By Ari Lewis
Kerem Avraham was amongst the first dwellings that were built beyond the wall of the old city. In its time, it was considered quite distant from the safety of the Old City, but today it is in the center of the most populous area of Jerusalem. If you go into the chiefly religious area in Jerusalem called 'Geula', you will see new green signs that say 'Kerem Avraham'. The story behind Kerem Avraham is short and interesting.
Kerem Avraham was the name of a vineyard which included a private home. It was built in 1855. Interestingly enough, it still stands today behind the large apartment building at 24 Ovadia Street, but access to the small home is really at the end of Nachum Street. The area today is a highly popular residential area and bears no resemblance to a vineyard, never-the-less, the man who built it and its story is worth telling.
Original Home of James Finn in Kerem Avraham
James Finn was the British Consul in Jerusalem and built this house and vineyard. He was born in London in 1806 to a poor Christian family. He was fortunate that his education was provided by Lord George Clarendon, who was to become the British Foreign Secretary. In 1832 he became a tutor in the home of Lord George Aberdeen who would also serve as Foreign Secretary. During this lengthy period he took an interest in the Jewish religion and studied Hebrew, even publishing two books on Jewish topics. He was a fervent Protestant and combined his concern for the Jews by joining the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, a missionary organization which proselytized among the Jews.
In 1846 the Consul to Jerusalem was about to resign and a replacement was needed. Despite Finn's total lack of experience in the Foreign Service, he submitted his candidacy and was accepted. Finn was married to Elizabeth McCaul, the daughter of a Christian missionary who looked at this as a divinely sent opportunity to continue her mission. She was intelligent and well educated and was very instrumental in her husband's successes.
At that time there were two concepts among the Christians, one was that it was that the Jews must be converted to prepare them and the world for the messiah. The second Christian opinion was that it was imperative that the Jews return to their lands to receive the coming of the messiah. Finn and his wife were of the second persuasion. They wanted to aid the Jews in settling their land and they worked to help the Jews come to their lands.
Another View of Finn's House
During the years, 1853-1856, the Jews suffered because of the Crimean War. The Jerusalem rabbis did not differentiate between the two Christian philosophies and warned the Jews against the missionary activities.
At this time, work was scarce and the Jews in Jerusalem lived meagerly from contributions from abroad. Because of the Crimean war, the contributions from abroad (the halukah) was greatly reduced and many Jews were hard pressed to make ends meet.
Finn considered it a religious obligation to help the Jews and he labored to that effect. He envisioned giving Jews honest work by which they could support their families. He purchased the land in 1853, but it was not until 1855 that the first house, a cottage, was built by Jewish labor. Finn felt that by using Jewish labor he was aiding in the settlement of the Jews. The rabbis at that time knew of Finn's missionary background and forbade Jews from working there, yet many did come to work both on the building and also in the maintenance of the vineyard. The amount of Jewish workers grew to 130. They worked in the olives, vineyard and vegetable growing.
Finn also had a house in the Talbia area where he employed another fifty Jews A Jewish convert from Judaism named Meshullam was partners with Finn's wife in another project and had more Jews employed in an area called Artas, (near the pools of Solomon).
They named the vineyard 'Kerem Avraham' after the patriarch Abraham. It was previously called 'Karm al-Khjalil', the vineyard of the loved one, referring to Abraham. They hewed cisterns for the storage of water and even built a soap factory which produced a high quality soap which was sold to nobility and tourists. The official who ran the operation was a man named Dunn. He was a Christian who believed that he was descendant from the tribe of Dan, hence the name Dunn. During years of drought, water was supplied for free to the Jews. During this time, there were no homes in the area.
Finn aided the Jews in other manners also. During the Crimean War, which found Russia and Turkey pitted against each other, the Russian Jews suffered from lack of protection from the Russian consulate. Finn enabled many Russian Jews to receive British protection.
Yet Finn was cantankerous and managed to offend most people. In the end he was removed from his office and left Israel, but although the vineyard he owned is no longer in existence, the home he built is still standing for those few people who care to see it. Curiously enough, the local residents have no knowledge of the history of this building.
* * * * *
For more History Articles, see our History Archives
from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine