For the tourist, Jerusalem is often all ancient ruins or brilliant modern buildings, but rarely do we see what life was like for the thousands of Jews who lived there but a few hundred years ago – or even more recently. We all have different ideas about how life was lived there, some of us wear rose tinted spectacles and others are more sanguine. Moses Montefiore certainly was in the latter group.
Heading down towards to Kottel from the Jaffa Gate, you could easily miss - but you really shouldn’t – The Isaac Kaplan old Yishuv Court Museum.
This fascinating museum consists of a warren of courtyards, tiny apartments and artefacts from both the Sephardi community, exiled from Spain and arriving via Turkey and the community of Ashkenazi Jews. These followers of the Vilna Gaon, who trekked across Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lived in the Jewish Quarter, making Jerusalem a Jewish majority city by 1850.
The museum explains how they lived (in extreme poverty mostly), where they dwelt (often one family in just one room, around a tiny courtyard) and how they made a living. Look out for the iron bedstead and its amazing story!
Some real surprises await you as you arrive at a ‘secret synagogue’ (to avoid the prying eyes of the Ottoman authorities), learn how the wives of many scholars began industries to support their husbands (and had to learn new industrial skills along the way) and find out how some of Israel’s earliest settlements began, sometimes faltered and eventually flourished.
The Museum then leads you to domestic equipment and furniture from the Mandate period in Jerusalem, which was marked by the arrival of electricity, running water and more Arab riots. The siege of Jerusalem in 1948 is examined via a special exhibit on how 380 fighters and residents of the Jewish Quarter were captured by the Jordanians and were held as Prisoners of War near the Iraqi border.
And Isaac Kaplan’s link to the museum? He was the generous benefactor who funded this fascinating, out of the ordinary, museum.
You can find the old Yishuv court Museum at 6 Or Hachaim St in the Jewish Quarter, as you walk down from the Armenian Quarter,before you reach the Cardo.
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