Beauty in the everyday: A loving look at southwest Jerusalem

Yaakov Israel began documenting the less-than-palatial edifices in his home patch back when he was a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

Yaakov Israel expertly and lovingly conveys his intimate knowledge of everyday surroundings (photo credit: YAAKOV ISRAEL)
Yaakov Israel expertly and lovingly conveys his intimate knowledge of everyday surroundings
(photo credit: YAAKOV ISRAEL)
On a basic, generic level, it would be a challenge for most people to find too many architectural gems in the southwest of our capital city – specifically in the environs of the Katamonim, Kiryat Menachem and Kiryat Hayovel. But then again, home is where the heart is and Yaakov Israel’s heart has been beating hard and lovingly in the latter neighborhood ever since he made it to terra firma.
At fortyish, Israel has also been doing something about his bond with that part of Jerusalem for close on 20 years. Now a seasoned photographer and educator in the field, with a strong socially oriented streak in him, he began documenting the less-than-palatial edifices in his home patch back when he was a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. “It was for my final project for my degree,” he explains. “I started with it then, and just kept going.”
Indeed he did, as is patently clear from the South West Jerusalem single-issue newspaper he produced, with the help of Mifal Hapayis and the Jerusalem Municipality, which tells the story of his two-decade-long photographic, and personal, love affair with an area of the city which – let’s put it delicately – is not home to Jerusalem’s financial elite. The Hebrew-English publication is based on an exhibition of Israel’s shots of the neighborhoods, which has been running at the Black Box Gallery on Jaffa Road Gallery, near Davidka Square in downtown Jerusalem, curated by Asaf Cohen and Yitzhak Izek Mizrahi, since January. “It should have closed a few months ago, but then the coronavirus came along and helped keep it going there,” Israel notes wryly. The prints are finally coming down now, just in time for a new lockdown.
Israel clearly has an eye for landscapes and structural aesthetics but is also intensely engaged in the human backdrop to the flora and man-made structural milieu. Fans of the M*A*S*H comedy series, which was based on the Korean War and ran, eventually hugely successfully, from 1972 to 1983, may recall base commander Colonel Potter suggesting that soldiers should get to know their adversary before pressing the trigger. Israel, indeed, gets down and dirty with his subjects before he shoots them – with his camera. “Look at that guy,” he says when we met up a couple of weeks ago outside the main supermarket in Kiryat Hayovel. Israel was dressed in blue overalls, much like the people who give out copies of the Yisrael Hayom freebie on a daily basis (although they wear red) as were two of Israel’s colleagues stationed in Kiryat Menachem and the Katamonim. Together they handed over close to 5,000 copies.
“He took the paper, and he’s in it,” Israel laughs.
THE GENT in question is a certain Alexander whom Israel captured walking home one wintry day in 2007, baseball-capped and with a couple of baguettes in a nylon bag in his left hand. The picture does not look posed, and there is an intimacy to the shot that suggests Alexander was perfectly happy to be snapped astride. And even when the subject is clearly aware that he or she is going to have their picture taken, such as the shot of Asher and his mutt on Brazil Street, you know they feel at home in their own neighborhood and that they trust Israel to do the business.
When Israel takes a picture of a building – even the most commonplace and unlovely of residential structures that can be found on practically every street of Israel’s own quarter of Jerusalem – you can sense the daily life and the comings and goings of the invisible inmates. On more than one occasion, that inbred emotional bond prompted a little enlightenment for the people who know – or should know – the locale better than anyone. “I often set up my camera, I have a big camera with a tripod so people couldn’t miss it, and then someone would come out of the building I was preparing to photograph and they would say, ‘What’s so interesting about it?’” Israel recalls. “I think that enabled them to consider their own building through different eyes. It widened their perspective of where they live.”
If anywhere can be considered grassroots Jerusalem it is the aforementioned three districts. Yes, they have changed over the years. You only have to walk around Kiryat Menachem to see how some modestly proportioned Jewish Agency apartments, largely built in a hurry in the 1950s to somehow accommodate the waves of mass immigration here, have been given a makeover and now far exceed the original diminutive floor space. Typically, housing units of the time measured 33 sq.m. or 37 sq.m., stretching up to a “mammoth” 47 sq.m., hardly enough room to swing the proverbial feline – though somehow, many olim from Morocco, South America and Eastern Europe managed to bring up four, five or more kids there.
Israel admits to having a vested interest in the South West Jerusalem project. “I wanted to capture life in these places. I grew up in the neighborhood and Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menachem and the Katamonim have similar characteristics. I feel there is something in the simplicity, which I think you can still identify there, although everything is going to change drastically very soon. That change has already started.”
So documentation was a prime motive behind the venture, too. But it was never just about the external aesthetics. Israel was an insider from the start. He has his nimble fingers on the social pulse of the largely socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of the capital and says he always sensed an unjustified imbalance in the image stakes. “Over time I realized I had a strong interest in the areas I come from, and in the dissonance of how they are perceived from the outside compared with actual real life there.”
Then again, Israel is not necessarily your typical Kiryat Hayovel resident. “Yes I am [an] insider, but of course it is very subjective. I see things a little differently from a lot of other people who grew up there, and only wanted to escape.”
ISRAEL’S FAMILY did not exactly live in the lap of luxury, but the photographer says he never wanted to run away. It was simply a natural choice for him to stay put, and to devote his long-term opus to the place he knows best. “The area always attracted me. It had a certain magic about it, in the ’80s when I grew up there. They may be the same buildings, with the same cramped small apartments, and with windows that are generally positioned incorrectly, rather than offering an open view, but things have changed.”
The locals have adapted to their changing circumstances. “People have come up with their own redesign plans, closed off balconies and the like, but there was still some kind of charm to life there.”
They were different times, a very different world long before social media and virtual relationships took hold. “You knew your neighbors well, and there was an experience which, today, is disappearing,” Israel observes.
The one-time newspaper contains some delightful, striking, alluring and intriguing pictures, and also some fascinating texts by a pretty stellar roll call of professionals from relevant fields. American political geographer and exhibition curator Dr. Mark Long is an old sparring partner, and he and Israel teamed up last year on the photographer’s Legitimacy of Landscape exhibition which ran at Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art. There too the prints displayed buildings, albeit from a much greater distance than in South West Jerusalem, but you still got an inkling of the domestic life that went on inside.
Israel gets up much closer to his human and architectural subjects this time round, on all sorts of levels. The depth of his attachment to the district and its shabby residential blocks comes through in all his work. Even, for example, in a picture of a building on Bar Yochai Street, taken in 2018, which shows the rear end of the block, tendril-like makeshift-looking electricity cables pouring out of windows, snaking their way up to the water containers on the roof and over to a nearby block, with the detritus of lower-rung consumer life scattered around the weed-ridden concrete yard. This may not be Jerusalem’s finest, but it is dear to someone’s heart.
Israel captures the gargantuan, and definitively impersonal, nature of some of the locale’s larger project-like edifices, such as the one on Colombia Street. The pockmarked gray outer walls, stained by years of rusting and unchanneled rainwater, with the odd air-conditioner seeming about to drop and smash into a million pieces any moment, and with a forest of solar panels and water containers on the roof – this comes across as quintessential working-class Jerusalem.
THE IMPRESSIVE publication team also includes London University architect and researcher Prof. Haim Yacobi and architect, researcher and curator Dr. Shelly Cohen, as well as clinical psychologist, philosopher and researcher of consciousness Dr. Gideon Lev and Jerusalemite short story writer Yamit Nataf.
Israel wants to get the word out to a much wider audience. “These are, basically, the neighborhoods that supported Jerusalem over the years,” he notes, “but you will never seem them in a tourist map.” Sadly, currently, that is not a problem.
While he is sorry to see the districts change as they creep towards gentrification, he says the project does not feed off any sense of longing for the past, for his childhood there. “There is nothing nostalgic about this work. There is something special about this period of time, and the sort of people who lived there who are gradually changing, because there is simply nowhere left to live in Jerusalem.”
The authorities have also stuck their oar in the housing shortage scene. “You have all these [National Outline Plan] Tama 38 projects,” he says, referencing makeover work carried out on buildings across the country, ostensibly to make them earthquake-proof, but they generally include extensions. There is, Israel feels, a downside to that in his neck of the woods. “The entire view towards Ein Kerem is going to be completely blocked off by all this construction. They want to do that on Hantke Street (the main road that leads from Kiryat Hayovel in the direction of Mount Herzl) and Brazil Street (which leads off Hantke Street towards Ein Kerem) too.”
Israel says his apartment will also lose its visual breathing space – looking across towards Malha – sometime. “Our apartment is on a relatively high floor, but they will eventually demolish all the [low] buildings on that side. Then they will build tower blocks and that’s all we’ll be able to see.”
Israel is not in the crusading business, and the motive behind the exhibition and newspaper is not to stem the march of progress – he doesn’t think that is possible – but he wants us to know what the neighborhoods looked, and felt, like before things took off.
Nostalgia may not be exactly what it once was but, at the risk of straying into the realms of over-romanticization, there is something to be said for the simpler, and more human, way of life. Israel appears to have practically every base covered, and to have provided a pretty expansive heartfelt overview of the place he still calls home.
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