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Helen Cohn’s Giants and Ghosts in Jerusalem

Helen Cohn’s Giants and Ghosts in Jerusalem

Helen Cohn’s Giants and Ghosts in Jerusalem

As you stroll down Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim Street, absorbed in its eclectic array of shops and restaurants you are unlikely to pay much thought to its history. Beyond the well-known fact that it was the main thoroughfare of the German Colony established by the Templers, in the later part of the 1800’s the rest of its past has faded into obscurity.

The area is actually first mentioned in the book of Joshua as being located on the border of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The “rephaim” were an early people, thought of as giants, who were known to live over the river in Jordan. Their king was Og of the Bashan. Descendants of this tribe came to the Jerusalem area and settled in the valley which was named after them.

og 1

According to the book of Samuel 2 5:17, 3000 years ago, after David had conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and had been anointed king over Israel, “the Philistines came and spread out over the Valley of Rephaim”.
Not once, but twice and on both occasions David defeated them.
Isaiah 17:5 also makes mention of the place in reference to the ears of corn “that are gleaned in the Valley of Rephaim”.
The word “rephaim” evokes supernatural associations not only of giants but also ghosts, “ruach rephaim.” A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading novelists, joked that only Jerusalemites would be fearless enough to live in a place with such scary connotations, Tel Avivians would have changed it long ago.

In fact there were a few years when it was nicknamed “the Ashkenazi Colony” and briefly in the 1950s, “the Rambam neighbourhood”, in lip service to the new immigrants from North Africa who lived there. However in 1958, the official naming committee revived the original name and Emek Rephaim was here to stay.

After the War of Independence which cut off the small Armenian community living in the west of the city from their community in the Old City, a number of them came to live in the area and made one of the buildings into their church. If you look carefully as you walk along the street, vestiges of Armenian ceramic tiles can be seen above some of the houses.

Another little appreciated fact is that the side streets leading off the main drag commemorate important people, both Jews and non-Jews who helped or supported the Zionist enterprise before the creation of the state.

For example, the tiny alleyway called Patterson Street, is dedicated to Colonel John Henry Patterson who was the commander of the Zion Mule Corps.  This was a non combatant transport unit helping the British against the Turkish front and the first Jewish military unit to go into battle since the days of the Maccabees.

mule corps

So on the next occasion you take a stroll along Emek Refaim, you can conjure up the ghosts of the past and imagine what it was like in a different time and context.

Helen Cohn

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