Jerusalem – 19th century childhood

People always long for the good old days. We yearn for bygone centuries when fridges, supermarkets and canned goods were still figments of an unknown future, momentarily forgetting the conveniences of electricity and running water. In his memoirs, Efrayim Cohen- Reiss of Yerushalayim records what it was like growing up at a time when wheeled vehicles were unknown in the Old City and people and their loads bumped along on the backs of donkeys and camels.

“One of my most vivid memories,” he writes, “is the visit of Emperor Franz Yosef (ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 5629/1869 when I was six years old. My father took me to see the beloved king’s arrival. I was especially wonder-struck by the king’s carriage, which was the first to ever enter the gates of Yerushalayim. Although I knew of the chariots of Pharaoh from the Chumash, this carriage was the first I ever laid eyes on. By order of the sultan, the road from Yafo to Yerushalayim had been paved in the king’s honor and his carriage was the first to arrive in Yerushalayim.”

Cohen-Reiss goes on to describe how Arab boatmen had a tremendous struggle rowing the emperor back to his ship after his return to Yafo. In those days, because Eretz Yisroel had no deep-water harbors, ships would anchor offshore and passengers and their luggage were hauled to shore in rowboats. At that time the sea was stormy and even the toughest boatmen were doubtful whether the emperor could reach his ship in one piece until the head boatman, a tall courageous Arab announced, “Let the emperor place his trust in Allah and myself! If G-d wills it, I will bring him in peace to the ship.”

After the king reached his ship in one piece, the Austrian consul asked the chief oarsman whether he preferred a medal or cash for his efforts.

“What good is a medal to me?” the Arab responded. “Will it make me a consul like yourself? Better that the emperor give me money to invest in a small orchard.”

In those days children studied Torah so intensively that the notion of school vacations was almost unheard of.

“In Yerushalayim of those days,” Cohen-Reiss remembers, “the concept of school vacations scarcely existed except on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and even those days were not completely hefker since it was compulsory to study in the afternoons until Mincha. The only other offi cial days we got off were Erev Rosh Chodesh when children would go out on an outing for an hour or two.

“However, there was one day when kids enjoyed an unofficial vacation that they enjoyed most of all. This was Erev Shabbos, especially during the long summer afternoons, when we would stream out of the Old City and go to Batei Machseh (the first neighborhood built by Jews outside the Old City), which, in those times, consisted of a few buildings, and heaps of sand and open spaces that we utilized for our games.

“The liveliest of all our pastimes was the game we called Shelach Lecha Anashim where we split into two groups and waged mock war against one another until one group succeeded in driving the other group from the battle field.

“We also devoted those free hours helping to build the new shul of the chassidim (the Tiferes Yisroel), which was then nearing its completion. We volunteered our services, bringing the builders stones and mortar and helping them in innumerable ways. Although this involved a certain amount of danger when we clambered up high ladders and crawled around on the shul’s dome, we placed our trust in Chazal’s promise that ‘the emissaries of a mitzvah will not come to harm.’

“On one occasion I fell three meters into a pile of mortar, fortunately suffering no harm. As my friends carried me home, I begged them to take me up to the roof of our house to prevent my mother finding out what had happened, and a few days passed before she discovered that had her son been bar mitzvah, he would have been obligated to say birkas Hagomel.”

After their fun and games, the boys would hurry to immerse in the mikveh of Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol in the Shiloach Spring, which was much more of an adventure than going to the mikveh of the Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid Shul or the Turkish bath of Rav Nissan Beck.

“It was clear to my friends and myself,” Cohen-Reiss writes, “that this was the very mikveh where Rabbi Yishmael purified himself before rising to heaven to inquire whether he and the other ten martyrs were expected to lay down their lives or not.

“In those days, the Shiloach spring was a public area belonging to the Arab Shiloach village, and we had to suffer indignities from Arab women coming down to draw water who took the opportunity to curse the Jews arriving there. Arab bathhouses in those days were of a much higher standard than their Jewish counterparts; we generally washed in them before Yom Tov.”

Many of the boys began their Erev Shabbos at the crack of dawn. Since meat was scarce, many youngsters would get up early and hurry to the slaughterhouse, since in return for hauling half a sheep to town, their families and their neighbors would be assured of receiving a portion of meat for Shabbos.

“My brothers and I only did this occasionally,” Cohen-Reiss writes, “except on the day before Hoshana Rabah when we would not forgo the experience for anything in the world. Usually, we tried to waylay Rav Shalom the shochet who lived nearby in our street and accompany him there. At first he would yell that we must return home in order to not to be late for cheder, but he soon calmed down and conversed with us amiably the whole way.

“We especially enjoyed hearing Rav Shalom reciting a blessing in Arabic – ‘In the name of Allah, the merciful and gracious,’ before reciting the blessing of al hashechita. When I once asked him the reason for this extra blessing and why he said it first, he explained that it was a government decree and that the Arabic blessing was recited first so that it should not interrupt between the Hebrew blessing and the shechita.

“He added that the kehillah had to invest great efforts before the Moslems agreed to saying the blessings in this order, since they too were sensitive to any insult to their blessing. In return for this privilege, the Mufti demanded a quantity of rice and sugar sufficient to last him a few months.

Cohen-Reiss relates that as soon as the meat was ready to be sent to town, he and his friends would compete for the privilege of taking a half sheep to town. At the butcher shop, a wall separated the butcher and community treasurer from the people waiting outside.

“There was a huge commotion,” he writes. “Women especially, drove the meat merchant, Reb Yechiel Hacker, to distraction with their pleadings: ‘Reb Yechiel! Have mercy! All I want is one piece of meat for my poor husband who sits and learns the whole week. Please, Reb Yechiel, do not leave my husband without meat for Shabbos!’”

Cohen-Reiss describes the courtyard where he spent most of his childhood in Yerushalayim.

“The windows of our house faced the site of the Mikdash,” he writes. “From time to time, visitors to Yerushalayim would climb onto our fl at roof to look at the Har Habayis whose whole vista was spread before their eyes. On Yom Tov, minyanim of Jews would climb onto our fl at roof in order to daven Mussaf in view of the holy place.

“I would sometimes ask my mother, ‘Why is our inheritance in the hands of foreigners? Why are we worse off than all the nations?’ She would always comfort me, ‘When we merit and Moshiach comes, we will joyously enter the Beis Hamikdash.’

“I used to wonder what would happen to the trees and buildings of Makom Hamikdash after the Beis Hamikdash came down in its glory. Would they be destroyed? Although my mother never answered this question, my teacher Reb Yissachar Ber told me, ‘Why should they be destroyed? They are not houses of idolatry? They will certainly survive.’

“It was clear to my friends and me that the Moshiach’s arrival was imminent. After all, was it not for this reason that the Arabs locked the city gates every Friday afternoon, the exact time when the Moshiach is expected to appear at the gates of Yerushalayim!

We did not know that the real reason was to prevent Falachim (rural Arabs) from coming in to steal and rob when the Moslems gathered to pray in the El Aksa Mosque.

Cohen-Reiss remembers that for some Yerushalmi Jews it was Yom Tov the whole year round.

“Yerushalayim of those days had two and a half banks,” he writes. “The half bank was situated in the small shop of Nata Hirsh Hamburger who often sat there in Shabbos clothes with a shtreimel on his head. His customers would then wish him mazal tov and ask ‘Who had a bris today?’ You see, Reb Nata Hirsh was a popular mohel in Yerushalayim, and whenever he performed a bris, he would spend the whole day in his shop with Shabbos clothes.”

Living opposite Har Hazeisim, Cohen-Reiss always knew when Jews were being interred there.

“Whenever lights suddenly appeared on Har HaZeisim in the dead of night,” he writes, “we knew that yet another soul had departed to its eternal rest.

But the fear that gripped our hearts was tempered by our certain knowledge that with the blowing of Eliyahu’s shofar, the dead of Yerushalayim would be the first to rise up and enter the Temple Mount’s Sha’ar HaRachamim that faces Har HaZeisim.”

(Source: Avraham, Yaari. Zichronos Eretz Yisroel. Ramat Gan: Massada Publications, 1974. Note: The above article is adapted from the memoirs of Efrayim Cohen-Reiss of Yerushalayim, and is not a literal translation.)

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