The place to be

Mishkenot Sha’ananim – from almshouse to cultural hub.

mishkenot sha'ananim (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
mishkenot sha'ananim
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
If you’re going to offer enticing cultural programs it can help to do so from a unique location with an unparalleled view. Mishkenot Sha’ananim would certainly answer to that description.
“This is such a beautiful place,” says Moti Schwartz, who took up the post of the venerable institution’s director general six months ago, “and to engage in culture as a full-time job, and get paid for it, is wonderful.”
Mishkenot Sha’ananim has been around for over a century and a half. It was built by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1860 as people began to spill out of the cramped and often unhygienic conditions in the Old City. It started life as an almshouse which was funded by the estate of an American Jewish businessman from New Orleans, by the name of Judah Touro. It led a troubled early existence and was frequently subject to raids and pillage. A protective wall with a solid gate was placed around the premises and, for a while, people were offered financial incentives to live there.
All that is a far cry from the magnificent institution of today which is largely supported by the Jerusalem Foundation. In 1973 Mishkenot Sha’ananim was turned into a luxury guest house for renowned writers, artists and musicians from abroad, and now also operates a convention center and houses the Jerusalem Music Center which is currently marking its 40th anniversary. The center was inaugurated by celebrated Spanish cellist Pablo Casals shortly before he died.
Today Mishkenot hosts a wide range of literary-based and arts events, including art exhibitions of various ilks in the Dwek Gallery. The annual Nitzotzot (Sparks) confluence of scientists and artists takes things one step further. “You know, literary figures meet at conventions and other events the whole time, but when do they get an opportunity to mingle with scientists?” notes Schwartz. “The talks and lectures were great but it was also fascinating to see the writers and artists get together later, and to see the chemistry between them.”
Last month’s 2013 Nitzotzot program, for example, featured an intriguing encounter between Nobel Prize-winning chemist Prof. Aaron Ciechanover and internationally acclaimed video, photography and cinema artist Michal Rovner, while, in another slot, Prof. Eden Segev considered how the human brain produces something from nothing.
“It is fascinating to, say, go to a lecture in the Nitzotzot program, or to host someone like [awardwinning Jewish British author] Howard Jacobson,” continues Schwartz, adding, however, that his job is not all fun and games, but the end product is well worth the elbow grease. “There is plenty of administrative, logistical and less inspiring stuff to do, but when you attend one of those events you only wish you could pack another 200 people in the auditorium so that they could enjoy it too.”
This is where Schwartz’s past experience in new media, including a stint at The Jerusalem Post, comes into play. “Of course The place to be Mishkenot Sha’ananim – from almshouse to cultural hub Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the ‘Long House.’ there’s nothing like experiencing something firsthand but, at least, people who can’t make it to some event or other can catch it later on You Tube or some other virtual format. That’s a great tool for getting our work out there.”
Every incoming boss likes to make his or her own mark when they take on a new post, but Schwartz says he is not looking to upset the apple cart. “I think this place needs some fine tuning, but not much more than that. There is no other place like this, with all our facilities, in the country. And don’t forget the original windmill is turning again.” Earlier this year the latter landmark became operational for the first time for many years following reconstruction work by Dutch experts, and participants in last month’s three-day conference based on the life and work of Montefiore went home with a bag of flour ground by the British philanthropist’s newly refurbished windmill.
The jewel in the institution’s activity crown is the International Writers’ Festival, which takes place yearly in May. Schwartz says he is eagerly looking forward to next year’s installment. “It is our flagship event. Next year will be the fourth edition and it is a wonderful event with fantastic writers from here and all over the world. It really puts Jerusalem on the global literary map.
“I think my job is to do some fine tuning and make Mishkenot more in tune with contemporary times,” continues the director general. “When it opened it was one of the few cultural institutions in Jerusalem. Thankfully, there is such a cultural explosion here these days, that there are plenty of other outlets around the city. So we have to see how we can ensure that this place provides a unique offering, but also play a part in the evolving local cultural scene.”
One of the most vibrant expressions of Jerusalem’s bubbling contemporary cultural scene is the monthly Af urban cultural magazine, and Schwartz says he is looking into ways of collaborating with the publication at some stage. “We are also considering how we might work with the Season of Culture event, possibly next year, and we maintain constant dialogue with all the cultural institutions around here.”
Schwartz says there is also the matter of maintaining delicate interplay between the institution’s rich past and looking to take the place into the future, while keeping an open mind. He says we need look no further than the man who originally set the wheels, and the windmill, in motion. “We are happy to take the so-called burden of Mishkenot’s history with us. The Montefiore event brought the whole history of this place to the forefront, and we feed off the great legacy Montefiore left us. He did not differentiate between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi Jews, or Jews and Arabs, and we here are open to all channels and ideas. This is a place that accommodates people from all religions, cultures and walks of life.”
Schwartz counts himself lucky to have his present job, and says he has never worked in a place like Mishkenot Sha’ananim. “There is something special about the air here, the building, the position. There is something about this place that imbues any event we put on here with some special, magical element. It really is unique.”
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