to cut through stone.

The Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, now part of the larger neighborhood know as Nahlaot, was one of the first to be built outside Old City walls in 1875. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Yemenite Jews, exiled from the Land of Israel during the Babylonian conquest of Judea in the 6th century BCE, started on the long trek back to the Promised Land in 1882. They trudged thousands of miles through endless deserts to reach their goal, only to find that the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment did not welcome them with open arms. Since they couldn’t afford houses, they lived in caves, and they suffered from a shortage of work.

So Mann bought a plot of land for the new arrivals to cultivate near the Mount of Joy (the traditional burial site of the prophet Samuel) north of Jerusalem. For an entire year, the Yemenites worked hard on their fields, only to find them repeatedly destroyed by local Arabs.

Eventually, the Yemenite Jews gave up farming and began working with Mann in construction — first learning the trade, and soon becoming very much in demand by the city’s contractors.

Mann, of course, was the very first to employ Yemenites on his building projects. In fact, he was one of the first in the city to make sure that the majority of his workers were Jewish.

The Mazkeret Moshe neighborhood in Jerusalem was founded in 1882 in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

On the seventh anniversary of Montefiore’s death in 1892, the Montefiore Fund founded the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe in his memory. Mann was assigned the contract, and he hired a number of Jewish builders, stonemasons and simple laborers to carry out the work. As part of the job, he built the beautiful Ashkenazi Beit Yisrael synagogue, with windows offering breathtaking views of the Old City.

Moshe Wittenberg was a wealthy but childless merchant from Belarus who wanted to be remembered after his passing. After moving to the Holy Land in 1882, he spent much of his fortune acquiring land and purchasing houses for the poor of Jerusalem.

One of these was a three story building in the Old City known as Wittenberg House. It is located on a main street in today’s Muslim Quarter and became famous nearly a century after Wittenberg acquired it when then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon bought it and moved in with his wife, Lily.

The exterior of the home in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter purchased by Moshe Wittenberg in the late 19th century and acquired 100 years later by future prime minister Ariel Sharon. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Wittenberg also established a complex for indigent Jerusalemites outside the city walls. Mann was hired to build what is known as Shaarei Moshe (the Gates of Moshe), or the Wittenberg Houses (Batei Wittenberg). Five buildings around a courtyard make up the tiny neighborhood, which included a synagogue and a communal oven. Today only a shell of the neighborhood expressly intended for the indigent is left, due to the development of new luxury apartments.

The Lamel School, established in 1856 in the Old City, was the first modern Jewish educational facility in Jerusalem. It moved outside the walls into a structure designed by talented Christian German architect Theodor Sander in 1903 and constructed by none other than Mann. By this time, Mann had taught so many Jews how to cut stones, build with them, and work with plaster, that Jews made up almost the entire workforce on the project.

Interior of the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1897, a few years before beginning work on the Lamel School, Mann began what would be his most ambitious project: construction of the grandiose Shaare Zedek Hospital. He seized the opportunity to train the many young Russians who had begun immigrating to the Holy Land.

A mezuzah at the original Shaare Zedek Hospital building in Jerusalem hangs diagonally, near an indentation where the original mezuzah was affixed perpendicularly. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Estimating that it would take three years to complete, Mann asked for a three-year contract. However, the hospital wasn’t finished until 1902, four-and-a-half years later. Yet hospital director Wallach insisting on paying Mann a full salary until the work was completed.

Mann died of a heart condition in 1909. In his will, he left the extra year and a half salary to the Hospital, and the request was, of course, carried out by his many descendants.

The “straight” mezuzahs at Shaare Zedek have since disappeared, leaving behind an indentation where they were fixed onto the doorposts. Today, the mezuzahs are crooked.

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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