By AVIVA BAR-AM
Some time after renowned historian Prof. Yosef Klausner departed this world, the Talpiot street on which he had lived was renamed in his honor.One of the street’s long-time residents, Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, wasn’t happy about the change.Notable for possessing a generous dose of self-esteem, he complained to the neighbor on the other side of the road that it should really be named after him. The neighbor, wife of acclaimed architect Fritz Kornberg, shot back: “Just be happy that you are walking on his street and that he isn’t walking on yours!” This week’s delightful stroll begins and ends on Rehov Klausner, with a few extra byways in the middle.It is perfect for families – and even dogs – as it takes you through parks for both people and canines. And if you try it in summer, you will find there are tons of shady trees lining the wide, spacious roads.Start at No. 17 Klausner, once home to Fritz Kornberg. Kornberg, who designed his own dwelling and the straight lines of the Agnon home across the street, also created the splendid amphitheater on Mount Scopus and restored the elegant Beit Ticho downtown. His wife turned part of their home into a guesthouse. According to rumor, Agnon used to cross the street when he needed to use a phone. Once asked why he didn’t call from his own telephone, he is said to have replied that it was too expensive.Next stop: Agnon House at No. 16, built in International (Bauhaus) style in 1931. This was Agnon’s second Talpiot dwelling. The first one was destroyed during the 1929 Arab riots in which his entire library was burned to the ground. Perhaps that’s why this home looks somewhat like a fortress: There were few other houses in the area, and danger lurked nearby.Unlike the newer homes on this block, which are made of stone in accordance with city regulations, Agnon’s is covered with plaster. That’s because at the time it was built, Talpiot was not considered part of Jerusalem. This was really the frontier, and since all around him were empty fields, Agnon had an unobstructed view of the Temple Mount and the Dead Sea.His feelings about his new house spilled into his novel The Sign, where he wrote: “I built a home. . . facing the Temple Mount to always keep upon my heart our beloved dwelling which was destroyed.”After his death in 1970, Agnon’s children sold the house to developers. The municipality purchased it to prevent its demolition. But as they were not mavens when it came to preservation, the entire ground floor – which had held the bedrooms and kitchen – was gutted to make way for a lecture hall. Fortunately, the AgnonHouse Association stepped in and restored what was left, returning it to its original colors (which Agnon hated, by the way) and reopening it in January of last year.On weekdays, stop in for a tour of the house (your entrance fee includes an audio guide). The tour begins with Agnon’s umbrella stand, and then leads you to the parlor. You can’t help but notice the modesty of the furniture and dishes, for having lost their beautiful furnishings in the riots, there didn’t seem much sense in replacing them.In the balcony you will see shrapnel holes from Jordanian bullets shot during the 1948 War of Independence. Then continue into the lecture hall, which is currently featuring an exhibition of illustrations from Agnon’s “Stray Dog.”“Stray Dog” is an Agnon story made up of passages from his book T’mol Shilshom. When T’mol Shilshom was published in 1960, the portions about a miserable, unlucky, philosophical canine named Balak were so powerful that he was pressured into publishing them separately. The illustrations were done by Avigdor Arikha, recently deceased, whose pictures range from realistic to wildly abstract and are definitely worth viewing. On exhibit, as well, are sketches that Arikha made of Agnon that had never before been on display.Agnon had trouble sitting down and writing in the manner of most other mortals. Like prestigious American author Nathaniel Hawthorn, he would stand at a podium, scribble something memorable, walk away and return. His scrawl was so bad that his wife, Esther, had to clarify what he had written. She typed his manuscripts, gave them back for editing and typed them again (and again and again!).Climb the staircase to the restored upper level to see the lectern next to which Agnon churned out his masterpieces, and view his personal library of more than 8,000 books. Also on display is Esther’s typewriter.Agnon was indisputably the world’s leading Hebrew writer of his time. An incomparable storyteller, he also made up tales about himself. Indeed, although born in the summer of 1887, he altered his birth date to August 8, 1888, to coincide with Tisha Be’av (the day the two Jerusalem Temples were destroyed and, according to tradition, the Messiah is scheduled to appear).He also changed his name. Upon publication of his first short story, “Agunot” (Forsaken Wives), he and his editor decided that Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes just didn’t have the right ring. From that time on, Czaczkes became Agnon.Having learned from experience the disaster that can befall a library, he kept a safe in his office for unpublished works. The safe is behind you, below the window from which he could gaze out at the Temple Mount before houses blocked the view.EXIT AGNON House, turn left, and walk up the far corner to No. 5, where an apartment building has replaced the home in which Klausner resided on Rehov Klausner. The recipient of numerous other prestigious awards and the great-uncle of well-known Israeli novelist Amos Oz, Klausner wrote books about Jesus of Nazareth that were attacked by Christians and Jews alike. He was also a passionate Zionist and vied with Chaim Weizmann for the position of Israel’s first president.In his autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz offers a vivid description of the relationship between Klausner and his neighbor Agnon, both of whom hoped one day to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: “A polite but Arctic chill fell momentarily on the little road if the two of them ever happened to meet... They would raise their hats an inch or so, give a slight bow, and probably each wished the other from the depths of his heart to be consigned for all eternity to the deepest hell of oblivion.”Turn right on Rehov Betar and walk down the block.On your right stand apartments with green shutters that are only a decade or so old. Before then, the area was covered with sweet-smelling apple orchards.You should now have reached Rehov Beit Hugla.Turn left and keep going when it turns into Rehov Beit Ha’arava. Across from No. 3 there is a narrow asphalt path that descends to the neighborhood’s Sephardi synagogue, built over the shack in which Agnon and others in the neighborhood held weekday and Shabbat prayer services.Past the synagogue there is a wonderful playground.Walk through to the end and turn right. You will end up on Rehov Korei Hadorot, next to No. 6. Turn right.Some of the houses here remain from old Talpiot, established in 1922. The little dwelling at No. 6 has darling colored shutters, while the ramshackle home across the street at No. 7 would be lovely if restored.My favorite is No. 18, with its corner turret.Two large memorial stones stand on a patch of grass on the corner. Surprising to find in the middle of Talpiot, this is a cemetery that holds common graves for Indian troops that fell fighting with the British army in World War I. Buried in one are Hindus and Sikhs; in the other are Muslims. Thus one monument is inscribed in English, Hebrew and Sanskrit, while the second is in Arabic.Pass the little playground adjacent to the cemetery.When you reach the apartment building at No. 35, look to your right: From here, you have a clear view of the much-maligned Holyland Project.Immediately head left, alongside a well-enclosed dog park and another lively playground. You end up next to No. 12 Rehov Leib Yaffe. Kiddy-corner across the way is the Ashkenazi house of worship Tiferet Yisrael S.Y. Agnon Synagogue.Despite the name, Agnon never prayed here. The synagogue, whose cornerstone was laid by chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1924, was meant to double as a community center. Unfortunately, however, the neighbors couldn’t afford to get it up and running. At the onset of World War II, it was confiscated by the British for use as an ammunition depot. After the British left the country, the Hebrew University took possession and found it a convenient warehouse.Agnon and other Talpiot residents fumed for years, furious that they were praying in a little shack while their synagogue had become a storeroom. They went to court, won the suit and got the synagogue back.Renovation was completed only after Agnon’s death, but at least he has his name above the door.There is a geniza nearby, covered with a very pretty painting of the Western Wall. If you drop off any holy books, be sure to put in a coin. On the container there is a sign that reads, “If you don’t pay, it is as if you are stealing.”Turn left into tiny Rehov Moses, where one of several Talpiot jacaranda trees boasts deep purple flowers. From the viewpoint at the end of the street, look to the right in the distance to see the Olive Column Monument, a thick-columned structure 15 meters high, upon which three 82-year-old olive trees are thriving.Houses sprawling all over the hills belong to the neighborhood of Sur Baher, while kibbutzniks from Ramat Rahel grow crops in the agricultural fields below.Follow the metal fence north. If you are tall enough, glance inside to see a huge complex under construction, with flowers growing on the roof. This may or may not one day be the American Consulate in Jerusalem.At the end of the fence, you run into Rehov Yam Hamelah. Look right. If it is a clear day, you should be able to actually see the Dead Sea. This was once the view from Agnon’s house, which is on your left and where you began your walk.Beit Agnon is open Sunday-Thursday from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. In summer, on Fridays from 9 a.m. until noon. Tel: 671-6498. Check their Web site (www.agnonhouse.org.il) for exhibits, events and tours related to Agnon’s works.
A special thanks to tour guide Nikky Strassman and Eilat Leber, director of Agnon House.
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