So much is happening in Jerusalem these days that it takes our breath away. From fabulous Teddy Park outside the walls of the Old City, to the tremendously successful First Station (restored train station from 1892), new attractions have been springing up like mushrooms.
One of our favorites is an innovative enterprise that opened in 2012. Located on Bezalel Street downtown, it is called Designers in the City and houses the workshops and galleries of young people in the fields of fashion, photography, pottery, leatherworking and industrial design.
There is nothing coincidental about the venue chosen for Designers in the City, for the first Arts and Crafts School in the country – Bezalel –was established just around the corner on Shmuel HaNagid Street in 1909. And the school’s founder, Boris Dov Schatz, built his home only a few meters away.
Soon an arts and crafts fair, mainly featuring the immensely creative works of the city’s younger set, appeared on the sidewalk next to the building. Then, the dubious coffee shop that opened with Designers in the City was replaced by the highly successful Nocturno.
Bezalel and Shmuel HaNagid Streets join at Akiva Govrin Square, named for Israel’s tourism minister (Govrin served from 1964 to 1966). Hugging the square are the buildings that once housed Bezalel, constructed as dwellings in the 1880’s by a wealthy Arab Jerusalemite. Surrounding the complex is the original, crenelated stone wall, meant to mirror the one around the Old City.
The complex stood empty until purchased in 1907 by the Jewish National Fund for Schatz, one of Israel’s most famous figures. A Lithuanian who was both an art professor and a court sculptor to the King of Bulgaria, Schatz had long dreamed of creating a Jewish arts center in Jerusalem. He suggested the idea to Theodore Herzl in 1903 and it was accepted by the Zionist Congress of 1905.
Schatz came to Israel in 1906 together with art teachers and a few pupils. He started putting his vision into action from rented premises on Ethiopia Street. A few years later he moved his school into the gorgeous estate on Shmuel HaNagid Street and called it the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts.
The name “Bezalel” comes directly from the scriptures. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri… and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze… and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.'” [Exodus 31:1-5]. The biblical Bezalel also fashioned the brass altar on which King Solomon offered his sacrifices.
Bezalel attracted young Jews from all over the world and from inside Israel itself. Its artistic flavor, the studies, the exhibits and the festivities held at the academy all contributed greatly to the spiritual and cultural development of Jerusalem.
In the 1960’s the charming school changed its name and became the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Although in 1990 the Academy was transferred to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the architecture department is still housed in the original buildings.
While Jerusalemites as well as tourists make a beeline for the Friday Arts And Crafts Fair, there is plenty to see on Bezalel Street all week long. It doesn’t matter whether you head for Designers in the City (closed on Saturday) or only stroll along the sidewalks.
For instance, if you ascend Bezalel Street a few dozen meters and look backwards you will see a painting high on the wall behind the buildings on Shmuel HaNagid Street.
This is the newest example of Jerusalem City Art and I would love to describe it for you. But the works – created by Schatz family artists, Bezalel students and Bezalel alumni – change every few months and what I saw only yesterday may be different from the creation that meets your eyes.
Boris Schatz built a lovely family home and studio further up the street and inside the Bezalel complex, with the two divided by a courtyard filled with trees and flowers. Schatz’s two offspring, and his daughter-in-law Louise, were each renowned artists in vastly different fields: among other awards, daughter Zahara won the Israel Prize in 1955. Two windows in the wall display constantly changing exhibits of their work, along with interesting creations by other artists.
Further up the street, Nocturno was chosen specifically to become part of the Designers in the City complex. The delicious coffee is blended specially for Nocturno, a boutique café whose hot chocolate is brought directly from Italy and where every item on the menu (except Quiche) is made fresh each day on the premises. In tune with the concept of the complex, Nocturno hosts a plethora of cultural events that show the work of budding new artists.
Across Bezalel Street, a very long, very old building belongs to Knesset Israel Gimel, the third stage in a group of neighborhoods that originally offered two-room apartments rent free to impoverished religious families. The first cluster of houses – Knesset Israel Aleph – was erected in 1891; Gimel appeared right after World War I. Funded by Jews from the United States, the project consisted of apartments built in the shape of the letter “het”. Families won the apartments by participating in a lottery, and could remain in their new homes for three years.
From Knesset Israel Gimel, looking across Bezalel Street, you come face to face with an enormous mural painted on the wall of the Gerard Bechar Center. The massive painting, called Around the World in 92 Days, is an enlarged replica of a work belonging to the Israel Museum collection. Highlights from all the major cities in the world are found in this tumultuous, three-part work, with the Arc de Triomphe, the Tower of Pisa and the Dome of the Rock within a colossal jumble of people, animals, carts, roads and bridges.
Near the bottom of Bezalel Street stand two very different synagogues, each with its own separate traditions. One, called the Jermuklim Synagogue, belongs to Jews originally from the Turkish village of Cermik; Jews from Urfa – the town next door to Cermik in Turkey – worship in a second.
Until the end of the 19th century, there was a large Jewish population in the area of Urfa. Most of the Jews there left for the Land of Israel in 1896: they had seen the handwriting on the wall after the Sultan launched a pogrom against the country’s Armenians. Unusually tall, sturdy and powerful Jews, the new immigrants worked as guards and in construction, their robust physiques lending a sense of security to people in the neighborhoods.
According to legend, Abraham lived in Urfa prior to leaving for Canaan. It is also believed by many that the first Jews reached Urfa, which dates back to the 16th century BCE, not long after the exile into Babylonia – and lived there for well over 2,000 years.
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.