A brush with the past

The Old Yishuv Court Museum mounts an exhibit of forgotten Mandate-era artists.

miron sima 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
miron sima 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What was life like for the residents of the Jewish Quarter in 1940, and a century earlier? A newly opened temporary exhibit about long-forgotten artist Miron Sima at the Old Yishuv Court, together with the modest museum's permanent collection, provides surprising answers to both these questions. In 1844, when 15,510 people crowded into the Old City, almost half were Jewish - although many lived in what is now the Muslim Quarter. In the ensuing three decades before Jews began moving to new neighborhoods that had sprouted outside the Old City, another 3,000 Jewish immigrants squeezed into the already overcrowded slum - all living on philanthropy from abroad. Click for upcoming events calendar! Similarly, many Muslims lived in what is today the Jewish Quarter, including the now demolished Mughrabi (Moroccan Arab) neighborhood which is today the Western Wall piazza. By contrast, today only 1,000 Jewish families inhabit the rebuilt Jewish Quarter out of a total of some 12,000 in the whole Old City. The Old Yishuv Court, located in a 500-year-old building, documents life in those cramped, disease-ridden and impoverished quarters before the British introduced electricity in 1940 and the Jewish Quarter fell eight years later in the War of Independence, only to be partially razed by the Jordanians and then rebuilt after the Six Day War. Touring the museum, one realizes that unlike today's Jewish Quarter, where only Jews live and Ashkenazim predominate, historically Central and Eastern European Jews were just one of 32 ethnic edot (Jewish communities) who lived there, each with its own rite or synagogue. The museum, which opened in 1976 and contains more than 6,500 artifacts, highlights the Ginio family - Sephardi vintners who fled Spain after the Expulsion of 1492, settled in Salonika in the Ottoman Empire (today Thessalonica, Greece) and ultimately immigrated to Jerusalem. But it is the temporary exhibit about Miron Sima (1902-1999) and the group of local bohemian artists of which he was part, curated by Galia Gavish, that is especially intriguing for the light it sheds on life in the Mandate period. Born in a shtetl in Czarist Ukraine, Sima first studied art in Odessa in 1921. In the following year he moved to Dresden, Germany, to continue his studies. For seven years he worked at that city's noted Academy of Fine Arts under Otto Dix. The important Expressionist artist taught Sima both painting and graphic art techniques, and had a wide-ranging influence on the younger artist. Like Dix, Sima often explored the effects of poverty and victimization in his art. Sima's woodcuts were widely exhibited throughout Weimar Germany by 1930, and two years later he was awarded the prestigious Dresden Art Prize - the last year before he and other Jewish artists became persona non grata under the Nazis. Having visited Palestine as a tourist in the 1920s to visit his brother, Sima moved to Tel Aviv in 1933 and supported himself by designing theater sets. Five years later he settled permanently in Jerusalem and taught art classes. Not fluent in Hebrew, Arabic or Ladino, Sima painted in a freer era before the social chasm today separating Jews and Arabs. He romanticized the quotidian, exotic oriental milieu of the Old City bazaars and coffee houses that Jews and Arabs shared then. Many of Sima's intriguing oil paintings, charcoal drawings and lithographs are oblique about their subjects' nationality. Images like "Nargileh smokers" from 1943 or "Journey to the East" from 1926 are saccharine views of the Middle East in which Jews and Arabs seamlessly blend. Which isn't to say that Sima and his avant-garde peers on exhibit were oblivious to those distinctions. But whereas Leopold Krakauer's 1938 pencil drawing is called "Three Arab Beggars," Sima's similar work from 1943 is named "Three Blind Beggars." Embodying that close-quarters integration, an Arab coffee house stood next to the Weingarten home that is now the Isaac Kaplan Old Yishuv Court while the Jewish-owned al-Sheikh coffee house was located on the Street of the Jews. Indeed, in Sima's striking self-portrait from 1940 he paints himself with a keffiyeh wrapped around his head in the style of the fellahin. Perhaps it was artistic license - but coexistence in poverty then seems more of a reality than today's chimera of middle-class peace and separation. Leaving behind his beloved Old City when Jerusalem became divided between Israel and Jordan, in 1949 Sima co-founded the Jerusalem Artists House adjoining what is today the Bezalel Academy's faculty of architecture. He was among the first to participate in the Artists House's exhibitions. During the following years he was twice awarded the Dizengoff Prize, and received a medal at the Venice Biennale in 1963. Sima was a full member of the prestigious Art Academies of both Zurich and Florence. Despite his success in Europe however, he was forgotten in Israel. Around 1950 the abstract art of the New Horizons movement became in vogue in the new country. Following independence, it was as if the landscape had completed its political role. Realist and Expressionist artists such as Sima often toiled on in local obscurity while being recognized internationally. Since Sima's death at the turn of the century, Israel has re-discovered both his art and the work of other important Mandate era and early Israeli artists. Sima willed his estate to the Ein Harod Museum of Art near Haifa. The museum now houses many paintings and prints from all periods of Sima's career. Retrospectives of his art were held in Israel in 2000 and 2001. Other artists on exhibit here include Bezalel Schatz (1912-1978) born in Jerusalem, Ludwig Blum (1891-1974) born in Slovakia, Yaacov Ben-Dov (1882-1968) born in Ukraine, Yaacov Benor Kalter (1897-1969) born in Poland, Munie Lender (1907-1971) born in Ukraine, Jacob Steinhardt (1887-1968) born in Germany, Greta Krakauer Wolf (1890-1970) born in Austria, and her twin brother Leopold Krakauer (1890-1954). The Old Yishuv Court is located at 6 Or Hahayim Street in the Jewish Quarter. The museum is open Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information call 628-4636.