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‘A Provincial Town’: When Abraham Cahan Visited Jerusalem’s Synagogues In 1925

In 1925, Abraham Cahan, founding editor of the Forverts, embarked on a journey to Palestine. Long before ElAl started flying daily out of JFK, this was the closest that the average American Jew got to the Holy Land. This editorial appeared on October 24, 1925 in the English supplement of the Forverts. We have reproduced Cahan’s language entirely, even though the phraseology that he uses and the racial assumptions to which he subscribes may seem alien to us today.

Jerusalem stands upon a hill. To get the proper idea of the city, you must see it from the inside and as a whole from without. You must stroll along the streets to look them over. You should likewise get a view of Jerusalem in general from the high hill outside of the city confines.

For three days I walked through the streets of the old Jerusalem and the news. I looked into the stores, I visited various synagogues, I saw the places held most sacred by the Christians. And I also viewed the city from the hill outside of Jerusalem, the Har Hatzoifim (Observation Hill), on which the Hebrew University stands.

The University:

It was vacation time and the University was closed. Several buildings are being rebuilt and carpenters, painters, and plumbers are busily engaged at their tasks. A few persons connected with the University were inside, each at his special task. In the office inside I happened to meet the secretary of the University, Dr. Ginzburg, a son of Ahad Ha’am, the celebrated Zionist. He was good enough to order that all parts of the building be opened for me to make a thorough inspection. I must admit that when I first caught a glimpse of the building, before I went inside, I was pleasantly surprised. From the reports I had read about the university upon the occasion of its opening last April I had imagined it to be much smaller and much less imposing. The approach and court and outer appearance of the buildings make a good impression. It really looks like a university. The court is not large, but you can see it immediately that the buildings stretch further on all sides and there are spacious grounds on all sides.

Only the faculty of chemistry in its various departments has thus far been organized and one of the first rooms I saw the chemistry library. It is not very large, but to be fair to these undertakings, we must always bear in mind that the entire edifice must be considered only as a beginning. This is not yet a complete university but only the foundation for a university. Tow bronze statues grace the library hall, one of Maimonides, the other of Herzl.

Image by Biographical Dictionary of the First Generation of Professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Chemistry Library

A young man with a small black beard was engrossed in studying documents. His appearance was both that of a Jewish scholar and of a modern college man. Afterwards we saw several laboratories full of glass bottles, test tubes, retorts, crucibles, and all kinds of the vessels that are found in the usual chemical laboratory. Several rooms were being prepared for the new season; assistants of the Professor of Chemistry were busy working in others. We learned that one of these assistants is Dr. Moses Weitzman. He, likewise, displayed warm friendliness. He did not spare any pains in showing us around the whole university and environs. He conducted us through a large number of rooms full of apparatus, all belonging to the chemical faculty.

He showed us the lecture room with its amphitheatre of seats, as in a theatre. This room does not make a favorable impression, however, as it is too small and the amphitheatre looks like a toy. Further on, however, the impression was much better. After we had finished looking over the various sections, we went out by another yard where we saw the large walled amphitheatre and the platform under the open sky where the ceremonies at the opening of the university took place last April when Lord Balfour delivered his inaugural address.

When you look down from the stage you see a long stretch of hills and valleys. A part of this distance is covered with walls which extend beyond the hills. When you turn around and look the other way you do not see any city. There is a vast panorama of hills and valleys again, but a different general effect.

Image by Biographical Dictionary of the First Generation of Professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Waters of Jordan

Far off there is a bit of dark blue water and a long narrow strip running from it. The narrow strip is the Jordan; the broad bit of water is the Yam Hamelach known as the Dead Sea. In reality, however, this is not a sea but an oasis. It was about twenty miles away. Further on the sky and the earth meet in a horizon clear and blue and tender. Nowhere but in Italy and in Egypt had I seen such a sky.

Looking at the scene before us, the Jordan stretched left to the Dead Sea flowing from left to right and then emptying into the sea. In order to see the Jordan and this bit of Dead Sea more clearly we climbed downhill a bit to a point where the landscape is more open and less obscured by the hills. The picture is really glorious. Here and there the hills look like enormous waves In other places one hill covers half of its neighboring hill, and in the background are to be seen summits of two, three, or four other hills. Here a valley descends, long, broad semicircular. Up to a distant point on the other side, near the place where the sky touches the horizon, is to be seen that long dark blue strip and the bit of water.

A great landscape. Great and glorious, frank and mysterious. Looking upon this panaroma is like imbibing opium. The mind is drugged. A hypnotic dream is settled upon your senses, you cannot tear your eyes from the scenes upon which they look. No greenery is to be seen. The hills are brown for or whitish, but in the distance you forget about meadows and woods. You know that over these hills and valleys brood memories of characters and the dramatic scenes of the Bible. But you know it as if in a dream. Dr. Weitzman showed us around to several places known in biblical geography, many of which I still remember from cheder. But my mind could not give much attention to these details at that moment. It was overwhelmed by the charm which the scene laid upon it.

We climbed back over the hill to the stage from which the speeches at the opening of the University had been delivered. From there we saw the wall surrounding old Jerusalem, circling the city like a white ribbon.

At the spot where we now stood Titus camped with his army before he attacked Jerusalem in the year 70. I now relived the scene with a with a feeling of absorbing reality. I could feel it happening, right there!

You cannot see the separate streets from this high point, but only a mass of buildings. Here and there they are close together; in other places they seem to be scattered. You see how many of them stretch from the top downhill, while others lie high up as on level, even ground. On such a place you might see the round green cupola of the big Russian church which was once put up by the Czarist government in the highest part of Jerusalem. Lower down, but likewise big and clear, stands the dome of the Mosque of Omar, the Mohammedan church now standing upon the spot where the Jewish Holy Temple once stood. Here and there little towers of minarets of other churches peep out. I looked to see the Wailing Wall which is next to the Mosque of Omar, but it was invisible from up above.

Jerusalem is scattered over several hills and its houses are located not only on the hills but also on their steep sides and in the narrow valleys below. This accounts for the steep streets. In a former article I mentioned the fact that the New York City is build on higher ground than the old. But where you look upon Jerusalem from a distance the two are fused. You see the wall that separates them but from the distance they do not seem separate.

Kol Nidre Night

I took my first long stroll in Jerusalem the night of Kol Nidre. Comrade Ben Zwi, one of the leaders of the local labor movement, knows the city well and was my escort. My aim that evening was to visit the various synagogues for the Kol Nidre prayer rather than to see the streets. We went first into the Great Synagogue, the oldest in Jerusalem, called the Synagogue of Rabbi Jehudah Hachosid and located in the old Jewish street. We went down the cellar street over steps, under vaults, or under little doors that unite both parts of the semi-dark streets. This is the street we passed some time ago on our way to the Wailing Wall, called Batrak street and also known as David Street. It is the most important thoroughfare in Old Jerusalem. At one point we turned to our right, wending our way into the street which is still narrower than David street but more level, not so much downhill. This is the very old Jewish street of Jerusalem. Naturally, the stores were closed. Overhead there are little doors but in general you do not see that you are going into a cellar. You just feel that you are somewhere deep in a valley.

Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, toward the end of the Ottoman Empire’s control over Palestine.

This little street is not a short one, we walked on and on, meeting few people, since the Jews were already in the synagogues. But here and there at a door might be seen a Jewish Woman. It had become dark, the street ended and we came upon a confusion of yards, poor and strange looking, not of our world and not of our age. Here we met people, mostly Jewish women. There were no Arabs here. Another yard, and another yard. Out of one and into the other. Some looked like ruins, but it was not dirty there. Finally we arrived at an interesting open yard, by a fairly large building. Many lights are seen from the window and the door. You hear the sad monotonous tones of prayer. The synagogue is very old but we found nothing strange inside. It was very light and lively there. Outside were a number of men and women, mostly dressed in the modern style. Inside there were those who prayed. And from above through little windows, eyes from the women’s section of the schul peeped down. Ladies had been asking to be permitted into the men’s section but their request had not been granted.

The Shaar Hashamayim Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City

The Spanish Synagogue

We went further, still in the Old City. The impression of being in subterranean passages still, persisted. When I again heard voices of praying people and my escort told me that we were near the Spanish Synagogue, I had a distinct feeling that we had been all along in a cave in spain where Jews used to gather to pray in the days of the Inquisition and when Maranos secretly worshipped as Jews. Actually the Spanish Synagogue is 5 synagogues in one. Five separate rooms without doors, and in every room is a holy arc on a pedestal with a pulpit and with people praying. Those who prayed sat only by the walls, and otherwise the room seemed empty. The stones of the floor, worn smooth by many years of worshippers, positively gleamed.

Those who sat by the wall prayed in a strange melody, altogether unlike those in our synagogues. It was as if they were weeping, talking in a wail.

The five synagogues are underground, we entered by means of steps from above. Women were sitting on the steps, many with children in their arms. They quietly chatted with each other and piously listened to the prayers. It was a unique picture and unique voices were murmuring. I have never been to such a Kol Nidre in my life. It had the musty atmosphere of a thousand years ago. We saw another synagogue in the Old City and then we went into the New City. But in the New City there is a synagogue that belongs to the very ancient world, the synagogue of the Yemenites.

The Yemenites

The Yemenites have played an interesting role in Palestine. I had heard much about them in America. Everyone coming from Palestine says something about them, but the picture I had in my mind was not a correct one. They come originally from Yemen or Oden in Asia Minor. Among themsleves they speak in Arabic dialect but with our Jews they converse in Hebrew. Almost all of them are very black like the blackest of the Arabs, not like the Negro Arabs of Egypt but like the family dark non-Jews of Palestine. Their features are Jewish but their noses are mostly straight, not hooked as with most of the European Jews. They do not do the hardest kind of manual labor. They carry big loads, they are house servants or do work on farms. But many of these common laborers are good students and there are even great scholars among them that have a large proportion of persons of ability. Also, many of them are very wise and sharp-witted in a practical way, but they are very pious. They tell me that even their rabbi works at a trade and takes no salary for his work as a Rabbi. Almost all of them wear fezzes, the red Mohammedan cap. It is strange to meet a black person with a big side-locks sticking out from behind a fez. One of the odd things told about them is the odd way they teach their children Hebrew. They show them how to read a page in four ways: the usual way, holding the siddur head down and looking on the words, from either side.

On the table lies a siddur or chumash. From all four sides of the table stand boys and all read the same page at at the same time. They haven’t enough books in their birthplace. So everyone cannot have his own siddur or chumash. We looked down into their synagogue on the street from the open windows. A remarkable scene again! The floor of the synagogue was covered with a beautiful carpet of bright colors. From the ceiling runs several rows of oil lamps, every lamp a glass plate filled with oil in which swim a burning wick. Most of the worshippers were in their red Mohammedan caps. They prayed with a remarkable enthusiasm and abandon, weaving themselves forward and backward and uttering the words of their prayers in tones that seemed familiar and altogether strange. The men and children wept as if of despair. The swaying back and forth was somewhat different from the way it is done in our synagogues. One Jew did it to a musical rhythm in which the deepest religious inspiration trembled for utterance. Little boys with bi side-locks also prayed with enthusiasm. It was a scene at which even a free-thinker would be filled with awe.

The Yemenites are to be seen in the streets quite often, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, and in all the Jewish colonies where they are employed at the hardest labor. If they could, they would all migrate from their old homes into Palestine. But they are not permitted to do that. And in their own home they are subject to the greatest persecution by the Arabs. When one of them becomes an orphan he is forcibly converted into a Mohammedan. Adults are also frequently compelled to change their faith.

And the Bokharans:

We visited the Bokharan synagogue. Different again, and very interesting again. The Bokharan quarter in general is interesting The Bokharan quarter in general is interesting. The Jews of Bokhara used to include a great many wealthy merchants who carried on considerable business with Russian and other countries. A large part of the commerce between Russia and Persia lay in their hands. Of scholars, however, they have very few. In the main, they are ignorant people and very pious. Among themselves they speak Bokharan. A Bokharan merchant would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Gradually, it became the fashion to build oneself a house in the Holy City, not as a permanent residence but as lodgings for the period of the visit. In this way they built up several streets with large and well-built houses.

The war killed their commerce and many of their wealthy folk became impoverished. So they came to Jerusalem and settled down in their own houses, not now on a temporary basis, but permanently. And the very houses which they had built as a luxury are now their sources of livelihood. They rent their rooms and thus eke out a living. They are gradually getting to be merchants again. From its outward appearance, the Bokharan quarter is one of the best of the Jewish ghettos in Jerusalem. It does not go downhill. It is located ona high, almost level spot and the rows of houses are among the best in the entire district. But even here Jerusalem does not look like other cities. Everything is full of dust. The street is a thoroughfare but it does not seem paved. Here and there is a patch of waste as after a fire. All streets here seem as if they were being rebuilt after a devastating conflagration or pogrom.

Old Jerusalem seems too old and new Jerusalem seems too new, like a newly constructed suburb. In that district is the Jewish section called the “Hundred Towers” or meya shearim. The name is ancient but this quarter has sprung up in the last couple of decades. This place has appeared as a result of the Chaluka, or the division of charity money raised for the needy Jerusalem Jews. Pious old Jews used to go to Jerusalem there to live out their declining years. Others would go there to study the Torah or or read tehilim [Psalms] in the Old City. Jews from all over the world contributed to their support. Money was collected in the boxes nailed to the doors of synagogues and houses while collectors would go from place to place and take the money. All this was divided among the Jews of Jerusalem and that is why it is called Chalukah. That is how many shnorrers were developed. The system is responsible for more harm than good even from a purely religious standpoint.

The Chalukah

But the chalukah, it may be said, is a thing of the past. The Polish cities are horribly impoverished and the cities in Soviet Russia are cut off altogether from this form of activity. But in the last few decades there has been a generation of children and grandchildren of those who had been thus supported, who had been born in Jerusalem. A part of these constitutes the the population of those streets I mentioned a little before. Since they do not obtain any support from Russia, Lithuania, or Galicia, they must look for some occupation. Jerusalem is growing as a result of zionist activity in Palestine in general and in Jerusalem in particular. Hence new opportunities are being developed for people of enterprise and the desire and the capacity to work.

When you walk in the street of Jerusalem and meet Jews with long sidelocks dressed like Polish Chasidim don’t think that they are invariably immigrants. Frequently when I interrogated such a man in the street it developed that he had been born in Jerusalem. His father or perhaps his grandfather has been the immigrant and he first saw light in Jerusalem. He talks to you in Polish-Yiddish or Lithuanian-Yiddish, depending on where his parents had come from. Still you catch a tone or an accent in his speech that betrays the fact that he was not born in one of those countries. I say that their clothes are like that of Polish Chasidim, but that is only a general description. Many of them wear white kapotes or or bright yellow kapotes such as are not to be seen in Poland. Many of them long white kapotes with girdles like bathrobes.

This garment is probably suited to the climate, The sun here burning fiercely 8 months in the year, during our or five months in which it simply blazes. Light, white garments are are therefore appropriate here.

This article is being written in the beginning of October and yet people who wear European garb are dressed in white costumes and white canvas shoes as they do in in New York in July and August. The Arabs wear light garments in their own way. Our Orthodox Jews have these kapotes of light white canvas with or without stripes to adjust themselves to the climate. In the main, though, they are dressed as in Poland.

Hot But Dry

Parenthetically I would like to interject a few words about the climate. The sun scorches with an energy New Yorkers have no conception of. You must constantly look out for your eyes. When I go out for a ride or go for a stroll I must constantly be wearing sunglasses. It is also advisable to protect the neck and the back of the head against the sun. The Arabs have their head covered and light kerchiefs hand down covering the backs of their necks. Civilized people here wear the so-called taupee, a light hat with broad bent down brims to shade the head.

At every step you meet an Arab blind in one eye. They tell me that 40% of the Arab population is afflicted in that way. This is partly due to the dirt and the dust, but mostly to the sun. The heat here however is not so unbearable in July or August in New York. The temperature is much higher here, but at the same time the air is light and pleasant. And when you cross to the shady side, you do not feel the sun at all. To ride in an automobile, even in the hottest part of the day, is a joy. Breezes constantly blow, it is cool, and you forget the intense heat. When you stop for a while it is unbearable again.

The Spanish Jews

By the term “Spanish Jews” is meant those Jews who speak the Spanish Jargon, a dialect based upon Spanish the same way our Yiddish is based upon German. Many of them came here long ago from Turkey, Greece, or Serbia, for instance. Many of them were probably descended from the Jews who were driven out of Spain at the time of Abarbanel and scattered over various countries. Among themselves they speak spaniol, but with other Jews they talk Hebrew. They have certain customs or habits that appear strange to our Jews. For example, it is quite common to meet a simple spaniol Jewish woman with a cigarette in her mouth.

Jaffa Road

I have already written something about Jaffa road, the most important street in Jerusalem. It is in the New City and runs downhill very steeply like many of the streets in old Jerusalem. One of its sidewalks where the most important retail stores are to be found consists of steps. Streets in the form of steps are quite an unusual thing here. To get into a yard you must ascend steps. Often you see a long circly street with stony steps disappearing into the heights above. You ask what this means and you are told that this is ‘a yard’ or ‘this is an alley.’

On the sidewalk of steps of Jaffa road there is a long line of retail stores belonging principally to Polish and Russian Jews. Naturally you cannot expect a store like Wannamaker’s here. They are all small shops but some of them have quite a passable appearance and you can buy some good merchandise. On the opposite side there are stores also but not so many. Here are to be found the bezalel shops of various kinds of artwork, which are made of the bezalel handwork under the tutelage and guidance of the well-known artist, Professor Shatz. Along these sidewalks you meet every once in a while young people who speak Hebrew. You might say that the language of this part of Jerusalem is Hebrew, the people are modern and the stores are up-to-date. If you see a Jew with long sidelocks, here he is usually a passerby. If you try to speak Hebrew to him he becomes angry. To him it savors of modernity. The holy language is only for the Bible and the siddur. The girls here are dressed in the latest fashion, but you see few richly-dressed women or women who go in for real New York styles. Downhill the stores vanish. The street becomes wides and assumes the form of a sloping square. Here are all the banking houses, several Arab shops and some Jewish ones. Here also is the office of an American express company. At an empty wall you can always find Arabs squatting, smoking and chatting. Many of them are on the ground with their feet behind them. The square soon ends. A line of Arab bootblacks, not boys but elderly men, sit and cry for customers. We are already at the old wall of the city that surround Jerusalem. We are at a great door. You go through the door and you are in the Old City.

Christian Jerusalem

To visit only the Jewish and Arab streets and not to visit the places which the Christian world looks upon as holy is not to see the entire picture. There are months when hordes of Christina pilgrims come here, principally to visit the holy Jewish places, but this is not the season for it. The Christian Pilgrimage season begins in February. But even now there are some of these Christian travellers As for priests, monks, and nuns from various European nations, you always find them there. There are whole colonies of them. For every Christian church there is attached a whole crew of priests, sextons, and officials. And besides this all there are churches where holy sisters and brothers are maintained. These churches have been built in the locations which Christians maintain have some connection with the story of Jesus Christ.

The Jews wounded him, beat him, and placed him upon his brow a crown of thorns. He carried a great cross on his back. They say that he walked with this cross and on various points on his way to Calvary something or or other occurred to him. All these happenings are recorded in their Evangelium.

The road through which he passed on his way, to his crucification is called by the Christians Via Dolorosa or the Road of Pain. The Christians now point out this road and to fourteen places where Jesus stopped. They call everyone of these stations ‘places and they are numbered. First Station, Second, Third, and so on. The whole way winds through several streets, all in the Old City and the various station marked by tablets or churches. To get into the Via Dolorosa we first had to descend the David Street, that cellar street which is the most important in old Jerusalem. But you do not have to descend a long distance. You turn left into a narrow alley- narrow but not dark. From here you can turn into a second alley, then into a third, then so on. While walking you have over every now and then a little roof which connects both sides of the street. We paused the street of Arab shops, a lively street filled with almost through with Arab businessmen and Arab customers. Among this colorful mass of Arabs, a few Christian priests and nuns pass by every little while. We saw the Holy Stations, we saw the Christians kneeling before them. And so we went on and on by the Arabian streets calle by the Christians Via Delorasa.

Image by Forverts archive

Jews and Christians

In several places there are Jewish residencies also. We even observed the sign on a synagogue and a Yeshiva. The Jews totally ignore the character of the surrounding region as the Christians see it. Jews all over the world have become accustomed to being surrounding by chapels and churches. And what if they do stand there? You spit three times and go on. All these streets and alleys through which we now pass make the impression as being down deep as it the streets are narrow passageways between two hills or rocks, but that’s the impression made everywhere in old Jerusalem because the Christians keep them clean. Finally we came to a place that has the appearance of a small missionary house in New York. We entered. Nuns received us and one of them conducted us around the various parts of the building. According to what she said and according to what I had read, before this is is one of the two most holy places of the Christians in Jerusalem. The nun led us into a cellar, and pointing to a certain spot, she said: “It was here that the Jews demanded that our master be crucified”. She pointed to another spot and said, “And here they beat and tortured him and put the crown of thorns on his head.” I might have remarked, “Your christians themselves point to twenty other places in Jerusalem where this took place,” but I did not care to start a debate with her. She pointed to a stone that she said belonged to the courtyard of the palace where Pontius Pilatus lived.

It is very possible that here are really signs of the old Roman days. But it is a legend from beginning to end that Jesus suffered his martyrdom here about where the evangelium tells. At one spot where, according to the nun, the cross was placed upon the back of Jesus and where he began his “Holy March” there is a statue representing the incident. The whole church is not very large and not very imposing. But when the season comes for Christian pilgrims, it is always over-filled. This church was built by a Jewish meshumid by the name of Ritisbun. “By this act he wanted to atone for the great sin committed by the Jews,” the nun told me. We also visited the Har HaZeisim (mount of olives) which is also an important spot in the Christian legend. Close by this hill stand big and rich churches and not far from it stretches a long line of cloisters of Holy sisters or brothers are maintained. There is also a large church there on what they tell you Jesus came back to life.

Christian Legends

In general this district rich in Christian Legends is a world by itself. It has no connection with the Jewish sections of the Old city and the New. It is as a separate thing, severed, occult. You can live ten years in Jerusalem and never feel there is such a section. Only the Russian Sobor, the bigger of the two churches which the Czars built in Jerusalem, is in the neighborhood of the Jewish sections in the New City. This is a miniature world by itself. It is not connected with the holy places of Christian legend, being quite a distance from there.

We went to the mosque of Omar, the Mohammedan temple that stands on the site of the Holy Temple. But it was a Mohammedan holiday, and they would not let us inside. I saw the mosque from a hill and also from the entrance.

I mentioned various streets and various kinds of people. From all this, the reader can perhaps form the concept that Jerusalem is a city with a large population, but Jerusalem has not very much more than 60 thousand inhabitants and its most modern center gives the impression of a provincial town.

Ab Cahan; 2. David Ben-Gurion; 3. Berl Katznelson; 4. Rubashov; 5. Hartsfeld; 6. Nayshtot 7. Sphigelman; 8. Chaim Liberman (special Forverts correspondent for the story of the deathly riots); 9. M. Senders Image by Forverts Archive

Thanks to Chana Pollack for uncovering this gem in the archives, and to Bonnie Azoulay for transcribing.


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