This ancient village, in a deep valley at the western edge of Jerusalem, is traditionally regarded as the birthplace of John the Baptist. Now incorporated into Jerusalem, you can reach it in less than 30 minutes by bus no. 17 from King George Street or Jaffa Road. The lanes and gardens of Ein Kerem (Well of the Vineyard) are lovely; the old Arabic-style houses have been grabbed up and renovated by some of the city’s most successful and famous inhabitants; and high above the area, on the crest of the mountains, is the vast Hadassah–Ein Kerem Medical Center (not accessible from Ein Kerem itself). Ein Kerem contains a number of 19th-century European churches, convents, and monasteries. Most important is the Church of Saint John in the center of town, marking John the Baptist’s birthplace (daily 6am–noon and 2–5pm); on request you can see the grotto beneath the church with its Byzantine mosaic. On Ma’ayan Street, you’ll find the Church of the Visitation (daily 8–11:45am and 2–5pm), commemorating the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It was often depicted in medieval and early Renaissance paintings as a scene in which the two expectant women touch each other’s stomachs, and according to legend, the two infants jumped for joy inside their mothers’ wombs when Mary and Elizabeth met. Below the Youth Hostel off Ma’ayan Street is a mosque and minaret marking the well from which Mary drew water; farther along the ridge is the Russian Convent, known as the Moscobiyah, a fascinating enclave of 40 Jerusalem stone buildings scattered among a wooded area of pines and cypresses. The nuns live in small, ocher-painted houses reminiscent of wooden cottages in Russia. You can make an appointment to visit by calling tel. 06/625-2565 or 02/541-2887. Bring a snack or canteen along, or you can pick up something in the grocery at the center of town. Restaurants here look appealing, but meals are expensive and nothing special. The times for return to Jerusalem should be posted at the bus stop in the center of Ein Kerem; you may have to wait in downtown Jerusalem for up to 30 minutes until the infrequent bus no. 17 to Ein Kerem picks you up.
In the 1850s, British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, with the help of Judah Touro from New Orleans, built the nucleus of this residential quarter, the first outside the walls of the Old City, in an effort to bring indigent Jews from the Old City into a more healthful environment. The project included a now-famous windmill for grinding flour. Despite its magnificent view and graceful architecture, the neighborhood remained poor for more than a century.
Today, Yemin Moshe is a picturesque, beautifully restored neighborhood—an architectural treasure and one of the most elegant addresses in town. There are no shops, but the views are spectacular. It’s a fascinating place for an early evening or winter afternoon stroll (don’t attempt it at noon in summer unless you enjoy heatstroke). Note: The steep pedestrian-street staircases of Yemin Moshe may make visiting here a bit difficult for some.
Down one of the first flights of stairs is the Yemin Moshe Windmill, which houses an exhibit room dedicated to Sir Moses Montefiore, a famed 19th-century Jewish philanthropists and proto-Zionist. It’s open Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 4pm, and until 1pm on Friday. Admission is free. Below the windmill is the original row of old stone buildings (Mishkenot Sha’ananim), the first Jewish houses built outside the walls of the Old City since ancient times. Ornamented by Victorian ironwork porches, the buildings are now used as residences by visiting artists and diplomats.
A replica of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia stands in the center of Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Garden, across King David Street from the windmill. You may wonder why a copy of the Liberty Bell has been made into the centerpiece of a Jerusalem park. The words inscribed on the American original were spoken by one of Jerusalem’s most famous inhabitants, the Prophet Isaiah, more than 2,500 years before the Declaration of Independence: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof.” It was with these words that Israel’s independence was announced in 1948.
This area, a few blocks north of Jaffa Road, is populated by Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews of East European origin. It is a world unto itself, and a visit here is like going back in time to an era of religious Eastern European Jewry that existed before the Holocaust. A number of residents here speak only Yiddish in conversation, as Hebrew is considered too sacred for daily use. Some don’t even recognize the laws of the Israeli government, believing that no State of Israel can exist before the coming of the Messiah.
Architecturally, Mea Shearim has the feel of an 18th-century Polish neighborhood, the more so because of the traditional dress and lifestyle of its residents. Visitors to this area are requested to dress modestly (no shorts, short skirts, uncovered arms or shoulders for women; slacks for men). Men and women are advised not to walk in close proximity (certainly not hand in hand), and visitors are advised to stow away cameras and to be very discreet in taking photographs. No inhabitant of Mea Shearim will voluntarily pose for snapshots, and there have been incidents in which improperly dressed visitors have been spat upon or stoned.
German Colony & Baka
About 1.6km (1 mile) south of downtown West Jerusalem, these two picturesque neighborhoods are filled with overgrown gardens and are undergoing a process of gentrification. For many years after 1948, the old cottages and mansions (built at the start of the 20th c. by German Protestants and affluent Arabic families) housed Israelis from exotic places such as Kurdistan and Morocco, but more recently, members of Jerusalem’s American, British, and Latin American immigrant communities have been moving in. Emek Refaim Street (a southern continuation of King David St.) is the German Colony’s main artery and is lined with shops and eateries; a walk down Yehoshua Ben Nun Street, which runs parallel to Emek Refaim 1 block to the west beginning at Rachel Immenu Street, gives you a better idea of the neighborhood’s interesting old residential buildings. For those who like architecture, the quiet back streets of this neighborhood are good places to meander by bike or on foot.
A turn to the west from King George V Avenue, at either the Jewish Agency compound or the Kings Hotel, will bring you into Jerusalem’s most prosperous residential section. Rehavia’s glory is its collection of 1930s International Style apartment buildings and houses made of Jerusalem stone, many of which are, sadly, being razed in order to build high-rises. Talbeyeh, just to the south, is filled with elaborate villas and mansions built mainly by Jerusalem’s Arab Christian community in the 1920s and 1930s. Abandoned when their original owners fled in 1948, these houses are now inhabited by Israelis. Hovei Zion Street is lined with examples of these gracious homes.
Sights in the area include the prime minister’s residence, at the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin, at the southern edge of Rehavia. And in Kiryat Shmuel, is Bet Ha-Nassi, the residence of the president of Israel. You can look through the gates, but except for receptions, neither building is open to the public.
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