Schneller – past and no longer present

The orphanage and army camp may have been consigned to the past, but at the very least, Schneller Case is a Derby doff to one the city’s most important historical landmarks.

Tali Amitai-Tabib plays with the past by digitally inserting present-day characters into the original settings (photo credit: TALI AMITAI-TABIB)
Tali Amitai-Tabib plays with the past by digitally inserting present-day characters into the original settings
(photo credit: TALI AMITAI-TABIB)
How many of us have hurried by the Schneller army base on Malchei Yisrael Street, on the fringes of Geula, without giving the place a second thought. It’s always been there, right? There’s that unmistakable tower, with the clock, and the four-sided topping, and the decorative façade that you can glimpse no matter which direction you’re coming from.
Well, the tower may still be there, but the clock is no more. The IDF left in 2008 and the expansive site is gradually being turned into a luxury residential quarter for haredi families. Some of the historic edifices are being preserved, but by and large, the Schneller compound is no more.
Tamar Manor-Friedman was one of the many – unfortunately, I include myself in the same procrastinatory category – who for years made their way along the generally traffic heavy thoroughfare intending “sometime” to get a closer look at the impressive main building and other structures in the place. However, by the time she set foot in the site, it had basically been abandoned to all and sundry, and to the elements. That was around 18 months ago.
Seeing the state of deterioration, Manor- Friedman was keen to make up for lost time and quickly set about putting together a group of nine artists who documented some of the aesthetic minutiae in their own creative style. The results of that, albeit belated, quick-fire call for action can now be viewed at the Jerusalem Artists’ House, in the “Schneller Case” exhibition, which is due to run until July 2.
Manor-Friedman confesses to having a vested interest in the Schneller Case that exceeds the defined boundaries of her curatorial role.
“I live in Musrara with constant concern for the historic buildings and compounds in Jerusalem. Practically every day in my neighborhood you see another floor added to some building, or something else demolished. I see it as a sort of Jerusalem syndrome. There is a feeling that everything is changing, and unprotected.”
For her, the compound in question comes into the syndrome equation.
“The Schneller Case struck me unexpectedly one Sunday morning,” Manor-Friedman recalls.
“Walking along Jerusalem‘s Malchei Yisrael Street, I was drawn to the deconstructed-rebuilt compound of the former military base. Here, on the margins of Mea She‘arim, billboards announcing the construction of a luxury residential quarter concealed the renowned historic Syrian Orphanage.”
The aforementioned children’s home was established in 1860 by German Protestant missionary Johann Ludwig Schneller, and operated until 1940. It was one of the first structures to be built outside the Old City, and paved the way for the expansion of Jerusalem in the 19th century.
The philanthropic institution provided academic and vocational training to orphaned boys and girls from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia,Turkey, Russia, Persia and Germany. The site housed facilities for teaching the youngsters a range of professional skills, including tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, printing and metalworking. A school for the blind was opened in 1903, and the orphanage also operated its own printing press and bindery, flour mill and bakery, laundry and clothing repair service, carpentry workshop, pottery factory, tree and plant nursery, and a brick and tile factory. Many of the early structures of nascent west Jerusalem were roofed using Schneller-produced tiles.
Schneller Case embodies all of that. They say that one way to engage the onlooker in a work of art is to keep them guessing, and to get them to complete the picture themselves, as it were. In that respect, the exhibition certainly draws you in. There are ghosts of times gone by wherever you look. The most evocative are the photographs by Pesi Girsch and Shlomo Serry.
Girsch took the trouble to scour the site of one of the main sections that once served as the orphanage church, and in her work you can certainly sense the vibe of the former house of worship, as well as the passing of time and the changes in usage of the site. Her computer-manipulated Chapel print depicts the vandalized church interior, where broken pillars, basketball hoops and ball marks on the walls attest to its enforced redesignation, from a house of prayer to an improvised IDF sports facility.
Serry spent a couple of years traipsing around the site, snapping the ongoing process of decay but also documenting some of the mementos of times gone by the place still exhibited. The prints in his New Luxury Quarter series impart a palpable sense of life in the army barracks and, specifically, the ambiance in the female soldiers’ rooms. One picture shows how the girls spruced up a room by painting it and daubing quotes from a couple of upbeat songs on a wall.
It is, as Manor-Friedman puts it in the fun foldup exhibition catalogue, Serry’s way of conveying not only the facts on the ground he found at the site, but also the thoughts and feelings conjured up by the remnants of human interaction of all kinds there.
“The artist’s surveying gaze goes beyond mere documentation. It strives to trace the dialectical manifestations of man-made beauty and destruction: symmetric architectural forms juxtaposed with graffiti and vandalism.”
Serry was drawn to the quirkiness and oxymoronic interfaces between past and evolving present echoed in the physical layers and evolutionary dynamics that continue to resonate in crumbling edifices.
“In this previously austere, regimented ambience, one is surprisingly exposed to verses of poetry, personal dedications, and childish sketches – the voices of its transient residents who left their imprint thereon,” says the curator. “The graffiti in the girl soldiers’ rooms is so naïve. Quite the opposite of what you might expect to find on an army base.”
The now-and-then divide is smoothly spanned by Tali Amitai-Tabib, who contributed several works from her Schneller Albums series. Amitai-Tabib plays with the past by digitally inserting present-day characters into settings of yore presented in genuine-looking sepia. In so doing, the artists manages to transport the observer back to the days when the orphanage was a vibrant ongoing concern, but also transmits an impression of the passing of time.
If any of the nine artists on the exhibition roster had a right to have their say about the old site, it is Zvi Tolkovsky. He remembers the army base, having served there as a reservist, and he also worked at the Department of Fine Arts of the Bezalel Academy, which at one stage operated from the old shingle factory at Schneller.
For some years he has made a habit of trawling the byways and highways of the city for scraps and mementos, which he later fuses into his own artwork.
Tolkovsky’s Schneller Case mixed-media offering comes from his Soldier Pay Attention series. The work incorporates surprising encounters between old and more recent items, military and civilian, complex and naïve.
The orphanage and army camp may have been consigned to the past, but at the very least, Schneller Case is a Derby doff to one the city’s most important historical landmarks, which is bowing to the march of time.
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