Life in no-man's land

An entree into the dwelling of one of Jerusalem's most colorful personalities.

It's hard to believe that Yemin Moshe, one of the most prestigious addresses in Jerusalem, started out life as workers' cottages back in 1890 when Moses Montefiore built 140 housing units to entice workers out of the Old City's Jewish Quarter to work in and around his windmill. In 1860 the mill and hostel were constructed, but the workers were reluctant to leave the confines of the quarter and move outside the city walls. He actually had to pay them to take up residence in what today is probably the most expensive area of Jerusalem to buy a home. During the period between 1948 and 1967 the area was a no-man's land and the houses fell into total disrepair, so that when the area was liberated in the Six Day War, they were nothing more than slums and hovels. The Jerusalem Municipality decided in 1968 to rebuild the quarter and offer the homes to artists who would be entrusted with restoring the buildings to much more than their former glory. Birgitta Yavari-Ilan, an artist originally from Sweden, answered the call in 1977 and created a three-story home from one of the original old cottages. "It was basically a slum house," recalls Yavari-Ilan. "It had one floor of two rooms and a basement, with an ugly stairway to reach the ground floor. It took me a year and a half to complete the renovation and I was involved in every step." Yavari-Ilan is one of the most colorful personalities living in the area. Born in Sweden, she converted to Judaism but without actually renouncing her Christian faith. Her latest book (her 12th), Forsake Not Your Heart, has just appeared in Hebrew and English and is a record of her spiritual journey to Jerusalem, the tragedies of her life - her autistic son Eliel died at 12 and her husband and father of her four children abandoned her - and her love for the country of her adoption. Well-known for her writings which attempt to portray Israel in the most positive light, her books are illustrated with her romantic paintings which feature beautiful women with flowing Pre-Raphaelite locks next to haredim, Jewish motifs and depictions of Jesus. "I mingle in both flocks," she says summing up her beliefs and her front door, with its cross inside a Magen David attests to this. In her book she describes how she was one of the privileged artists chosen by a committee to be entrusted with the renovation of one of the homes in "the neighborhood that until 1967 was for the poor and courageous, by snipers targeted over the wall from Jordan. It was mayor Teddy Kollek's dream to prepare for the coming of the messiah by beautifying the city and I contributed to that dream by rebuilding, excavating and restoring this home." Many restrictions were placed on the artists. The original stone walls had to be retained and no extra windows were allowed, so from inside the living room she can only look out through the door at the incredible view of the Old City walls. But out on the balconies of both the ground floor and the basement where her son lives, one can see the whole of the Old City spread out below, with the battlements lit up at night, a view that easily compensates for the slight inconvenience of not being able to drive in the rough cobbled streets of Yemin Moshe. The ground floor contains a kitchen, dining room and lounge, and Yavari-Ilan has surrounded herself with many memories of her native Sweden, her other travels in the Far East and her attachment to two religions. The stone floors which look a hundred years old were put down in the 1970s in place of ugly tiles, Yavari-Ilan tells me. She wanted to improve the rough finish so she lacquered them herself but didn't get round to doing the same for the wall stones. The tiles under the dining table are reproductions of old designs. All the wooden doors came from Sweden as did much of her furniture, the red leather suite, a striped chaise longue and an upright piano. She thinks the candelabrum originally came from the Gothenburg synagogue. Several antiques also embellish the room but the main decorations are her paintings which cover all the walls. At the entrance a wooden two-sided cupboard acts as a divider from the long narrow wooden kitchen, and on the other side a bunk bed, also from Sweden, which she calls a "heaven-bed." Spiral staircases lead up and down and several of the rooms are let to lodgers from all over the world, studying or working in Jerusalem. The Yemin Moshe reconstruction is deservedly one of the most picturesque areas of Jerusalem and strict rules are in place to preserve its special character. No overhead cables or TV antennas are allowed. The house and gallery owners maintain their gardens and window boxes. Yavari-Ilan's home is just one of many fascinating places in this very special part of Jerusalem. Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail: [email protected]