New Photo Exhibit: Hevron’s Jewish History

Cave of the Patriarch's Visitors' Center presents showcase of photographs documenting Hevron’s rich Jewish history from 1967 to the present.

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Elad Benari, | updated: 07:07

A new photography exhibition in Hevron documents the history of the first Jewish-owned building in Hevron after the Six-Day War and symbolizes what was called the “re-Jew-vanation” of Hevron.

The photos were taken by famed photographer Gershon Ellinson, known for his photographic chronicles of the renewed Jewish community in Hevron. The exhibit is being shown in the Machpela Visitors' Center, located at the foot of Ma'arat HaMachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs).

Sharon Katz, editor of Voices magazine, saw the exhibit and wrote of it in the magazine’s latest issue. She describes how Ellinson, who had agreed to tell her the story behind the photos, “was surrounded by people looking at his momentous photos and shouting, ‘Hey, that was me,’ and soon became engrossed in conversations with the person actually in the photograph, the person who made history.”

The photos, said Katz, record the evolution of the Machpela Visitors' Center from its purchase until today. Owner, Women in Green's Yehudit Katzover, explained that the building had been used by the Jordanians until 1967 when Hevron was liberated by Israel.

The property was at first run by the civil administration, but the government later approved the establishment of a restaurant, art gallery and souvenir shop near Machpela. The civil administration sold the building to several partners, among them Yehudit and Tzvi Katzover. They have been running the Settlers’ Restaurant (now the Machpela Visitors’ Center) from 1971 until today.

“It was the first acquisition in Hebron,” said Katzover of the center. “For many years, it was also the only Jewish presence in Hevron. The Arabs tried to destroy it and chase us from here. The Settlers’ Restaurant was stoned, bombed, its windows smashed and its store trashed.”

One of the earliest workers in the Settlers' Restaurant was none other than Gershon Ellinson, who was busy photographing everything around him.

“I was 'the' Jew in Hevron before there were any Jews there, long before Beit Hadassah,” said Ellinson. “I opened the store even if no one came. Even when there was a closure, I had permission to enter. I was never afraid. There wasn't a problem then, not like today.”

Ellinson became an accepted fixture on the street and made friends with the Arab shopkeepers whom he visits to this day.

Today the Machpela Visitors’ Center is surrounded by the local Jewish community. It includes a restaurant, separate souvenir shop and a simcha hall. Katsover is now planning to create an educational project in the center, based on Ellinson’s photographs, which will tell the story of Hevron from Abraham the Patriarch up to the present.

Ellinson told Voices that he photographed everything from the moment he arrived in Hevron “because I like taking pictures. I didn't think then that it would have any deeper meaning or any special importance.”

He said that his friends had laughed at him back then, not knowing that today he would be the only one with pictures of Hevron's entire Jewish history.

Among the special moments documented by Ellinson over the years are many of the community’s “firsts” including the first yeshiva, the first school in the military complex, the first tractor to dig the foundations of Kiryat Arba in 1970, the first roads, all the way up to the first Jews in Beit HaShalom in 2007.

Ellinson has dedicated some of his photos to a Russian immigrant named Professor Benzion Tavger. Tavger came to Kiryat Arba to set up a laboratory, but when he couldn't break through the red tape took up a job as a guard in the Old Jewish Cemetery. He found the cemetery in ruins, the tombstones having been used by the Arabs to build a fence around the area. He was assisted by Rabbi Shlomo Goren and managed to reconstruct the cemetery.

Ellinson has also kept all the deeds, government forms and other documents., plus an archive of all the newspaper articles on the renewal of Jewish life in Hevron and Kiryat Arba. Next year he is planning to publish a book containing his photos.

The photo exhibition was organized by the Machpela Visitors’ Center together with Women for Israel's Tomorrow (Women in Green). It is on permanent display at the Machpela Vistors’ Center and a must for the tens of thousands who visit the city to pray at the graves of the Patriarchs.

Below: A visitor points to himself ,Yehudit Katsover (left) and exhibit visitor, Bringing a new Sefer Torah to Hevron, Ellinson in front of photos, Ellinson with local acquaintance.