צילום עודד אנטמן

Jerusalem in the Time of Cholera

Writen by: Neta Yaron
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18/03/2020
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Quarantine and lock down in Jerusalem? There’s nothing new under the sun.

In the autumn of 1865, a fatal cholera epidemic broke out in Jerusalem, then under Ottoman rule. The walls and gates that surrounded Jerusalem were locked and the entire city was closed down. As the plague spread, affluent city dwellers fled including thousands of successful Jews. The French consul, the only foreign consul who did not leave Jerusalem, estimated that only 9,000 residents, out of an estimated population of 20,000 remained in the city.

In October 1865, as the cholera epidemic spread, members of the Chevra Kadisha Burial Society learned to diagnose and treat patients. Ashkenazi community leaders formed a volunteer team to treat victims and reassure the residents of the city. They would hold parades and sing songs of praise to banish grief and sorrow and encourage the mourners among those left in Jerusalem. This volunteer team was unique to Jerusalem and differentiated it from any other city in the world in the grip of cholera. Even though many cities worldwide were hit by this plague, only in Jerusalem did the sounds of music and the laughter of clowns mix with the cries of anguish of the residents.

This volunteer group was also prepared to do the most dangerous job: treating cholera patients. In fact these volunteers were called scrubbers or cleansers and their name was synonymous to the treatment they provided patients: they rubbed their bodies with oil and mustard, spread honey on bandages and placed them on patients’ abdomens, massaged the patients to stimulate blood circulation and blood flow and to warm their bodies to relieve cramping – a stage that characterized the advanced phase of the disease. Unfortunately, this variety of creative treatments actually exacerbated the illness and hastened the end of many patients, but they certainly illustrated the very high value put on mutual help in this community.

A few years before the cholera outbreak in Jerusalem, in 1860, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood was founded, the first Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the walls of the Old City. Although living conditions and sanitation levels in the new neighborhood were high compared to those inside the walls, and a new hospital was even planned – residents of Jerusalem who had lived in the Old City for generations were afraid to move outside the protected walls and live in the new, unprotected neighborhood. Moshe Montefiore, who wanted to entice the Jews of Jerusalem to live in the new neighborhood, built an innovative and advanced flour mill to provide a living for the neighborhood residents on the land that had been designated as a hospital

Mishkenot Sha'ananim in 1866. Photo Felix Bonfis. From the Yad Ben Zvi collection

Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1866. Photo Felix Bonfis. From the Yad Ben Zvi collection

In the end, it was precisely the deadly cholera epidemic that did not harm the residents of the new neighborhood, and this revolutionized the perception of Jerusalemites and proved that living outside the walls was safer than living within them.

Will the corona virus epidemic bring changes to Jerusalem? Only time will tell.

Excerpted from the article “Terror and Quarantine: The Emergence of the Cholera Epidemic in Jerusalem in 1865” by Dan Barel.  Published in the catalog Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis.

The exhibition “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis” was exhibited at the Tower of David Museum in the spring of 2014. It featured hundreds of items, thousands of newly unveiled documents, dozens of surprising medical records and prescriptions, and rare items brought from private family collections.

“The exhibition shows Jerusalem as a city that has constantly struggled with plagues and wars . Yet, the city continues to grow and thrive through miracles but especially through the  manifestations of faith and humanity, compassion, charity and mutual help between people of different religions and beliefs, residents of Jerusalem and those who came from the four corners of the world. ” (Eilat Lieber, Director General of the Tower of David Museum) Curator: Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalif

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