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Jerusalem’s legendary neighborhood for authors celebrates centennial

CM 29/07/2021

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To celebrate Arnona, an enclave that has served as home to some of Israel’s greatest writers and creatives, is no easy feat. Once the address of S.Y. Agnon, Joseph Klausner and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the history of this neighborhood is unlike any other. 
Agnon, a Nobel Prize laureate writer and often seen as the father of modern Hebrew fiction, is best known for his novels The Bridal Canopy and Shira. In contrast, Klausner was a historian and professor remembered for creating the Encyclopedia Hebraica. He ran for president in the first Israeli election in 1949 but wound up losing to Chaim Weizmann. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is often seen as the driving force behind the modernization of the Hebrew language. All three once called Arnona home. 
Arnie Draiman, a resident of south Jerusalem for over 37 years, explains that Agnon “ walked past the train station and continued to the hill where Arnona is now situated, and said, ‘This would be a nice place to live.’”
Arnona and Talpiot are two adjacent neighborhoods, yet locals often use the two names interchangeably. Some even refer to the neighborhood as Talpiot-Arnona. 

Moshe Shapira, an Israeli architect and Arnona resident, explains that “when speaking of Arnona, it was originally called Talpiot. It’s important to mention that the original plan was to build Talpiot and to build a new city next to Jerusalem.”
He notes that the plan was to create a “modern city for wealthy people. This would be the center of new life in Jerusalem. It could be compared to Jaffa and Tel Aviv, in the way that Jaffa is a more traditional city.”
He adds that “this architect, Richard Kauffman, tried to build 800 houses but ended up only building 30 or 40. The rest of the area was divided later on, in the ’20s and ’30s. They started selling parts of the huge plot of Talpiot to new groups of people.” 
Kauffman’s architectural vision can still be seen in Arnona today. Inspired by the idea of garden suburbs, neoclassicism and agricultural-Zionist communities, the lush greenery is heavily present when walking along the 2021 streets. 
Draiman explains that “by 1921-1922, the architectural plans were put in motion with the municipality at the time. So it was designed with the vision of being what they call a green neighborhood, so that each row of houses faces the street and in the rear are community courtyards.” It is still rare today to find buildings in Arnona that are more than six stories high, giving the neighborhood a distinctly architectural feel compared to other nearby areas that have been highly modernized.
The neighborhood is named Arnona in honor of the baby born to the Lurias (Ben Zion and Yehudit), who were among the first residents. They named their baby girl Arnona, after Nachal Arnon which can be seen from the hills in the area. The residents liked the name so much, they voted to name the entire neighborhood Arnona! And Arnona Luria married Micha Faykess, who played a key role as the commander of the Israeli forces in 1967 fighting against the Jordanian Legion in Abu Tor. The main street leading into Abu Tor by the First Station is named for him, called “HaMifaked” (The Commander), as he was known to everyone.
As the neighborhood grew and grew, some iconic landmarks became known – the Shai Agnon Synagogue as well as his house are known to tourists and locals alike. The synagogue was a result of Agnon’s own vision. Draiman describes that “he wanted it to be a public building so that it would be a cultural arts center of some sort. And part of the cultural art center was the front part of the synagogue. The only thing that remains is the synagogue part and the rest of the building has been added on to and changed over the years.” He adds that “obviously, Shai Agnon’s house is in the neighborhood, which is a big tourist attraction as well.” 
In the 1990s, a series of building projects heavily raised the property value in Arnona and made it a relatively upscale neighborhood. Yet many still find the area more affordable than nearby Katamon. 
IN MAY 2018, Arnona made headlines when the US Embassy moved to the neighborhood. 
Arnona residents have mixed feelings, as Draiman expresses, “I don’t have a problem with it. Is it a pain in the tush? Absolutely.”  He continues, “There are still local residents who don’t want the embassy. They’re worried about traffic and security, and protests. I think people just really need to be happy and be amazed by all the great growth that’s going on in the neighborhood.”
Arnona’s unique topography also allows residents to see the Old City through the lookout at the Tayelet promenade, says Draiman. With Arnona situated 800 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest points in Jerusalem. Even more wondrous is Yam Hamelech, a street where views of the Dead Sea can be seen, which as Draiman notes is “pretty impressive for a Jerusalem neighborhood.” 
Despite these attractions, Michelle Frankel, a longtime resident and architect who made aliyah from South Africa decades ago, explains that “unlike other neighborhoods in Jerusalem, this neighborhood doesn’t have a little community center or anything like that.” 
So when the 100th anniversary of this historic area rolled around, the neighborhood was faced with a conundrum on how to properly celebrate its magnificent history and life. 
Meeting me over coffee at the local Lechem Shel Tomer eatery, Frankel recounts that long before the centennial, she was living in the neighborhood, and “I needed English books to read. And there was nowhere to get English books… There was this group of volunteers that just started being interested in doing something for the neighborhood… We needed a library, a street library.”
While for Israelis and even Americans, outdoor street libraries have rapidly grown in the last few years, this isn’t the case all over the globe. Lewis Levin, an internationally acclaimed South African architect now residing in the Netherlands, says he “was astonished at this phenomenon that was developing in Jerusalem and Israel, but particularly Jerusalem: these free libraries for the distribution of books.” 
Yet the first street library in Arnona was a short-lived fever dream. Frankel describes, “We built this library, this beautiful and sweet library. But it didn’t last. But we built this beautiful group of volunteers who ran it, and we held events and had a street festival. It was amazing.”
 A coffee shop frequented by Arnona locals (photographer: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) A coffee shop frequented by Arnona locals (photographer: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
UNAWARE THAT the 100th anniversary was approaching, Arnonians were keen on building a new street library. Frankel and Levin were architect partners back in South Africa over 25 years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. Frankel and I video-called Levin as we sat at the library together. She explained, “They [residents of Arnona-Talpiot] wanted to design a new library. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ And I brought in my friend Lewis.” 
Levin found himself attached to the project as, according to Frankel, “he was adamant about connecting people with physical books, in a time where e-books continue to dominate the marketplace.” Levin notes that “unfortunately, while just as many people read books, there are also an equal number of people who kind of lost the content, or the contact with the paper, with the actual object of the book itself. Because you get a lot of the same literature digitally.” 
In addition to Levin’s love of physical books, the location of the library could not have been more fitting. As he explains, “If ever there was a neighborhood that you could call the Neighborhood of the Book, it would probably be Talpiot. Talpiot has produced the people of letters, who have shaped Jewish destiny in a way that no other suburb or neighborhood in the world has done.”
He boldly suggests that “the Hebrew language itself had its birthplace right here, near where you are. The other historian, of course, is Klausner. And Klausner was a seminal Jewish historian who worked on the history of the First and Second Temple periods.” 
With Frankel and Levin on board, preparations were firmly set for the new library. But there was an element to the library that had yet to be discovered by the two of them. Frankel recalls how Levin “remembered that he had this teacher, his guru, this Rabbi Isaac Goss. He was instrumental in teaching a whole generation of South Africans about Hebrew literature. And he had a group of disciples who wanted to remember him in some way… His name is fading away. And then it struck Lewis that this is the way to commemorate his name, because he is someone who taught everything what these intellectuals stood for.”
According to Levin, Goss “brought Agnon and Klausner and Ben-Yehuda to South Africa,” making this architectural project one of nostalgia and great personal significance. 
The rest was history. Frankel notes that “it developed from there,” they contacted the rabbi’s son, and “got some funding from him. And we put this whole thing together, which is incredible.”
Frankel explains how “the 100th anniversary was this amazing target. It made sense that this whole project would synchronize with this celebration… This is a little birthday present for the suburb because we’re saying, ‘How can we celebrate this?’”
With the library now completed and constantly being used by locals, Frankel, Draiman and Levin reflect on the future of Arnona’s next 100 years. 
Frankel predicts, “It’s going to help shape the future because we have made a setting for things to happen… We designed it with the geometry around this tree so that you can sit under the tree and feel like you’re in an outside space. I want to see how this is going to develop organically. How do people inhabit the space? What do they do? That’s up to the community.” 
She hopes that the library is just one step in revitalizing Arnona and Talpiot. “I would love to expand this idea. We’d love to make more sitting spaces around here. And do other things like making benches and just see where it’s going to go. I can see how other volunteers themselves see this as their own.” Draiman states that “the neighborhood has been a very family-oriented neighborhood for 100 years. I think we’ll continue to stay that way.” 
The hope is that this idea of creating a community can inspire other neighborhoods, specifically through the power of literacy. Frankel continus, “The other aspect is that maybe other neighborhoods will catch on to the idea that one could celebrate their neighborhoods as well and find the heroes… I have an actual specific social agenda with this because I think literacy and reading are such a central part of who we are.” 
She finishes our interview by suggesting, “I would love this to go to other neighborhoods, and especially neighborhoods that don’t have money, underprivileged neighborhoods, that don’t have the resources that our neighborhood had.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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