Jerusalem visits ye olde British mandate era for a spot of nostalgia
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Jerusalem visits ye olde British mandate era for a spot of nostalgia

Tower of David marks the centennial of English control in pre-state Palestine with two new exhibits

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Mouli and Edna Azrieli, the owners of Fink's, a legendary Jerusalem bar, now part of the 'London in Jerusalem' exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, open until December 2018. (Courtesy, Oded Antman)
Mouli and Edna Azrieli, the owners of Fink's, a legendary Jerusalem bar, now part of the 'London in Jerusalem' exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, open until December 2018. (Courtesy, Oded Antman)

The British influence in Israel? It’s been around for 100 years and counting, even though the Beatles never actually made it to these parts.

Football (soccer) pitches, pubs (and bars), live music, movie theaters, even tea houses, all can be traced back to the British Mandate that began in 1917, when then-governor Ronald Storrs took over the leadership of Jerusalem, and set out to establish some cultural norms in this dusty outback.

Now that centennial of British culture is being celebrated in “London in Jerusalem, Culture on the Streets of the City 1917-1948,” a new exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, open until December 2018.

Paired with “Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,” another exhibit at the historic tower examining General Allenby’s announcement of the arrival of British rule in Palestine, the “London in Jerusalem” exhibit displays the lighter side of that history, recreating the development of cultural pastimes in what was then just a small, albeit ancient, village.

Cafe tables set with screens featuring images, sounds and sights from Jerusalem during the days of British rule, part of the ‘London In Jerusalem’ exhibit, open until December 2018, at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Oded Antman)

Curators Liat Margalit and Inbar Dror Lax seat visitors at cafe tables set up with laptops that virtually map the cultural locations in the city, offering snippets of music, animated images, and thoughts from those times.

There’s a small movie theater at the back of the gallery showing clips of movies from the period, as well as a typical Jerusalem salon and an expanse of the bar recreated from Fink’s, the legendary bar that existed for decades in downtown Jerusalem, hosting generations of journalists, bureaucrats, and locals.

It took about two years to gather all the artifacts and visual pieces that make up the exhibit, said Margalit.

“It’s never really been researched,” said Margalit. “Culture is a very intangible thing, so the question is how do you show what it was like back then?”

A British tea in Jerusalem, circa 1920s, part of the ‘London in Jerusalem’ exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, open until December 2018. (Courtesy, Oron Zvi/Collections of the Central Zionist Archives)

Among their findings was Edna Azrieli, whose father, David Rothschild, bought Fink’s from the original owner. He turned it into a watering hole and restaurant serving goulash and schnitzel, as well as dry martinis and whisky for all kinds of folks, including British bureaucrats at the start, and, eventually, Israelis.

Azrieli and her husband, Mouli Azrieli (the two were neighbors as kids) kept Fink’s open and ran it until 2005, when they decided to finally close. But remnants of the bar, including a well-known wax-dripped wine bottle, the guest book (there are more than 10 volumes), old records, pictures, and the cigar box have been stored in their Mevasseret Zion house, and moved to the museum for the exhibit.

“I love nostalgia,” said Edna Azrieli, “but I was happy to set it up here for the time being.”

All told, British rule over Jerusalem lasted only 30 years, but it changed the city dramatically, creating habits and cultures that involved all residents, including British, Arabs and Jews, said Tower of David Museum director Eilat Lieber.

Lieber said she was moved to create the exhibit after finding out that Storrs had turned the citadel into a cultural center with solo exhibitions by local artists, including one by Reuven Reuben that presented his darker Jerusalem period, which, after he moved to Tel Aviv, gave way to far more lighthearted and colorful work.

She told the story of Storrs taking a room in one of the few hotels at the time, and walking out his first night, looking to get a drink at a local watering hole.

“Except that the streets were all dark at night, because there were no streetlights,” she said. “There also weren’t any bars, nowhere to get a drink.”

A football match in Jerusalem, from the ‘London in Jerusalem’ exhibit at the Tower of David Museum, open until December 2018. (Courtesy, Matson Collection/Library of Congress)

He turned the backwater into more of an urban center, setting up streetlights, as well as cultural and sporting events, thinking, “perhaps naively,” said Lieber, that he could tie together the different populations through culture.

“He turned this area into the heart of the city,” said Lieber, gesturing around at her Tower of David surroundings.

The upstairs Allenby exhibit, focusing on the British military conquest announced by General Allenby on the steps of the Tower of David on December 11, 1917, was years in the planning, said Lieber, as the museum collected sheaves of documents and photographs detailing the era.

Tennis finals in Jerusalem during the days of British rule. (Courtesy, Zvi Oron Central Zionist Archives Collection)

The museum also developed a relationship with Allenby’s descendants, who came to Jerusalem for the exhibit’s opening on December 11, 2017, 100 years to the day, and stood on the same staircase as General Allenby.

“This museum has seen it all,” said Lieber.

Both exhibitions are open until December 2018 and are included in the entrance fee, during regular hours. Sunday – Thursday, Saturday, 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.

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