Talbiya - Reviving the Hansen legend

Surrounded by ancient trees and a stone wall, as if enclosed in a bubble of a lost time, stands the ’Jesus Help’ hospital (its original German name, Jesus Hilf, is engraved to this day on its faade). On the outside, Marcus Street inclines towards the Jerusalem Theater.

Down the street, Talbiya intersects with Old Katamon, where the Hansen Hospital for skin disease stands outside of time and space as a mythological institution hidden in the bosom of a Jerusalem legend.

Anyone who wants to travel in a time machine or reconstruct Jerusalem two centuries back may enter the magic of this compound and this building, which were planned by architect Conrad Schick.

The German Christian nuns (the Diaconese sisters of the order of the Moravian brethren) wished to follow their savior and treat lepers out of devotion to the outcasts, the suffering and the poor of spirit.

The nuns did not care for lepers, but victims of another skin disease named after the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Hansen, who in 1879 discovered the bacteria that causes the disease.

Unfortunately, the institution and its inmates were ostracized and regarded as a sort of ex-territorial site in terms of the social sphere.

The neighborhood of Talbiya, today one of the capital’s prestigious neighborhoods, was in the 19th century a border area subject to attacks by bands of robbers; a place where those who were mistakenly considered lepers were sent.

Later, further down the neighborhood, the insane were institutionalized there.

The historical building was erected to treat people suffering from Hansen’s Disease. The disease, mistakenly confused with Biblical leprosy, was considered incurable in those days and was feared by the public.

Following independence in 1948, the institution went from the ownership of the Christian order to the Israeli government and the number of patients hospitalized there diminished.

Nowadays, Hansen’s Disease is curable and the site serves as a daycare clinic and learning center for the disease, the incidence of which has dropped significantly. A separate section is devoted to the mental treatment of children from age zero to six and another section is used for the Health Ministry’s administrative needs.

Within the meter-thick stone walls, rests the local architectural gem by Schick, a devout German Christian, who fused biblical muse, autodidactic architectural skill and an ability to merge European, Israeli and oriental influences.

Entering the gates of the courtyard can transport a curious Jerusalem wanderer into a completely different reality, one that was once experienced by people who were removed from the community because of their mistaken stigma.

Since my childhood I have been walking past Hansen Hospital on the road by the Jerusalem Theater and itching to peek in — to the place that used to be called the ’leper house’.

A few weeks ago, I walked again on the descent next to the ’moon grove,’ the mystery of which has been immortalized by every classical Jerusalem writer from Agnon to A.B. Yehoshua and suddenly, on one of the gates which are always closed, I spotted a notice.

On the poster that read like a dream, it was written that ’The Society for the Protection of Nature invites the public to join in a special cultural and educational event in support of the gardens at Hansen Hospital.’

I never knew that inside, between the walls, the pine trees and the wild cactus there is a garden that looks like an invitation to a magical mystery tour.

The notice also mentioned that the Hansen garden is ’one of the oldest gardens in the holy city? hidden behind the walls of the Hansen Hospital which was established in 1887.

This biblically inspired garden encompasses two acres of stone terraces, water cisterns and a variety of flora and fauna, including trees over 130 years old.’

The ceremonious poster ended with an optimistic quote from Psalms (92): ’The righteous will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in Lebanon will he grow.’

’Amen,’ I muttered to myself and suddenly the hidden, neglected and unknown Hansen garden appeared in my mind like the giant’s garden in Oscar Wilde’s legend, waiting for the children, the Green activists and some fresh watering to give it new life. Even a cedar will grow there one day in glory, I optimistically imagined.

A large wall surrounds the Hansen Hospital site (nearly 2 acres, 7,328 square meters of yards and buildings), which contains one of the oldest gardens in the holy city. The compound was inaccessible to the wider public for many years, mainly due to the stigma associated with the disease.

The special fundraising event by the Friends of the Reconstructed Biblical Garden, which included wine and cheese and a rich musical program ranging from Dvorak and Gershwin to Naomi Shemer, was not held in this esoteric garden, but in the garden of the Museum of Natural Science in the German Colony, instead.

It was a truly magical evening. Under the museum’s ’blind windows,’ the centerpiece of which is a mosaic of a lion, in a yard usually full of dinosaur-loving youngsters, gathered the garden’s supporters, cultivators, caretakers and sponsors.

In the middle of the yard, a well-appointed buffet was tastefully laid out and the Green-oriented, hidden-biblical-garden-loving Anglo community donated generously and enjoyed the performance by the string quartet, which was as soothing as the sunset.

Then, just when the garden’s birds joined the sounds of the wine-pouring, the atmosphere changed and a truly exciting Australian singer Judy Campbell, in an orange Indian blouse, burst out in a rendition of ’Summertime,’ accompanied by her husband’s saxophone improvisation and backed up by a Jerusalem jazz trio.

Campbell came to the friend’s association through her son, who volunteered to reconstruct the garden. The most moving moment in the evening was when she started singing ’Jerusalem of Gold,’ when Shuli Natan popped out of the audience in the role of the good fairy and the old Jerusalem anthem mixed with the pine scent of the hidden garden.

The climax was when Rivka Regev, the living spirit behind the vision of reclaiming the wilderness and the daughter of the hospital’s veteran general physician, who lives in the compound to this day, led the group of supporters and sympathizers on the journey between the museum and Hansen, on the path next to the Hartman Institute.

Rivka, carrying ancient pictures from the 19th century, stood at the gate of the large yard and when it swung open, the group seemed to pass into the yellowing picture of another century.

The garden is full of pomegranate, fig, date, olive and carob trees and thanks to Rivka’s enthusiasm as she leaped over fences and water holes, irrigation trenches and terraces, the biblical passage quoted from Psalms came to life.

They have been working vigorously for a year with modest means to restore the garden. A group of Zionist youth from Israel and the Diaspora, which is mentoring a group of Down Syndrome kids from the Elwyne Institution, began clearing and rebuilding the ancient and impressive irrigation system, which is based on wells and channels. They have already managed to get the branches of the ancient carob tree that threatens to break the terraces, under control.

Their vision is to reclaim the wilderness. The mission statement that appears in the near-utopian manifesto is formulated under the headline ’Healing Gardens’: ’This Biblically inspired garden was created as a Garden of Eden of sorts for the benefit of the patients and staff... Despite being designated as an historical site for preservation, it is now in a state of neglect and is threatened by urban development. It is therefore appropriate now to welcome the public into the garden and to change its image.’

The group’s beautiful vision speaks of a garden that is ’open for all: the healthy and the sick, the local community and visitors, individuals and groups of all ages and religions.

’We will transform it into a place for therapeutic activities, for relaxation, recreation and cooperation? Our vision for the site is that of a natural, organic environment, with the feeling and atmosphere of past times, a refuge from the hassles of modern living, a place to restore health of mind, body, soul and community.’

They hope ’to restore the old garden, to cultivate a biblically-ecologically organic sound garden of healing herbs and to invite the community to participate in maintaining the garden through educational activities for school children, the elderly and people with special needs.’

One can only hope that restoring the garden, which still remains in a state of alarming neglect, will be a first step towards restoring the whole compound in the same spirit.

Various proposals have been raised in the past about the compound’s uncertain future, including a guesthouse and art center. The restoration concept that was successfully employed in projects such as Ticho House and Mishkenot Sha’ananim could also work, as long as the site’s original character is restored.

While the city bulldozers are already planning to bite away at the last remnants of the quiet quality of life in the beautiful streets on the edge of Talbiya and the German Colony, it is worth maintaining the ’last retreat’ encompassed in the Hansen garden.