From the Hurva to Mamilla

Shuki Freiman's ancestors were caretakers of the Hurva Synagogue for three generations. Now a successful artist, he recalls life in the Old City before 1948.

Yehoshua "Shuki" Freiman's house in Efrat is exquisitely adorned with works of art, but the real treasures are in the front yard. Nailed to the stone wall that cordons his home from the street are fragments of an ornate old guard rail, rusted by the passage of time. These wrought-iron pieces of biblical passages hang like voices from the past. The fragments come from the ruins of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, having been lovingly gathered by Freiman and his older brother in 1967. "It's amazing that we found these," Freiman says. Two years ago, a government order spearheaded the restoration of the centuries-old Hurva (Hebrew for ruin) Synagogue, and two more years are projected toward its completion. Last week marked the midpoint of the restoration project, with the completion of the keystone of the synagogue dome. The Hurva holds special significance for Freiman's family: his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as the synagogue's shamash (caretaker). Originally from Russia, the Freiman family goes back seven generations in the Old City. The family legacy of devotion to the Hurva was abruptly truncated in 1948 when the synagogue was looted and bombed by the Jordanians. At the same time, the Freiman family's house was torched, along with most other Jewish homes in the Old City, and they were forced to flee. They moved to an apartment on Rehov Rahel Imenu in Katamon, which was not the upper-crust neighborhood it is today. The family of nine was packed into one room (Freiman is the youngest of seven children) and shared a kitchen with other families in the building. The memories are bitter for Freiman, who was nine at the time. "We were refugees," he says. At least some of this bitterness may arise from the consequences to Freiman's father, who was wounded in the war and devastated by the loss of the Hurva. He worked in David's Tomb on Mount Zion until his death at the age of 49 - "of a broken heart," asserts Freiman. The power of memory, however, would eventually draw Freiman back to the Old City. Years after he had married at 19 and had children, he returned to live in the exact spot where his family home had once stood. But, Freiman soon discovered, many things had changed in the Old City since he had lived there as a boy. "All of life was different," recalls Freiman. "Life in the Old City was that you went to the shuk at the end of each week to buy vegetables, and it was very crowded there." Freiman describes how he and his siblings would go to the Arab market with their mother, and how for a fee, an Arab would carry their purchases home for them in a huge strap-on basket. "Of course, that would never happen now." After 23 years in the Old City, when his four children had moved out of the house, Freiman and his wife decided it was time to leave. When asked if he is interested in becoming the next shamash of the Hurva, Freiman's emphatic response is: "Definitely not." The memories of the Old City and the Hurva are a vital part of his identity and history, but they are for the most part enshrined in the past. Now Freiman is an upscale Judaica artist living in an impeccably modern house in Efrat. He inaugurated a new gallery in Mamilla last week. There the majority of his art is on display, catering to the very affluent. A lavishly hand-illustrated, leather-bound Haggada was described by Freiman as "cheap," going for $1,700. The more costly pieces run into the thousands of dollars. Unsurprisingly, most of Freiman's clients are from overseas. Some of his works are on display in a museum in Augsburg, Germany. "I'll be up until late at night making phone calls to America," says Freiman. His watch has three faces: One shows the time in Israel, while the other two display Eastern Standard Time and Pacific Time. Business trips overseas are a frequent part of his life, involving meetings with the uppermost echelons of the American Jewish community. Most of the business, he explains, is achieved through word of mouth: "Friends bring friends." A tall man with dignified bearing, Freiman's passion for his work is apparent as he points to the various pieces that are not packed in boxes. He is devoutly Orthodox, postponing an interview when it conflicted with evening prayer services, but got his artistic training from the secular Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. His office in Talpiot is a flurry of activity as he and his 19 employees prepare for the gallery opening. But there are plenty of impressive pieces that have not been packed. Pointing to an intricately worked wooden box, Freiman instructs, "Cover your eyes." A soft whooshing sound can be heard, and then he says, "Now open them." In the box, nestled in velvet, shine five delicate gold megillot, encrusted with small blue gemstones. Freiman slides the parchment from one of the scrolls to show that it is entirely covered with detailed illustrations. While there may seem to be a sharp disconnect between Freiman's rough childhood and his present success, to him they are intertwined. The majestic art of the Hurva left a deep impression on him when he was a young boy, serving as his first exposure to sophisticated art. "There were paintings on the walls, it wasn't like synagogues as they are now; it was more like synagogues in Italy," he recalls. One item in particular made the deepest impression: the menora, which stood a full meter-and-a-half tall and was fashioned of white gold or platinum. It was looted by the Jordanians, along with the many silver pieces that were in the synagogue. Now one of Freiman's most cherished dreams is that he will be the one to make the menora for the restored Hurva. Proudly he points out a tall menora that graces his office, saying, "It would be a bit like this, but much taller." His love for art guided him to Bezalel, and he used his skills throughout his life in a variety of ways. Later he would go on to work officially as a decorator of synagogues, installing stained glass windows (which he still designs today), designing print letters for printing presses and finally beginning to work with silver. But it was only in 1977 that Freiman began his own business, designing and manufacturing his own works of Judaica art. In time, his staff grew to include his own children, three of whom are involved in the business. Perhaps the most artistic of his children is Freiman's only daughter, who designs cloth ark covers (parochot) for synagogues. But Freiman asserts that all his children are creative, even the youngest, who chose to go into hi-tech instead of the family business. Of having his children involved in his business, Freiman says simply, "It's a blessing." The new gallery in Mamilla is the second Freiman has opened; the first, which had been next to the King David Hotel, was closed down during the intifada. But now Freiman is ready to try again, hoping that a public gallery will minimize the necessity for overseas travel. "There the works will be on display," says Freiman. "And we hope we'll someday be able to display them in the Beit Hamikdash [Temple]." For Freiman, the essence of art is spiritual. "Art is soul," he says. "It's in my soul; I live it."