Tel Aviv library
A library in South Tel Aviv. Photo by Nir Kafri
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"Once there was a girl named Shannon. Her mother was a Filipino and her father was a Turk." Nine-year-old Shannon is writing a book about herself, out loud. We are sitting in the multilingual library for members of foreign communities in Lewinsky Park, in the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood of Tel Aviv, surrounded by donated books. "Secondhand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather," Virginia Woolf once said.

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The library was opened in 2009, and has since revolutionized the park, formerly colonized by drug addicts, its name a synonym for fistfights and criminal activity. It has neither a door nor walls. Two huge bookcases are positioned alongside a public shelter, like a pair of open arms. One is full of books for adults, the other houses children's books. Mats are spread across the courtyard in the middle, and a cloth canopy provides protection from above.

"Do you always write stories about what happens to you, Shannon?"

"I want to write only the truth."

"Even if the truth is sad sometimes?"

"Yes."

"What's sad in your life, Shannon?"

"When someone hurts me."

A venue for self-expression

"We are a lifesaver for these kids," says Lior Waterman, the director of the library since its inception. "This is where they go in their free time. For those who come from crowded homes and troubled lives, the library offers a safe haven of relaxation and culture."

The library is run with the support of the Tel Aviv Municipality and Mesila - Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community. Located in the heart of the well-kept park, it has become a center for informal education and the first port of call for members of migrant communities. Even the police station nearby has become a friendly outpost, with policemen learning to listen to the concerns and needs of those they meet in the park.

Waterman is an artist who teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and the School of Art - Hamidrasha at Beit Berl College. While searching for a studio in south Tel Aviv, he discovered the lively activity in the area - choirs in the churches, music bands, musicians. "But everything is hidden from view, taking place only within the communities themselves," he says. "No one thought these activities may interest anyone from outside."

A center of cultural activity that reflects the huge variety of foreign communities in Israel, and offering their members a venue for self-expression - this is the vision of Lior and the artists who joined him, matched by the initiative of the ARTEAM non-profit organization, which founded the library. "Together we are creating a living work of art. The library is a kind of environmental sculpture," Lior believes.

The library has already hosted an event marking the Sudan referendum, and a ceremony commemorating the Darfur Genocide. "The library offers a public platform where members of the foreign community can gather in an open, deliberate manner," says Waterman.

Since its establishment, the library has become a magnet for volunteers and artists who donate classes and workshops; music, creative drama, dance, English and Hebrew lessons, a story hour, and so on. The driving force behind the initiative is Rami Gudovitch, a coordinator of youth and community projects, with a PhD in philosophy and experience in teaching and education. Since returning from his studies in New York, Gudovitch and his partner, Serena, have been active and involved in community work. "We know the kids and their families personally," he says. "I let myself fulfill an authoritative role, while she provides caring and emotional nurturing."

Yet when one of the girls cries out in distress, Rami kneels by her and promises effusively: "Don't be sad - you know that we are with you always."

How do you bridge the gap between your theoretical-academic world and the down-to-earth, problematic conditions you come across at the library?

"A philosophical attitude influences your conduct in life. It supports the way in which you conduct yourself with people and is not cut off from reality."

"Rami" has become a call for help here, a call of joy, a call of anger - a call of everything.

"That's my greatest compliment," he blushes, like a boy.

Lately, elderly Israeli families have been frequenting the park, contacts have been made, and people have been getting to know each other. The library has become a lighthouse in a sea of mutual suspicion and prejudice. Sometimes visitors come "slumming" with a guide, but eventually they are taken in by the magic of the place, sit down on the mat and begin to read to the children.

"The fact that the library offers a public display of literature in different languages," says Waterman, "with everything presented to all in an open place, provides people with a broad context about their own existence, and a public 'identity card' regarding who they are and where they've come from."

"Medicine for the soul," read the inscription above the entrance of the ancient library at Thebes. What would Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, the park's namesake, say? In 1862 Lewinsky published the first futuristic novel in Hebrew, "A Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800 [2040]," portraying Israel in 2040 as a socialist, ethical, and peace-loving nation.

Y., a soldier in regular service, seems to have stepped out of Lewinsky's novel. The weekends on which he returns home are devoted entirely to volunteer work, and he is the one who recruited me to volunteer a story hour for children.

"Why are you willing to give up your army leave?"

"I'm not giving anything up - I'm receiving."

Sure that Israel has a pretty face

His decision raised eyebrows among family and friends, but Y. stuck by it. "For the first time I've made personal contact with people who actually lack civil rights. Those mostly presented as statistical data, and sometimes as a threat to the state, and seen as some kind of anonymous mass, have become for me private individuals, with names and life stories."

Himself a young artist, Y. acquires a new perspective on literature and art, and an understanding of the complex reality these children experience. "Volunteering has made me more aware of people, and much more involved."

Rami Gudovitch is sure Israel has a pretty face, though it may not always be on display. "In America people are anxious about stepping outside of their personal borders for others, calculating everything according to profit and liability. There is a fear of interaction with strangers. In Israel - a state that has absorbed huge numbers of immigrants since its establishment - there is an openness, despite some outrageous expressions of racism, especially on the part of public figures. But in practice, I don't think Israeli society is more racist than other societies."

Shannon is reading six-year-old Israfil a story about a rebellious cat. Her little finger is following the teacher in cat school, who teaches cats how to chase mice. The rebellious cat cannot understand the purpose of this, since for him, a mouse is a friend. While the girl is reading, I think of a different text about persecutors and their victims.

Ted, who arrived here a month ago from Eritrea, discovered the library while passing through the park one day. His face lights up as he receives his library card. I asked to see the book he chose: "Rainbow's End: A Memoir of Childhood, War and an African Farm." Ted strokes the cover that shows his native landscape and says, "Maybe I'll see myself there."

I did say this was an optimistic story, didn't I?

If Lewinsky were to sit with us on the mat, he would quote himself: "In life, I am an optimist - for it can ever be worse, more bitter, more odious than this..."

Perhaps he would have dedicated another chapter in his utopian novel to 11-year-old Monica, a champion reader and a top student at the Bialik-Rogozin School (named after H.N. Bialik, Lewinsky's partner in the first Hebrew publishing house ). Monica likes heavy books: "ones that you can read for a really long time;" the Bible - "little King David who saved Israel from Goliath the giant;" and even articles in the encyclopedia.

Once Rami saw her standing for a long time in front of a tree. "I'm looking at the ants," she explained.

"Why do you find the ants so interesting, Monica?"

"I want to see how they build their home."

Like her, the writer John Steinbeck lost his sense of home after long wanderings. "It means to me now - only that place where the books are kept," he wrote. One day Monica will read him as well.

Shelf life

In September 2009 the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers was inaugurated in Lewinsky Park as an urban-community-artistic project initiated by the ARTEAM non-profit organization - an interdisciplinary group whose members include artists Hadas Ofrat and Romy Achituv, author Marit Ben Israel, curator Tali Tamir, and architect Yoav Meiri, who planned and designed the library.

It is open on weekends: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, and contains some 3,500 books in a variety of languages: From Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Hindi, Nepalese, Arabic, Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines ) and Amharic, to English and Hebrew. The languages are mixed together, based on the view that people should not be differentiated, and the books are arranged according to a unique method - based on the emotional response of the readers. Categories include funny, boring, strange, depressing, fascinating, inspiring, and sad.

Upon its return to the library, the book will be placed on the shelf in accordance with the last reader's response. The transparent bookcases are illuminated, so that at night the books glow in the park. Literally, an enlightened library.

In July and August the library will be open every afternoon, and more volunteers are needed.