As part of our series of trips exploring the development of the modern city of Jerusalem (i.e. outside of the Old City walls), today’s tour was dedicated to buildings constructed during the period of the British Mandate, from 1920-48.
As always, however, not everything fits into the tour’s theme. We took advantage of our location to begin the day at the Jesus Hilfe Lepers’ House. Built in the late 19th century and run by nuns, the building was constructed as a home for the numerous sufferers of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, in the city of Jerusalem. After the establishment of the state it was taken over by the Ministry of Health and through their work there a treatment was developed for the disease. The last inhabitant left a few years ago and it is now a culture centre. There is a small exhibition about the lepers’ home, and also about the history of the disease, which is not the same as the tzaraat in the bible, which is normally translated as leprosy.
We then began a stroll around the neighbourhood of Talbiye / Kommemiyut. We learned that this period was typified by the construction of ‘garden neighbourhoods’, the idea being to keep traffic away from the centre of the neighbourhood, and maintain a tranquil atmosphere, as much as was possible. Our guide pointed out some of the grander buildings and told us stories of their inhabitants, as well as architectural features.
We moved on into the neighbourhood of Rechavia, built at the same period. We noted the current home of the Prime Minister, and heard more stories about some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood over the years.
A somewhat unexpected break came in the visit to the Tomb of Jason. Discovered during construction in the area, it is the remains of a Jewish tomb from the 2nd temple period. In fact, there is very little to see, but what is interesting is the images of ships found painted on the wall inside. We don’t know who this Jason was, but given the dating of the tomb, together with its grand nature, some believe it belongs to the High Priest who wrote the second book of Maccabees.
We continued to the Yad Ben Zvi institute. Yitzchak Ben Zvi, the second president of Israel, was a passionate researcher of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. Housed here is his small hut, in which he made his home, and also a research institute established in his memory. On becoming president, he famously turned down the grandeur of a state home constructed for the purpose, preferring to remain in his simple hut. They don’t make them like that anymore!
Our next stop of significance was at the National Institutions Building. Opened in 1930, this was the first major building of the Zionist enterprise. At the heart of new Jerusalem, it was designed to house the main institutions of the Zionist movement: the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayement L’Yisrael) and the United Israel Appeal (Keren HaYesod). We learned about the history of these institutions, the key roles they played in the establishment and strengthening of the state, and the work they continue to do to this day.
A further stop was also not from an earlier period, but it was a shame to pass the Ratisbonne Monastery without popping in for a look. Founded by a French Jew-turned-Catholic in the mid 19th century, the idea was to generate a better understanding between Christians and Jews, albeit with an ultimate objective of proselytising. Today, the proselytising has taken a backseat, and it is a place for Christians to come and study Hebrew and Jewish texts, within the environment of Jerusalem.
Our final stop of the day was at the original home of the famous art school, Betzalel. Named after the biblical designer of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), this was the place where under Boris Shatz a group of talented artists attempted to create a new Jewish national art. They did so by mixing traditional Jewish motifs with those of Assyria and Mesopotamia, also using the physical features of the Land of Israel as an inspiration. Although the main campus of the school has moved, it still maintains a presence at the site, and remains the leading art school in the country. The building is also now used as a sort of community centre for artists in Jerusalem which also houses exhibitions and has a delightful little cafe. Worth a visit if you are in the area!
We have been in Jerusalem a lot of late and it has been great to discover so many of its secrets. We won’t be back now for 6 weeks or so – expect more reporting from trips in the north and centre of the country in the upcoming updates.