You never know quite what will happen when you’re in Israel. Last night was no exception. I was visiting with a dear friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, and as we were walking through the streets of the historic neighborhood where he studies Torah, we happened upon images of the area’s early residents. I remembered that earlier this year, ck sent me photos of Alcalays he had found among the portraits of Nachlaots early residents–asking me if they are my family.
I mentioned to Yitzchak that I’d like to try and find those images on the wall. It was one of those nights when the weather starts to get colder. The air was thick and and misty. We turned one corner after the next, winding through the tiny streets. I had no idea where we were but when we saw a few more images posted on a wall, I asked Yitzchak if he wouldn’t mind if we stopped to take a closer look. I approached the wall and in the course of what felt like a millisecond, realized I was looking into the face of my family. I burst into tears at the recognition, saying “That’s my grandmother. That’s my grandmother.” Yitzchak stood there dumbfounded, asking me, “How do you know that’s her?” All I could say was, “Because that’s my photo.” This image is part of every book talk I give when I describe what it means to me to be part of a family with historic ties to Israel and how that has informed my own Jewish identity. You can see the image on p. 175 of my book, Cool Jew, where the Levys of Ohel Moshe makes a cameo appearance. My grandmother and her parents lived in one of the early neighborhoods outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem, in the charming and historic area now known as Nachlaot, home of one of Jerusalem’s first Hebrew printing presses and where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda printed his first Hebrew dictionary. Like many early residents, their portrait appears on the wall of the street known as Ohel Moshe, next to the historic synagogue of the same name, which honors its benefactor, Moses (Moshe) Montifiore, who funded it in 1882.
I have long known my grandmother had grown up in Jerusalem but I didn’t know exactly where. I did know though, because she had told me in her own words before her passing in 1989, that her mother and grandmother had arrived in Eretz Yisrael on a donkey from Bulgaria. The trip took them three years! My grandmother’s story was confirmed last year when I tested my DNA and learned my only matches are Sefardic Jews of Bulgarian descent living in Israel!