Jerusalem culture, blue blood and fringe benefits

Laptops sit on the tables of the recreated Smadar Cinema cafe at the Tower of David exhibition. (photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
Laptops sit on the tables of the recreated Smadar Cinema cafe at the Tower of David exhibition.
(photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
I took a couple of short cultural breaks recently, stepping out not far from my Jerusalem home, but back in time. On May 24, I visited, figuratively at least, the British Mandate period at a press tour ahead of the opening of the “London in Jerusalem” exhibition at the Tower of David, focusing on the impact that British rule had on local culture. On May 27, I was transported to ancient times at a press tour of the Bible Lands Museum’s “Out of the Blue” exhibition, tracing the thread of blue, the biblical techelet, from a rare stone in Afghanistan, around the Mediterranean and to the color of the national flag, courtesy of a nearly extinct sea snail. It was quite a trip.
The Tower of David exhibition complements the show commemorating the centenary of General Edmund Allenby’s entry into the Holy City in December 1917 and the end of the 400-year period of Ottoman rule.
Museum director Eilat Lieber noted that when military governor Sir Ronald Storrs arrived in Jerusalem he asked a British officer friend to recommend a good place for conversation and a drink and was shocked to hear the city had nothing to offer. The town under the Turks was a sleepy backwater.
Storrs considered Jerusalem the center of the world, but seriously lacking in cultural pleasures, so he established the Pro-Jerusalem Society to help transform the town. A host of leisure and cultural activities were launched including museums and exhibitions, concerts, tea parties, sporting events and cinemas. A chess enthusiast, Storrs set up the city’s first chess club so he would have somewhere to play.
Lieber said that the Tower of David served as the first museum and cultural center “attracting people from all of the city’s diverse communities – British officers, the Jewish population and Arab society.”
Exhibition curators Liat Margalit and Inbar Dror Lax enthused about putting together a collection which, by Jerusalem’s standards, relates to a very recent and brief history, just 30 years of British rule out of the 3,000 years since King David made it his capital.
Margalit explained that they’d tried to give the history a fresh look by concentrating on the cultural impact rather than the political. It was characterized by a special fusion with local influences of both Jews and Arabs. Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum delighted local audiences as did Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. The sound of the oud and hazanut (cantorial singing) rang out at the Citadel.
The exhibition is an interesting mix. The curators were able to reconstruct Fink’s restaurant and bar, a legendary landmark for politicians, businessmen, journalists and opinion makers (at least those who didn’t mind a non-kosher menu). Edna Azrieli, the daughter of Dave Rothschild, who took over the bar from eponymous founder Moshe Fink, attended the opening along with her husband, Muli. When I asked Azrieli, a former Jerusalem Post staffer, her favorite memory, her eyes sparkled as she replied “the visit of Paul Newman.”
Newman was in Israel to make the movie Exodus. She invited her girlfriends to peep and swoon at the star. The movie, of course, illustrates the complicated relationship that the Jewish population had with the Mandate authorities, which, among other things banned immigration of Jews before, during and even after the Holocaust.
The Smadar Cinema’s cafe is recreated with laptops on the tables where visitors can interactively look through an impressive collection of photos. The first broadcast of the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1936 (“This is Jerusalem calling!”) can be heard in a spot commemorating the studio broadcasts, which included popular morning exercises. There’s a rack of newspapers, including of course, The Palestine Post, the predecessor of The Jerusalem Post. A billboard of posters includes an advertisement for a brand called Sport: “The healthiest cigarette you can smoke.”
At the back of the hall is a rough recreation of a cinema. The curtains are plush velvet, the seats plain wood. Margalit noted that unlike in today’s selfie generation, there are very few photos of cinema interiors from that time.
The laptops include more material than could be displayed on the walls, and will probably hold the attention of younger visitors, but as someone born in the last century, I prefer actual pictures to the virtual experience. Nonetheless, I browsed through photos of tea parties, cricket matches and polo games, and evidence of British class snobbery in a sign stating “Entrance for sergeants and above”: an anathema to Israelis used to the informality of the IDF.
As the itinerary for the upcoming visit by Prince William is being prepared, the first official visit by British royalty, I wondered if the Tower of David and the City of David archeological site could be included.
MY SECOND museum trip involved a very different journey in time. The Bible Lands Museum, true to its name and philosophy, offers a look at the mysteries and significance of techelet and argaman (blue and purple) in a regional context. In the ancient Near East blue was linked to the heavens and divine. Purple was considered the color of royalty and noble standing.
The Israelites were commanded to cover the Ark of the Covenant with cloth dyed blue and to tie techelet threads to the corners of their garments. Items on display include dyed cloth fragments – 2,000 years old – found in the caves of the Judean Desert and at Masada; the crown of a Mesopotamian deity, embedded with lapis lazuli, the gemstone that appears to have been the significant ancient blue gemstone rather than today’s sapphire; and artifacts indicating the presence of the purple dye industry on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast. These include punctured Murex trunculus snail shells excavated at Tel Shikmona and dating back to the 10th-7th centuries BCE. Co-curator Yehuda Kaplan theorized that the Philistines, known as the People of Purple, colonized the area for the snails necessary for the lucrative purple dye pigment.
“The exhibition looks at the magnificence of the color blue in the ancient world and ties the blue threads mentioned in the Bible and extra-biblical texts to the very design of the flag of the State of Israel today, as it celebrates its 70th anniversary,” museum director Amanda Weiss summed up.
For the press tour, the museum arranged a demonstration by the Ptil Tekhelet organization which aims to promote ritual blue fringes created in what it believes is the ancient traditional way. This involves using the “blood” of the “hilazon,” a powder made from the crushed and dried glands of the Murex trunculus sea-snail. Watching the yellow liquid change the color of dyed wool to purple and blue when exposed to sunlight and air was fascinating (although the appalling smell could be the snail’s ultimate revenge).
Ptil Tehkelet founder Baruch Sterman, co-author of the book The Rarest Blue, briefly described the research by rabbis, scientists and archeologists that led to what he believes is the identification of Murex trunculus as the source of the biblical blue.
Asked why the knowledge of how to prepare the dye disappeared some 1,300 years ago, he answered “Follow the money.” In Roman times, the industry came under imperial control and only Roman dye houses were permitted to operate, on pain of death. Talk about something to dye or die for.
It’s a lot of hassle for a tassel, but the significance of the blue ritual fringes hasn’t faded in time. The original blue-and-white flag flown outside the United Nations in May 1949 upon Israel’s acceptance as a member state is also on display. Once in a blue moon, the UN gets it right instead of screaming blue murder every time Israel is forced to defend itself.


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