From the rooftops of Zion

A new exhibit tells of a group of radical Zionist utopian dreamers who tried to create New Jerusalem.

Jerusalem 88 (photo credit: )
Jerusalem 88
(photo credit: )
The day shall come when between this roof of Bezalel, the witness to the new life that is taking shape and coming, and the Western Wall, witness to the old life, the path between them shall no longer be strewn with thistles[…] A flow of fresh new life, healthy as the streams in the Judean hills, shall flow from Bezalel to the Western Wall, to shed it of the sediments of two thousand years of exile, to shatter the two-thousand-year weight of slavery." - N. Pitshnovksy, From New Jerusalem: On the Roof of Bezalel (Hapoel Hatza'ir, August-September 1908) century ago, a small band of Jewish revolutionaries believed that they would succeed in fulfilling their Zionist and socialist ideals in Jerusalem. The better-known pioneers of the Second Aliya built the kibbutzim and paved the roads. Most of them considered the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem to be too backward, provincial and poor for their revolutionary zeal. But this group of artists, socialists, Hapoel Hatza'ir activists, Jerusalem Commune members, intellectuals-turned-stonemasons and Bezalel students and teachers believed that art, crafts and education could bring about revolutionary change. Together they formed the loosely organized group known as "New Jerusalem." Jerusalem, with its ancient workshops and overcrowded yeshivot, dank, garbage-strewn alleyways and impoverished neighborhoods would be the site of the new, creative and productive society that they would build. Now, for the first time, a new exhibition at the Artists' House tells the story of New Jerusalem and displays their art, including, most notably, some of the previously unknown works of Ira Yan, often thought of as "the first Hebrew artist." A joint project between Yad Ben-Zvi and the Artists' House, the "New Jerusalem" exhibition is a combination of art, history and social commentary. The black-and-white photographs and century-old drawings reveal the history of Jerusalem and the work of this radical, romantic and ultimately tragic group of pioneer Zionists who loved and believed in this city. And, at the same time, the display, carefully and provocatively curated by Nirit Shalev-Khalifa from Yad Ben-Zvi, is a reflection of Jerusalem today. On warm evenings, these young revolutionaries, most of them barely in their 20s, would gather on Jerusalem's rooftops. David's Tower could be seen in the distance, and, in their imagination, the crenelated roofs echoed the embattlements of the Old City walls. Looking out, they saw the fulfillment of their visions. From the rooftops, says Shalev-Khalifa, "They saw Jerusalem as a source of inspiration, an idea and ideal. A utopia. Standing high above the city, the difficulties of daily life were blurred." "Just imagine what they must have seen from these rooftops," adds Ruth Zadka, director of Artists' House. "They came from the forested, green landscapes of Russia and eastern Europe. The barren, desert views must have seemed so biblical and inspirational to these young, idealistic men and women." They centered their group around the Bezalel Academy of Arts, then located in the Ethiopian Quarter (today Rehov Adler) and focused on art and traditional crafts as a source of creativity and productivity. In 1908, the academy moved to its quarters in the Abu Shakr buildings (today's Rehov Shmuel Hanagid). Since rent for the building in the Ethiopian Quarter had already been prepaid until the end of the year, Prof. Boris Schatz, head of the academy and founder of the arts movement in the new Yishuv, placed the building at the disposal of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Rahel Yanait, and their colleagues of the Jerusalem Commune, and they became the center of New Jerusalem. The existing Old Yishuv provided the raw materials for these new immigrants' revolutionary zeal, but New Jerusalem's attitude towards the people of the Old Yishuv was complex and contradictory. On the one hand, they despised these poor people and viewed them as provincial, stagnant and nonproductive. In 1913, He'ahdut ("The Unity") the paper they published wrote scathingly that "the spiritual and worldly strength of old Jerusalem is waning away... Its best young men are losing the better part of their vitality and abilities, without hope, within the confines of the yeshivot, which do not bear fruit or flowers." But, at the same time, they believed that these people preserved a core of authentically Jewish shapes and symbols, a combination of the ancient biblical roots and the mystical Oriental. Furthermore, they realized that the workers in the print shops and small jewelry and artisan workshops had the practical crafts knowledge that they themselves lacked. They were convinced that these simple folk would serve as the proletariat needed to lead the revolution. The exhibition progresses through four large rooms, each highlighting a different aspect of New Jerusalem. The first room of the exhibit has been devoted to the ideology of their art. A large, frequently published picture of a drawing class has been prominently hung. In the photograph, the legendary teacher Abel Pann is instructing his many students as they practice drawing "Mazal the Gypsy," who models in front of them. Next to the triptych hangs a drawing of Mazal herself, drawn by a now-unknown Bezalel student. On another wall, the many drawings that the students and masters made of the Old Yishuv are displayed, including works by Meir Gur Arie, Boris Schatz, Nehemiah Badarashi, Abel Pann, Yaakov Stark and others. Most of the drawings are detailed, yet cold. "The people served as models, as templates," explains Shalev-Khalifa. "They did not interest the artists as people and the artists did not try to penetrate into their lives. For them, the people of Jerusalem were the raw materials, the shapes from which the new Jew would be fashioned." The second room is devoted to the crafts, through which the New Jerusalem group intended to establish the productive proletariat. A display of finely worked lace is an example of the type of workshops - today they would be known as "cottage industries" - that they intended to create in order to enable women and girls to take part in the creative revolution. There are also pictures and samples from the stonecutters' commune, some of whom would later form the core of the Hashomer self-defense organization. Schatz encouraged them to learn stonemasonry because, he said, Jews should know how to build, so that they could literally, as well as spiritually and metaphorically, build up the old-new land. Shalev-Khalifa has also hung a striking drawing of Yehezkiel Hankin, nicknamed "The Hunter," whose thickly muscled, sinewy body served as a model for the drawings of the new Jew. Members of New Jerusalem helped to foment the printers' strike of 1908, but the press owners and even the influential and well-educated members of the Old Yishuv, who had no interest in promoting socialist justice, crushed the strike quickly and harshly. Disappointed but undaunted, New Jerusalem became convinced that a regularly published newspaper was essential to succeeding in their next chosen arena: the yeshivot. Two years later, the group began to publish their ideas in the radical He'ahdut. In a manner that seems quaint and naive today, they handed out their paper in the yeshivot and kollelim, believing that the yeshiva students, who were so used to the written word, would understand their message "when they see it in writing" and would join their ranks. They didn't and the members of New Jerusalem were thrown out of the religious study halls, often violently. The third room is devoted to the establishment of the Hebrew Gymnasia in Jerusalem. As the members of New Jerusalem aged and matured, some of them had children and they needed to find appropriate school frameworks for them. They certainly would not have sent these new Jewish-Hebrew children to the schools of the Old Yishuv, nor would they send them to the missionary schools run by the churches or foreign governments. They realized that they would have to establish their own school for their children. The exhibition displays first lesson plans, report cards and other exhibits from the first days of their educational efforts. There are also the virulent pashkevilim (wall signs) posted by the Old Yishuv's religious guard, who opposed these "enlightenment" efforts. The last room is dedicated to Ira Yan (Esther Slephian). Born to an enlightened family in Kishinev, Yan studied art in Moscow and Paris. She was a friend of Schatz and came to Eretz Yisrael at his bidding. It was Schatz who called her the "first Hebrew artist," yet he did not make her part of the teaching staff at Bezalel. Yan and her daughter, Lena Slephian, joined the young members of New Jerusalem when Yan was already in her 40s. For many years, Yan was primarily known as Haim Nahman Bialik's mistress. Her art was seldom reviewed or presented, largely because it was believed that little of her work had survived over the years. But in preparation for this exhibition, Shalev-Khalifa uncovered, Indiana Jones-like, photographs, glass negatives and reproductions that had been forgotten for decades in crawl-spaces at Yad Ben-Zvi. This exhibition is thus the first time that Yan's work has ever been displayed in Israel in a dedicated exhibit and it provides a unique opportunity to view her art. "Her work carries the sense of tragedy and individual pain that runs through Russian socialism as well as from classic mythology," Shalev-Khalifa observes. "This is the first time that we have the chance to understand her story as an artist, not merely as a tragic figure, not as Bialik's lover, but as a woman and an artist. "History and posterity have not treated Ira Yan well," Shalev-Khalifa continues. "This is a chance to correct the wrong." Inspired by Schatz and New Jerusalem, Yan photographed Old Yishuv Jerusalemites in their traditional clothes and positions, then used these photographs as models for her drawings, which include both primordial and hopeful, future-oriented elements. But unlike the other artists in her group, her work is more sensitive and seems to seek out the soul of her subjects. A Russian national, Yan was exiled to Egypt during World War I, and this exile marked the double tragedy that ended her life. During the war, Yan sent her daughter Lena back to Russia for her safety. But following the Russian Revolution, Yan lost track of Lena and they were never again in contact. And when she returned to Palestine after the war, already ill with tuberculosis, she found that the entire body of her work, which she had hidden in an attic in Tel Aviv, had disappeared. She died a few months later and was buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel's first "First Lady" when Yitzhak Ben-Zvi became president, is also a major presence throughout the exhibition. A fervent member of New Jerusalem, Yanait Ben-Zvi was a meticulous documentarian, who seemed to have an astute sense of history even then. It was she who saved some of the photographs of her dear friend, Ira Yan, and reproduced them in a book that she dedicated to her in the 1960s. It is her careful archivings that Shalev-Khalifa found unexpectedly. Through their brief years, the young members of New Jerusalem experienced elated moments of great hope. The "Young Turks" revolution (1908) led them to believe that the Ottoman Empire would provide them with greater freedom and human rights. The establishment of the Hebrew University and the growth of the Hebrew Gymnasia seemed to promise that their visions would be fulfilled. But World War I put an end to their progress and members of New Jerusalem suffered from poverty and illness. Some even died of starvation. The exhibition is a hybrid, a meeting between Artists' House and Yad Ben-Zvi. Acknowledges Zadka, "In many ways, this is a very strange exhibition for us at Artists' House. Most often, our exhibitions are an attempt to examine and extend the Israeli artists' canon or to provide a retrospective view. This time, together, our two institutions have mounted a multi-level exhibition which is as historical and social as it is artistic." Both Zadka and Shalev-Khalifa point to two examples of the disciplinary differences between them. In the third room, Shalev-Khalifa has hung a set of pictures drawn by Batya Lishansky, Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi's sister, when she was only 14. Later in life, Lishansky would be recognized as a great artist and sculptor and was awarded the Israel Prize, but these childish drawings themselves have little artistic value. "I really thought about it a lot," says Shalev-Khalifa. "I thought that the walls of Artists' House would blush from shame." Shalev-Khalifa chose them because they are part of New Jerusalem's social history and Zadka acceded. A photograph of Ira Yan as she lay on her deathbed was more difficult to resolve. Recalls Zadka, "I did not want to hang this picture. This is the first time that Ira Yan is presented in her own right. Why did we have to add the tragedy? the illness? I wanted the exhibition to allow her to breathe as an artist." Answers Shalev-Khalifa, "Death and dying were parts of their lives, and they knew it. It is clear to me that this is not a 'paparazzi' picture. it is carefully staged and composed. Yan wanted her death to be part of her art." Although the exhibition takes up only four rooms, it is complexly multi-layered. On one level, the exhibition presents the narrative of the Second Aliya and the tragic story of these young idealists' lives, intertwined with the great movements of history. Says Muki Tzur, historian and expert on the Second Aliya, "They understood that they were living in a time of revolution and, reflectively, they knew that it was a dangerous time, a time of physical, social, cultural and moral loss. "They knew that they were engaged in life experiments and that these experiments were often premature, uncertain, perhaps even doomed to failure. They even knew at the time that they were often ridiculous. But they knew they had to act, and they were committed to the fulfillment of their vision," Tzur says. Today, as we look at these young people gazing seriously out at us from century-old photographs, their eyes burning with zeal, we sense an almost-poetic consistency to the tragedy of New Jerusalem. Says Zadka, "They embody the quintessential Jewish longing along the existential journey, never arriving. They spoke of vision, but somehow the longing was as much a part of their vision as the fulfillment." But Tzur says that the pioneers themselves never were enamored of their own tragedy. "They were a small group of idealists, and New Jerusalem was a tiny group even within the small Second Aliya. And yes, many of them committed suicide, because every time of creativity produces wounds as well. But they wanted to change the world. They were not in love with their illnesses or with the difficulty of their daily lives. They wanted to build a better world, where Jews escape their suffering and be healthy and free to love and create." Finally, the exhibition also provides the opportunity for a critical, post-modern review of early Zionist history. Observing compassionately, but with today's sensibilities, Zadka says, "We see that they were unable to see the other. We see the drawing of 'Mazal the Gypsy.' Who was she? Was she a Jew? Then why did they call her 'the gypsy?' Was she an 'other'?" She continues, "From a post-colonialist viewpoint, we can see that these young idealists wanted to constitute themselves as 'natives,' even though they were not. And so they adopted the symbols that would constitute the state, but ignored the people who bore those symbols. In the end, they succeeded, and those symbols have become part of our collective memory and identity - but they were adopted at a price." The discourse continues on to this very day, Zadka says. "We continue to ask ourselves, who are we? What is Jewish art? What is Jewish identity? This is simultaneously a universal discourse, a worldwide trend, and a particularly Jewish and Israeli one." The rooftops where the group of New Jerusalem stood, argued, dreamed and planned still exist. The eucalyptus trees that New Jerusalem may have carefully planted as saplings now tower as high as the roof itself. But the rooftops are strewn with airconditioning and ventilation units. Below, some of Jerusalem's less-than-beautiful architecture blocks the view to David's Tower, and spray-painted graffiti asks, "Why do cats hate cats?" If the members of New Jerusalem could stand on the rooftops and look down today, would they be pleased at what they would see? Shalev-Khalifa believes they would see the ironies in Jerusalem today. "New Jerusalem centered around Bezalel to create the new society, but Artists' House, where Bezalel stood for so many years, receives almost no public support. And Bezalel has turned its back on the city and run away to the mountains, only beginning to return, now that the situation has improved. She concludes, "These idealists struggled for free culture and modern education, and today the free population still struggles for education and culture." Zadka believes they would be proud. "They would see that they had succeeded, they had built a state, and they would be happy. The Jews have a homeland, we are safe, and that would matter to them very much." Tzur agrees - to a point. "I think that if they stood on the rooftop today, they would be ambivalent. They would see that we are five million Jews living in Israel today, that the country is wealthy and crowded. Just think: The first car arrived in Palestine in 1914, but if they looked down from the rooftops today, they would see a genuine Land-of-Israel traffic jam, and they would think it is miraculous." But they would be disappointed, too, he says. "They wanted to both create a state and to build a just society, and we are not a just society. They would discover that most of the workers were not interested in justice or proletarian solidarity and they would discover that some of the Jewish nationalists are not satisfied with a national home and seek victory over others. "But they would also see our youth, full of ideals, facing the same questions that they themselves faced, and they would be happy. They would understand the tragedy, they would dream of a better world, and they would try to be happy." The "New Jerusalem" exhibit will be shown through May 27, at Artists' House, Rehov Shmuel Hanagid. Sunday to Thursday, 10 to 1 and 4 to 7; Friday 10 to 1; Saturday 11 to 2.