The Curtains Go Down on Jerusalem's Mythic Temple of Fringe

After decades of legal action against Jerusalem’s Pargod Theater, the Supreme Court has evicted its founder to make way for student dorms.

“You don’t see the feathers? Of course you don’t see the feathers, because they yanked them out! But I can still feel the hovering wind,” Arie Mark says as he lifts his arms to the sides, as though trying to fly. He is seated on the floor of the orphaned Pargod Theater auditorium in Jerusalem.

To make room for himself, he first tossed and slammed seats around with a force you would not expect from an 80-year-old. It makes no difference to him that he is sitting on the floor, surrounded by a half-ruined auditorium with an audience of two reporters. In his mind’s eye, he sees a full house. “The souls that performed here − where are they now? They are howling and weeping: ‘Arie, let us go on, what’s the matter with you? Why won’t you let us perform?’”

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Mark − the founder, moving spirit and eternal director of the Jerusalem fringe and performance theater Pargod − must vacate the ancient building in which he has been operating the theater for 38 years. In part of the building − an ancient bathhouse at the corner of Bezalel and Nissim Behar streets in the Nahlaot neighborhood − Mark built a small two-room apartment that has been his home for these past few decades.

According to the court verdict, Prazot, the municipal housing corporation that owns the building, is obligated to provide Mark with an apartment “until old age.” He will have to pack up the things in his small apartment, along with the rest of what remains of his glorious cultural enterprise − the grand piano, sets, speakers, lights and seats.

Mark was born in 1933 in Romania. His father was a rabbi and ritual slaughterer, and his brother grew up to become that country’s chief rabbi. His family endured wanderings, labor camps and hunger during the war, but survived. He moved to Israel in 1947. Over the years, he bid farewell to religion and connected with theater.

“I don’t know where I got this from, maybe from seeing my father rehearsing his sermons in front of the mirror at home,” he says.

At university he quickly became an actor and the director of a troupe of student actors. After graduation he tried his luck at Israel’s major theaters as an actor, but without success. “So I decided I would set up my own theater. Like a hunting dog, I sniffed out every cellar and door in Jerusalem until I finally found an apartment and opened Pargod,” he recounts.

The theater’s original location was an apartment in Nahlaot, where it began operating in 1969. The debut performance was “An Evening of Reading and Acting” in honor of the second anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. The Jerusalem Theater was no more than a construction site that year; the Khan Theater had just come into being.

Pargod moved to its present location in 1975. Until earlier in that decade, its new home had served as a bathhouse and mikveh, and its basement contained a cistern dating from the Ottoman period. Mark rented the building and turned the cistern into a performance hall. That process required the removal of 14 cubic meters of trash. Following that, he dried up the underlying mud, tiled it and chiseled the flagstones.

When the work was done, he was able to fit 100 rattan stools he had bought in the Old City into the space. The Ottoman cistern went on to become one of Jerusalem’s important cultural institutions, a status it had through the 1980s and ‘90s.

The first eviction notice for the Pargod Theater arrived in 1976, a year after it began operating in its present location. Prazot had acquired the building from Mark’s landlords and immediately set about trying to close the theater.

Mark keeps a collection of press clippings about Pargod, in which one can find dozens of articles about the threat of closure that has hovered over the place almost since it opened. But between the legal battles against the theater and the public campaigns to save it, Pargod thrived at a time when Jerusalem had almost nothing else to offer in the way of culture.

Thousands of concerts and theatrical shows played the little stage in the cave-like hall in the basement: Meir Ariel, Ehud Banai, Corinne Allal, Habrera Hativit, Oded Teomi, Zaharira Harifai and Dana Berger were among those who filled the cistern over the years.

Pargod’s most important contribution was in serving as an incubator for the growth of Jerusalem bands in the 1990s − Nosei Hamigbaat, Hadag Nahash, Sartan Hashad, Yuppies with Jeeps and others. Every Friday at noon, Pargod hosted a free jam session. “Anyone who showed up with a guitar, I would shove him in the direction of the stage,” Mark says. In between, he held acting workshops at the theater.

In 2000, Prazot resumed the legal fight to close Pargod down, and in 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ayala Procaccia ordered eviction of the theater. Nevertheless, it continued operating for another two years.

At that point, Mark ran out of steam and the shows stopped. A few years earlier, the municipality had suspended its support for the theater because of the lawsuit, and Mark also lost his business license. Eventually, he says, he felt he couldn’t take the pressure from the authorities anymore, and was afraid of committing to artists who wanted to perform.

In recent years, City Hall began devising a plan to set up a new theater in part of the building and build a student dormitory in the rest of the space. The legal proceedings against Mark continued.

Meanwhile, time stood still at the theater. The offices hold the old posters and playbills, parts of sets are in the storeroom, on the stage stands a grand piano, and even the sound system and lights still work.

Mark still lives in the small apartment he built, and spends his time writing poems and autobiographical novels. With great emotional pain, he shows the occasional visitor the abandoned auditorium: Dramatically, he whips off the plastic sheeting covering the piano, releasing a cloud of dust. He stands at the sound man’s station, switches the lights on, curses and speaks in a loud, dramatic voice to an imaginary audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are hereby invited to the final performance of the Pargod Theater ... Maybe this is my punishment for daring to change the essence of a bathhouse, because a bathhouse is a sacred place. Maybe this is the punishment for my making in this, of all places, a theater, which is the symbol of all those who have lost their way, faithless and hopeless people ... My heart is stuck here, the piano cannot speak; it can only make music. I covered it with a plastic sheet because it rains here. But there is a mistake, because God thought there are plants here that need watering. I don’t have my tears anymore.”

In one of the rooms, he finds the text he declaimed on the theater’s first night back in 1969: “If you wish to reform the world and cannot, go down to the Pargod basement. If you wish to cry out because you can’t do otherwise, bring your guitar along ... You don’t have to present an ID − your growling face will give you away.”

Asked to explain the final eviction of the Pargod, the Jerusalem municipality provided this statement: “The Pargod Theater has not been active for many years and the building stands abandoned and unused. The Pargod complex belongs to Prazot, a company that is in the process of being liquidated. Under the liquidation agreement signed by the municipality and the state, a housing project will be built in the Pargod complex for rent to students. The complex will serve as rental housing for the sole benefit of students who study in the city and will provide a solution to the great demand in the neighborhood. Additionally, a theater to be built there will operate on the first floor of the complex.” 

Emil Salman
Emil Salman