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My Home, My History, My Heart

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

My house in the Old City of Jerusalem is a portal to the long chain of Jewish history.

I live in a 900-year-old house inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. When we expanded our miniscule bathroom by tearing down its meter-thick wall, we found the capital of a pillar from the 6th century. We also found pottery shards from the First and Second Temple periods.

The shards now sit on our living room shelf, in front of our wedding picture. Sometimes I gaze at them and wonder about the Jews who lived in this place, a few meters below the level of our house, over 2,000 years ago. They were married by the same Jewish rites that I was, although they had no wedding pictures.

Byzantines, not Jews, built the building that formerly stood here. By then, 1400 years ago, we were in exile, dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Our conquerors plowed over Jewish Jerusalem and replaced it with a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. Jews were not allowed to enter. The Romans built a grand, pillared thoroughfare, the Cardo, a minute's walk from my house. The Romans were the greatest empire the world has ever known, and the Jews were a tiny, vanquished people. Today Jewish children play in the ruins of the Roman Cardo.

Our house itself was built by Muslims, not Jews. By then, 900 years ago, the Muslims had conquered Jerusalem and, except for a short century's lapse, held it fast from the Christian Crusaders. The Muslims allowed Jews to live in Jerusalem. When the Crusaders conquered the city in 1099, they slaughtered all the Jewish residents. Jewish blood flowed in the streets of Jerusalem. The blood is gone, but several Crusader buildings remain around the corner from my house.

When the Muslims regained the city, a smattering of Jews returned. Nachmanides arrived here from Spain in 1267; he found barely enough Jews to form a minyan (quorum of ten men). He requisitioned a Torah scroll from the city of Shechem and created a functioning synagogue. My husband prays daily in that synagogue.

Banished countless times, Jews have always returned to Jerusalem.

Some of the Jews exiled from Spain in 1492 made their way to Jerusalem (which, until the 1860s, comprised only the Old City). By 1840, there were 5,000 Jews in Jerusalem, compared to 4,500 Muslims and 3,750 Christians. By 1870, the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish.

Our house was owned by Jews, as evidenced by the indentations chiseled into the doorpost of our house where the sacred parchment of the mezuzah was inserted.


Banished countless times, Jews have always returned to Jerusalem, irrevocably drawn here by a mystical yearning almost coded into our DNA.

The Torah refers to Jerusalem as "the place that God will cause His Name to dwell." Jerusalem is central to the Jewish People not because it's our home, but because it's God's "home." And although the Jewish intellect knows that God is infinite and cannot be confined to a particular space, the Jewish heart knows that God dwells in Jerusalem.

This is why, no matter how many times we have been exiled from Jerusalem by a succession of foreign conquerors, we have always made our way back. This is why every Jewish child in Israel, religious or secular, knows that Jerusalem is worth fighting for.


My neighbor Puah Shteiner certainly knew it. She grew up in the Jewish Quarter in the 1940s, when the British governed the land. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had been born in the Old City. In 1948, Puah, aged seven, lived with her family in Batei Machse Square, in one of a row of domed rooms that now constitute my son's school.

The Arabs imposed a total siege on the 1700 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter.

For weeks in the spring of 1948, the Jewish Quarter had been under artillery bombardment from the nearby Mount of Olives. As soon as the British Mandatory Authorities left, the Arabs imposed a total siege on the 1700 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter. A scant 150 Haganah "soldiers," boys and girls, some of them as young as 13 years of age, were assigned the defense of the Quarter. They had among them exactly 113 weapons.

Artillery shells, mortars, and snipers on the rooftops claimed the lives of 69 residents and defenders of the Jewish Quarter. In her soul-stirring memoirs, Forever My Jerusalem, Puah Shteiner recounts her childhood memories of the last stand of the Jews of the Old City:

The shells which had been thundering away all this time... suddenly stopped. And then, from the silence, a voice called on a loudspeaker. "Surrender! Surrender! Do you all want to die? Surrender now, before we slaughter you all."

This proclamation was repeated over and over again. After that, the deluge of shells was resumed, and the terrible hail of machine-gun bullets was renewed. We sat frozen on the floor, not talking or playing... A shiver ran up my back and my hands shook.

The Jews held out for 14 excruciating days. Cowering in a storeroom to protect themselves from the constant bombardment by the well-armed Arab Legion (the Jordanian army), Puah's family and a dozen others finally ran out of food. Venturing outside was a risky move that had already claimed the lives of two of the fathers of Puah's friends. Nonetheless, Puah's father and another man volunteered to make a run to the bakery to get bread. Puah's nine-year-old sister Naomi screamed for him not to go.

The shrinking Jewish Quarter was being bombarded heavily, but my sister Naomi almost overwhelmed the noise of the gunfire destroying our homes and streets. We had no idea whether the Arabs had captured the bakery yet or not. My heart felt like a shell about to explode...

Each moment Abba was gone seemed like an eternity. The shells continued to fly. When would Abba return?...

Shouts and cries of joy suddenly filled the dark passageway. They were here! They had arrived! Thank God! Just at that moment a shell exploded in the courtyard nearby...

Each of us received a piece of pitta, over which we recited the blessing for bread. The little ones ate heartily, but as for me, the fresh pitta stuck in my throat. It was hard to swallow bread for which my father had risked his life.

When their ammunition ran out, the Jewish Quarter surrendered.

For two weeks we had fought to keep the Jewish Quarter for the Jewish People. But during those two long weeks of fighting, the Quarter had lost its limbs, one by one. House after house, street after street, it was destroyed. For two long weeks it had defied the enemy heroically, refusing to surrender to superior strength. But now, Divine will had sealed its fate, and today we would surrender.

"House after house, street after street." I walk those streets daily. Whenever I go to the library or bank, I pass a small memorial for those who fell in the battle for the Jewish Quarter. Drawn to remember them, I walk down three steps to a sunken stone room. One wall is covered by a metal relief map of the Jewish Quarter in 1948, with the great domes of its two magnificent synagogues (later destroyed) protruding above the welter of alleyways and buildings. Arrows of blinking red lights retrace the Arab advance, perpetually recreating the battle.

The State of Israel was born. But without the Old City, it was a body without a soul.

In a deep cavity on the left, white metal names stand out against the blackness: the 69 Jews who fell defending the place where I now walk so freely. Thirty-nine of them were official members of the Haganah. The youngest of these soldiers was Nissim Giny, who had volunteered as a messenger boy because he was too young to hold a gun (even had there been enough guns). He was ten years old.

Israel won the War of Independence. The State of Israel was born. But without the Old City, it was a body without a soul.


Nineteen years later, on June 7, 1967, the third day of the Six Day War, an Israeli paratroop division encircled the Old City. Its leader Mordechai Gur commanded his troops: "We are approaching the Old City. We are approaching the Temple Mount, the Western Wall. The Jewish nation has been praying for thousands of years for this historic moment. Israel is awaiting our victory. Go forward to success!"

The paratroopers charged up to the Lions' Gate. The ancient gate was made for carts and camels, not tanks. A tank got stuck in the gate; many of the conquering soldiers had to crawl on their bellies under the tank to enter the Old City. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, holding a Torah scroll and blowing a shofar, was in the first jeep that entered through Zion Gate. It was a day of triumph and tears, like a long-awaited reunion of a mother and her children. For a people who has suffered so many defeats, this was a moment of perfect victory.

The Israeli army found the Jewish Quarter in a sorry state. The Jordanian occupiers had begun to raze the Jewish Quarter and turn its ancient alleyways and structures into a modern, high-rise apartment complex. The Jews set about reclaiming the buildings, such as ours, that could be rescued, and built new buildings where only rubble remained.

In 1988, we bought our ground floor apartment. One afternoon several years later, I noticed an old woman peeking into my kitchen windows. When I asked her if I could help her, she replied, "I lived in this house until 1929."

I invited her in, and she told me her story: In those days each one of our three bedrooms had housed an entire family. They shared a common kitchen in the courtyard. There was no indoor plumbing; an outhouse stood in a corner of the courtyard. Her father was a pharmacist, and what is now our living room had served as the pharmacy of the Jewish Quarter. When the Arabs rioted in the Old City in 1929, they destroyed the pharmacy, and her family fled to the greater safety of Jerusalem's new city.

How strange! I thought. My father too was a pharmacist. We looked at each other – two Jewish women born decades apart, both the daughters of pharmacists, both living in these same premises during dramatically different periods of Jewish history.

Like every Jew, I am a link in the long, long chain of Jewish history. When I walk the streets of the Old City, I feel that chain tugging at my soul. All the links move in unison: the Jewish women of millennia ago whose pottery shards sit on my shelf, the Jews exiled by the Romans, the Jews who fell to the Crusaders' swords, the Jewish exiles from Spain who repopulated the Jewish Quarter, the pharmacist's daughter who lived in my house until 1929, the ten-year-old messenger boy, and the soldiers who crawled on their bellies through Lions' Gate to reclaim the Old City for the Jewish People.

On the 28th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar (May 26, 2006), we celebrate Jerusalem Day. We celebrate the return of Jewish sovereignty to the Old City and the Temple Mount/Kotel area. On that day, our recessive "Jerusalem gene" becomes dominant.

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