Israel travels

Tranquil dwellings: The story of Mishkenot Sha’ananim

A New Orleans merchant bequeathed $60,000 to the Holy Land and chose Sir Moses Montefiore as his executor. The result: the first modern Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City

Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Judah Touro was a distinguished 19th century Jewish merchant who made his fortune in New Orleans. During the American-British War of 1812, Touro was seriously wounded and his recovery was slow and painful. But he continued to work and his various businesses and investments paid off handsomely. His financial resources enabled him to contribute heavily to both Jewish and Christian charities.

Touro bequeathed $60,000 to the Jews of the Holy Land in his will — a legacy that would have startling, long-range consequences.  Indeed, as a result of his generosity, and because Touro chose Sir Moses (Moshe) Montefiore of England as executor of his estate, the situation of Jerusalem’s Jews was to improve beyond recognition. This Earth-changing transformation began with a tiny neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old City.

Tall and dignified, Montefiore made a fortune in the British stock market while still a very young man. At the age of 40, he retired and devoted himself to good works, becoming active on behalf of Jews all over the world, including the Jewish communities of Syria, Iran, Romania, Morocco, and Russia. And by the time he died, at the ripe old age of 101, he had also helped countless numbers of Jews in the land of Israel.

Montefiore, who was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1838, was granted a baronetcy eight years later in recognition of his humanitarian services. His coat of arms was truly unique: it includes the word “Jerusalem” — written in Hebrew. Perhaps Montefiore, an observant Jew, wanted to carry out the biblical injunction: “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem at the height of my joy” [Psalms 137:6].

Originally home to pious, poverty-stricken Jews, today Yemin Moshe is an exclusive (and expensive) group of elegantly restored old houses whose handsome gardens and speckling of art galleries lie in a serenely peaceful setting. Yet, until ’67, the neighborhood was anything but peaceful

In 1855, he paid his fourth visit to Jerusalem, traveling in a large black carriage and setting up his tent near the Old City Walls in what we know today as the Russian Compound. Armed with the money left by Judah Touro, he began looking for land on which to build a hospital for the Jews of Jerusalem. Eventually he bought a plot across from Mount Zion and surrounded it with a high stone wall. Although the hospital was never built, the land became the locale for the first modern Jewish neighborhood outside of the Old City walls.

Montefiore laid the cornerstone for this neighborhood — Mishkenot Sha’ananim — in 1857. The name, which can be translated as “dwellings of tranquility,” comes from Isaiah 32:18: And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting-places. Afterwards, Montefiore erected an 18-meter-high ultra-modern windmill for grinding grain into flour. And despite the curses of local Arabs not happy with the competition, it continued to spin until steam-powered mills made it obsolete.

By 1860, the first structure in Mishkenot Sha’ananim was complete. It contained 28 one-and-a-half room apartments. Also included in the compound were a water cistern complete with a revolutionary iron pump, a ritual bath, and an oven. Much of the pretty metal work ornamentation was produced in Ramsgate, Montefiore’s hometown, and the roof is crenelated like the Old City ramparts on the other side of the valley.

Above each door is a Hebrew letter — one letter for each family that lived there. Decorating the top of the building are an unusual eight-sided star and a Hebrew inscription describing the contributions of both Montefiore and Judah Touro.

Montefiore's carriage, Independence Day (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Montefiore’s carriage, Independence Day (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1866,  a second, smaller building was constructed above the first. At about the same time, a cholera epidemic raged inside the Old City. Until it reached massive proportions, moving outside the protective walls seemed foolish at best. Indeed, some of the people who maintained homes in Montefiore’s brand-new neighborhood refused to stay in them overnight. But that year, the residents apparently decided that robbers and wild animals were less menacing than the deadly cholera, and finally began to reside full time outside the Old City walls.

After this small group of Jews moved into houses outside the congested Old City, more neighborhoods appeared. Several, like Ohel Moshe, were directly connected to Montefiore and the foundation he established before his passing. Today, the famous Jerusalem Music Center is located in Mishkenot’s smaller building, while the second, larger structure serves as a guesthouse for visiting writers, musicians, and artists.

In 1892, more buildings were added to the property in a complex that was named Yemin Moshe in honor of the great man. Originally home to pious, poverty-stricken Jews, today Yemin Moshe is an exclusive (and expensive) group of elegantly restored old houses whose handsome gardens and speckling of art galleries lie in a serenely peaceful setting. Yet, until the city was unified in 1967, the neighborhood was anything but peaceful.

First, in the 1920’s, Arab riots shattered the tranquility here. Later, in the months before the British evacuated Palestine, Arab snipers repeatedly threatened residents from their positions atop the Old City walls. During the Arab uprising of 1936-1939, and throughout the War of Independence, Haganah forces manned three strategic positions in an effort to defend the neighborhood.

The new windmill at Mishkenot Sha'ananim and Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The new windmill at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The fact that the nearby King David Hotel housed the British military and administrative headquarters helped not one whit — for the British consistently turned a blind eye to Arab violence against the Jews. Indeed, in February of 1948, Arab forces staged a massive attack on the neighborhood. Although the Arabs were repulsed, most of the inhabitants abandoned their homes and moved to safer ground.

For 19 years after the war’s end, the city was divided and part of the border between Jordan and Israel was located just below Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Sha’ananim. The government crowded desperate new immigrant families, mainly impoverished refugees from Turkey and Iraq, into deserted apartments in Yemin Moshe that had been severely damaged both before and during the War of Independence. Living conditions deteriorated rapidly, and, with Jordanian snipers constantly menacing the neighborhood, Yemin Moshe turned into a slum.

After the Six Day War reunited Jerusalem, Yemin Moshe was no longer a border neighborhood. That’s when the powers-that-be decided to transform it into a posh little colony for people with enough money to renovate the houses. Unfortunately, as newcomers to the country, the Turkish and Iraqi immigrants had been naive; they had neither bought the houses nor registered themselves as owners. As a result, they were offered pitifully low compensation and sent to other far less desirable areas the city. Artists and the very affluent moved in, restored the buildings, and created this stunning neighborhood.

All of the buildings still stand in Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe. Along with them, the windmill has been a fixture in Jerusalem as long as anyone can remember.  Turns out, however, that at some point the blades and cap were restored; the result differed quite significantly from the original.

To the delight of the city’s history buffs, last year the blades and cap were replaced to better resemble the 19th century structure. I was lucky enough to have been present on that exciting, historic day as the blades began to turn, just as they did when the windmill first appeared on the scene long ago.


This article is adapted from a chapter in Aviva Bar-Am’s book: Jerusalem EasyWalks.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel.

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