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.)

Observation:  The streets of Jerusalem

I wanted to try something a little different this week. I sat in a few different squares in downtown Jerusalem and watched people.  What I saw and heard was a symphony.


Panorama of Zion Square


I saw a Korean Catholic couple, a priest and a nun, walking on Jaffa Street completely engrossed in conversation.  I wondered if they hadn’t taken vows, would they be dating?  Perhaps they were so happy simply because they were here in the holy city of Jerusalem.

The Chorus

The gaggles of girls, who appear to be religious and often roam in groups of five, are a phenomenon.  They tend to have long, dark, curly hair, skirts that come down to their knees, and blouses that cover their shoulders.  The phrase “same, same, but different” comes to mind.

Two-Part Harmony

Guys travel in pairs.  They tend to complement one another.  A tall guy has a short friend.  A guy with long hair will have a friend with a buzz cut.


I saw many couples on the street.  Older ones came to town together to run errands.  Young couples – either just friends or hoping for more – came to sit together under a tree for an hour.  The young religious marrieds have their own formula.  They walk along with what appears to be their first child in a stroller and it’s always the dad pushing it.  The mom sometimes seems nervous about it, but she’s genuinely happy that he’s taking a role.



There are a lot of street sweepers in Jerusalem because the municipality is committed to keeping the streets clean.  They are dressed in blue coveralls and always wear yellow Day-Glo vests. They push around a green plastic garbage bin that is about 4 feet tall and work with a broom and long-handled dustpan.

This particular street sweeper caught my eye, I think, because of his rimless glasses.  He wore his collar stylishly up, was unshaven (I don’t know if it was scruff for style or just the 24-hour beard cycle), and the hair on his head matched the length of his beard.  He was intensely conscientious in his work, with quick and purposeful movements, but appeared to be deep in thought.  I wondered if after his morning shift cleaning streets he went home to write his manifesto, “On the Social Aspects of the Dirtiness of the Street,” or a play called “To Clean or Not to Clean,” or something cheerful like “The Unbearable Lightness of Cigarette Butts.”

Electric Guitar

Another often-seen pair are the security forces on a motorcycle.  It was explained to me once that the front guy is the driver and the guy on the back is the shooter, which allows them to act quickly in case of an emergency.  They ride on powerful BMW motorcycles with noise-reducing mufflers and wear black helmets, black motorcycle jackets, and black cargo pants (which seems crazy in the 90+ degree heat).

The pair that I saw were riding back and forth on Jaffa Street.  They were chatting through the headsets in their helmets, but keeping an eye on everything around them.  The guy in front was focused on driving and the guy in back had a rifle slung across his chest and visible in the back was a silver pistol tucked into his waistband.  Later, I saw them stop for lunch at a burger place, because of course that’s what they would eat.

And so many more

The albino girl, the street musician, the Russian tourist chatting up a bottle-blond who also happened to speak Russian, the wanna-be punk who looked like he probably played bass in a band that played small venues, the odd, smiley religious guy who was hot strolling down the street so he rolled up his pant legs above his knees to show off scrawny white legs, or the worker setting up the stalls for the evening market who measured the spaces down to the last inch.

Jerusalem is a symphony, we just have take a moment to listen.