Following the War of Independence, Israelis faced economic hardship, Arab aggression, and life in a divided capital — nevertheless the western sections of the city thrived and developed.
On 30 June 1967, the first Friday after the official reunification of Jerusalem, Muslim and Christian Arabs — whom, respectively, Jordan had banned from the Dome of the Rock and the Aksa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Selpulchre — were permitted to worship freely in the Old City for the first time in 19 years and mingle with their coreligionists from the West Bank.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews had been converging on the Western Wall in the biggest pilgrimage since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.
Gone, writes historian Sir Martin Gilbert, were the STOP! DANGER! FRONTIER AHEAD! notices.
Gone, too, were the 15-foot walls, barbed wire fencing, and mines that had blocked off through streets.
It's now been 47 years since the city was reunited — and memories of life during the 19 years when the city was divided, between the end of the War of Independence in 1949 and the 1967 Six Day War, seem to have faded.
The armistice between Israel and Jordan, signed on April 3, 1949, did not connote a political end to the conflict or an agreement about borders. This tentativeness left the city in limbo. Still, it didn't stop people from trying to carve out a sense of normalcy.
Elections for the first Knesset had taken place in January 1949, with the parliament's opening session held on February 14 in the Jewish Agency building on King George Street. Soon thereafter the Knesset moved a few blocks further north along King George to Froumine House, a former bank.
Municipal elections were also held in 1949. The city's first mayor was Shlomo Zalman Shragai, a journalist with the Hebrew newspaper Hatsofeh, mouthpiece of the Orthodox Zionist Mizrachi Party.
As a result of the fighting, Jerusalem had hemorrhaged population. The number of Jews dropped to 69,000 with many people leaving for opportunities in Tel Aviv. Fewer than 1,000 Christians remained and virtually no Muslims.
As the epicenter of Zionism, it was only fitting that, in August 1949, the remains of Binyamin Ze'ev (Theodor) Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, were reinterred at the Jerusalem military cemetery that now bears his name. Herzl, who died in 1904 at age 44, had been buried in Vienna.
For ordinary Jerusalemites life in the divided city was both thrilling and hardscrabble.
Just before ushering in the Sabbath, on February 11, 1949, Moshe Sachs dashed off a letter to his parents in the States. He thanked them "loads!" for their latest package — canned milk, chicken, baby food, and bars of soap.
Sachs, an ordained Conservative rabbi, had come to Jerusalem after serving in the U.S. Army during WWII and wound up in the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish underground headed by Jewish Agency leader and Israel’s first premier David Ben-Gurion.
Though he worked for the semi-governmental Jewish Agency, Sachs’ salary didn't cover such "luxuries" as a stove, refrigerator, and washing machine. His letters home show how appreciative he was of the generosity of his parents who, bit-by-bit, shipped the appliances from the United States.
In a letter dated March 29, 1949 he wrote: "Last Shabbat, we took a long walk through Julian's Way [today King David Street]. It was the first time I'd been right in front of the King David hotel and the Jerusalem YMCA. The area had been secured in the fighting immediately after May 15, but civilians had been kept out until recent weeks. Now the area is again humming — with immigrants and families that are spreading out."
Water supplies were erratic. By being thrifty and drawing water from a cistern under the porch, the Sachs family had enough to meet most of its household and drinking needs.
"The electricity question was resolved only three weeks after we moved in [May 14, 1949]," he writes. Moshe found an electrician to wire his house and finally prevailed on the electric company to link them to the main line. Electricity costs were so dear that the family used kerosene for cooking and heating. People would line up to buy kerosene which was sold out of the back of a truck. There was one thing where they didn't stint on electricity: laundering the diapers in the washing machine.
But there was no money for furniture so the Sachs family ate off boxes and suitcases — and yet they regularly entertained.
Few people had telephones. When back in the US, Moshe's father had a heart attack he tried to keep up to date by relying on ham radio operators.
"Most people have no money for a telephone. A phone is a real luxury in Jerusalem; we do not have one," he wrote his folks. "Phones are scarce in Israel, so to keep down the demand there is a neat system which requires a non-refundable payment of a fair amount of money to have one… if you do scrape together the money for a phone, your monthly bill is relatively high."
There were not many stay-at-home moms in Jerusalem in those days. Women worked to help make ends meet though even then many folks were in the red. Workers could never count on getting paid on time. Luckily, corner grocery stores and butchers shops operated on credit for months on end.
Yet the atmosphere was far from glum.
Here, as conveyed in Sir Martin Gilbert's Jerusalem in the 20th Century, is how Benjamin Ferencz, a Hungarian-born American lawyer and a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, found Jerusalem in 1950:
"Everyone seemed so full of hope and enthusiasm… that a new era was dawning for them. And the children were all so beautiful and the source of so much pride to all and not merely to the parents. The Jews I knew back home were all lawyers, doctors or businessmen, and here I saw workers in the streets, cleaning and digging ditches, and Jews from Yemen and other faraway places that had no connection to Brooklyn or the Bronx."
Gilbert also recounts the experiences of Mary Clawson, a Californian whose husband was an adviser to the Israeli government. She evokes the ambiance of the city in a 1953 letter home:
"Almost everyone looked poor; I did not see a single woman wearing hose, and the men wore no neckties; I must say I think the lack of hose and neckties were both excellent ideas. There seemed to be an astounding number of good bookstores around.
"We have no ration cards yet. So no coffee, eggs, meat, margarine, sugar, soap, etc. The neighbors have been unbelievably helpful and friendly and given or loaned us precious rationed things to eke out our meals, though I have been eating a huge amount of plentiful bread. I have never met so many people I like in so brief a time."
Food was indeed a problem for the entire country.
About half the city's food supply needed to be trucked over rudimentary roads up to the capital.
In January 1954, having now resided in Jerusalem for seven months, Mary Clawson wrote home describing how hard it was to make ends meet:
"There is no money for a car; the food budget needs constant watching and scrimping, and no dining out; there is not enough money for clothes; there is money for very few gifts; few, if any face creams, and hand lotions; no smoking or drinking and not much money for charity. There is no money… for household furniture and repairs; no items for upkeep of a garden, if you like to garden; much less is there any money left for the hobbies many Americans especially at this [her husband's] job level, consider in the category of essentials."
If anything, life in the Arab sector of divided Jerusalem was even harsher.
Other than demolishing the Jewish Quarter and dozens of synagogues in the Old City, desecrating Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives, and formally annexing east Jerusalem in December 1948, the Hashemite Kingdom made little constructive investment in the city.
On July 27, 1953, King Hussein announced that Jerusalem would be his "alternative capital" though he remained in Amman most of the time.
Israelis responded to Arab rejectionism and intimidation by carrying on with their lives and by building the area of Jerusalem they did control.
Unable to use its historic Mount Scopus campus because it was encircled by Jordanian-controlled territory, the church-owned Terra Sancta compound in central Jerusalem became the main Hebrew University site, with classes also held at dozens of locations around the city until, in 1958, the new Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram was inaugurated.
Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus was similarly off limits, so a new hospital was constructed on the hills overlooking Ein Kerem and opened in 1961. The hospital became a reality thanks to the generosity of thousands of American Jewish "Hadassah ladies" who helped raise the funds for its construction.
Large-scale manufacturing never took root in Jerusalem though small industry did find a niche in such outlying neighborhoods as Givat Shaul. The Binyanei Ha'uma (People’s Congress) convention center, begun in 1950, was fully completed in 1963. And in 1958, Heichal Shlomo was completed to be the seat of the two chief rabbis. Ben-Yehuda Street became the heart of the business district, and nearby Mahane Yehuda continued to thrive as the city’s fresh produce market.
Tourism became an important element in the city's economy and a number of new hotels were constructed.
Some tourists passed through west Jerusalem on their way to the Arab side. In 1958, Rev. John Keppel, his wife Mildred and their two children Daniel and Mark visited the Holy Land. Rev. Keppel was on his way to his new congregation in Indianapolis after three years of missionary work for the Disciples of Christ in Falkirk Scotland.
The family flew to Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv via Athens. Dan was about 10 at the time. The Keppels would have crossed the Mandelbaum Gate checkpoint into the Jordanian side. From there they toured the Old City, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea before heading to visit an orphanage in Jordanian-held Bethlehem.
Dan, now a financial consultant in New Jersey, showed me some of the slides his parents took of the visit. There is a forlorn photograph of the Western Wall and a striking interior shot of the Temple Mount or the Dome of the Rock.
Back on the Jewish side of town, another journalist, Gershom Agron, the founder of the English-language Palestine Post — later the Jerusalem Post — became mayor in 1955. Agron was a Labor Party stalwart and the newspaper was its English-language mouthpiece. Even as mayor, Agron insisted on reviewing the Post's daily editorial before the newspaper went to press, according to Jerusalem Post veteran staffer Alexander Zveilli. When Agron died in office in 1959 another laborite, Mordechai Ish-Shalom, led the city until 1965.
All the while, the menace of Arab snipers and infiltrators was never far away.
Jerusalem was surrounded on the north, east, and south by enemy territory — with a narrow makeshift corridor to the west that connected the city to Tel Aviv and the coastal plain.
Refugee camps known as ma'abarot housed Jews from Morocco, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen who had come to Israel with practically nothing. In Jerusalem, the camps were often situated just within the Israeli side of the armistice line, along Hebron Road in the outlying Talpiot neighborhood and other places. These areas usually took the brunt of random Arab violence.
Most often, the snipers took up positions at Arab Abu Tor and fired at Jewish Abu Tor and on the Jordanian-held Old City walls, aiming at Musrara. Arabs in Jabel Mukaber also directed their fire at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, situated east of Talpiot on the southern edge of Jerusalem’s armistice line and overlooking Bethlehem. In 1956, for instance, five people attending an archeological conference at Ramat Rachel, were killed by Arab marksmen. Among the killed was a dentist, Rudolph Rudberg, who'd reached Palestine in 1938 from Germany and had become president of the Israel Dental Association.
Arab infiltrators all too often crossed from the Jordanian-held territories to rape or kill. Many victims were children or teenagers.
And still, the Jews kept building. The Van Leer Institute, a combination of think tank and foundation was established in 1959. Nearby, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities opened up shop in 1961. The Beit Ha'am cultural center went up and served as the improvised venue for the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961.
A foreign ministry building never got built and instead its offices were housed — and remained so until relatively recently — in a warren of prefabricated one-story huts near the entrance of town. But the Israel Museum — home of the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls — was established in 1965 thanks to a grant by the Anglo-Jewish Rothschild family. Reform Judaism built a branch of Hebrew Union College overlooking the inaccessible Old City. And the Knesset, finally, convened in its own building at Givat Ram on August 30, 1966.
The divided city lacked the vibrancy of today's united Jerusalem. There were few restaurants and not much to do at night, but there were sidewalk cafes. Mercifully, the orchestra came to town; so did the theatre. In fact, the cornerstone for the Jerusalem Theater was laid in 1964. Plans to construct an official residence for the president of Israel went forward.
The legendary Teddy Kollek, who had been Labor Party prime minister David Ben-Gurion's right-hand man became mayor in 1965. His City Hall office was just 150 yards from the armistice line.
The right man, in the right place, at the right time, Kollek's mayoralty saw the reunification of the city. His tenure would span 28 years and he would help build many of the amenities that we Jerusalemites nowadays take for granted in a city that's history-rich but remains cash-poor.
Kollek had a knack for raising money from abroad. He created the Jerusalem Foundation and identified donors who were as generous as they were wealthy to fund parks, museums, and promenades in the new united Jerusalem.
The 1967 Six Day War in Jerusalem lasted from Monday morning June 5, 1967 to Wednesday afternoon. On June 28, 1967 the Knesset amended the law of 1950, which proclaimed Jerusalem as Israel's capital, to reflect the newly defined municipal boundaries. Nevertheless, from that Wednesday afternoon when the IDF recaptured the Old City, there have been those who have begrudged the Jews their unified Jerusalem.
During the recent 2014 summer disturbances, a key target of Arab rioters was the light rail station and line in the Shu'afat Arab neighborhood in north Jerusalem. Though Arab residents of Shu'afat and Beit Hanina have benefited greatly from the state-of-the-art light rail service, to the rioters the tracks and stations symbolized the unity of the city — and, moreover, the possibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence under Jewish sovereignty.
I Remember When...
Rivka Reiner, 70
The Jerusalem I grew up in was a small town. The running joke when I was in college was that the best thing about Jerusalem was the bus to Tel Aviv.
There were few outlying neighborhoods. Everything was pretty concentrated. Bus services were provided by the now-defunct Hamekasher company which went out of business in 1967.
My Jerusalem was an intimate place. My father was a rabbinical scholar, a dean at a Talmudic academy near where we lived. Mother was a housewife. We were two girls and three boys. Life was simple. No one told us not to speak with strangers. Strangers could be counted on to help. People lived modestly in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. There really wasn't much choice.
I attended the Horev Girls School on Strauss Street. When the weather was bad we'd take a bus. But that was an extravagance. I remember we always had the same driver. He actually got to know us by name.
Naturally, my parents could not afford a car. Very few people owned automobiles.
We had no telephone. In the event of an emergency one of our neighbors who was a physician — actually it was Prof. Ehrenfeld who taught at the medical school — had a telephone. My parents were on a waiting list for a phone and only got one after I was married at age 24.
The hardest economic times were during the 1950s. Though even in the 1960s life had few frills. We ate plenty of vegetables but seldom had any fruit. My father once went on a fundraising trip to London. When he came home he brought an apple which was served on the plane. We were thrilled and the entire family shared it.
Chocolate was also rare.
I remember that when my youngest brother was born, my parents got a washing machine which meant my mother didn't have to wash the diapers by hand. Of course, it was very expensive. I also remember that much earlier we got a refrigerator that was Israeli made.
Mom baked in an aluminum wonder pot – a si’ir peh-leh in Hebrew – on the stove top. We didn't have an oven.
When I was in high school there was a choice of five movie theatres — I liked the Smadar and the nearby café on the same block.
There were lots of cafes — and they were not expensive. Different cafes for different types. Atara on Ben Yehuda was for the movers and shakers.
My father never went to any café, firstly because he was strictly Orthodox and it seemed frivolous and also because it just wasn't his lifestyle.
Of course, we had no television. There wasn't any.
I began working as a secretary at the medical school in Ein Kerem where the new Hadassah Hospital campus was located. To get there, I'd take a bus from near my house to a hitchhiking post and wait for someone driving to the campus. People would routinely stop and give others a lift which for some reason was called a 'tramp'. Most people got to work by tramp.
This piece was first published in Israel My Glory