Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Cheshvan 5765 - November 3, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Mandelbaum Gate: Home of the Mandelbaum Family

by Chana Regev

Simchoh and Esther Liba Mandelbaum, whose home became famous as a place of Torah, avodoh and chessed, stood out clearly during the previous century among the families in the Jerusalem of the Old Yishuv.

We spoke with one of their grandchildren, Attorney Simchoh Mandelbaum, who shared some of the distinctly Yerushalmi stories connected with their name. "The whole splendid family that had the merit to come forth from R' Simchoh and Esther Liba, zecher tzadikim lebrochoh, can be attributed to the grandmother o'h, who took an interest in every Torah-related detail in her sons' and grandsons' lives."

Jerusalem's First Factory

Esther Liba, daughter of Rav Nochum of the town of Kobrin in Byelorussia, married Simchoh Mandelbaum, the son of the gaon Rav Boruch who had made aliyah in 5681 (1921). Rav Nochum of Kobrin was a godol who had learned Shas 30 times and was the interim Admor of Slonim when their rebbe passed away before his son was old enough to assume the mantle of leadership.

Rav Nochum of the town of Kobrin in Byelorussia, who had no sons, was looking for the ideal chosson for his talented eldest daughter, known as a tzadekes. He heard about Simchoh, who in 5681 had made aliyah with his father, the gaon Rav Boruch, and sent a message asking Simchoh to travel to meet him.

The young R' Simchoh travelled to Byelorussia and, even before they became engaged, told the young lady that he wanted to return to Eretz Yisroel to learn, but not to make his living from the chalukah money that was typically given out during that period. Instead he wanted to open a business to support the household.

Rav Nochum, who had intended to provide his son-in-law a rabbinical appointment, could not believe his daughter and prospective son-in-law would move so far away. Yet R' Simchoh remained insistent saying, "My soul is bound to Jerusalem and cannot be severed from its source. He who leaves Eretz Yisroel is called a yored because it is written, `Vayered Yaakov Mitzraymoh.' I left and had a yeridoh only for the sake of aliyoh."

He reminded the father and daughter that "living in Israel is weighed against all of the mitzvos" as well as other sayings of praise for Eretz Yisroel.

The kallah needed little convincing. She decided to be an ezer kenegdo and to study spinning and weaving before setting out. Family acquaintances raised eyebrows: the rebbe's daughter a sock knitter?

Had Esther Liba paid attention to their remarks and come to the conclusion that perhaps this was below her dignity, Jerusalem might have lost a great gift. But she was strong of spirit and her bold decision to help her husband try to build a life of Torah in Eretz Hakodesh drove her to go forward with her original plans.

Realizing that Jerusalem's noshim tzidkonios knew well that "kol kevudoh bas melech penimoh" and would certainly appreciate an opportunity to earn a living without having to leave their homes, before setting out for Eretz Yisroel she travelled to Lodzh to buy 25 weaving machines which she then brought with them.

The women of Jerusalem, who had no means of supporting their families--certainly not without leaving the daled amos of their homes--leaped at the opportunity. They knit socks, and every Thursday they would bring their goods to the shop the young Mrs. Mandelbaum had opened. The Mandelbaums advertised top-quality socks in a variety of colors.

Esther Liba would work in the shop because most of the customers were ladies. Meanwhile her husband would sit in the inner room beside several vats of dye, wearing a work apron splattered with various different colors. Each of the customers wanted a different shade and R' Simchoh would dip the socks in the desired solution, lay them out to dry and pass them to his wife. Often called upon to act as a rov, a public representative or an askon, R' Simchoh would shed his work apron, don his suit jacket and set out to attend to the matter at hand.

Folding Back the Titles

The sock business expanded. The "stockinged couple," as they were known to the residents of Jerusalem, were in demand outside the city as well. Their products were sold in Jaffa and all over the country.

Eventually, Esther Liba decided to manufacture and sell linens, too. She opened a large trousseau store, selling sheets, blankets, pillows, etc. to the many chassonim and kallos who came in to outfit themselves with high- quality products that would last for 20 years or more; a Jerusalemite, for whom the Torah was dear, could not afford to replace his linens every few years. Before the age of credit, Esther Liba would spread out the payment over several years, without taking checks as collateral.

"After her petiroh," recalls Esther Liba's grandson, Attorney Simchoh Mandelbaum, "we found her drawers brimming with . . . precise listings of people who owed her money for 15 years or more!"

Despite her numerous obligations, Esther Liba, a mother of ten, always davened three times per day, said Tehillim and did not pass up her regular studies of Tzena Re'ena on Shabbos.

She supported her husband to allow him to devote his time to Torah study, and encouraged her children to study diligently.

"Torah emerges from R' Simchoh's throat," said his friends and acquaintances.

"Torah is only acquired through assiduousness," he would often tell his children and grandchildren, serving as an example of vehogeiso bo yomom voloyloh. The Torah was a regular guest at his table, and voices of learning and halachic wrangles often filled his home and identified it as a place of Torah. He and his wife exerted great efforts in chinuch habonim.

Meanwhile, he studied Torah and handled tzorchei tzibbur. He brought two sifrei Torah into Beis Knesses Tiferes Yisroel in the Old City and his joy was unsurpassed, over and over again every Simchas Torah, when he was selected chosson Torah of the large beis knesses.

Everyone in the city respected R' Simchoh, whose majestic countenance revealed his greatness. But when he received letters that addressed him with grand titles he would fold them back without even glancing at them, and begin reading the body of the letter immediately.

Every Leil Shabbos, R' Simchoh would walk down to the Kosel Maarovi to daven.At that time they lived in the Old City. After the tefilloh, he would survey the participants and invite guests to join him for the meal. Primarily because of their traditional caftans, Jerusalemites were easy to spot, so it was never difficult to find guests. Esther Liba would be waiting at home, her table set with several extra place settings for the guests.

Nothing could prevent the Mandelbaums from hachnosas orchim. Naturally, the guests represented all ranks of Am Yisroel, and were not necessarily all people who provided pleasant company.

One of their fixed guests was poor and derelict. His face was always covered with saliva and a less-than-pleasant smell issued forth from his clothes. Nevertheless, over a long period of time he would regularly dine at their table. "This is the real mitzvah of hachnosas orchim," the Mandelbaums constantly told their children. "To welcome a distinguished guest is nothing special, since we are honored by his presence. When a normal guest comes along who does not require much effort to host, one does not really feel the mitzvah. But when a guest like this comes along, then we really are carrying out the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim behidur!"

When World War I broke out and the Jews of Jerusalem were recruited into the Turkish army against their will, money was sent via the Joint to the US consulate to release them from the draft. Many askonim were afraid to handle the money, because they were afraid the Turks would accuse them of sabotage in time of war, which carried the death penalty. But R' Simchoh, with his wife's support, decided he would not be daunted! To him this was a chance to perform the mitzvah of pidyon shevu'im! He could not remain indifferent and transgress the injunction of lo ta'amod al dam rei'echoh at such a time. Furthermore, he reasoned, if a Jew is redeemed from the army he is saved from transgressing a negative commandment--lo sirtzach--in addition to numerous prohibitions he would be liable to violate while serving.

On Rosh Hashanah, he heard Turkish policemen were about to raid the beis knesses during the tefilloh, to trap men eligible for enlistment. R' Simchoh did not hesitate for an instant. Still wearing his tallis he rushed straight to the police station, went in and told the officers and soldiers he had come to bless them with greetings for a good new year. He intentionally engaged them in small talk, eventually inviting them to his home where he set before them a table laden with holiday delicacies.

Meanwhile, the Jews streaming into the beis knesses were wholly unaware of the danger lying in store and that they had narrowly escaped thanks to R' Simchoh's bold endeavor. "This is not what you wanted to find," he said, gesturing toward the set tables and winking an eye. "Wasn't there something else you were looking for?" he added, hinting at the original plans, in jest. Then he convinced them to abandon their search and continued serving them food and drink.

As the war intensified, the economic state grew worse. R' Simchoh and his wife assisted a soup kitchen that opened in order to provide bread and tea to the hungry in Jerusalem. When R' Simchoh went to request a donation from philanthropist Nosson Strauss, who came to visit the soup kitchen, R' Simchoh said, "I heard there is no need to convince you to make a donation, but rather not to donate too much." Strauss liked what he had to say and made a generous contribution.

The Palace at the End of Shmuel Hanovi Street

R' Simchoh's ten children were born and raised in the Old City. His house, situated between the walls, did not grow along with the family, of course. The years passed. The Ottoman rulers made way for the British Mandate. R' Simchoh's children married and there was not enough room for everyone in the Old City. Esther Liba very much wanted all of her offspring to live nearby so she would always be able to help them, so R' Simchoh went in search of a lot suitable for building, although he had been offered many built houses in various neighborhoods. "Buying or renting a home in Jerusalem is no great act. I want to do the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisroel behiddur. I want to actually be involved in the construction," he would tell anyone who offered to sell him their property.

He insisted on buying a piece of land near the Third Wall from the time of King Agrippas, not far from the grave of Shimon Hatzaddik. When he bent down among the fallen stones there he found an ancient coin and, rubbing off the dirt, saw a cluster of grapes on one side. He went to the Department of Antiquities and presented the coin. The curator examined it and determined it was from the time of Bar Kochba. The engraving it bore left no room for doubt: "For the liberation of Jerusalem."

R' Simchoh's liking for the location grew even more, despite efforts to dissuade him by offering him lots on Jaffa Street or in Rechavia at discounted prices, locations where he could have built a home and made money by opening a business onsite. "Think about it," realtors would say. "Where will you generate more earnings--here or there?"

R' Simchoh refused. "I am not looking for financial gain from Jerusalem, but rather what I can contribute to the city, and I believe the contribution is to buy a lot on the edge of the city. If I don't buy it, non-Jews will come along and purchase the lot and build houses all along the road up to the hospital at Har Hatzofim, and will close in around Meah Shearim and Botei Ungarin. But if other people see that I bought a lot here, they will come too, and Jewish settlement will spread north." R' Simchoh ensured the construction met high standards of quality. "Jerusalem has to be accorded respect by building nice homes in it," he explained. Indeed the house was in keeping with the best of traditional Yerushalmi construction.

Every Yerushalmi was familiar with the Mandelbaum House at the end of Shmuel Hanovi Street. The attractive, three-story house stuck out like an impressive palace at a crossroads opposite the green hills of Jerusalem. In the distance was a view of Har Hatzofim while behind the house were the narrow streets and alleyways of the young Meah Shearim. The house became legendary. After it was destroyed in the War of 5708 (1948) its ruins, widely known as Mandelbaum Gate or Mandelbaum Crossing, served as the landmark indicating the border between Israel and Jordan.

Laying a Stone for the Beis Hamikdosh

The chanukas habayis was held on Tu B'Av 5689 (1929), the same day as the wedding of the Mandelbaum's youngest daughter, who married Rav Rafael HaKohen Kook, the rov of Tiberius. (Among the products of this marriage was Rav Simchoh HaKohen Kook, ylct'a, now rov of Rechovot.) The city's leading talmidei chachomim and rabbonim gathered on the roof top to celebrate the double simchoh.

Esther Liba, who wanted the sounds of Torah and tefilloh to issue from her home, began to pay avreichim from Meah Shearim and Botei Ungarin a few shillings to come daven three times per day at the beis knesses built into the house, a practice that continued for many years. Despite his strong desire to expand Jerusalem, R' Simchoh never managed to attract new neighbors.

The Wakf, which owned large tracts of land in the area, issued an injunction not to sell any land to Jews, and thus the Mandelbaum House remained alone, the last landmark of the city's outlying neighborhoods.

Not merely a landmark, it also served as a shield and a barricade for nearby neighborhoods. When the riots of 5689 (1929) began a short time later, and again in 5696 (1936), Haganah fighters used the house as a strategic position from which to drive back the riled masses of Arabs that came from Nablus Gate to Meah Shearim and Beis Yisroel shouting, "Itbach el Yahud!" ("Slaughter the Jews!") and "Meisharim!" (the Arab pronunciation for "Meah Shearim").

A few months later on Erev Shabbos R' Simchoh passed away. As candlelighting time drew near, he summoned his family members to part from them. "I am about to pass from one dwelling place to another, from This World to the World-to-Come, and I feel no sorrow in my heart . . . When a man departs from This World it is a time for cheshbon nefesh; all the days of his life and his deeds pass before him one after another, and it is a major moment in his life, for better and for worse. And there is no greater time for a man to hand over his neshomoh in purity and say, `Just as I received it I am handing it over and returning it.' Keep these words in your heart for your final hour of cheshbon nefesh and the Day of Judgment."

R' Simchoh spread his hands toward the heavens and said, "These hands are clean. Everything they did, they did faithfully, and all these hands gained was through permitted means. Yet in one thing my zchus did not stand by me: I did not have the zchus to lay bricks for the Beis Hamikdosh . . . When the Beis Hamikdosh is rebuilt speedily in our days, [I ask that] you or your children lay stones or bricks from this house for the building of the Beis Hamikdosh . . . "

Sick Savta

After her husband's petiroh, Esther Liba assumed the task of managing the large house, where all of the children, sons- and daughters-in-law and grandchildren lived in separate apartments. From 5689 (1929) to 5708 (1948) the house continued to brim with life. Rooms were set aside both for guests and for members of the Haganah, who cached weapons and billeted there.

Later, two of those who stayed in the Mandelbaum House, Professor Efraim Katzir and Chaim Herzog, both of whom went on to serve as president of Israel, reported that they were received warmly by the elderly Mrs. Mandelbaum, who tended to the needs of everyone who stayed in her home as if they were also members of the family. The two had an opportunity to experience genuine, Jewish hachnosas orchim firsthand. "I will never forget her motherly and grandmotherly treatment," said Herzog years later at a naming ceremony for a nearby square.

Whenever British soldiers arrived for an inspection, the Haganah members would rush to the beis knesses and open seforim. The British assumed they were yeshiva students and left them alone. The weapons were hidden in Mrs. Mandelbaum's linen chest. She always happened to be sick during the inspections and had to lie in bed. The family would plead with the soldiers not to make their "sick grandmother" leave her bed. As soon as they drove away she would continue to run the "Mandelbaum kingdom" with her usual efficiency.

Attorney Simchoh Mandelbaum recalls how his grandmother would wake him and his brothers and his cousins at 6:30 a.m. for the tefilloh held in the beis knesses attached to the building. She also involved herself in her grandsons' Torah studies, constantly showing an interest and keeping track of their progress.

From her seat in the ezras noshim, she would send someone with a message saying who should lead the tefilloh and who would be called up to the Torah. On Shabbos, at the end of the tefilloh, she would sit at the head of the table, recite kiddush and say divrei Torah just like a father figure. Her family members said that the only way Esther Liba failed to take her husband's place was in not giving the Shabbos droshoh between Shacharis and Musaf.

The Rescue of the Sifrei Torah

During the War of Independence, the Mandelbaum House lay right on the borderline between the Jewish area and the area under Jordanian control. Jordanian snipers, who were known as excellent marksmen, took up positions at the battlefront and shot into the house.

At first Esther Liba and her family members did not want to evacuate the house R' Simchoh had built out of his love for Jerusalem, a home he filled with Torah and mitzvos and to which they were attached heart and soul. But eventually, when no other choice remained, they abandoned it and the Haganah moved in to use it as a battle position.

After leaving in great haste, the Mandelbaum family remembered that they had left behind the sifrei Torah R' Simchoh had installed in the beis knesses. Rebbetzin Chayo Tziporoh Mandelbaum o'h, who passed away about a year ago, did not sleep a wink all night and the next morning returned to the house, slinking out of sight of the snipers on the roof tops of Sheikh Jerach, and rescued the sifrei Torah.

The Jewish fighters continued to repel the Jordanian attacks on the neighborhoods of Jerusalem and held their position in the house until a status quo agreement was signed between the State of Israel and the Jordanians. As part of the understandings it contained, Mandelbaum House remained on the Israeli side.

But the status quo was not mutually honored. Soldiers from the Jordanian League violated the agreements and on Leil Shabbos, 5 Nisan 5708 (1948), as 35 Jewish fighters rested during the cease-fire, the Jordanians brought in fresh fighters for the decisive battle in store and assaulted the house with tremendous quantities of explosives. The building collapsed with a terrible crashing sound, burying the Jewish fighters beneath the rubble.

"I remember that day well," recounts Attorney Mandelbaum. "We had left just three days earlier, and since then the house had been captured by Legion forces and recaptured by us four times. The next day, when we heard about the explosion, it felt like Tisha B'Av. It was hard to absorb the fact that 35 Jews had met a terrible death there in the house where we had been born and lived a rich childhood . . . In Jerusalem, the Mandelbaum House was not considered just a house but a `kingdom.' We grew up in the company of numerous guests with a central figure whose path we followed.

"Savta o'h took it hardest of all. A short time later, HaRav Rafael Kook zt'l, her son-in-law who had been studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem until that point, accepted the rabbinical post in Tiberius. Savta, who went to her daughter Rochel, his wife, was unable to bear the hot air, so she moved in with her son, HaRav Boruch Mandelbaum zt'l, where she passed away just a few months after leaving her `kingdom.' "


Part of the front wall with the entrance gate remained standing and served as a memorial for the 19 years during which Jerusalem was divided between areas of Israeli and Jordanian rule, and the area near the house served as a border crossing widely known as the Mandelbaum Gate. The United Nations was stationed here and talks were held between Israel and Jordan.

A few days after the liberation of Jerusalem in 5727 (1967) Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem, sent heavy equipment in to destroy the remnants of the building and flatten it the ground. When a journalist asked him why he committed this act, which was probably beyond his authority to order, he explained that it was a period of chaos in terms of distribution of responsibility, and he did not want to leave this geographic landmark and make the area hefker. He was totally unaware of the story behind the house, except for his acquaintance with the Mandelbaum Gate. When asked whether he knew who Mandelbaum had been, he shrugged his shoulders and let slip the words, "Some German doctor, I think."

Although the house was razed, the legacy of Torah, avodoh and gemilus chossodim that prevailed there planted seeds in the hearts of the people who called it home and these seeds bore mighty trees that carry on that legacy to this day.

And this is something no man can take away.

Modern Memories

Two years ago, a ceremony was held at the site of the Mandelbaum Crossing. Former president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, spoke about the role it played.

"I was commander of the Jerusalem District Brigade from 1945 to 1975, and during this period Mandelbaum Gate was an important location, because it was our border and meeting point with Jordan and the Jordanians. At Mandelbaum Gate, every two weeks, we would assemble and transport the replacements for Har Hatzofim. They wore Israel Police uniforms and of course we also transported food and supplies. At the UN crossing, the Jordanians would check our armored buses that brought the people up to the mountain. Of course, those who were released were then brought down. From a military standpoint the place had great importance.

"In 1955 an arrangement was made to have the Israeli commander and the Jordanian commander meet and they set up a direct phone line from my office at Shneller [an army base in the middle of Jerusalem] as District Commander and also from my home, to the Jordanian commander. I met with him at Mandelbaum Crossing, in the middle, in the midst of all the anti-tank mounds of cement that were there.

"When I was head of the IDF intelligence section for the second time, there were problems with Syria, which was essentially part of the United Arab Commonwealth, and at the time there was a union between Egypt and Syria. The head of Syrian intelligence was very active then and tried to kill King Hussein several times. On September 1, 1956 they managed to penetrate explosives into the Jordanian Prime Minister's office when the king was about to visit him. For some reason the king was late. The bomb exploded and Prime Minister Hafaz al-Majili was killed.

"The king wanted to launch an offensive against the Syrians, mobilized his army and moved it north. They asked for a meeting with me as head of the intelligence section. The Jordanian head of intelligence asked for a meeting with me mediated by the [UN] Cease-Fire Committee. I met with the head of the king's office at Mandelbaum Gate, where we were told they planned to launch an offensive against Syria and were asking us not to interfere--essentially that we cover them from the rear so they would be able to move their forces from us. Ben Gurion of course accepted their proposal and authorized me to guarantee no harm would befall them if they wanted to take care of the Syrians. In the end nothing happened, because the American and British ambassadors dissuaded him from carrying out his plan."

This is just one example of the role Mandelbaum Crossing played as a meeting place for dialogue between Israel and the Arabs during the 19 years Jerusalem was divided. Back then, leaders kept the conversation to a minimum, rather than the kind of talks on large estates today, such as Wye or Shepherdstown.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.