Artistic flavor

Rehov Bezalel, the original home of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, hides some fascinating stories and a few tall tales.

bezalel street 248.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar Am)
bezalel street 248.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar Am)
Early in the 1970s my brand-new husband began disappearing after work and on weekends for hours at a time. Fortunately for the future of our marriage, his demanding mistress was only a rundown old building on Rehov Bezalel. Together with other young, enthusiastic volunteers, he had been busily cleaning out the rubbish that had accumulated there after decades of neglect - and helping to create the city's legendary Pargod Theater. At first (and second) glance, Rehov Bezalel seems almost completely devoid of attractions, despite a recent face-lift. Yet if you take the time to walk slowly up and down the sidewalk, you will find it full of fascinating structures with great stories to tell. Begin by heading for Rehov Bezalel 1, where it runs into Shmuel Hanagid. You will be standing on Kikar Akiva Govrin, named for Israel's first - and relatively unknown - tourism minister (Govrin served as minister from 1964 to 1966). Hugging the square, at Rehov Shmuel Hanagid 10 and 12, are the buildings that once housed the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. Intended to serve as dwellings, they were constructed by a wealthy Arab in the 1880s. Surrounding the complex is the original crenellated stone wall that was meant to mirror the wall around the Old City. The complex stood empty until purchased in 1907 by the Jewish National Fund for Boris Dov Schatz, one of Israel's most famous figures. A Lithuanian who was both an art professor and a court sculptor to the king of Bulgaria, Schatz had long dreamed of creating a Jewish arts center in Jerusalem. He suggested the idea to Theodor Herzl in 1903, and it was accepted by the Zionist Congress of 1905. Schatz came to Israel in 1906, together with art teachers and a few pupils. He started putting his vision into action from rented premises on Rehov Ethiopia. A few years later he moved his school into this gorgeous estate with its lush gardens and called it the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. The name "Bezalel" comes directly from the scriptures. "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship'" [Exodus 31:1-5]. The biblical Bezalel also fashioned the brass altar on which King Solomon offered his sacrifices. The Bezalel school attracted young Jews from all over the world and from within Israel itself. Its artistic flavor, the studies, the exhibits and the festivities held at the academy all contributed greatly to the spiritual and cultural development of Jerusalem. In the 1960s the charming school changed its name and became the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. And in 1990 the Academy was transferred to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. While there have been many interior changes over the years, the handsome floors inside and the building exteriors remain untouched. Examine the detail from pilasters to crenellated railings and note the stone strips between stories. Lining the steps on both sides are delicately sculptured scenes. Today No. 12 houses the Jerusalem Artists House, where you wander through changing exhibits in the upstairs galleries (open weekdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m; Fri. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m; Sat. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Bezalel's School of Architecture occupies the second building, and a third portion of the complex includes the Marcella Brenner School of Education and Art. The gate at No. 12 is almost always open, as the popular Mona Restaurant operates within. Begin ascending the short pedestrian mall that leads away from the square. Here and there are tiny shoe and dress shops. You might want to stop in at the Bezalel Coffee House for one of its melt-in-the-mouth almond pastries or the delicious Patisserie Roll. If you stand outside the coffee shop and look down the street, you will be able to view a painting high on the wall behind the buildings on Rehov Shmuel Hanagid. This is the newest example of Jerusalem City Art. I would describe it for you, but the works - created by Schatz family artists, Bezalel students and Bezalel alumni - change every few months, and what I saw may be different from the creation that meets your eyes. Possibly in future, short films will be screened on the wall as well. Look for large metal X's on different parts of Bezalel. Seen often on very old Jerusalem buildings, these were added as reinforcement after a major earthquake hit the area in 1927. Continue looking up at Bezalel as you advance along the mall, and you will view a wonderful example of new architecture combined with the old. Take special note of the unusual windows in the original edifice. Boris Schatz built a lovely family home and studio inside the complex, behind the door at No. 3, just a few meters up the walk. The two were divided by a courtyard filled with trees and flowers. Schatz's two offspring and his daughter-in-law Louise were each renowned artists in vastly different fields. Among other awards, his daughter Zahara won the Israel Prize in 1955. Stop at two windows in the wall to view constantly changing exhibits of their work, along with interesting creations by other artists. Up the street and across the road at No. 16 stands a long, old building. It is part of the tiny quarter called Knesset Israel Gimmel, the third stage in a group of neighborhoods that offered two-room apartments rent-free to impoverished religious families. The first cluster of houses - Knesset Israel Alef - was erected in 1891; Gimmel appeared right after World War I. Funded by Jews from the US, the project consisted of apartments built in the shape of the letter "het." Families won the apartments by participating in a lottery and could remain in their new homes for three years. For a closer look at the neighborhood, which remains haredi, cross Bezalel and turn into Rehov Yizre'el. Enter the courtyard to find that above the door of each apartment are Hebrew letters representing the numbers that were used in the lottery. Then pass through the complex to reach Rehov Hanatziv (parallel to Yizre'el) and turn left to return to Bezalel. As you return to Bezalel you will be more or less face to face with an enormous mural painted on the wall of Beit Ha'am (the Gerard Behar Center) at No. 11. The massive painting, called Around the World in 92 Days, is an enlarged replica of a work belonging to the Israel Museum collection. Highlights from all the major cities in the world are found in this tumultuous, three-part work. See if you can find the Arc de Triomphe, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Dome of the Rock among a colossal jumble of people, animals, carts, roads and bridges. Cross at the next traffic light and keep descending. You are about to pass two different synagogues, built by Jews from the Turkish town of Urfa and its next-door neighbor Cermik. Until the end of the 19th century, there was a large Jewish population in the area of Urfa. Most of the Jews there left for the Land of Israel in 1896: they had seen the writing on the wall after the sultan launched a pogrom against the country's Armenians. Unusually tall, sturdy and powerful Jews, the new immigrants worked as guards and in construction, their robust physiques lending a sense of security to people in the neighborhoods. Local legend holds that Abraham lived in Urfa prior to leaving for Canaan. It is also believed by many that the first Jews reached Urfa, which dates back to the 16th century BCE, some time after the exile into Babylonia and lived there for two and a half millennia. The house of worship at No. 19 is called the Urfali Synagogue and Beit Midrash: it is also the official center for immigrants from Urfa. If it is open, note the quiet tones of the synagogue interior, from the white marble ark and pulpit to rust-colored curtains and dark bronze benches. Try to walk slowly as you continue on the left side of Rehov Bezalel, for there are charming spots next to, above and below the houses on street level. They form the border for the Nahalat Ahim neighborhood that was founded in 1925 specifically for Yemenites south of Rehov Bezalel. Soon you reach No. 25, known as the Jermuklim Synagogue. This is where the Jews from Cermik worship, like their brethren a few meters away preserving their separate traditions. Although you can no longer read the words, a faded metal sign on the corner of Rehov Nissim Bachar once announced the presence of the Health Bathhouse, constructed in the 1930s. A much larger sign tells you that you are looking at Pargod, which in an earlier incarnation served as a bathhouse. The structure served residents of all the surrounding neighborhoods, who lacked running water. After the War of Independence, people installed faucets in their homes and no longer needed the Health Bathhouse. Deserted for decades, you can imagine the condition it was in when Jerusalem personality Arie Mark began transforming it into an off-the-wall theater in 1973. It took Mark and his loyal band of volunteers a year and a half of hard work, but Pargod became a lively venue for an unusual Jerusalem evening. Activities have ceased recently, for Mark fought a losing battle with the authorities, who offered little or no help when the theater was up and running and now plan to take over the property. On a happier note, the Jerusalem Theater Company has begun performing in English at the Gerard Behar Center, offering professional productions every Tuesday through June 16th. For details, see or call Karen at 624-4585.