Israeli Life: The Village in the Valley
Over the decades, there have been many plans to remake and build up Ein Kerem, but residents have fought to ensure the neighborhood retains its unique charm.
Israeli artist Ivan Schwebel lives on a mountain overlooking the suburb of Ein Kerem. One of his paintings depicts two angels hovering over the bucolic neighborhood, nestled in a valley beneath the Hadassah Medical Center on the western edge of Jerusalem. a Another local artist, Yitzhak Greenfield, makes his studio and home in a former flour mill. “When [my family] came here in 1964,” he says, “Ein Kerem was the most neglected place, the cheapest place and the most beautiful place. It is as close to paradise as possible.”
With its white almond blossoms in the spring, its winding streets, restored Arab houses and church spires, Ein Kerem is, indeed, one of the most picturesque places in Israel.
On weekends, throngs of Israelis stream to Ein Kerem to attend the concerts at the Targ Music Center, hike up the narrow mountain paths to historic monasteries, crowd into scenic restaurants and stay at one of the newly opened bed-and-breakfasts. The area has also attracted more permanent admirers—young, middle-class families are moving in, and real estate price have risen.
While expansion is taking place in Hadassah Hospital to assure the physical health of the country, the suburb beneath the hospital remains a quiet source of spiritual and artistic inspiration. “Patients feel that the view of Ein Kerem enhances their rehabilitation,” asserts Ein Kerem tour guide Penina Ein-Moor.
And as various development projects spring up in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem has become one of the last holdouts against contractors, bulldozers and the drive to transform rural and historic areas into suburban developments with sterile, cookie-cutter homes. Ein Kerem has had to struggle to retain its quaint, village-like charm—a fight most residents are more than willing to assume.
The most recent attempt at re-creating the Ein Kerem landscape was the Safdie Plan for the development of West Jerusalem. It proposed populating and industrializing the whole area around Ein Kerem. While it would not necessarily touch Ein Kerem itself, opponents argued it would remove the trees and greenery in the hills around the area, effectively destroying its natural beauty. Thanks to a vigorous local campaign by environmental organizations, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Coalition for the Preservation of the Jerusalem Hills, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski withdrew his support for the Safdie Plan and the Interior Ministry’s National Council for Planning and Construction decided not to approve it.
“It’s a good example of resident involvement,” says Jerusalem city planner Asaf Shaked.
Ein-Moor is one of the residents actively involved in preserving the character of the neighborhood and making it into a center of spiritual, cultural and ecological tourism.
“It’s as beautiful as Tuscany,” she says. In the 1990s, she and her husband became tour guides and created the Ein Kerem-Legend company (www.einkerem-legend.co. il), which also organizes special events in unique sites as well as ethnic meals at the homes of neighbors.
In the 1970s, piano duo Alexander Tamir and the late Bracha Eden came to Ein Kerem as music students looking for a studio. They created the Targ Music Center (www.klassi.net/targ) in an Arab sheik’s abandoned estate.
“It was a total ruin,” Tamir recalls. “We began restoring it, putting stone upon stone. When it took shape, we realized that it was more than a studio, that it could actually be a music center. The idea of making a castle or historic home into a music center existed in Europe, but had not yet developed in Israel. We wanted to promote chamber music in a beautiful atmosphere, but we also created a nonprofit organization to encourage young talent, new immigrants.” Over the years, the center’s intimate halls have hosted world-renowned musicians such as Isaac Stern and Jan Peerce. The center has become a focal point of Jerusalem’s classical music scene, offering a variety of concerts, recitals and music events throughout the year.
Most residents have simple reasons for living here. “I love having a big house,” says local homeowner Bonny Segal. Homes in Ein Kerem are different than most of Jerusalem—many are expanded versions of original residences from the 1950s, with large gardens amid natural settings.
“The new does not try to uproot the old, but rather to extend it,” writes former Jerusalem councilman Moshe Amirav in Ein Kerem–Voyage to the Enchanted Village (Ariel), his book on the suburb.
“Real estate is flourishing,” says Ofer Amsalam, a young real estate entrepreneur who also runs a shop in Ein Kerem selling his wife’s homemade chocolate. “People don’t tear down houses, [they] improve upon what exists…. In the last 10 years, young professionals with young families have been renting and buying here. They closed the elementary school many years ago because there were not enough students, but now we’re trying to open it again.”
The stone homes and surrounding hills dotted with olive and cypress trees give a spiritual feel to Ein Kerem. Neighborhood bulletin boards announce yoga, meditation, healing sessions; the sign on one house reads “Reincarnations.”
Sonia Twite recalls creating The House in Ein Kerem, a spiritual center, run out of her home, 92 stairs from the top of a hill with a sweeping view. Born in Bukovina, her family escaped to India during World War ll and then to Israel, where Twite lived on a kibbutz for 20 years.
“An astrologer once told me that I would head a spiritual center,” she relates. “I started studying healing, and [a] Reiki group was created in my house. The circles kept growing, and people who wanted to do workshops began calling from all over the world. There were Taoist teachers, a shaman, Reiki sessions. A New Age began growing out of an old house.”
Now in her eighties, she and her husband, Robin, have moved to Jerusalem’s urban center, and The House in Ein Kerem has closed, but there are many yoga and Reiki groups in the neighborhood.
Most of Ein Kerem’s spiritual vibe, however, is due to its historic religious significance. “In biblical times, it was called Beit Hakerem,” explains Ein-Moor. “It was a rich area of grape vines and winemaking, olive trees and presses. Jews would gather here to go up to the Temple to bring their sacrifices.”
But it is most known for its Christian heritage. John the Baptist was born here to an elderly couple, Elizabeth and the priest Zacharias: Two well-known churches, both called the Church of St. John the Baptist, commemorate the event. The freshwater Mary’s Spring is the traditional location where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her cousin, Elizabeth, John’s mother, first met; according to Christian tradition Mary washed her hands in the spring and blessed Elizabeth. Seven convents and monasteries, including the Church of the Visitation, were built and rebuilt in Ein Kerem.
Arabs settled here after the Muslim victory over the Crusaders in the 12th century, and a mosque, now abandoned, was built above Mary’s Spring. In the 19th century, the Turks allowed the development of churches and monasteries, and the village thrived as a place of pilgrimage.
On her tours, Ein-Moor shares the human interest stories. She talks about Jaaber, an Arab from Ein Kerem, who fell in love with and married Allegra, the daughter of the Sefardic head of the Burial Society in the 1920s; and the compassionate French nun, Sister Claire Bernais, who created St. Vincent’s to care for autistic and mentally disabled children at the St. Vincent Monastery; the institution still exists today.
During the War of Independence in 1948, the Arab residents of Ein Kerem fled and Mizrahi Jews settled in the ruins of Arab houses.
“The houses were rundown hovels,” recalls Julia Ben Shimon, who came to Ein Kerem with her husband and three children (five more were to be born in Israel) during the mass aliya from Morocco in the early 1950s. “We were 10 people sleeping on the floor, and I had to climb up the hill to get water from the well. We had no plumbing. But I had 500 lira, and we rented this place for key money from the government, which had taken over abandoned Arab houses. We cooked on gasoline heaters.”
Ben Shimon, now in her early eighties, welcomes visitors into her large, arched living and dining rooms. It’s a pleasant but far from luxurious home. She offers guests homemade marinated olives and spicy Moroccan fish.
“It was hard but we raised our family here,” says Ben Shimon as she warms up the fish in the microwave and then gestures toward pictures of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
From 1949 to 1954, the area around Mary’s Spring served as an agricultural youth village created by Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi for 250 children who survived the Holocaust. “That was the barn for the animals,” says Ein-Moor, pointing to a handsome Arab house being renovated as a kosher restaurant. “It took a while for…the orphans who had survived the Holocaust in European monasteries to get used to their new life. Some would cross themselves when they heard the church bells of Ein Kerem.”
One of the charms of Ein Kerem is its heterogeneity. Today, tourists of all kinds stream into the town. African Catholic clergy in their flowing white gowns can be seen alongside Israeli soldiers on educational tours. “Ein Kerem has spiritual significance for everyone,” says Ein-Moor.
In the late 20th century, development plans began to spring up every decade or so. In his book, Amirav records conflict between Christian groups, but also what he calls “the wars of the Jews” against the Land Authority and Jerusalem Municipality.
At the end of the 1950s, he writes, the municipality tried to stop Mizrahim from squatting in former Arab homes by destroying the houses. The municipality planned an international arts center in the 1960s, with hotels, tennis courts, swimming pools and 900 residences (today there are only 400). Over the next two decades, the neighborhood attracted artists, doctors and diplomats, and city planners wanted to make it into an exclusive upper-class Ashkenazic enclave. But many Yemenites and North Africans stayed, adding to their homes as their families expanded.
In the 1980s, the Land Authority came up with the Bnei Betkha plan. “In the early 90s,” says Ein-Moor, “residents learned that the Land Authority planned to parcel out plots of land for mass construction of houses and create a six-story hotel near Mary’s Spring. We formed a protest committee that not only said ‘no’ to the government plan, but created an alternative plan. We went as far as the Supreme Court, which ruled all building be frozen until the alternative plan could be presented. Residents hired architects, and they worked for five years on a new plan that allowed building onto existing homes, but maintained the open spaces and village quality of Ein Kerem.”
There is a fear that the efforts to preserve Ein Kerem will ultimately fail. Nevertheless, residents celebrate each triumph. “The wooded tracts above the valley and the rocky, terraced hills west of Ein Kerem would have been destroyed [in the Safdie Plan],” says Greenfield, whose art draws inspiration from these vistas. “This was seen as a great victory for environmentalists.”
“But you have to be vigilant,” adds Ein-Moor. “The six-story hotel is still on the books, as is a plan for 3,000 apartments down the hill from Hadassah Hospital.”
In Ein Kerem–Voyage to the Enchanted Village, Amirav points out that Ein Kerem has been called “God’s Village”—perhaps this will serve as its protection.
Ein Kerem Pilgrimage
The suburb is famous for its Christian history; here are a few of the most popular sites:
- Church of St. John the Baptist—There are two; look for the Catholic one in the center of town, with its Byzantine mosaic in an underground grotto.
- Church of the Visitation—An impressive Franciscan church, also in the center of town.
- Gorny Monastery (Moscobiyah)—The compound along the south of Ein Kerem has two churches and stone houses scattered among pines and cypresses.
- Mary’s Spring—The site of Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth, in a cave on Rehov Hama’ayan.