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The City With ‘Street Cred’

Ben-Yehuda-House Ben Yehuda House on Jerusalem’s Ethiopia Street

Ethiopia Street is just a hop, skip and jump away from the open-air and always-buzzing Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the heart of Jerusalem.

In this fascinating city, where at almost every turn there is something that catches one's eye, heart and historical strings, the serenity found in the winding narrow street just off the bustling HaNevi'im Street (Street of the Prophets) and the parallel Jaffa Street, is particularly captivating.

The attractive buildings along Ethiopia Street come in all shapes and sizes, and boast incredibly diverse histories. The silence is almost deafening the day this writer takes a stroll down the more of a lane than street. That is until a flock of loudly squawking birds on high suddenly descend on the best vantage point in the neighborhood – a church dome.

The yellow and pinkish tints in the white Jerusalem stone facades on some of the buildings glisten in the strong sunshine. The effect is almost as if some magical fairy dust had been sprinkled over the neighborhood abodes. The stones, seen-better-days weary wooden shutters, exquisite iron railings on the balconies and decorative metal and wooden doors, all emanate an undiluted and powerful sense of pride in their past.

However, there is also an atmosphere of tiredness, a sort of borderline tinge of neglect in the air, a realization that in present times the cost of purchasing and maintaining such properties is almost as high as the dome cum bird perch atop the Ethiopian Church half-way along the street, after which the street is named.

Most of Ethiopia Street's buildings were constructed in the 1880s with one of its most famous residents, the reviver of the modern Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922), living for a good number of years with his wife and family at No. 11. The front door of the former Ben Yehuda abode opens directly out on to the narrow street. It is just a dozen or so steps away from the high-walled and iron-gated entrance to a large courtyard and the impressive silver-domed, circular Ethiopian church opposite.

Affixed to the wall between the front door and an arched window at No. 11 is a sign, relatively small in comparison to the legacy left by its former resident Ben Yehuda. The sign reads:

"Born in Lithuania, Ben Yehuda studied in heder, yeshiva and secular high-school. In 1878, while studying medicine in Paris, he recognized the connection between the revival of the Jewish national identity and that of Hebrew as a spoken language.

After settling in Jerusalem in 1881, he and his wife Dvorah decided to speak Hebrew only, obliging Ben Yehuda to both reintroduce words from the traditional texts and conceive new ones.

Ben Yehuda persuaded the High Commissioner that Hebrew should be one of the three official Mandate languages. He published a 16-volume dictionary and three Hebrew language newspapers.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth, Ben Yehuda's efforts in reviving spoken Hebrew received UNESCO acknowledgement."

Ben Yehuda's great pains to revive Hebrew as a spoken language led to many clashes with religious Jews, who considered it a holy language that should only be used for prayer.

Apparently in the past, Ben Yehuda's home sported a much more impressive official blue and gold commemorative sign, as seen on buildings of historical importance throughout the city, but at some point this disappeared and was replaced by the rather unimpressive, present-day plaque.

I am sure the great linguist would have had a few words to say about that.

A number of other buildings at the beginning of the street are of particular interest, but one has to look up to see inscriptions and artwork in the stone, such as the Lion of Judah emblem sitting pretty above a top floor balcony. This is one of a number of buildings constructed by the real-estate savvy Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II, who wanted to generate rental revenue for their neighboring church.

The Ethiopian Church on Ethiopia Street

An official blue and gold sign on the gate post of the compound tells us that this walled-in compound was built in stages between 1874 and 1901, at its center a round church, modeled on churches in Ethiopia, around which are situated the residences of the monks and nuns. An inscription on the gate, in the Ge'ez language proclaims that "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has triumphed," and also commemorates King Menelek II of Ethiopia.

Absorbed in reading the sign, I am approached by two elderly Ethiopian monks in long black robes – both are walking with the aid of sticks and carrying plastic bags of shopping. Their heads bob up and down as they, in Ge'ez, take it upon themselves to explain about their church on the street named after their country, and I, in both Hebrew and English, attempt to introduce them to the legacy of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who had lived across the street.

After a few minutes of smiles, some laughter and a great deal of hand gestures, we part company, our sign language not working out too well, but finishing with a well understood by all "Shalom, shalom." 

The close proximity from the Ben Yehuda front door to the entrance to the Ethiopian Church courtyard - an Ethiopian monk can be seen just leaving the courtyard

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Tuesday, 20 April 2021

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