The three-week countdown to Tisha B’Av has begun. We’ll soon be reminded — lest we forget — that Jerusalem is a not a port or a fortress, a gateway, a confluence of rivers or trade routes, a seat of government, a royal enclave or a even a shrine. Jerusalem is a woman.
Alas! Lonely sits the city
Once great with people.
She’s become like a widow,
She who’d been great among the nations.
The princess among the states
has become a slave laborer.
She weeps bitterly at night,
Her tears on her cheek.
There’s not one who can comfort her
among all her lovers
Some English translations of verse 2 above suggest ‘friends’ instead of ‘lovers’. Both are possible, but ‘lovers’ fits better with the representation — here and elsewhere in the Tanakh — of Jerusalem as a beautiful woman, pursued by a multitude of admirers, and responsive to more than one.
It’s an image that’s continued to resonate in modern times, as here in one of Yehuda Amichai’s poems of Jerusalem:
The city plays hide-and-seek among her names:
Yerushalayim, Al-Quds, Salem, Jeru, Yeru, all the while
whispering her first, Jebusite name: Y’vus,
Y’vus, Y’vus, in the dark. She weeps
with longing: Ilia Capitolina, Ilia, Ilia.
She comes to any man who calls her
at night, alone. But we know
who comes to whom.
And it’s an image that make sense of Jerusalem on the ground, as it were: an architectural rough and tumble of walls, tunnels, cisterns, towers, tombs, roads, markets, mosaics, museums, synagogues, churches and mosques offered by ardent lovers throughout the ages to the object of their desire.
The image of Jerusalem as woman came strongly to my mind as I reflected on an exceptionally powerful exhibition that’s showing until 27 August at the Jerusalem Artists’ House on Shmuel Ha’Nagid. It’s called The Schneller Case; I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
The Schneller Case is devoted to a building on the edge of Meah Shearim that’s better known to Jerusalem residents as The Syrian Orphanage or Camp Schneller. Part of a compound that included a School for the Blind and many other workshops and classrooms, the Syrian Orphanage was established in 1860 by a German Protestant called Johann Ludwig Schneller. Its first residents were Arab Christian children who’d survived the 1860 massacre by Lebanese Druze of Maronite Christians in Lebanon and Syria.
Early in World War II, the orphanage’s German Lutheran teachers were expelled by Jerusalem’s British Mandate governors. The compound became an army base for the British and then, until 2008, for the IDF. Until recently, the orphanage stood abandoned by all but homeless squatters and looters. It’s destined now to front a development of luxury apartments.
The idea for the exhibition came to its curator, Tamar Manor-Friedman, as she was walking along Malchei Yisrael Street and saw the signs announcing the plans underway for the Schneller Compound. This chance encounter, she writes in the exhibition brochure, offered ‘not only fertile ground for curatorial and artistic expression’, but it also called for critical reflection:
After all, this forgotten piece of landscape is not just another historical heritage site for conservation, but rather a case study in a Holy City composed of layers upon layers of progress and destruction, conquest and erasure. In the ever-changing, disrupted urban sphere, the exhibition introduces an open proposal for observation and response, a real-time experiment as yet unfinished. The exhibition addresses, inter alia, art’s role here and now: by offering a tribute to the passing glory of this landmark, can art make us take another look? (Tamar Manor-Friedman)
Even before I read Tamar’s question about art’s role here and now, her exhibition made me take another look at the Syrian Orphanage. At the end of my first visit, my friend Deborah and I set out immediately for Malchei Yisrael Street, anxious to see the building in light of the art it had inspired. When we got there, we found a busy construction site, but, this being Jerusalem, no-one stopped us from wandering around, peering through the windows, and taking photographs.
The Schneller Case exhibition includes the work of several artists who responded in different ways to the now-abandoned building. I would be hard-pressed to say which of them moved me more.
Shlomo Serry took a series of photographs between 2014 and 2016 documenting traces — whimsical wall-paintings and verses of poetry — of its use by soldiers and some of Jerusalem’s homeless.
Joshua Borkovsky painted a Mondrian-like series of panels inspired by patterns in the floors of the Schneller Compound’s Home for Girls.
Ktura Manor and Rotem Manor produced a video of themselves uncovering and partly restoring a mural of Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, in the Compound’s chapel. They then made a copy of the wall painting for the exhibition. The video and the copy will be the only surviving remnants of the restored mural and the project. Whatever lays in store for the chapel is unlikely to incorporate a 19th century Christian symbol.
Pesi Girsch created surrealistic photographs of abandoned rooms, and documented their journeys, as here below from chapel to basketball court.
Zvi Tolkovsky, whose personal connections to the compound include military reserve duty, and whose early paintings featured its clock tower, created evocative works from ‘treasure’ he found in the junk heaps and graffiti traces during visits to the building in 2015.
Karine Shabtai exhibited her cell-phone shot of the mechanism from the tower’s clock. Soon after that, the tower was looted and the mechanism stolen, probably for scrap metal.
Einat Amir made kaleidoscopic images from photographs of the stained glass windows.
Perhaps most evocatively, for me, Tal Amitai-Tabib combined recent photos of the abandoned buildings with figures cut and pasted from original photographs of the Syrian Orphanage from the Yad Ben-Tzvi archives. It’s hard to articulate the deeply unsettling feeling these images produce — something like seeing ghosts.
But why did The Schneller Case exhibition bring to my mind the notion of Jerusalem as a woman? I imagine the particular sense of destruction and loss it evoked reminded me of the lonely widow, formerly a princess, of Lamentations. But more importantly, it suggested a model that helped explain — though not justify — the huge psychological challenges involved in preserving this city’s complex archaeological and architectural history.
Now, once again, we are Jerusalem’s favoured lovers. Our tributes, our edifices and monuments, are the ones most prominent in the exhibit we ourselves are curating. What enormous self-confidence, what extreme self-discipline, what massive strength of character it takes to remember, preserve, display and even maintain pride of place for the tributes of our rivals, some of which, it must be said, are far more beautiful than anything we have yet been able to offer to this city, this woman, we all love.