Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

A walking (or armchair) tour honoring Jerusalem's renowned terrific women 


Since recorded history has not been kind to women, it is not surprising that the first place in Jerusalem known to be associated with a unique woman—in fact a queen—is called the Tombs of the Kings! [#1 on map] In 1863, Frenchman Louis-Felicien de Saulcy, the first person to conduct an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem, thought he had discovered the tombs of the Judean kings. Located north of of the Old City, where Shchem (Nablus) Road and Salah-a- Din Street meet, one can visit the courtyard of the tombs, descend 23 steps, see the remains of two Doric pillars and a frieze decorated with a bunch of grapes and acanthus leaves. The extensive rock-hewn underground burial chambers could be sealed off securely by rolling a huge stone in a furrow across the entrance (the stone is still there). Other tombs from that era have similar “rolling stones.” Interned here was a Palmyran queen, Helena of Adiabene (from northern Mesopotamia), who had converted to Judaism around the year 46 and came to live in Jerusalem. When de Saulcy secretly whisked part of her sarcophagus to the Louvre—thinking it belonged to the wife of King Zedekiah (hence the mistaken name-Tombs of the Kings), he caused an uproar in Jerusalem. Since then, archaeologists have been seen by some right-wing Israelis as grave desecrators.


Just below Jaffa Gate, west of the Old City, is Hutzot Hayotzer, a 19th-century shopping arcade. At the bottom of the steps, where Mitchell Garden begins, is an old grinding stone [#2 on map] from an 1886 flour mill which stood nearby, owned by Kreshe Berman and her sons, Yehoshua and Eliahu. Kreshe arrived in Jerusalem from Lithuania ten years earlier with her husband and their four children and settled near the Hurva Synagogue (in the Old City), where her husband spent his days studying and praying, thus assuring the family’s future in the next world. The minor matter of feeding the children in this world was left to his wife, who started to bake and sell cakes. When Russian Christian pilgrims began to ask for black bread, then unavailable in the city, Kreshe figured out how to mix the fruit of the carob tree with the local flour to produce dark bread. Soon she established the first commercial bakery in the country. Kreshe died in 1933, at age 105, leaving behind some twenty grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. The Berman Bakery, now located at 26 Beit Hadfuss at Givat Shaul (an industrial area in the western part of the city), is still operated by her great-grandson Yitzhak Berman and two of his five daughters, Noa and Teda.


From Kreshe Herman’s grinding stone, walk through Mitchell Garden and past the Sultan’s Pool—a water reservoir which used to cover the area named for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who repaired it in the 16th century—to Derech Hebron and the Cinematheque [#3 on map], founded by Lia Van Leer and her late husband, Wim, in 1981. (Le Monde has called it “la plus belle cinematheque do monde.”) The Cinematheque houses Israel’s finest film archive and the most important collection of Israeli and Yiddish films and films on Jewish themes. Lia, who directs the archive and the Cinematheque, also established the highly acclaimed Jerusalem International Film Festival which is held here annually, and she serves on the juries of the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals as well. Lia successfully fought to keep the Cinematheque, which is a major cultural and educational institution, open on the Sabbath, helping to keep youth from traveling to Tel Aviv for weekend entertainment. The Cinematheque occupies a series of beautifully renovated buildings (note the red roofs and stone-framed windows) which were part of a settlement built here in 1900 by some impoverished Jews, and abandoned after the massacre at Hebron in 1929. There is a pleasant restaurant at the Cinematheque and on sunny days one can sit at the terrace and gaze at the southwestern corner of the Old City wall and at Mount Zion, across the Valley of Hinnom—the site where children, during biblical times, were sacrificed to the god called Molech.

Lia Van Leer’s home [#4 on map] is located in Yemin Moshe, nearby to the Cinematheque, across the B’nai Brith Bridge and past Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Built in 1892 and named after Sir Moses Montefiore, Yemin Moshe was practically deserted between 1948 and 1967, when it bordered on no-man’s-land. Since the Six-Day War, however, nearly all the houses have been lavishly renovated, including the Van Leers’ house, which was remodelled by architect Moshe Safdie. It stands at the end of Pele Yoez Street, next to the water fountain.


Polly Van Leer, Lia’s mother-in-law, was one of the colorful figures in the city during the 1950s and 1960s. Of Dutch origin, married to Bernard, who headed the Van Leer Industries (an international packaging company), Polly settled in Jerusalem after World War II and started a well-known salon of philosophers, scientists, and artists from around the world. Polly created and published the Chronicles, Bible stories written in contemporary newspaper form, a popular bar/bar mitzvah gift to this day. She passionately believed in Isaiah’s prophecy—that “from Jerusalem shall go forth the teaching”—and she set about to build nothing less than “The Center for Advancement of Human Culture.” Polly established and built the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which shares a campus with the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities in a complex at 43 Jabotinsky Street [#5 on map], next to the president’s official residence. The elegant neighborhood is known as Talbieh, and it contains many spacious 1920s houses, typical of affluent Christian-Arab construction during the British Mandate.


Talbieh abuts Rehavia, where, closer to the center of town, Yad Ben-Zvi [#6 on map] is located at 17 Alharizi Street, off Ibn Gavirol. Now a memorial to Israel’s second president, Izhak Ben-Zvi, it was his wife who turned the house into Jerusalem’s first official presidential residence. A remarkable woman, who arrived in the city from her native Ukraine in 1908, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi helped shape modern Jerusalem. Among the schools she helped found were the Hebrew Gymnasium, still one of the city’s finest high schools and currently located a couple of blocks away from Yad Ben-Zvi, and later the agricultural high school for girls in Talpiot, opposite the Haas Promenade with its fabulous panoramic views of Jerusalem from the south. Known affectionately by oldtimers as “Rachel Yanait’s farm,” the girls’ high school now serves as an experimental agricultural station of the Hebrew University. Between 1948 and 1967, when the school was in no-man’s-land, Rachel established the Bin Karem agricultural Youth Village on the western boundary of the city. Rachel also played a pioneering role in the Women’s Labor Movement and in Ahdut Ha’avodah party in Palestine and she was a leader of the Haganah, the pre-1948 Jewish militia, as well. When Izhak Ben-Zvi was inaugurated in 1953, two Swedish prefabricated huts were added to the original 1920s house at 17 Alharizi to serve as reception areas. The huts soon became a meeting place for all segments of Israel’s new and diverse society. Yad Ben-Zvi is open to the public and visitors are welcomed.


A slight detour brings one to 9 Hakalir Street [#7 on map], in the tranquil Orthodox Sha’arei Hessed quarter, where the poet Zelda Shneerson Mishkovsky lived toward the end of her life. Born in Yekaterinberg, Russia, Zelda came to Jerusalem in 1928 with her family, the Shneersons, of a distinguished rabbinical line. She received her education at the Orthodox Spitzer School for Girls—a beautiful building still standing in the Bukharan Quarter— where she found the regime severe and uninteresting. She later studied at the Mizrachi Teachers’ Seminar, where she was exposed to some of Jerusalem’s best minds and where she grew intellectually, socially, and culturally. Upon graduation, Zelda taught, wrote poetry and drew. Happily married, she published her first volume of poetry upon her husband’s death. It brought her instant acclaim as a sensitive, lyrical poet, and she continued to publish five further volumes, bringing to her readers what T. Carmi has characterized as “a unique blend of deep religious feeling, drawing on Hasidic lore, with a modern poetic sensibility.” Her apartment became a salon for Jerusalem’s literati and other cultural figures.


Next to Sha’arei Hessed stand several tall apartment houses, Kiryat Wolfson [#8 on map], which overlook the Knesset and the Israel Museum. There lives Ayala Sachs Abramov, nee Ben-Tovim, a distinguished art connoisseur and philanthropist, especially noted for her support of contemporary Israeli art; a pavilion dedicated to this genre at the Israel Museum is named for her. Ayala and her husband donated the library at Hebrew Union College—designed by Moshe Safdie—at 13 King David Street, a great place to browse and read. The old Ben-Tovim house is located at 138 Jaffa Road, guarded by two stone lions. Originally a Turkish guard house, it was turned into a residence for a British consul who lived there until 1890. Today it serves as the Mahane Yehuda Police Station. Ayala’s great-grandmother was Kieshe Berman!


Going back toward the center of the city, at 2 Rehov Ha’maalot [#9 on map], on the corner of King George Street, lived the poet Elsa Lasker Schuler in an unhealed, sparsely furnished room. She was born in Berlin in 1869, and was already well established and considered by some to be the greatest lyric poet in the German language of the time when she immigrated to Palestine in 1939, escaping Nazism. A true Bohemian, she was considered by Jerusalemites to be rather eccentric; one of her favorite haunts was the Zichel Cafe on 6 Ben Yehuda Street—now gone—which was a well-known meeting spot in pre-Independence days. Lasker Schuler’s first volume of poetry was published in 1902, her last in 1943, two years before her death; her most famous work is Hebrew Ballads. S. Y. Agnon recited the Kaddish at her funeral on the Mount of Olives. It is said that when giving her street address, Lasker Schuler always added “opposite Beit Ha’maalot,” the first modern apartment house in Jerusalem built in the 1930s in the International style. Lasker Schuler herself lived in a hovel, but her residence faced Beit Ha’maalot, which was very elegant (and still exists).


Just two blocks away, at 26 Ha’histadrut Street, corner of Hillel, is another 1930s International-style building, decorated with an arched arcade—a local “oriental” motif. Now an office building, this was the former Eden Hotel [#10 on map], a popular gathering place for Israeli politicians when the Knesset used to be located nearby at 26 King George Street. The Eden was also the place where Henrietta Szold lived while in Jerusalem—a woman whose lifetime accomplishments in health, education, welfare, teaching, and publishing are legendary. Born in Baltimore, she first visited Palestine with her mother in 1909, and while enchanted with the beauty of the country, she was also shocked by the squalor of its inhabitants. As a founder of Hadassah, and with the American Zionist Organization, where she was a key figure, she was instrumental in establishing Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, and she headed its Nurses Training School. (Hadassah Hospital was first located at 37 Rehov Ha’nevi’im, near the Ticho House.) In 1934 Henrietta Szold laid the cornerstone for the Mount Scopus Hadassah Hospital, designed by the renowned German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn. In the same year she founded Youth Aliya, a remarkable organization that brought Jewish youngsters, mostly orphans, from war-ravaged Europe to a new life in Palestine.


An oasis on Harav Kook Street, just off bustling Zion Square, is Myriam with its small museum, surrounded by a spacious garden and featuring a pleasant cafe. One of the first residences outside the Old City, built in the 1860s by Aga Rashid of the Nasheshibi family, the house is an architectural gem, typical of Arab residential construction, with thick walls, domed rooms and pointed arches. The lives of two interesting women are associated with the house. One was Myriam Harry, author of La Petite Fille de Jerusalem, a charming book about growing up in this house in the 1880s. She was the daughter of Moses Shapira, a converted Russian Jew who married a German Lutheran deaconess, and in her memoir Myriam describes the various creatures that roamed the flower-filled garden, including a deer and an ostrich. An antique dealer of dubious fame, Shapira supplied the British Museum with the “oldest written text in the world.” When it was exposed as a fake, the disgraced Shapira committed suicide and his family soon left Jerusalem for Europe. Myriam died in Paris in 1958, at age 83.


In 1924, Moravian born Abraham and Anna Ticho, who had arrived in Jerusalem in 1912, moved into the Shapira house. Abraham was an eminent opthamologist who worked hard to combat trachoma, a disease then rampant in the Middle East which, left untreated, causes blindness. He counted kings Faisel and Abdullah among his pre-1948 patients. His hospital occupied the first floor, while upstairs Anna created her enchanting black-and-white charcoal and pencil drawings of Jerusalem and the Judean hills. When she died in 1980, at age 86, she bequeathed the house to the people of Jerusalem. Anna’s paintings, along with her husband’s books, photographs and historic documents, are now on display at the intimate house-museum.


The old Hadassah Hospital (mentioned above) was located a few houses up the street, on the corner of Harav Kook and Ha’nevi’im. A block away is 64 Rehov Ha’nevi’im (Street of the Prophets) [#12 on map], a compound with a charming garden where two other noteworthy women lived. The two-storied house on the far left was built in the 1870s by the British Pre- Raphaelite painter, William Holman Hunt, during his third stay in the city. He left it to his Russian housekeeper, and the Russian Orthodox cross (from her time) can still be seen over the entrance. Turkish soldiers were billeted there during World War I, and soon thereafter. Dr. Helena Kagan moved in. The Tashkent-born, Swiss-educated physician—a descendent of the Gaon of Vilna—was a pioneer in pediatric medicine who cared for children of all religions, especially poor and homeless children. Among the honors bestowed on her was the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civic award. She lived in the house for over fifty years, until she died in 1978, at age 89.


In the small house on the right of the courtyard, the poet Rahel lived in 1925. An early halutza—pioneer—the beautiful Rahel Bluwstien arrived from Russia in 1909, and later settled in Degania and tilled fields on the shores of the Kinneret. She suffered from tuberculosis, however, and was forced to move to Jerusalem with its drier climate. In this house Rahel wrote of the pear tree that blossomed outside her window, diverting her from mourning her own life. How could she think of her own withering blossom when spring presented her with such a glorious bouquet? She composed passionate poems, some to an unknown lover. Her poetry, much of which has been 0put to song, has endured as an indelible part of Israeli folklore. She eventually moved to Safed and then to Tel Aviv where she lived in abject poverty. In 1931 the 41-year-old Rahel died of consumption.


Continuing west at the end of Ha’nevi’im, one reaches 161 Jaffa Road [#13 on map], the original Sha’arei Zedek Hospital, where another remarkable woman who played a central role in the development of health services in Jerusalem lived and spent most of her time. The diminutive Schwester Selma [Nurse Selma]—no one seems to remember her last name—was one of the first two Jews to be certified in nursing in Germany, where she was happily employed in Hamburg’s Salomon Heine Hospital until Dr. Moshe Wallach convinced her to join him in Palestine as head nurse in “his” Sha’arei Zedek Hospital. She arrived in 1916, during World War I, to find an institution with only one physician and one qualified nurse, no running water or electricity and no transportation other than donkeys. She soon whipped the place into shape, establishing standards of practice and patient care which have come to define hospital nursing in Israel. The School of Nursing that she founded at Sha’arei Zedek in 1934 is still one of the foremost in the country. Schwester Selma lived on the hospital premises until her death in her late 80s. The hospital moved to new premises in Ba’it Va’gan in 1980, and there are now plans to renovate the old site. Completed in 1902 with the financial help of German Jews, the original building was designed by architect Theodore Sandler, a German Templar. It was considered one of the most elegant buildings in the city.


Not far from here, in a small and spartan apartment located on Hatzvi Street [#14 on map], in Romema, lives the doyenne of Bible teachers—some say of all time—93-year-old Professor Nehama Leibowitz, who still holds classes here. The sister of maverick philosopher- scientist, Yeshaya Leibowitz, she was born in Riga and received her doctorate from the University of Berlin prior to immigrating to Jerusalem in 1930. She began teaching 70 years ago, originally by stencilling sheets with questions about the weekly Bible portions—the famous Gilyonot—which she wrote, duplicated, and distributed internationally. These have since been collated and published, as have her lectures and comments on the Five Books of Moses. Professor Leibowitz has brought up generations of Bible students from all over the world, engaging them through her unique method of teaching. An Israel Prize recipient, Nehama Leibowitz has become a legend in her own time.


Our tour ends at the city’s southwestern corner, on Shmaryahu Levin Street [#15 on map], where Zena Harman has been living for the past 25 years. As a young, new immigrant from London, she worked as one of Henrietta Szold’s last assistants. Influenced, no doubt, by her experiences with Henrietta Szold, Zena Harman went on to have a distinguished career that focused mainly on the welfare of children. Israel’s representative on the U.N. Human Rights Commission and many U.N. General Assemblies, longtime Chair of UNICEF who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf, still later elected a Member of the Knesset on the Labor Party ticket, she now—in her 80s— serves as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Correspondent for Israel. She also conceived, founded and was the first Chair of the Jerusalem Council for children. Zena Harman’s daughter, Naomi Hazan, now serves as a Meretz Knesset member Shmaryahu Levin is a quiet street on the slopes of a hill not far from the new Hadassah Medical Center, overlooking Mount Herzl and the majestic Jerusalem forest.

Both authors are themselves connected to many of the notables on this stroll. Dorothy Gitter Harman is director of the Van Leer Forum at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute (as well as being the editorial consultant in Israel for Harvard University Press); site is the daughter-in- law of Zena Harman. Nitza Brown Rosovsky’s great-grandmother was Kreshe Berman, and Ayala Sachs Abramov is a cousin: Helena Kagan was her mother’s perdiatrician, and Dr Ticho operated on her grandfather. Rosovsky. says she remembers visiting the Ticho house on this occasion, in the 1940s. Rosovsky is the author of Jerusalem Walks (Holt) and editor of City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present (Harvard University Press, 1996).

To end one’s tour

by Rabbi Susan Schnur 

LILITH’s editors suggest, in honor of these 16 reclaimed “daughters of Jerusalem,” a recitation of Proverbs 31, to be declaimed on Shmaryahu Levin Street, looking out over the Jerusalem hills:

A Woman of Valor, who can find?
For her price is far above rubies.
The hearts of her spiritual daughters
do safely trust in her.
And we have no lack of gain.
She fears the Lord and laughs at the dme to come—
Helena of Adiabene;
And eats not the bread of idleness, but rises while it is yet
night to feed households—
Kreshe Berman.
She treasures the past of her people and safeguards it—
Li a Van Leer;
And sits among the elders of the land, her lamp going not
out by night—
Polly Van Leer.
She fights and imagines and creates a sacred future—
Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi;
And the law of kindness is on her tongue—
Zelda Shneerson Mishovsky.
She stretches out her discerning hand to the needy—
Ayala Sachs Abramov;
And follows her soul, in life as in her word—
Elsa Lasker Schuler.
Like the merchant-ships, she brings provisions from afar—
Henrietta Szold;
And she considers a field, and writes of it—
Myriam Harry.
She works willingly with her hands, delivering her paintings
unto the people—
Anna Ticho;
And the children rise up and call her blessed—
Dr. Helena Kagan.
She opens her mouth with wisdom—
And does good and not evil all the days of her life—
Shwester Selma.
She is known in the gates, strength and dignity
her clothing—
Nehama Leibowitz.
She looks well to the ways of all nations—
Zena Harman.
Many women have done valiantly.
But you—daughters of Jerusalem—surpass them all.
Grace is deceitful, and beauty vain;
But you who have loved and served Jerusalem,
You shall be praised.
Let us—your daughters—give you the fruit of your hands.
And restore your names to the gates. AMEN.