Courtesy of the Alegra Hotel
There’s an old Arab mansion turned into a romantic boutique hotel in a Jerusalem village with rooms named after famous lovers from mythology and history. But there’s no room named after the Jewish woman who once lived there with her Arab Christian husband.
It’s a star-crossed love story that in Israel is still considered taboo, or “political.”
“We didn’t want to go [into] politics — Christian, Jews, this stuff,” says Ishay Malka. “For a boutique hotel, you come to just stay out from the news and stuff. We didn’t want to get politics into the building.”
Courtesy of the Alegra Hotel
The Alegra Hotel is named after Alegra Belo, the Jewish wife of Jaber Rahil, an Arab Christian. Still, you won’t find any photos on the hotel walls of Alegra or her husband. No plaques either.
But Israeli storyteller and tour guide Pnina Ein Mor has been piecing together the puzzle of Alegra’s life for years, and she knows the full tale.
“Her story is not exactly happiness and joy, at least the end of the story,” Ein Mor says.
The story begins in 1927, with a young man named Jaber Rahil who lived in the mansion that is today the hotel, says Ein Mor, sitting on the hotel’s rooftop patio, overlooking church spires and terraced hills dotted with almond trees.
Jaber rode his horse to nearby Jerusalem and spotted a beautiful woman named Alegra. They fell in love, but Alegra’s father, a prominent figure in the Jewish community, tried to persuade her to leave him.
They ran off together to Bethlehem, where she studied in a monastery and converted to Christianity. When her father found out, Ein Mor says, “he gathered all the family and said, ‘Listen, for us, Alegra does not exist anymore.’”
Alegra and Jaber moved back to Jaber’s parents’ home in Ein Karem, an old village in the hills of Jerusalem. Tradition says John the Baptist grew up there. Today, narrow alleyways lead to churches, restaurants, gurgling fountains and luxurious boutique hotels — like Jaber’s family’s home, today the Alegra Hotel.
Alegra gave birth to a son named Yousef — both an Arab Christian and a Jewish name. She had another son and a daughter.
One day, she caught word that her father had died. She decided to take her kids to visit the family that had disowned her.
“She went inside the house. She saw her mother after so many years. And she went to her mother and hugged her and started to cry,” Ein Mor says. “But then her mother took her hand and said, ‘Listen. The last words of your father were that you can’t come to this house ever, never. So take your kids and go out from here. And don’t come here again.’”
In the 1948 war that led to Israel’s establishment, the Rahil family, and the rest of Arabs of the village, fled.
That could have been the end of the story. But Ein Mor and her husband have been leading groups of Israeli tourists to Alegra’s old home for years — and the tourists have helped round out the story.
Once, one of Alegra’s Jewish relatives was on Ein Mor’s tour. The woman said her family had tried to reach out to Alegra.
“We knocked on the door of Alegra’s house,” Ein Mor recalls the woman saying. “We told her, ‘Listen, Alegra, we are your family.’ She said, ‘When I came to you, you didn’t accept me. So please, do me a favor; the people here don’t know about my Judaism. Leave me alone.’”
Alegra never reunited with the Jewish side of her family. But there is a happy end to the story. Ein Mor was leading a tour near the Alegra Hotel when a man approached.
“The man said, ‘You know, I was born in this house.’ So I said, ‘Are you Joseph? Are you Yousef?’ ”
He was Alegra and Jaber’s eldest son.
“I was so excited, because so many years I am telling about him, and the people, the travelers that stood near me, were astonished to see this story is a true story,” she says.
Today, Alegra’s son is an old man. Word has it he spends his afternoons playing cards at a church club in East Jerusalem.
And just a short drive away in Ein Karem, tourists pay a few hundred dollars to spend a romantic weekend in the childhood home that bears his mother’s name.