Friday, August 12th | 15 Av 5782

August 2, 2020 4:06 am

The Quiet Sages of Jerusalem

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Worshipers pray in distance from each other at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, amid coronavirus restrictions, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

The Jerusalem I first came to in 1958 was a very different and much smaller town than the Jerusalem of today. There was no Old City. It was cut off by the wall, the one built by the Jordanians on parts of the demilitarized ceasefire zone, to keep the Old City out of bounds to Jews. The Jordanians had destroyed the Jewish Quarter and expelled its population for the first time since a more enlightened Islam got rid of the Crusaders in 1187 CE.

Long before Zionism, pious Jews came to live in Jerusalem and inhabited the Jewish Quarter in the Old City. In the 19th century, as numbers increased, they began to build suburbs outside the walls. Sephardi Jews came from Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Persia. The Ashkenazim came from Eastern Europe. They built buildings that clustered around courtyards, markets, and wells — looking inward protectively.

To the north lay the ultra-Orthodox area of  Meah Shearim — “a hundred-fold,” not “a hundred gates” (Genesis 26:12). It was built in 1874 to provide more salubrious housing than the cramped Jewish Quarter in the Old City. There within its boundaries lay Batei Polin, houses for Polish Jews built in 1891; Batei Ungarin in 1891 for Hungarians; and Batei Varsha in 1894.

If initially they were a big improvement over the cramped Old City, by the time I arrived, they were showing their age, overcrowded and badly maintained. The Jews who lived there were fiercely protective of their own atmosphere and dress. As secular migration increased, they tried to protect their pious world from what they saw as godless decadence. They called themselves the Old Yishuv, the Old Settlement.

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Meah Shearim in 1958 was a culture shock — the heat, dust, and not a tree to be seen. Notices on the public walls and over the gates of the courtyards warned visitors to dress modestly. They announced deaths, births, and attacks by one sect or leader against another. Tourists would invade to see these exotic medieval Jews and were often ushered out. On Shabbat, the roads in and out were roped off.

At the time, I lived with relatives in Batei Varsha. I returned years later to study in the Mir Yeshiva, which was housed in a nearby area called Beit Yisrael. That was when I got to know more of the inhabitants of Meah Shearim. Despite the outward monochromatic similarities, there were subtle differences of dress that identified which community one belonged to. There was a sense of kindness and respect in the air. It was like any village community in the world that had its rich and poor, its sick, aged, disadvantaged, and criminal. I threw myself into this world and loved it.

I discovered that within the strict confines of Torah study and the devoted adherence to tradition, there were little private oases of culture that seemed totally out of character. In Batei Varshaw lived a modest man who had an amazing collection of Impressionist art that he had brought to Israel before the Second World War. Another man who frequented my yeshiva I initially mistook for a beggar, but he turned out to be an expert in Linguistics who had corresponded with the great Danish academics Otto Jespersen and Holger Pederson. There was a rabbi who knew Tolstoy’s War and Peace by heart.

One of the most impressive men I met was Shmuel Ashkenazi. He was born in Jerusalem and lived for much of his life in Batei Ungarin in Meah Shearim. He was an outstanding Talmudist and destined to become a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Eidah Charedis, the strictest of the Jerusalem religious authorities. But he chose the private life of a scholar and was one of the brightest jewels of Judaica even if largely unknown outside his own special area of expertise.

He would walk out of Meah Shearim most mornings of the week to work and research at the Institute for Hebrew Bibliography in the National Library, where he established a bibliography of the Jewish people. He was modest and gregarious and established lifelong friendships with academics of all persuasions and degrees. His passion was rare and unpublished books and manuscripts.

He died this past month at the age of 98. He was one of the unknown, good men of Jerusalem. There is a fine obituary and appreciation here by Menachem Butler

After the Ninth of Av and the memories of Jerusalem’s destruction, the revival of Jerusalem today (and its reunification with the Old City) is one of the great miracles of Jewish life. It is now the biggest concentration of Jewish secular and religious scholarship and creativity anywhere.

Everywhere public and religious life is dominated by powerful men of limited spiritual capacity. I admire the modest scholars, the benevolent saints who help others without need for public adulation or recognition. This need is the curse of our age, exacerbated by social media.

The true giants are those who are not known. Who devote themselves to good deeds, to preserving our traditions and learning, quietly and modestly. The Talmud talks about the 36 good people, the Lamed Vavnicks, through whose merit we survive. We are privileged to live at a time when there are many more than 36. My soul comes alive in their company.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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