Of cats and ghosts

It started with a cat.

One moment, it was a nice cat: It jumped onto my lap, curled up, and purred.

A moment later, it was no longer a nice cat: It sunk its claws into my hand, bit me, and jumped off.

Four phone calls and one rabies scare later, I learned that if you ever get scratched by a stray cat in Jerusalem, you’re supposed to visit Jerusalem’s Regional Health Bureau on Jaffa street. Given the local cat population in Jerusalem, getting scratched isn’t all that unlikely. In fact, you might end up there too.

You, too, might walk into the square, stately building. You, too, might have to talk to a receptionist behind the grand facade.

You, too, might have to walk from one doctor to another, and your footsteps, too, might echo in empty halls, under the tall ceilings. And the silence may hang around you, too.

But had you visited the same house over a century ago, in one ill-omened day in 1882, you wouldn’t have encountered neither silence nor emptiness.

In fact, you would have found yourself in the midst of a large, noisy crowd.

You would have heard singing, and you would have seen people dressed in lavish clothes and fancy jewelry. Had you pushed your way into the center of the party, you would have met the bride and the mother of the groom. But the latter would have been too busy dancing to acknowledge you.

One moment, it would have been be a nice, festive gathering.

The next moment, the party wouldn’t have been so nice anymore. The mother of the groom would have started wailing, and you would have noticed that her son – though seated on a chair in all his wedding finery – was actually, and quite visibly, dead.

The house on Jaffa 86 was built by a Catholic Arab family as a wedding gift for their son. When the groom-to-be tragically died on the eve of the wedding, they decided to hold the ceremony as planned. Today’s Regional Health Bureau witnessed both the forced celebration and the genuine mourning that followed it, and haunted the dreams of Jerusalem’s children for decades to come.

The bereaved family abandoned the house in their grief, and it stood empty and foreboding until the Ottomans turned it into Jerusalem’s first city hospital in the late 1890s. It has been a medical establishment of one kind or another ever since.

And so, if you’ll ever be scratched by a cat in Jerusalem, you will have the opportunity to see the haunted house of Jaffa street with your own eyes. You will be able to walk into its silent hallways, and seek the ghosts of old between its walls.

After all, it isn’t hard to find old ghosts and agonies and broken dreams here in Jerusalem. You only need to scratch the surface, and they’re here.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger

Posted by Rachel Sharansky Danziger

Rachel Sharansky Danziger is a life-long Jerusalemite who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She blogs about life in Israel, Judaism, and parenting for The Times of Israel, Sifriyat Pijama, and Kveller, and you can follow her adventures on Facebook and via her personal blog.

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