Early “Zionism” in Meah Shearim

hero image
10 May 2007

A Lesson For the Children – “This is insane! I will not agree to put myself and our children in danger!” That is what Esther said. “We have no other choice,” replied her husband, Yaacov. “The situation in the city can no longer be tolerated. Just look at our little girl, Racheli, she is burning up with fever! The crowded living conditions, the sickness, the poverty – we cannot go on like this!”

At the time, about 140 years ago, the Jewish population of Jerusalem was still almost completely concentrated in the small area within the walls of the city (except for Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Machane Yisrael, and Nachalat Shiva, which had already been built). All the people continued coming to the Old City each and every day in order to manage their affairs. There was no way to make a living outside of the walls, and the area outside was open to thieves and wild animals. It is not surprising that no new neighborhoods were established in the wake of the few areas that had been built. It really was a scary place!

But Yaakov was not moved by these facts. Again and again, he read the advertisements in the newspapers and on the billboards: “A group of people is organizing to build a new neighborhood! Jerusalem is expanding!” Yaakov was enchanted by the idea. He exclaimed, “Jerusalem must grow and expand. We will be the first ones, and many will follow us.” Slowly, Esther also became enthusiastic about the idea. The couple participated in the founding meeting of the new neighborhood, which was to be called “Mei’ah She’arim,” and they came home very enthusiastic. This was not a plan for a few buildings, it called for a large organization, a hundred families!

Several years passed. Houses were built one after the other, and the first families moved into their new homes. Yaacov and Esther and their seven children moved into a house. The new neighborhood had living conditions that were unknown in the Old City of Jerusalem: clean streets, orderly removal of garbage, street lights at night, and much more.

However, the Arab “neighbors” were not happy. They were jealous of the new Jewish neighborhood that was being built. Their angry shouts could be heard from far away, and the sound of swords being sharpened was a constant threat for the new inhabitants. Night after night, the new inhabitants were very careful to lock the gates of the neighborhood, and they tried to remain at home at night. The tension could be felt in the air, and there was a strong atmosphere of a disaster about to happen.

One night the residents heard the sound of a horn. Esther woke up and looked out the window – and what she saw frightened her very much. A crowd of agitated Arabs surrounded the neighborhood, holding drawn swords, with looks of hatred and cruelty in their eyes. Some of the attackers also held rifles and pistols. But this time, not like in the past, the Jews did not stretch out their throats to be slaughtered. They had prepared for such an event, gathering a stock of weapons and ammunition. The small number of Jewish defenders prevailed, and they succeeded in resisting the attack. Unfortunately, Gedalia Sheinbau, one of the defenders, was killed, but the attack itself was thwarted.

These pioneers did not despair. They promised each other that they would continue to strengthen and rebuild the community, and that they would strongly defend our rights to settle the land in general and Jerusalem in particular. And, indeed, in a very short time, the neighborhood of “Me’ah She’arim” was completely filled. And it was followed by the construction of many more new neighborhoods

Thus, a prominent place among the pioneers of Jerusalem must be reserved specifically for the first residents of the “Chareidi” neighborhood Me’ah She’arim.

(Source: “Neighborhoods Around Jerusalem,” among others)

NOTE: We received several comments about the story of how Yaffo was captured (Parshat Tazria-Metzora), correcting some of the details given in this column. The Eitzel and not only the Haganah participated significantly in the operation. A critical and difficult battle was fought by the Eitzel, which softened the resistance and encouraged the Arabs to leave. Afterwards, the Haganah attacked the villages around the city, which then fell without any significant fighting.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute (www.zomet.org.il).

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.