History

Jew Disguised as Moslem, Sneaks into Cave of Machpela in 1888

Alder's fascinating description of the poor but hospitable Jewish community of Hebron who suffered discrimination.

14.10.18, 14:52
(PHOTO: "The Great Mosque At Machpela." Credit: Elkan Nathan Adler.)
 
Elkan Nathan Adler (1861 – 1946) was an English author, lawyer, historian, and collector of Jewish books and manuscripts. Adler's father was Nathan Marcus Adler, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. He traveled extensively and built an enormous library, particularly of old Jewish documents. Adler was among the first to explore the documents stored in the Cairo Genizah and was the first European to enter it. During his visits to the Egyptian city in 1888 and 1895 Adler collected and brought over 25,000 Genizah manuscript fragments back to England.
 
The following is from his book Jews in Many Lands, beginning on page 96.
 
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About four o'clock on Monday morning, the 1st October, 1888, we started for Hebron. The expedition was to cost me forty francs, but then I travelled in grand style. There are wagons which ply daily on the new carriage road between Jerusalem and Hebron, and the fare— for natives — is only three francs a head. My dragoman had a lovely Arab horse, whose gentle amble and easy canter were very much preferable to the jolts and shakes of the carriage and three provided by mine host, the excellent Mr. Kaminitz...
 
page 97
 
...The nearer one got to the city, the more people were to be seen on the road. When about a mile from the gates, I was met by Bezaleel Kaminitz and the beadle of the Hebron community, on horseback, who came cantering along. 
They had been sent by the Congregation to raise the hue and cry, for I had tarried so long in my coming that they feared I had fallen into the hands of the Bedouins. I did not stop, and Bezaleel, who is an expert horseman, wheeled round in fine style, but the beadle was less fortunate. His horse threw him, but he soon got on again, and onward he galloped, I galloped, we galloped all three. An estimable and well-to-do Turkish merchant dressed in silks and satins was soberly ambling along, on a large white donkey, in a reverse direction to ourselves.
 
The City of Friendship 
page 105 
 
Hebron, or Khalil, the " City of Friendship," is perhaps the oldest city of the Holy Land, and in interest it vies with Jerusalem itself. Among us Jews it is reverently described as Kivrei Avot "the Burial Ground of our Fathers," and a pilgrimage thither is highly esteemed. The Mohammedans regard it with even more reverence as a sacred place than Jerusalem, for is it not the last resting-place of Abraham — el Khalil Allah — the friend of God and His great prophet?
 
Their regard, although flattering to the founder of our race, carries with it the disadvantage that it makes the Hebronites the most fanatical of the followers of Islam, and the most intolerant. Christians cannot live at Hebron, and Jews there are treated as dogs. Curses both loud and deep greeted us as we walked round the Great Mosque, which encloses the Cave of Machpelah ; but, as we did not understand the meaning of the imprecations or appreciate the delicacy or appropriateness of the choice epithets applied to us, and, as the missiles thrown at us were not well aimed, we could afford to treat our reception with amused nonchalance. Nowhere in the East did I meet with such bigotry as at Hebron, and it did not surprise me to learn that Dr. Stein, the medical man whom we sent out there some time ago, has no Mohammedans among his clientele, because the Hebronites, unlike the Mohammedans who Hve in Jerusalem and elsewhere are too utter fatalists to believe that medicine can arrest the progress of disease or the angel of death. 
Though the local government there and in the neighboring villages employs him occasionally, it is merely as a coroner to inspect a corpse or hold an inquest and certify the cause of death! Still he is honored with the title of Government Physician, and though his services are gratuitous, the fact that they are accepted adds to his influence. He is extremely well liked by the Jews, and they were unanimous in his praise. Dr. Stein takes great interest in the climatology of his station, and asked me to apply for him to the Meteorological Office for Barometer, Thermometer, and Rain Gauge. I ascertained that, for years past, no observations had been made nearer than Beyrout, and Mr. Reginald Scott, the Secretary of the office, gladly submitted my request to the Council. However, they could not accede to it, because Hebron is not a seaport nor its weather likely to affect navigation. 
 
Hebron is the first town seen by the wanderer who reaches Palestine by way of the Desert of Sinai. Even the most phlegmatic of temperaments cannot fail to be deeply impressed by a pilgrimage to the last resting-place of the Patriarchs. But quite apart from considerations of sentiment, the beauty of its position and almost English verdure of the slopes which surround it make Hebron pre-eminent. It is, therefore, by no means surprising to find that Dean Stanley and other writers are quite poetical in describing the contrast between the wilderness of rocks one has to traverse for many days, and the fertility of the well-watered valley in which it lies. The prevailing color of the surrounding cliffs is purple, and the Mohammedans say that from the red earth of Hebron, Adam, the first man, was formed, and that thence he derived his name. The connection thus made between Adam and Edom, or Esau, the traditional patriarch of the Arabs of Syria, is worthy of note. That Adam was also buried here, both Talmudical and Mohammedan legends agree. Its early name — Kiriat Arba — which might mean "the City of the Four Patriarchs," is pointed to as evidence in favor of that hypothesis. 
 
Machpelah 
 
The mosque, built of red and white marble, is almost square, and its four minarets, one rising from each corner, give it a characteristic appearance. The massive smooth-hewn stones of the enclosing wall remind one of the ruins of the Temple, and the sixty square buttresses and cornices all around remain to show us how strongly fortified it must have been at the time when the Crusaders were borrowing territorial titles from Hebron, and the Saracens were winning back the territory itself. Like all the holy places it has passed through many vicissitudes, and had been both temple and church before Saladin made a mosque out of it. Into the Mosque itself, no Giaour is permitted to enter without the Sultan's special firman. 
 
This was obtained by the Prince of Wales when he went there in 1862, and the visit is graphically described in Stanley's "Sinai and Palestine." But without a firman the most powerful persuasives will not secure an entrance. Even Baron and Baroness Edmond de Rothschild could not succeed in getting the Pasha of Palestine to admit them on his own responsibility, and so, although they travelled by land all over Palestine, Hebron they did not visit. And Mr. Benn Levy has told me that a bribe of five hundred pounds was not sufficient to make the Governor of Hebron, or the Sheikh of the Mosque, stretch a point in his case! In a corner of the enclosing wall, near the lofty entrance which fronts the Mosque, is a small gap built up with smooth stones, but leaving sufficient space for a man to crawl through.
 
[It was the writer's privilege to enter the Mosque in disguise and without bakhshish in 1895. See below, pp. 137-8]

This unofficial entrance leads to the subterranean chambers, and on the eve of our festivals we Jews are permitted to come here to pray, as we do at the Wailing Place at Jerusalem. Of course, we are not permitted to go down the narrow passage into the world-old vault or cave below, but there are not unnaturally many Jewish folk-tales which cluster round the spot. Ludwig A. Frankl, for instance, gives the origin of the "Purim Taka," or "window Purim," still celebrated by the Sephardic Jews of Hebron on the anniversary of their deliverance from an intolerable tax. It appears that once there was a Pasha there who was very fond of money. 
 
Fired by the memory of the methods of King Richard the Lion-Hearted, or perhaps of his own sweet initiative, for great minds think alike, His Excellency determined to get money out of his Jewish subjects. 
 
He demanded fifty thousand piastres under threat of killing the leading members of the community and selling the rest into slavery. The Rabbis were direly perplexed, for they could not scrape the sum together. At last, they could think of no other expedient than to write to the Patriarchs about their trouble. They did so, and bribed the watchman of the Mosque to lower the petition by a string into the Cave of Machpelah, for, of course, even he dared not enter there. That night the Pasha woke up and, at his bedside, found three venerable looking sages, who demanded fifty thousand piastres of him, and threatened him with death if he did not pay.
 
The Pasha saw that they were in earnest, went to his money-bags, and paid the fifty thousand to the three weird old men. Next morning, at break of day, the Pasha's soldiers come to the Jewish quarter to fetch the fifty thousand subsidy he levied upon them. The Jews are all in synagogue, praying, for they know their last hour has come. The soldiers knock at the door, and the beadle hurries to open it, when he notices a bag of money in the hall, just where the people wash their hands before entering the synagogue. He brings it to the Pamas, who hands it to the Pasha. The Pasha recognizes both purse and money as his own, and declares that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob themselves rose from their grave to keep him from an evil deed, and that the Jews must, indeed, be a people dear to Allah, if the Patriarchs, after so many thousands of years, would come to life again merely to protect them from injury. He makes the community a present of the money, but requires them to promise to pray for him if ever he should be in trouble. There are elements of truth in this story, and obviously it is capable of a very rational explanation. 
 
The Jews of Hebron 
 
The community used to be very small, and even in 1888 numbered barely a thousand souls out of a total population of ten times that number. About the year 1265 Nachmanides went to Palestine, and a short letter he wrote to his son Nachman gives us a vivid description of Palestine as it was left after the Crusades. "In one word," he says, "the unhappy rule seems to be that the holier a place may have been, the more desolate it is." Jerusalem was in ruins, and what had been marble places, were then Hefker, waste or common lands, free to be appropriated by anybody who pleased. 
 
There was only a single Minyan of Jews there, who every Sabbath met in their houses for prayer. He persuaded them to set apart one of the less demolished buildings as a synagogue, and they actually sent to Shechem (Nablous) for a Sepher. He also went to Hebron, "the city of the graves of our forefathers, that I might pray there, and buy myself a grave, and there be buried." In those times there was not a single Jew there. But a hundred years before, when Benjamin of Tudela visited it in 1170, he found a few of our co-religionists living there, and, indeed, went down with some to the Cave of Machpelah, which he describes and which was evidently not guarded so jealously in his time as it is now. 
 
Nowadays, there are about as many Ashkenazim as Sephardim, and each community has three synagogues. The Ashkenazim have no provision whatever for education, but there are about sixty pupils in the Talmud Torah of the Sephardim. It would be highly desirable if the Alliance Israelite or the Anglo-Jewish Association would see its way to establishing a school there of even the humblest dimensions. I gathered from the communal leaders that this they anxiously desired, and that, though poor, they would gladly contribute to the support of such a school. 
 
The Sephardi Chacham is Rachmim Franko, and the Ashkenazi Rabbi, R. Simeon Manasseh Schlutzker, who is over ninety years old. There is only one Jew — a Mr. Romano — of even moderate means in the town, and he is rather an absentee landlord, for he lives the greater part of the year in Constantinople. He owns a fine large house, of course of stone, and the banqueting hall on the first floor would not disgrace a Norman Castle. He is very hospitable, and Jewish guests are brought to his house quite as a matter of course to be boarded and lodged if necessary, just as though it were an hotel. Neither payment nor a present is accepted, but one is expected to contribute to the Chevrat Gemilut Hasadim, the local "Society for Good Works," which, of course, one is only too glad to do. 
 
Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias constitute the four "holy cities" of the Jews, and till colonization had altered matters, nearly all the Holy Land Jews resided in them. In Safed they constitute one-half of the twelve thousand inhabitants, and in Tiberias they number three thousand out of five thousand. 
 
Besides these, there are a thousand Jews in Haifa, a thousand in Sidon, and two thousand in Jaffa, out of a total of six, twelve, and fifteen thousand respectively. 
 
There are only one hundred and fifty Jews out of ten thousand in Acre, one hundred and twenty at Shechem out of eighteen thousand, and one hundred and twenty at Gaza out of twenty thousand. Including four thousand colonists, which is perhaps an over-estimate, it would seem that, notwithstanding the recent immigration of Russian and Roumanian Jews, there are not more than 43,500 of our co-religionists in Palestine out of a total population of over half a million. 
 
page 136 to 137 
 
The Technical School cannot at once make handicraftsmen of all our Oriental co-religionists, but its pupils are already spreading afield throughout the East and disseminating love of work and respect for the school among distant Jewish communities...
 
But a single instance will perhaps evidence more vividly than any mere words the moral benefit derived from the existence of such an institution in Palestine. 
 
When I reached Jerusalem, I was informed that its scholars were actually manufacturing iron gates for the tombs of the Patriarchs at Hebron, and that the gates had been ordered by the Sheikh and his Ecclesiastical Board, who were pressing for delivery. Now, as has been said before, if there is one thing more sacred than another, or more jealously guarded by the Turk, it is this Mosque which is erected over the Cave of Machpelah. Hardly half a dozen Europeans have been allowed to visit it. The last occasion — but one — was when the Dukes of Clarence and York went there with Major Conder. They obtained the requisite special firman from the Sultan, and a regiment of soldiers to protect them, and yet there was a riot in the narrow white lanes of Hebron when they entered the Mosque. 
 
Well, I was allowed, with two Moslem pupils, to penetrate there disguised as a mechanical adviser to our school. I wore a tarbouche and carried a measure in my hand, and some bottles of gilding wherewith to make beautiful the gates we had brought with us and were about to set up. I dared not talk for fear of betraying myself as a very ordinary tourist, but before we were accorded admittance, a preliminary palaver with the Sheikh of the Mosque was necessary, and, with the greatest solemnity in the world and with Oriental gesture, I had to vehemently negative the idea that the gilding would come off in the rain. 
 
Jews in Many Lands
by Elkan Nathan Adler
1905 Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America
https://archive.org/details/jewsinmanylands00adleiala/page/136
 
 
VISIT HEBRON TODAY! (You don't need 40 francs and a carriage and there's more than a minyan of Jews)
 
United States contact info:

http://www.hebronfund.org
1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
718-677-6886
info@hebronfund.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/hebronfund

Israeli contact info:
http://en.hebron.org.il/
02-996-5333
office@hebron.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hebron.machpela
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/hebronvideo

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