Every street has a story

Like neighborhoods around the world, Jerusalem neighborhoods have thematic street names. Some are nice; some lead you to question the sanity of whoever made the choices – I’m looking at you Gallows Martyrs Street and Valley of Ghosts.

My first Jerusalem neighborhood had street names like Shimoni and Tchernichovsky, two poets. My most recent neighborhood included names like Washington, Lincoln, Hess, and Zamenhof (two US presidents, a founder of labor Zionism, and the inventor of Esperanto). Now I have gone deep into Jewish history with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, Yossi ben Yoezer, Ben Baba (or Bava), and Eliezer haGadol.

The main thoroughfare is Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, the person most responsible for Judaism as it is practiced today. In the year 68 CE, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem and it is said that Yochanan ben Zakai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin by his students. He was taken to General Vespasian and he struck a deal. Saying that he had a vision of Vespasian becoming emperor, he asked for Yavneh to be set aside as a place for Jewish learning if his vision should come to pass. Vespasian became emperor and kept his promise. Thus, the center of Judaism moved away from the Temple in Jerusalem and made possible a diasporic existence of Jewish tradition and learning.


The other streets in the neighborhood are named after sages who wrote foundational texts of Judaism. Yossi ben Yoezer is from the Maccabean period (167–37 BCE). A famous saying of his: “Let thy house be a meeting-place for the wise; powder thyself in the dust of their feet, and drink their words with eagerness.” Ben Baba was a second century (CE) scholar who, surprisingly, made it easier for widows to remarry by lowering the bar for proof of a husband’s death. Eliezer haGadol (the Great) was a student of Yochanan ben Zakai, and one of the best known second century scholars. He was what today might be called a “strict constructionist” in terms of his interpretations of the Jewish law. He was excommunicated from the Sanhedrin, he was charged with heresy by Rome, and yet he is still one of the most mentioned sages in the Mishna.

1200px-Map_of_Qatamon,_1947.pngKatamon and its surroundings, 1947. By The National Library of Israel, edited by Bolter21. – The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56402776

Moving forward in history, the neighborhood of Mekor Haim (Source of Life) was named after Haim Cohen who donated a lot of money to buy land in Jerusalem. The neighborhood started in 1926 as a tiny isolated village and by 1931, 202 people lived there in 41 houses. The area suffered from Arab sniping during the 1948 War, and there were some fierce battles there as well. After the 1967 War, the Talpiot industrial area was built and Mekor Haim was no longer so isolated.

googlemapSouthern neighborhoods of Jerusalem

As Jerusalem grew, Mekor Haim became limited to just the main street of Mekor Haim and its side streets. To accommodate the Jews from the Old City who were expelled in 1948 and eventually Jews from Arab countries who were expelled from their homelands in the 1950s, Israel built up the neighborhood in what are called by the municipality Gonen 1-9 (in Hebrew letters). Everyone else knows the neighborhood as Katamonim (the plural of Katamon).

Katamon was built around the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Simeon of Katamonas (1881, with evidence of a structure from 1524, today the San Simon Monastery). It had been a Christian Arab neighborhood until 1948. Gonen means defender and the 1949 Armistice line winds along the southern borders of Katamonim.

The vibe of this neighborhood is quite different from my previous neighborhoods, but those stories will have to wait until next week.

(This week was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. You can read what I wrote last year about Yom HaShoah here.)