Street art

In the Tabula Rasa mural project near the bustling Mahaneh Yehuda market, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the paintings from the real thing.

Street art (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Street art
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
 When it was founded in 1877, the Beit Ya’acov neighborhood was further from the Old City of Jerusalem than any other community.
Located two kilometers west of the Jaffa Gate, it was surrounded by wilderness.
Wild animals roamed the fields, thieves appeared night and day, and residents lived with the constant threat of an Arab assault.
One day, a gang from the Arab village of Lifta attacked the tiny neighborhood.
Shouts from the residents and their cries for help were so loud that they reached Mazkeret Moshe, the nearest settlement, established in 1883. One of the residents went to his cupboard, took out a shofar and blew the sounds we know from the High Holy Days: tekia, terua, tekia gedola.
Never having heard anything so eerie, the frightened Arabs took to their heels and ran.
In this week’s Street Stroll, while wandering through the Beit Ya’acov and Beit Saidoff neighborhoods, you can also view a wonderful visual endeavor called Tabula Rasa, or “blank slate.”
Beginning where Eliyahu Mani Street meets Agrippas Street, you can get a close look at the fabulous mural on the corner. An initiative of the East Jerusalem Development Authority, it accurately depicts the people, the kiosks and the buildings in and around the Mahaneh Yehuda market. The mural was the work of 12 artists from a Lyons-based group called Cité de la Création, and it is so cleverly drawn that it seems to take on three dimensions. Even from a distance, drivers stuck in traffic on Agrippas Street have found it difficult to distinguish between the real and the artistically created balconies, produce and windows.
On top of the realistic felafel shop in the painting, a bustling, colorful market is full of people – some of them characters from the real deal. The third story features shoppers cruising the stands in a marketplace that looks suspiciously like the Old City’s Roman Cardo. And, above all that are the crowded houses of market neighborhoods.
But there is more. As you walk around the mural to its right (your left) into an unnamed alley, the wall sports a laughing child drinking fruit juice, and you may find that her laughter is contagious.
Behind her, one of the two men smoking is an obvious fan of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team.
Further down the alley, you will find two “electricians” coming out of a door that warns, “Danger – high voltage!” At the end, descend the steps and turn left onto Beit Ya’acov Street.
By now you’ll likely have noticed how run-down and dirty these streets are.
According to Hila Smolyanski, director of the visual arts department at the Jerusalem Municipality, this particular area has been chosen for the Tabula Rasa project precisely because it is so neglected.
The idea of Tabula Rasa, she says, was to give the area a boost, to brighten it up.
Thirty artists took part in the project. Some of them are well-known, exhibit in galleries or have their own showrooms; others are gifted and established graffiti artists. All were taken on a tour of the streets here and told to create something that suited the neighborhood.
Indeed, if you are able to ignore the garbage, you’ll find that the artists’ work has given the neighborhood a lighthearted and fun feel. You’ll want to keep your eyes peeled so you don’t miss the art scattered on walls, poles, balconies, doors and shops, including a depiction of several long-necked girls on an abandoned cupboard. Along the way, you will pass one of the typical Jerusalem sites near Mahaneh Yehuda: a “hamara” – pub or saloon in Arabic – where idle men gather to play backgammon and drink liquor.
The steps you’ll see ahead of you belong to the exclusive Mahaneyuda Restaurant.
All along the restaurant’s bottom wall and outside the pub and coffee shop across the street are murals bursting with life and activity. Past the restaurant, artist Itamar Flor has carved a portrait into the cement wall clearly depicting the owner of a nearby kiosk.
When you reach Hashikma Street, you can peer down the road to see art on both sides. Immediately to your left, at the corner with Hadekel Street, you will see the sign telling you (in Hebrew) about Tabula Rasa.
Hadekel is a particularly interesting street. As you turn to enter, you can see two huge scary faces. Continuing down the street, you can look at the lovely paintings and signs in the window of the Russell Bakery, which opened in 2009 and claims to produce bread the old-fashioned way.
Murals are everywhere, especially on the shutters of closed shops. A long wall on your right is covered with grazing sheep, and on the left is a wolf waiting to devour them. A mural of assorted tomatoes is inscribed with a play on Hamlet’s famed speech: “Agvaniyot o lo lihiyot” – tomatoes or not to be.
Just past a water meter cupboard decorated with adorable little figures, there is a balcony bottom covered with a poem and a mural. From there, if you turn around and walk back a few dozen meters, you can see a mural on your right – unfortunately slightly defaced – called “Firing Area.” In the pictures, a girl sits on electric wires next to a crow.
Ascending steps across from that mural, you will enter the Beit Ya’acov neighborhood. Its founders gave it that name, which means “house of Jacob,” because they planned to fill it with 70 houses, in accordance with the verse in Genesis 46: “All the souls of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt were 70.” But after the first houses went up in the area – the ninth Jewish neighborhood to appear outside the Old City walls – the group that had bankrolled most of the neighborhood ran into financial difficulty. So they sold a row of houses along Jaffa Road to a kollel (Torah study center) called Horodna.
If you turn right onto Avisar Street and stop at No. 7, you’ll find a complex that holds both synagogue and Torah study center. The synagogue was constructed together with the first houses in the neighborhood, using funds – over 10,000 grush (with one grush being one-thousandth of a Palestine pound) – donated by elderly British kosher butcher Yehuda Leib/Levitas. It is almost always open, so ask if you can come inside.
Paintings of the holy sites that are part of its decor are actually part of the murals on the walls.
Passing the synagogue, you’ll see a large caricature. Directly beyond it stands a deserted stone structure that once served as the neighborhood’s community oven.
Residents prepared their goodies, took them to the oven, and the baker put them inside.
The original houses on this street were small two-story dwellings that faced Jaffa Road with little gardens on the Avisar side.
If you turn around and head back down Avisar, the bamboo fence on your right marks the end of the Metrobagels eatery, right next to the Mahaneh Yehuda light rail station (the tour will take you inside the small restaurant later on). As you can see, there have been a lot of changes since the beginning.
On the attractive porch of the Levi home, one of the Horodna houses, you will find one of the cisterns where Beit Ya’acov residents carefully preserved their water.
FURTHER DOWN Avisar is a bizarre mural on a metal wall. And the second story of No. 18 (there is no number outside the building, so look for No. 16) served, at one time, as a temporary home for homeless Jerusalemites or travelers stuck without a place to spend the night. There were several conditions, however: You couldn’t stay longer than 30 days, and you had to pay five grush to help with maintenance.
Actually part of a synagogue, the place was known as “Havaleh’s Synagogue” after the widow – Hava Miriam – who dedicated the house for strangers’ welfare.
If you cross Eliyahu Mani Street and follow an alley between two large structures with a tower in the near distance, you’ll see a complex called Batei Saidoff (Saidoff Houses) on your right. As you keep going, you’ll enter a plaza that is under development. Along with trees – the saplings are already there – it will soon have a working fountain.
The first Bukharan immigrant made it to the Holy Land in 1870, and by 1890 there were 200 Bukharan immigrants living inside the walls of Jerusalem. Most of them brought great wealth with them to their new home, and in 1891 they built an unusually elegant neighborhood outside the walls.
Twenty years later, wealthy Bukharan Yitzhak Saidoff established another neighborhood, this time consisting of two long rows attached at an angle and ending on each side with a much smaller structure. Each building was two stories high, with shops on the bottom facing Jaffa Road and spacious apartments on the top across from a courtyard. In the beginning, bathrooms were concentrated in one tower in the courtyard, probably similar to the tower that still stands in the Beit Sergei complex in the Russian Compound. Two openings in the complex lead to and from Jaffa Road.
By the mid-20th century, the residents were mainly fairly destitute Sephardi Jerusalemites. The buildings deteriorated, and warehouses and shops replaced the homes. Fortunately the municipality renovated the neighborhood in 1983.
At the beginning of this century, developers put forth a proposal for a 23-story residential tower. Despite protests, the project was approved in 2008 – but with changes. The new plan indeed featured a residential tower 23 stories high, super-luxurious with swimming pool and spa. But it also provided for the reconstruction of the original Saidoff Houses. The tower is already operational, and empty units facing Jaffa Road are ready for rent or sale.
If you take the middle arched exit/ entrance onto Jaffa Road and turn right, you may notice – perhaps for the first time – how lovely these century-old houses look. If you then cross Eliyahu Mani Street – named for an Iraqi-born rabbi who served the Jewish community in Hebron during the late 19th century – you will be standing next to the Jaffa Road side of the Beit Ya’acov neighborhood, right next to the light rail station.
Continuing on to Metrobagels, you can walk inside to view a large photo of Beit Ya’acov before it was restored.
Your second-to-last stop is at Israel Discount Bank on the next corner. During the mid-to-late 19th century, the plot on which it stands held the flourishing fruitand- vegetable Beit Ya’acov Market (later, of course, it would become the Mahaneh Yehuda market). Arab farmers from the surrounding villages would load their donkeys with produce, set up tents and huts, and sell their crops to Jerusalem residents. Next to the market stood the last carriage and wagon stop for passengers and goods traveling to the port city of Jaffa.
It was, of course, the first stop if you were coming from the other direction.
If you cross the tracks and look back at the houses of Beit Ya’acov, a surprise awaits: Atop the buildings are flattish domes – the only dome-like roofs on early Jewish homes in the entire city.