When American Jews think of the Israeli landscape, what come to mind are ancient ruins, contemporary settlement blocs and walls of all sorts. But as I recently discovered on a whirlwind trip, the situation on the ground is far more complex than that. Buildings whose history stretches back to pre-state days are being given a new lease on life, and the results are nothing less than fascinating, both architecturally and culturally.
Take, for instance, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, perhaps the granddaddy of creative adaptation. The first Jewish settlement outside the city walls of Jerusalem, this low-lying stone structure, with its individual garden plots and cisterns, was built during the late 1850s. A princely $50,000 donation from Judah Touro, an American Jewish philanthropist from New Orleans who worked with his British Jewish counterpart, Moses Montefiore, to ameliorate the lot of Jerusalem’s Jewish poor, made it possible. Those who administered Mishkenot Sha’ananim — known far and wide as “Montefiore’s almshouse” — had intended for its residents to stay just a few years before a new batch of impoverished Jerusalemites would move in. But that was not to be. Residents tended to stay put.
I understand their reluctance to move, for I, too, have had the good fortune to stay at Mishkenot when visiting Jerusalem. After a very long period of neglect, a function of its no-man’s-land location, the place was transformed nearly 40 years ago into a guest house for visiting artists, writers and scholars. There’s nothing quite like it for thinking lofty thoughts, especially while sitting outside on the terraced porch that faces the Judean Hills at one end and the Old City walls on the other.
It’s not just the view that inspires. What really affects me is the physical plant itself, which is carefully and sensitively maintained by the Jerusalem Foundation. Mishkenot’s timbered roof and the graceful, filigreed ironwork that supports the structure — a British import — as well as the Hebrew numbers incised into the stonework above each of the complex’s 16 former apartments, render history personal, immediate and compelling.
So, too, does the Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad station, which is but a stone’s throw away. A marvel of modern-day technology, the construction of 53 miles of railway across the ancient terrain occasioned considerable commentary in the American press of the 1890s, which seemed to prefer a Holy Land frozen in time to one capable of adjusting to the modern age. The New York Times, for its part, noted in 1892 that the “associations of the Holy City and its contact with the railway system is something incongruous to contemplate.” All the same, the introduction of the railroad would not prove too disruptive, the paper hastened to add. “Luckily the Temple site, with Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives, is on the opposite side of town, and will not be much disturbed by the noise of the railway.”
Scribner’s Magazine, in turn, was also bemused by the idea of a train choo-choo-ing its way through the biblical landscape. “If ever an act seemed like sacrilege,” it wrote a year later, “it is the introduction of a railroad into Palestine, with the sound of whistle and rushing train among the old and quiet hills of Judea.” The country’s inhabitants, however, saw things differently, and Scribner’s noted that in August 1892, “tens of thousands of people, for the first time in their lives, have seen a railroad and a train of cars. They have had a revelation, and in the great city as well as in the dirtiest village of the land, wonder is at its height.”