Ger­man Jerusalem: The Remark­able Life of a Ger­man-Jew­ish Neigh­bor­hood in the Holy City

Thomas Sparr, Stephen Brown (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – June 28, 2021

To walk through Jerusalem’s res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods is to sense that the stones have a sto­ry to tell, the pave­ments exude his­to­ry, and echoes of time gone by linger in the air. Many tales here beg to be told.

Jerusalem’s vibrant neigh­bor­hood Rehavia serves as the fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject of Ger­man Jerusalem by Thomas Sparr. Sparr spins the tale of the airy, gar­den-filled neigh­bor­hood near down­town Jerusalem, estab­lished in the 1930s by Ger­man Jew­ish immi­grants as a cen­ter of cul­ture, intel­lect, and peace­ful although dynam­ic dai­ly life. Spa­cious streets marked by ver­dant green­ery and icon­ic stone apart­ment build­ings became the homes of trans­plant­ed Ger­man Jews who enjoyed their own fla­vor of cafe soci­ety, where sparkling con­ver­sa­tion about phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture, and the arts flour­ished. Lumi­nar­ies such as philoso­phers Ger­shom Scholem and Mar­tin Buber, archi­tect Erich Mendel­sohn, authors S.Y. Agnon and Amos Oz, polit­i­cal the­o­rist Han­nah Arendt, poets Yehu­da Amichai and Lea Gold­berg, and many oth­ers fre­quent­ed Rehavia either as res­i­dents, habitues of the cozy cafes, or both.

Ger­man archi­tect Richard Kauf­mann designed Rehavia as sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly ordered lat­tice streets” —even the phys­i­cal lay­out reflects the mea­sured beau­ty and struc­ture char­ac­ter­is­tic of the res­i­dents. The Hebrew word rehavia trans­lates to wide spaces” and, although by today’s stan­dards most of the streets seem nar­row and con­gest­ed with Jerusalem’s heavy traf­fic, the name still reflects the expan­sive cul­tur­al dis­cours­es that form a large part of Rehavi­a’s his­to­ry. Syn­a­gogues, schools, and munic­i­pal offices added tex­ture to the neigh­bor­hood and enhanced its vital­i­ty and ener­gy, as did the mix of sec­u­lar, tra­di­tion­al, and reli­gious inhabitants.

Sparr describes the tastes and aro­mas char­ac­ter­is­tic of Rehavia in addi­tion to its sights, observ­ing that a trip through Rehavia can be a sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence as well as an intel­lec­tu­al one. Still, the over­whelm­ing image of the Rehavia of the past, which res­onates in the present, is the high­ly devel­oped intel­lec­tu­al dis­course char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Ger­man Jew­ish pres­ence in the area.

This engag­ing­ly writ­ten his­to­ry brings a sig­nif­i­cant neigh­bor­hood to life as it nar­rates the sto­ry of its res­i­dents, entic­ing those who may not be famil­iar with this part of Jerusalem to fur­ther explore its his­tor­i­cal roots as well as its mod­ern joys.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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