Beauty in Beit Shemesh

The gentile son of a British sea captain came to Israel, converted to become an Orthodox Jew and calls Beit Shemesh home.

Watercolors on wall 521 (photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
Watercolors on wall 521
(photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
Up four flights of a dingy staircase, in one of the less salubrious areas of Beit Shemesh, Yonatan Shaked has created a haven for himself.
The grim buildings that were thrown up in the ’50s to house the influx of immigrants are still there, concrete blocks where no greenery thrives. But once one has clambered up those endless steps and reached the top, it’s like entering another world.
The small apartment is full of thriving plants, Shaked’s own watercolors and furniture that he has painted with flower motifs. Some are new, some old, but all prove that with artistic talent, one can create a beautiful home – even in 40 square meters of space.
How the gentile son of a British sea captain came to Israel as a volunteer in 1967, converted to become an Orthodox Jew, went through many years during which he disconnected from society and ended up in this place is another story. In fact, Shaked has just completed his memoirs and is about to publish them.
He arrived in Beit Shemesh when the welfare department that was taking care of him assigned him to the town he’d never even heard of.
“I was happy to take anything at the time,” he says. “I’d been living rough for two years and I was afraid, with the second intifada raging. My therapist told me to hold out for Jerusalem, where I’d lived previously – but I couldn’t.”
The apartment, when he first saw it, was in such a bad state that the first thing he did was buy a disposable camera and photograph it.
“Everything was broken,” he says. “The windows, toilet and sinks were in a terrible state, and the floor was thick with pigeon droppings.
I went back to the office and told them I couldn’t live in it, and they told me to take it or leave it. Then I showed them the photos and they were in total shock. They agreed to do the renovation while I was actually living there.”
All this happened 10 years ago, and today Shaked seems to have achieved his aim – to turn his place into an aesthetic and welcoming haven from the ugliness outside.
The lounge/dining room had a small balcony that was incorporated into the living space, and this is where he keeps his “garden” – many thriving green plants enjoying the bright light coming in to the room. Green is also the color he painted the melamine unit, which holds books and knick-knacks from all over the world.
“I used a matte color to change the texture, and I’m pleased as it looks quite like wood,” he says.
Several of the furniture items were junk, picked up from the sidewalk and given the special treatment. The chair next to the unit was such an item.
“I painted it, upholstered it and added the cushion,” Shaked says.
Someone gave him the oval table, and he keeps it covered with a cloth. The chandelier above he found in the flea market.
Many of his decorative items come from Jerusalem’s Old City, as he lived there for many years. The glass and iron coffee table was bought in an area furniture store, and the Persian carpet was also acquired there. The rust-colored sofa, which he wanted because of the wooden armrests, came from Turkey.
Apart from the many ornaments, including a wall-mounted hanukkia collection, he has many watercolors decorating the walls – which are all his own handiwork.
“I took up painting when I lived in Jerusalem,” he says. “I used to walk to the Western Wall every Shabbat through the hills, and I was always treated very nicely by the Arabs as I walked through Silwan. I loved the view so much I came back during the week to paint it, and it was then I realized I could paint.”
The other corner of his lounge is a reading spot, where he has an old armchair covered in a blue-green blanket and a horizontal mirror to add an illusion of space. Above the mirror is one of his “finds,” a cupboard thrown out next to some garbage bins. He immediately saw the potential, picked it up and gave it his special treatment, painting and creating a distressed look typical of the shabby chic style. The back was removed and it now covers the kitchen window, surrounded by plants and interesting light fittings.
The entrance to the bedroom is embellished with rust-colored drapes and an exotic pelmet. On the wall hangs an intriguing piece, a yellow flower-painted mirror with “pillars.”
“An artist friend found it and gave it to me, convinced I could do something with it,” says Shaked. “It was dark brown and ugly, but the design brightens it up nicely.”
The hand-painted cupboard comes from Morocco and on it stands one of two lamps made from converted coffee pots.
Through the rust curtains one can glimpse an improvised chest of drawers, which in a previous incarnation was a stereo speaker. On this stands one of the few things he inherited from his father: a solid brass lamp, which would originally have been screwed down on a ship.
The kitchen is separated by more curtains and inside, is brightened up with red gingham and a very large chandelier.
In the corner of the picture one can just see a table painted with yellow flowers.
“I put in a lot of color because of the white walls,” he says.
Finally, we peep into the bedroom, where he has used painted melamine cupboards to create a small study and a desk. The unit at the entrance to the room was an old microwave unit, which was about to be thrown out but now holds books and discs.
It was here Shaked completed his magnum opus, which is about to be published. It sounds like it should be a bestseller.