An artist's tale

An artist discovers a sea of tranquility amid the turbulence of the City of Gold, and is moved to creativity.

Convent entrance (photo credit: Helen Bar-Lev)
Convent entrance
(photo credit: Helen Bar-Lev)
I have abandoned and Re-embraced Jerusalem four times in the four decades I’ve lived in Israel. And inside Jerusalem, Ein Kerem, and inside Ein Kerem, the Notre Dame de Sion convent, the place that has been with me from the beginning of my artistic life until today.
I first rang the bell on the enormous doors in 1979, and was graciously admitted to paint its many views, its tranquil landscapes.
As I walked inside that first day, and on subsequent visits, I was struck by energies so sublime and calm, it felt as though I had one moment been living in one world, but had been transported to a place that my original world should resemble, but didn’t.
The tranquility blew away my anxieties, leaving me limp with relaxation. A whiff of lithium! I have since returned again and again, bringing friends, guests, my students – who spent the day painting.
The convent was founded in the 19th century by the Ratisbonne brothers, born Jewish in Strasbourg, later converts to Catholicism. The two also founded the Ecce Homo Church in the Old City of Jerusalem and the Ratisbonne School in the center of the city. In the 1950s, the convent opened its guest rooms to the public.
Some of the French nuns who live there have also converted from Judaism to Christianity, and speak good Hebrew; one once told me that she was to attend her nephew’s bar mitzva that afternoon! The nuns and volunteers from all over the world tend the gardens, grow fruit and vegetables, make their own jams and herbal teas, which are served to guests at breakfast.
The grounds are spotless, vast. There is a modest chapel on the way to the dining room.
The kitchen is enormous and sparkling.
Large shutters painted green adorn the windows. There is not one wilted leaf among the potted plants that sit on old benches and other discarded furniture arranged alongside the buildings. Flowers are everywhere; one needs to wander here.
Taki ng a path li ned on eit her side by high pines I discover a huge carob tree, and the old cemetery where nuns and priests are buried. The vegetable garden, the flower garden. Almond trees.
The cistern. Arches, arcs. Shutters with hearts carved into their wood. Structures unique only to this place. The only sounds, those of birds chirping.
In 1979 I moved to Jerusalem with my two young children, into a flat in Kiryat Hayovel.
I was the proverbial “starving artist” and could not even afford the bus fare down to Ein Kerem, so I walked there, treating myself to the bus on the uphill return journey. My first ever exhibition in Jerusalem was at the Jerusalem Theater in 1980, where I showed only paintings I had done in Ein Kerem.
In those years, until 1989, I was painting in brown monochrome watercolor with brush and pen. In 1989, I moved to the Artists’ Colony in Safed, where all the blues of doorways and walls and synagogues and holy graves inspired me to begin painting in the full color spectrum.
I never believed I would return to Jerusalem, for me always so monochrome. My teacher, Yosef Hirsch, once said that every artist who lives in Jerusalem will eventually paint the city in monochrome because Jerusalem has no color. But after eight years in Safed I was in need of a rest from the pressures of my gallery and the constant visitors who interrupted my painting, and so I took a clean, spartan room in the guest house of the Notre Dame de Sion. During that visit I was so exhausted that I could not leave the convent, could not go out into that other, real, world. I was there for perhaps five days, reading, painting, sketching, healing.
I returned afterward several times, with guests or alone. Once I had the privilege of staying in the Hermitage, a building separate from the rest, old and needing repair, but charming.
I left Safed in 2001 after 12 years in the Artists’ Colony there, and returned to live in Jerusalem. In 2003 I met my future partner Johnmichael Simon, and we both began writing poetry, eventually joining Voices Israel Group of English Poets. In 2006, we moved to Metula on the Lebanon border, almost as tranquil as the Notre Dame de Sion in Ein Kerem, although two days after signing the contract to buy our new house, the Second Lebanon War broke out. This led us to compose an illustrated book of poetry called Cyclamens and Swords, which describes the dichotomy between the beauty of Israel’s landscapes and the stresses of living here through successive wars.
Thus, in the late afternoon in early summer this year, while the setting sun was skimming the Mediterranean, radiating a white light into the conference room of the Blue Bay Hotel in Netanya, and in the presence of 21 poets – all members of Voices Israel Group, there for a two-day workshop – I read “Two Zinnias” as the one poem I had chosen as defining me as a poet. It had previously won an honorable mention in the Reuben Rose Competition and fourth prize in the prestigious international Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse. It is a poem that has stayed with me and become a part of me.
The poem was written half a year after our move to Metula, when we had to be in Jerusalem. Johnmichael dropped me off at the convent with our things and I then took a bus into town, seeing Jerusalem as someone who had returned after a long absence.
What I felt was uncomfortable for me, now the stranger, observing with more objective eyes. Back in Ein Kerem, I looked at the two zinnias in a tiny vase the nuns had placed in our room, and wrote:
Two Zinnias
Two zinnias in a glazed vase clipped by nuns’ careful scissors, are the only decoration in this spartan room in a convent in Jerusalem but it is clean, the mattress comfortable flagstone floors, yellow- and red-ochre, have been polished to a gleam by passing shoes these one hundred years, even more
We have returned to Jerusalem after an absence of some months – a jittery city, it is more intolerable than ever horns constantly honk, faces do not smile congestion and pollution, agitation, congregate in its centre together with beggars, street musicians, religious Jews, Arabs an incongruent conglomeration which beckons in a manner I cannot fathom and repulses with vengeance, as though one reaction triggers its opposite, a contradiction of emotions that is disturbing considering I lived here for so long and loved it with passion, wrote love poems in dedication, painted its landscapes from every angle until my ability wilted and the brush could no longer respond to my commands
So that earlier today when I walked through this city in the heat of its summer and watched dusk extinguish the gold from its stones, I noticed a nostalgia for it – for the once- Jerusalem, almost expecting the present to disappear behind a curtain and lo! enter the Jerusalem of old, the city I knew and yearned to return to, smaller, happier, more beautiful
These are my thoughts now, late, in this sanctuary amidst the city’s insanity, this secluded quaint convent, where quail and jay and gay flowers reside, whose energies are lovely, light, a place that does not disturb nor disappoint my memories
While the two zinnias in the vase blink red and pink in the heat of the night and soothe me
New York-born artist and poet Helen Bar-Lev has lived in Israel for 41 years and has had over 90 exhibitions in Israel and abroad; her website is