From classrooms to theaters: Historic schools host arts, support culture in Jerusalem
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From classrooms to theaters: Historic schools host arts, support culture in Jerusalem

Programs at the recently rejuvenated Beit Mazia and Alliance House seek to use art to keep young people in the Holy City

  • The Jerusalem Municipality renovated  and reopened Beit Mazia, which now hosts several theater troupes. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Jerusalem Municipality renovated and reopened Beit Mazia, which now hosts several theater troupes. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A performance of 'This City' hosted by Beit Mazia. (Gaya Turtle)
    A performance of 'This City' hosted by Beit Mazia. (Gaya Turtle)
  • The Jerusalem Theater Group performs 'Good Intentions' at Beit Mazia. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Jerusalem Theater Group performs 'Good Intentions' at Beit Mazia. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Beit Mazia hosts several theater groups, including the Jerusalem Group of mainly female actors. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Beit Mazia hosts several theater groups, including the Jerusalem Group of mainly female actors. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Jerusalem Theater Group during a performance of 'Good Intentions.' (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Jerusalem Theater Group during a performance of 'Good Intentions.' (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Beit Mazia hosts the Fringe Theater, an outlet for up and coming artists in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Beit Mazia hosts the Fringe Theater, an outlet for up and coming artists in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The actor Yishai Meir in a Fringe Theater performance at Beit Mazia. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The actor Yishai Meir in a Fringe Theater performance at Beit Mazia. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Programs at Alliance House help young designers who want to open small businesses. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Programs at Alliance House help young designers who want to open small businesses. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Young Jerusalemites make movies as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Young Jerusalemites make movies as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Communities hosted by Alliance House include groups that range from young writers and entrepreneurs to artists, law students, and newly non-religious youths. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Communities hosted by Alliance House include groups that range from young writers and entrepreneurs to artists, law students, and newly non-religious youths. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Alliance House organizers hope the community there will encourage young people to remain in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Alliance House organizers hope the community there will encourage young people to remain in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Several hundred young Jerusalemites currently work and study at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Several hundred young Jerusalemites currently work and study at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • During the Jerusalem film festival, young actors, directors and designers created sets and produced movies at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    During the Jerusalem film festival, young actors, directors and designers created sets and produced movies at Alliance House. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Aharon Meir Maisié was born in Russia in 1858. After his ordination as a rabbi at a prestigious seminary in Berlin, he moved to Zurich and studied engineering. He then traveled to Paris, where he met with Baron Edmund de Rothschild and offered to become an engineer in one of the settlements that the baron had established in Palestine. To his surprise and dismay, Rothschild turned him down. What the settlers needed, said the baron, were doctors, not engineers.

Undaunted, the multi-talented Maisié remained in Paris where he studied medicine and eventually qualified as a general physician with a specialty in ophthalmology. In 1888, Rothschild appointed Maisié doctor to a number of new settlements.

Among the anecdotes in “The Bridge Generation,” a fascinating book written by grandson Eliahu Izakson, is the story about the day that Dr. Maisié traveled from his home in Rishon LeZion to Petah Tikva to deliver a baby. Soon after he began his journey, he was attacked by an Arab robber. So Dr. Maisié raised the weapon he carried with him, and shot the would-be thief in the leg.

Although the assailant fled, his wound caused him intense pain and he turned up a few days later at Dr. Maisié’s clinic in Rishon LeZion. After the bullet was removed, the Arab asked the doctor’s fee. But Dr. Maisié — a fair and just man — didn’t feel it would be right to take money for this particular operation.

The Maisiés moved to Jerusalem in 1900, and built a magnificent three-story villa in what would later become the center of the city eleven years later. But Izakson, who lived there with his parents, writes that the atmosphere in the Maisié home was not a happy one. During the First World War, their only son, Elihau – René, joined the pro-British spy-ring Nili. Caught by the Turks who ruled Palestine, he managed to escape. But he reached Jerusalem so ill and broken that he died soon afterwards. Perhaps that’s why the Maisiés opened a school within their house when Izakson turned seven: inside its walls they knew he would be safe.

Beit Mazia, a former school founded by the Maisié family, now hosts local theater groups in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Mazia, a former school founded by the Maisié family, now hosts local theater groups in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Called Torah and Labor, it was one of the most progressive schools in the city. Most of the pupils hailed from families that were traditional but not ultra-religious, and many went on to become famous, like Daniel Oster, Jerusalem’s first mayor, and Judge Gad Frumkin, the only Jewish member of Palestine’s Supreme Court.

The most celebrated figures of the times were friends and frequent visitors at the Maisié home. Among them was Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook, who blessed baby Izakson at his Redemption of the First Born Ceremony (pidyon haben). National Poet Haim Nahman Bialik, who had no children, would stay at the Maisiés when he travelled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and take Izakson for walks around the city. Once he even accompanied Izakson to the circus.

The Jerusalem Municipality renovated and reopened Beit Mazia, which now hosts several theater troupes. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Jerusalem Municipality renovated and reopened Beit Mazia, which now hosts several theater troupes. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Along with all of his other skills, Dr. Maisié was also a gifted linguist and philologist. Indeed, in Israel he is best-known for his unique medical dictionary, whose Hebrew terms are still in use.

At the beginning of the 21st century the Jerusalem Municipality purchased the handsome Maisié family home and performed massive renovations as part of an effort to bring culture into the center of town. Called Beit Mazia in Hebrew, it opened exactly one century after its construction as a venue for three theater companies: the veteran Jerusalem Group, mainly female actors, directors and so on; Psik – which performs comedy del’arte with a Jerusalem content, and Incubator, young, brash, and exciting. In addition, Beit Mazia also hosts a Fringe Theater, for up-and-coming contemporary talents.

A performance of 'This City' hosted by Beit Mazia. (Gaya Turtle)
A performance of ‘This City’ hosted by Beit Mazia. (Gaya Turtle)

Besides the comfortable auditorium, a multi-purpose theater on the top floor changes its seating and stage according to the type of performance being held that day. What can make the atmosphere especially unique is the backdrop for performances in at least one of the venues, for much of the villa’s elegant interior remains untouched.

Alliance House (Beit Alliance, in Hebrew) is another historical building that has brought a breath of fresh air and tons of culture into Jerusalem’s downtown area. And although like Beit Mazia it, too, once held a school that was very modern for the times, the building’s architecture, and the activities within its walls are entirely different.

The Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (in Hebrew, Kol Israel Haverim or Kiah) was founded in 1860 by Jews who were not particularly religious and thought in terms of tolerance and pluralism.

In 1899, following the success of the trade school they founded 17 years earlier, Alliance opened an educational facility nearby that offered boys secular studies – extremely rare in Jerusalem at the time. Both were located right next to what would become today’s Mahane Yehuda Market. And in 1911, girls were admitted to the Alliance school for the first time, although they studied on the first and second stories while the boys had lessons on the third.

During the War of Independence, the building sheltered refugees from the battle-torn neighborhood of Yemin Moshe. After the war, the school became part of the national educational system. From 1971 onwards different educational facilities – from the “experimental high school” to an ultra-orthodox yeshiva – filled the building. When it was abandoned in 1990, drug addicts and others with nowhere else to go quickly moved in and it was eventually boarded up.

Beit Alliance is now home to the non-profit New Spirit, which works to keep young Jerusalemites from leaving the city. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Alliance is now home to the non-profit New Spirit, which works to keep young Jerusalemites from leaving the city. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Beit Alliance was rescued over a year ago by three entrepreneurs who planned to turn it into a boutique hotel. Since getting all the required licenses takes time, they opened its doors to a Jerusalem non-profit. Called New Spirit, the organization was founded 13 years ago by three students who loved Jerusalem and hoped to stem the flow of young people who were constantly moving out of the Holy City.

According to Adi Sheffi, New Spirit and Alliance House Marketing Director, over the years the group has been active on a number of different fronts. New Spirit has helped to build communities of young people in the Kiryat Hayovel and Katamon neighborhoods, among others. The group was able to offer scholarships to students, and to assist in developing programs for young designers who wanted to open small businesses.

Several pubs have been established throughout the city as meeting places for students to meet for coffee and work on their computers. We attended a lecture at the Artichoke Pub on the eve of Tisha B’av whose panel was composed of four public figures and guests that included both university students and golden agers from the neighborhood.

Since moving into Beit Alliance (and a few other buildings throughout the city), the focus has widened. Today New Spirit also develops professional communities in Jerusalem and helps young people with similar professional interests to connect with one another. Communities functioning in the building, with the help of 10 directors, include groups that range from young writers and entrepreneurs to artists, law students, and newly non-religious youths. Ongoing programs offer the professional tools needed for creating successful start-ups.

Beit Alliance is now home to young artists, entrepreneurs and others in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Alliance is now home to young artists, entrepreneurs and others in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The idea, says Sheffi, is to create a social network that is real – not just virtual. People meet in the kitchen, in any of the open spaces and relaxation areas, and during the many events that take place at Beit Alliance. Like the evening a few weeks ago, when, as part of the Jerusalem film festival, young actors, directors and designers created sets and produced some unusual movies. And New Spirit is definitely making a difference, for people often declare that they were able stay in the city as a result of their connection with New Spirit.

It isn’t clear how long New Spirit will be able to remain in the building, but Sheffi is amazed at how fast the place took off. Every day of the week finds several hundred young people in Beit Alliance, working, studying and creating. Evening programs pull in more than a thousand people, she says, adding that the powers that be “are aware of what we do and, I hope, will continue to understand its importance.”

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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