April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Illustrious Women of the Rova HaYehudi

During the week leading up to Yom Yerushalayim, the city was preparing for the great celebration of its 1967 miraculous victory. Sites that had been liberated during the Six Day War throughout and around the city were being toured by the many local and international tourists who had flocked to the city for the celebrations. Among the activities were tours of the Rova HaYehudi, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Housing the Cardo, the hub of commerce dating back centuries to the era of the First Temple, a portion of this area was dug up after the 1967 victory and now is a popular tourist destination for visitors housing gift shops, art galleries and excavations of layers of earlier periods.

Yad Ben Tzvi was founded in 1947 in recognition of the work of Yitzchak Ben Tzvi, second president of Israel from 1952-63, for the purpose of studying documents and manuscripts relating to the history, communal life and Jewish culture of communities under Islamic rule in the Middle East. The Ben Tzvi Institute initiates and supports research and publishes monographs and texts on these cultures. It houses many rare documents relating to these periods. The Institute also hosts a Center for the Study of the Land of Israel and offers tours throughout Jerusalem of historic sites.

The tour we joined was led by Yad Ben Tzvi educator Michal Ben-Moshe whose mother had also been a guide for the Institute. The focus of our tour was to learn about women who had lived in the Rova HaYehudi at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and had contributed greatly to the life of the community.

We began our tour under an overhang that had housed one of the first medical clinics in the Rova. At the end of the Ottoman period and beginning of the British Mandate, the Jews of the Rova lived under sparse conditions. The women of Sephardic backgrounds were usually confined to their homes as their husbands went out to work.The Ashkenazi women went out of their homes to work to supplement the small payments that their husbands earned while studying in local yeshivot supported by funds from abroad. They worked mainly in social services, providing health-related services to the residents.

In 1910, Etya Henya Szold, whom we know as Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, came for a visit to the Rova. She was appalled by the unsanitary conditions that existed within these quarters. What most pained her was that the infant mortality rate was staggering, most babies dying before age 1. She realized that in order to prevent these losses, sanitary conditions had to be provided for the residents. She would have to educate the new mothers in the proper ventilation of their homes, in purifying water and in trusting the care of doctors.

Through her efforts, along with other women, she established a sanitary birthing center and a nursing center. She brought into the Rova deliveries of fresh milk that was distributed by donkeys throughout the area. These activities marked the beginnings of Tipat Chalav, which today serves new mothers and their babies with medical care throughout Israel. Through Henrietta Szold’s improvements, the mortality rate of babies in the Rova plummeted to 1 in 1,000 deaths per birth.

Our next stop was in front of the home of Krisha, who came to Yeruhalayim from Russia with her two sons. Seeing the need for food for the many hundreds of pilgrims passing through the city, she decided to bake her special bread and sell it to them. From this income she supported herself and her sons and was able to distribute bread to the desperately poor in the Rova. Assisted by her sons, she provided most of the baked bread for the Rova. Eventually, her bakery extended outside the Rova to new areas such as Givat Shaul. But the Rova bakery was the site of the original Berman Bakeries, which have been in business since the days of Bubba Krisha Berman. The original logo, that of an anchor, still remains on the packaging, symbolizing the logo on the original wagon that her son had appropriated from the British Navy and which he used to deliver his mother’s breads throughout the Rova.

Another stop was at the home of Cheysha who came to Israel from Kovno with three daughters at the urging of her husband who traveled to the U.S. to earn money for the family. Cheysha settled in the Rova and began baking for the residents. She became known as the Lekach Makherkeh, the honey cake maker, as she baked honey cake and lokshin, noodles, from her small home in the Rova. Krisha worked tirelessly and was finally blessed with a son.

Our next stop was in front of a home that was located within an arch of the wall of the newly constructed Churva Synagogue. Gitel Dinowitz came to Israel from Odessa where she and her family owned a specialty food shop. In 1906 when she arrived, the Rova was impoverished. Gitel opened a store offering the unusual foods they had produced in Russia. After her husband died, she was left with six children to raise alone. But she kept up the store during and after World War I and provided food and shelter to new olim and volunteer Jewish soldiers. As the entrance to her home was a long and narrow hallway; she was able to hide military equipment out of the sight of British soldiers. She became known as the “Eshet Chayil, Protector of Jerusalem.”

Ritza Chen-Tov moved to Israel from Belorussia after tragically losing her husband and seven children. She settled in the Rova where she joined up with other women who were living alone after suffering losses like hers or were unmarried. Rather than living with sadness and despair, she joined others and formed an organization called “Matziv Gevul Almana,” sets the quarters of a widow, a term we recite today in a blessing upon seeing a new community in Israel being established within its boundaries after a long period of desolation. Rather than spending the rest of their lonely lives simply waiting to die in Israel, these women, headed by Chen-Tov, took upon themselves the caring for the residents of the community through cooking, sewing, mending and many other helpful activities. To this day, the organization is remembered for its great chesed.

Esther Selengut grew up in a fervently Zionistic family in London. Thus it was no surprise that, in her early 20s, she decided to make aliyah. Arriving in Jerusalem in 1948, she began teaching at the Evelina de Rothschild school. However, as soon as the newly declared nation was attacked, she decided to move to the Old City and fight along with the other chayalim. She lived in an army headquarters above the Cardo and went out on fighting missions. Even after being injured, she insisted on joining the fighting forces. During this dangerous period, she wrote over 120 letters to her family in London conveying hope and happiness. In one famous letter she pleads, “Do not be sad upon my loss. I have lived a short but sweet life. I am proud to be among the courageous women who were privileged to be in the Rova HaYehudi.” Esther lost her life at age 23 fighting for Medinat Yisrael. Her moving letters were compiled by her brother Asher in a book called “From London to Yerushalayim” and are still read widely today.

Our inspirational Yad Ben Tzvi tour highlighted for us one additional extraordinary group of remarkable individuals who courageously worked toward the building of our treasured city of Yerushalayim.

Yad Ben Tzvi is located at 14 Ibn Gabirol Street in Jerusalem and can be reached by calling 02-539-8888 or visiting www.ybz.org.il.

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