An Afternoon in Ein Karem

Like London, there are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem which still preserve their pastoral atmosphere – villages and moshavim which have been incorporated into the municipal boundaries but which have, so far, managed – often after protracted legal struggles, some of which are ongoing – to resist the attempts of City Hall to turn them into ordinary urban neighbourhoods. Alas, the current municipal administration cares little for beauty, and the assault on the environment continues unabated.

One such neighbourhood is the village of Ein Karem, in the south-west of the city, below the Hadassah Hospital campus. I had an afternoon free, and some points to use up by the end of the year, dating back to the cancellation of a couple of Yad Ben Zvi‘s full day tours two years ago during the first COVID lockdown, so one day last month, I took the time to renew my acquaintance with one of the most beautiful, and still mostly unspoilt, areas of the Capital.

Ein Karem is mostly known to Christian visitors as the supposed birthplace of John the Baptist and, as such, has a very high concentration of churches, convents and monasteries of all the major denominations.

Here, for example, is the Russian Orthodox “Gorny” (Mountainous, in Russian) or “Moskobiya” Convent – which we did not have time to visit.

We did visit two of them – the Catholic monastery of St. John ba-Harim (Hebrew for “in the Mountains”) and the Catholic Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. Since the churches all close to visitors at 5pm, according to our guide, we had to visit them first.

The former really does have the Hebrew name written in Latin characters over its gateway:

Our guide explained to the all-Jewish group, the ways in which one can identify which sites belong to the various Christian denomination. In this case, the most obvious giveaway is the official flag of the Franciscan Order’s Custody of the Holy Land flying over the gateway, bearing the symbol of a large cross, with four smaller crosses, one in each corner, which is also carved into the stone lintel above the gates.

In the courtyard are many panels, donated by organizations all over the world, containing the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67 – 79) in many languages. This, as our guide explained, was the song of praise uttered by John’s father, who had been mute since expressing his scepticism when informed by the Angel Gabriel that his elderly wife Elizabeth would bear him a child, and who only regained his voice after writing at his son’s circumcision ceremony (for he could not speak) that the infant was to be called John, as had been prophesied:

The church itself is under restoration (and has been, it seems, for several years). It was possible, however, to visit the Crypt beneath the altar which is said to be the actual site of the birth of John the Baptist:

The second church we visited was the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, an Order founded by the Ratisbonne brothers, Theodore and Alphonse, who were Jewish by birth but converted to Christianity and who saw it as their mission to convert other Jews to Christianity. We were there to meet Sister Régine, a 101-year-old Jewish-born nun from Bulgaria. She told us her story of how she and her family escaped the Holocaust, how they travelled on a ship that was wrecked off the coast of Turkey in a storm, how her mother and brother drowned, while she and her father were rescued and Régine found her way to a kibbutz. Since, in Bulgaria, she had been educated at a school run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, the nuns back in Bulgaria, hearing what had happened to their former student, sent word to their community in what was then known as Palestine, and they offered to take care of her and invited her to Jerusalem. Eventually, she converted to Christianity and joined the Order. She did not explain why – but, after Sister Régine left, our guide told us that he had had many talks with her, and that, although she would not say so, her decision was, in a great part, made in anger at God for allowing the Holocaust to happen. I don’t really see the logic here. Jews who had converted to Christianity were not exempt from the Nazi race laws, after all. But who am I to judge? I know there were Jews who completely lost their faith in God in the wake of the Holocaust, and there were others who emerged from that Hell with their faith strengthened. We who were not there, who did not endure its horrors, have no right to judge.

By the way, the convent church is where, years ago, my choir made our first professional recording, for the disc The Seventh Gate. Unlike most Roman Catholic churches, it is minimalistic in style, with a very simple, almost austere interior. Note, for example, this frieze showing the Stations of the Cross:

The images look almost like ancient cave paintings, don’t they?

By the time we had concluded our visit in the convent, it was already dark and we wandered around the largely unlit lanes and alleyways of the village until we came to the Hotel Alegra.

This boutique hotel, a favourite with couples seeking a romantic getaway, is located in an old Arab house that used to be known as “The House of the Jewess” – and here is the bitter-sweet Romeo and Juliet story behind the name.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, in the village of Ein Karem, lived a young man called Jaber Rahil, the eldest son of a wealthy and respected Christian Arab family. One day, Jaber rode on his white horse to Jerusalem, and there, he espied a group of young Jewish girls. His eye was immediately drawn to one in particular. Her name was Alegra Bello, daughter of a prominent Sephardic Jewish family. In fact, her father was the Chief Undertaker of the Jerusalem Sephardic community.
Nor did the dashing young horseman go unnoticed by Alegra. The two began to meet secretly, but it was not long before news of the affair reached the ears of their families – both of whom strenuously objected to such a scandalous relationship.

But young love brooks no obstacles and one day, the pair simply vanished. They had eloped to Bethlehem, where Alegra converted to Christianity in order to wed her beloved.

It was only several months later that news of their marriage reached the ears of their families, who turned their backs on the wayward pair. Indeed, Alegra’s father went so far as to mourn her as dead and to sit shiva for her, in accordance with the Jewish custom. Jaber’s father eventually came round, after Alegra gave birth to her first-born son, Youssef, who was, after all, his grandchild. Moreover, she had accepted their faith and converted to Christianity. According to one story, he declared that he would not have his grandson grow up in poverty, and built a house for the young couple in Ein Karem. Another version of the story says that it was Jaber himself who built the house for his bride, and that their first child was born there. Whatever the truth of the story, the house came to be known as “The House of the Jewess”.

When, years later, Alegra heard that her father had died, she took her children to Jerusalem to visit her family, but although her mother initially embraced her, she told her that her father had declared Alegra was never again to be admitted to the house – and sent her away. And in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Arab inhabitants of Ein Karem fled to Jordan – among them, the Rahil family, including Alegra and her children.

Alegra never saw her Jewish family again, but our guide told us that after the Six Day War, contact was re-established by descendants of the two families.

The house in Ein Karem where Alegra lived with her husband and children changed hands – and purpose – several times, at one point serving as a museum, until it was converted to a hotel some ten or twelve years ago.

Our final visit in this enchanting neighbourhood was to the home of a friend of our guide – the ceramicist Ruth Havilio, who lives and works in a renovated Arab house in the heart of Ein Karem, so that we could get an idea of what a traditional Arab village house looks like from within.

As is customary in Arab villages, the house is intended for the dwelling of the extended family, and has several wings built around a small central courtyard. All around the house and courtyard were flowers, including late-blooming roses (in November!) and flowers spilled out of huge earthenware pots all along the stairways and balconies.

Most of these old houses also had a section on the ground floor where domestic animals, such as chickens and goats were kept, and for use as storerooms. Of course, when such houses are renovated – as in this case – such spaces are converted to other uses.

Ruth’s studio was on the top floor of one of the wings:

It was by now almost 8pm. The tour had already lasted an hour longer than planned. With a last, lingering look across the valley to central Jerusalem, we were obliged to drag ourselves away and head for home.


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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10 Responses to An Afternoon in Ein Karem

  1. Carole Schulman says:

    I enjoyed every single word and photo. It was a pleasure to read this.

  2. catladymac says:

    Thank you for taking us along on this tour !

  3. Lynn Riley says:

    I enjoyed so much seeing the photos where you’re walking down the narrow Lanes between these ancient buildings. Where all these flowers and shrubs were well taken care of and blooming so beautifully. The architecture of the churches of course is just incredible. I find the story of the 101 year old nun rather curious. She quite obviously lived through the same atrocities that your father did. But then how she handled them later is interesting. You must have had miles and miles to walk that day and I bet your feet were tired.

  4. I very much enjoyed the tour around Ein Karem. It causes me to remember some good times. I would love to see more!

  5. 15andmeowing says:

    Beautiful photos. I always enjoy reading about the places you visit.

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