HaMiffal is an abandoned 19th century building turned into a communal, creative factory. No, it’s a cultural center that offers everything from a vegetarian cafe to bookbinding classes. No no, it’s an open art collective where anything and everything goes. Well one thing is for sure, HaMiffal is the first of its kind in Jerusalem.What began as a temporary project from the Empty House artists’ group, intended to run for the duration of the summer last year, was extended at least until May. While it is difficult to quantify what HaMiffal is, there is one thing it is not: exclusive. This is quite deliberate.
“HaMiffal is like a laboratory that questions the power of art and creates a space that fosters a new sense of belonging and togetherness; a free space for the public to take responsibility and ownership over it,” CEO Neta Meisels says.“It’s our challenge to create a new breed of culture hall that is inclusive and creates a space for new ideas and collaborations. It’s a place that has a great sense of uncertainty, which is something that we don’t know how to handle. Uncertainty is bad for business because people don’t know what they will get when they come, but it is what allows for the possibility to create. This is why we need to make sure that it doesn’t become a clique. We need to keep an open door for new people because that’s the only way that it’s really for the city.”The list of events and cultural happenings that HaMiffal, at 3 Hama’aravim Street, behind the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, has on offer is nearly endless.The main revenue-generating projects are the cafe and vegetarian restaurant, the store that sells ceramics and clothing, and the tours that come through daily. Chef Jamie Sellouk opened the cafe in October, called Marcel’s Kitchen after his grandfather. The HaMiffal team approached him about expanding what was originally just a bar into something that served food and could also function as a work and hang-out space.
The cafe is unlike any other in Jerusalem; with tables and chairs of every conceivable size and shape. There is a chair made out of an artist’s easel placed whimsically by the wrought iron bar, along with a cushioned seating area made from a mix of green fabric and astroturf. It feels as if each item has a story all its own, and was crafted from the same fire that sustains HaMiffal today; a creative chaos, coalesced.In truth, almost everything in HaMiffal – from the tables of Marcel’s Kitchen, to the plastic art that adorns the outer rooms, such as a lamp made from an old gasoline canister – was created by people who are part of the HaMiffal community and committed to its duration and success.“One of our principles is that doing something yourself has a huge impact, both on the people who do it and those who watch,” Meisels says.“So everything around, from the woodwork to the fountain, was made by participating people, not just artists, who come from all different backgrounds. It’s important for them to bring their particular know-how.""We can always prosper from people bringing new knowledge. Some of it was here before we came, so it’s an interesting mix. What’s part of the past, what’s part of the now? This draws a perspective of the future; a dialogue between past and present. Some of the artists found really interesting murals in the walls and we had to decide what to do with them. What’s the right answer? Should we have only the old because it is so magnificent, or is there a place for both of us? It was important for us to dig into the past and also have a present.”Walking through HaMiffal becomes more like an exploration. There is the studio/workshop, where so much of what adorns HaMiffal is created; the music room where artists affiliated with the project can rehearse (and which doubles as a smoking room when it’s cold outside); the art studio attached to the store; and the spacious outer room, where many of HaMiffal’s events take place.One such event took place on February 16: “Don’t Give Them Cutlery,” a night celebrating Levantine cuisine.
The menu, put together by Sellouk, was based on Levantine cuisine, one of three discernible cuisines in the Arab world.“The countries considered to be in the Levant range from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and include Egypt, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iran and Iraq, and certain parts of Turkey,” Sellouk says.“Historically, the Levant kitchen is regarded as being heavily influenced by Ottoman Turkey, as there are references for many of the dishes considered today to be Levantine. Among them are hummus, baba-ganoush, arak, mujadra, labane, fattoush salad, and falafel.”The evening began with the mezze, or on-the-table dishes, including muhammarah, a paste made of walnuts, breadcrumbs, peppers, lemon and olive oil. Then on to main courses such as bazeen, the national dish of Libya, a dough made of barley flour, which has been cooked in water and then kneaded to a fine consistency, and sumagghiyah, a Palestinian dish, slow cooked with Swiss chard, onions, chickpeas and sumac. Traditionally, it is made with meat, but since Marcel’s Kitchen is vegetarian, Sellouk substituted mushrooms cooked in soy and cumin.Dessert was basbousa, a semolina cake with oranges and almonds, soaked in simple syrup.Other events on HaMiffal’s horizon include concerts from a wide range of musicians, like Victoria Hanna, one of the most innovative artists on the Israeli music scene; a DIY workshop for children to learn how to make their own Purim costumes; and a 12-hour Purim carnival complete with a hardcore electronic, psychedelic dance party and multiple DJ sets.Next week, HaMiffal will release its first book, by Nir Segev.“He pretty much philosophically and culturally covered the past 15 years in Jerusalem,” artistic director Gilli Levy enthuses.“He goes through the entire underground culture of the city. It’s an amazing expression of a generation of artists over the past 10 to 15 years. Publishing this book is something that might only interest 50 people, but for us, it represents something huge.”The space is also home to other kinds of happenings, such as two sets of lecture series; one with journalists from online magazine Alachson (Diagonal), and a second with PhD candidates from the Hebrew University, discussing their research on the brain. HaMiffal is also showcasing the launch of a graphic novel with both the writer and the graphic artist.“We approach our program more like a magazine,” Levy says. “We have something interesting on each subject. We refer to our events as stories rather than shows, because we have stories to tell. So the Levantine cuisine night wasn’t just a meal; it was a story about a geographical cuisine and an authentic approach to how it was eaten.”Levy, who has worked with cultural projects in Jerusalem for many years and hosts an online radio show called Ra’ash Hour, featuring indie artists, emphasizes the unique nature of the HaMiffal project.“It’s hard for me to say what has happened since August because I suffer from a lack of perspective; I’m so inside of it. It’s not only a cultural center in the sense that we have music and art; we really represent every kind of culture inside one building. The amount of time we have to invest to keep it current and thriving is around the clock."“The Eden [Jerusalem Center Development] Company funds us through the municipality. Eden started the entire project. They funded us for nine more months, but it was never supposed to be more than a temporary thing. We are really grateful to them. They give us complete freedom to do what we do. I’ve worked with a lot of cultural projects in Jerusalem and the funding can be very conservative, but they give us freedom and have not tried to tame the idea. That’s why I invest 24 hours of my day in it. Once it’s over, there’s a good chance that I won’t have anything similar again.”From the rave response to HaMiffal, it’s clear that there is value in considering what the future of this thriving artistic haven will be. Meisels is busy trying to secure funding to keep the doors open past the impending May deadline. Considering what HaMiffal gives to the city of Jerusalem, its artists and anyone who wanders in off the street, Meisels is optimistic about the future.“We are working towards that now. There has been talk about a renovation of this place. I hope that there will be a permanent establishment after the renovation, but nobody knows when it will be.”Right now, no one is allowed to work upstairs because it is unsafe. This could change with the renovation, and big plans for the second floor and maybe even a third floor have been tossed around. So far, they are only possibilities.Eden was given the mandate to build a program for the building and to be in charge of the renovation. The Empty House artists were brought in for the interim, but what they created is very special.“It’s a good problem because now everybody wants to keep this alive,” Meisels says.“The fact that we created something that is good enough to be permanent, not just temporary, should be on the city’s radar. We should bring in more stakeholders if we believe this is something that has value. We want to see this place move forward.”Eden is not the only funder; there is also the Jerusalem Foundation, as well as other foundations. But the future remains uncertain.Perhaps it is that same uncertainty that has propelled HaMiffal forward until today.“We thought the location of this place – between center city, the Old City and the hotels – is kind of an invitation to create a meeting point and an exposition of Jerusalem’s hidden culture and artist community, which is huge and amazing,” Meisels states.“But it doesn’t always have contact with its audience and definitely not with the world. There is no international connection or dialogue, and that is such a huge possibility with this place for people from abroad, and even Jerusalemites, to have a first meeting with the creation that goes on here that too often happens in small places out of sight. HaMiffal gives the creative community a springboard and a place to be exposed and maybe even an economical platform.”“HaMiffal offers people a context,” Levy concludes. “There is no conflict between the group and the individual; the individual is energized by the group. HaMiffal represents the culture of Jerusalem, not the counterculture. There is no mainstream culture in Jerusalem. It’s not like LA, where you have Hollywood and then the underground scene. These are the stories, the tastes, the sights and the sounds. ” For more information: hamiffal.com/english/