Don't Name It After Me

Recently two Tel Aviv projects of cultural and national importance were on the agenda and aroused a public storm: One was the preservation of the original character of the Mann Auditorium. The second concerned a donation for building a new wing for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and changing the name of the entire museum to that of donors Sami and Aviva Ofer. The progress of both projects is being delayed due to the battles and debates concerning public and professional ethics, commemoration, philanthropy and architectural preservation. The fight in Tel Aviv has been accompanied by strident public relations on the part of all those involved, and a heavy dose of passion, as well as the added elements of the pursuit of honor, inflated egos, a sense of insult and self-righteous statements.

These battles are reminiscent of the long-forgotten period of the creation of the Jerusalem Theater for the Performing Arts - as it is officially called - whose very construction was accompanied by a similar story, although less stormy and passionate.

The affair began during the early days of the state, when the small population of Jerusalem and its socioeconomic structure had still not created much demand for auditoriums for cultural-artistic purposes. At that time, the public made do with the Edison movie theater on Yeshayahu Street and the Zion hall in the heart of the city, where plays, concerts and other performances were held.

In 1963 Binyanei Ha'uma, the Jerusalem Convention Center, was completed; its construction had already begun in 1950 and was very drawn out. Its central hall hosted cultural performances and political and other assemblies, but it was not designed to meet the special requirements of innovative performances, and lacked the quality of a modern and up-to-date auditorium.

The Jerusalem Municipality, headed by Mordechai Ish Shalom, decided that there was a need for a municipal theater, and in 1958 it held an architectural competition for its design on a plot of 11 dunams (2.8 acres), on the southern edge of the prestigious Talbieh neighborhood, which the city had received from the Israel Lands Administration. First prize in the competition was won by architects Michael Nadler, Shulamit Nadler and Shmuel Bixson.

At the same time, the municipality also received a considerable donation from Miles M. Sherover, a millionaire who had made his fortune in Venezuela. One of his friends said at the time, about Sherover's urge to build the theater: As a confirmed music lover, he had complained to his wife Gita that the Edison hall (which is now about to be demolished) was not a suitable place for concerts. According to the story, Gita replied: "If you don't like listening to music in that hall, then build us a better hall."

'White elephant'

In October 1964, the cornerstone for the theater was laid, with the intention of building it within two years. It was located opposite the magnificent Sherover house that had been built six years earlier. The construction took much longer than anticipated, and the budget designated for the theater became inflated well beyond the original figures. Instead of 6 million Israel liras - the original investment - about 15 million were used to cover the construction, in spite of the downsizing of the initial plan because of lack of funds. The work progressed slowly because of bitter arguments and differences of opinion as to whether to continue with the plan or not, because of the funding problems and the orders from the Interior Ministry, during that time of recession, to stop the work, as part of the cutbacks in the municipal budget.

The many critics claimed that huge sums should not be invested in building a magnificent theater in a city suffering from more pressing problems, and said that the structure would be a "white elephant" - lacking any content, without a permanent troupe - and that the Jerusalem taxpayer would have to bear heavy expenses every year.

Nor was there a shortage of struggles for power and prestige during the process of building the Jerusalem Theater, which was dedicated in October 1971. Although the building did not win public relations acclaim similar to that showered on the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, as a building it should be considered no less important - in both architectural and cultural-artistic terms.

A modern example of contemporary architecture, the theater is designed with three-dimensional plasticity that combines sculptural elements of exposed concrete with stone construction in traditional style and flowing modern design. The monumental building is planted in a large public square that is used for outdoor events, and looks as though it is growing on a hill composed of a series of terraces with a horizontal emphasis. The structure radiates civic elegance, and in spite of its large size, it preserves a calm, human dimension, which reflects its public-representational status within the urban fabric surrounding it.

In Yedioth Ahronoth (Jan. 17, 1972), journalist Mira Avrech quoted renowned choreographer Jerome Robbins, who wrote enthusiastically to his friend, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein: "Only rarely have I been as excited as I am about this building, which has aroused various visions and dreams in my heart. One can perform in it works based on the Bible, on the Aggadah, on the experience of contemporary Israel ... Imagine someone going onstage, leading a camel behind him! ... You certainly understand that I am full of enthusiasm about this theater, which gives the impression of a minor Temple."

They forgot Ish Shalom

The struggles for power and prestige were different then. The original agreement regarding the building of the theater, which was signed with Miles M. Sherover when his donation was received, stated that the building would be called the Sherover Jerusalem Theater, but when the building was dedicated, Sherover expressed his opinion that "my love and feelings of loyalty to Jerusalem were what led to my modest donation for building this wonderful building, but in my opinion, in time the theater will be recognized on its own merits, and its importance as a theater will be greater than the name of any person connected with its birth. Therefore I am turning with my request to you, Mr. Kollek, as the mayor of this city, to change the name given to this magnificent building, and to call it simply the 'Jerusalem Theater.'"

The agreement for the building was made when Mordechai Ish Shalom was serving as mayor of Jerusalem. In his autobiography, he wrote that "the construction began at a fast pace. By the time I left the mayor's office (in 1966), the skeleton was almost completed ... There was a two-year break ... Prices skyrocketed during those two years, and increased the cost of construction to IL 15-16 million ... When the theater was dedicated, a very impressive ceremony was held. I was invited to the ceremony, and I found a place in the audience.

"During the ceremony, they gave the microphone to M. Sherover. When he came up to the dais, he asked in a loud voice: 'Where is Ish Shalom?' Teddy had not said a word about my contribution to building the theater. He knew about my decisive role in having it built. And now on this festive occasion, I was not even invited to the dais. 'Where is Ish Shalom?' he asked again. The neighbors next to whom I was sitting called out: 'Here he is, he's sitting here.' Then he said: 'Ish Shalom is the man thanks to whom the theater was built! He was the one with whom I signed the agreement to build the theater.' The audience cheered tumultuously" ("Besod hotzvim u'vonim," Agudat Shalem, 1989).

Gita Sherover, Miles' widow, was never satisfied with making a financial contribution and then staying away until the date of the festive and publicized opening of the project. One of her friends talked of her yekke (of German origin) punctiliousness and her personal involvement in the construction process: "When she and Miles built the theater, they used to visit the construction site every day, in order to make sure that every detail would be exactly as she wished, and you were in trouble if you argued with her. She called it 'Sherover style.'"

Gita Sherover succeeded, thanks to her financial independence and her toughness, to build, in addition to the Jerusalem Theater, another two projects that were exceptional in the quality of their design and implementation: the beautiful Sherover Promenade, which was built in 1989 along the Armon Hanatziv hill in southern Jerusalem; and Beit Gabriel in Zemah (1993), on the southern shore of Lake Kinneret. These two projects raised the threshold of excellence in Israeli architecture, both in terms of planning and design, and in everything related to ensuring the quality of the finish.

Since Gita's death in 2004, the Gabriel Sherover Foundation has continued its cultural-public enterprise and is now building, next to the Sherover Promenade at the edge of the Abu Tor neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Sherover Center for Arts and Culture, which is scheduled to be dedicated in a few years from now.

Over the years, the many exciting activities in the Jerusalem Theater - plays, performances, conferences and meetings - have proved that the former forecasts, to the effect that this would be a "white elephant," were groundless. The building enjoyed dizzying success; after many years of activity, there was need for expansion, renovation and a variety of technological improvements. Teddy Kollek and Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, helped to raise money through that organization to build another wing in the theater, which would also serve as a concert hall.

A few years earlier, American millionaire Lester Crown had donated $9 million for a new sports stadium, which was supposed to be built in the Shuafat area in the north of the city. Because of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) opposition, this project was not carried out, and Crown demanded his money back. Kollek succeeded, with the help of his great personal charm, in convincing Crown to change the original designation of the donation from sports to arts and culture. That made it possible to build the Henry Crown Concert Hall, which seats 750, and the Rebecca Crown Auditorium, which seats 450, on the premises.

A Jerusalem compromise

Regarding the Tel Aviv Museum, the planning of the new wing was a source of arguments and differences of opinion from the start. In late 2003, when it was decided to declare an international competition for the new wing, architects Dan Eytan and Itzhak Yashar, who planned the original building, demanded that the competition be called off and tried to prevent the museum from making contacts for the purpose of planning the new building with any architect other than themselves. Later they filed for compensation in the courts, for a sum of NIS 1 million, for ostensible breach of contract, violation of patents and damage to their reputation.

In Jerusalem a similar struggle was prevented when it was decided to hand over the planning and design of the new wing of the Jerusalem Theater to the original architectural firm. Thus the new wing donated by Crown, and named after his parents, was designed in accordance with the dimensions and form of the first building.

In Jerusalem, too, the subject of commemoration both in the original building and with respect to the new wing were controversial, with Gita Sherover on one side, and Lester Crown, who was represented by the Jerusalem Foundation, on the other. But in private, an honorable solution was found, without the media to-do that is accompanying the affair of the Tel Aviv Museum. The overall cultural complex, officially named the Jerusalem Theater for the Performing Arts, has three separate entrances. One of them, in the original structure, leads to the Sherover Theater; the second entrance leads to the Rebecca Crown Auditorium; and the third leads to the Henry Crown Concert Hall. It should be mentioned that in real terms, Lester Crown's donation of $9 million, which was given over 20 years ago, was much larger than the $20-million donation that the Ofer family planned to contribute to the Tel Aviv Museum in 2005.

It is hard to understand why the Ofer family does not adopt the modest spirit of Sherover, forget about the insult to its honor, and reach a similar arrangement to that of the Jerusalem Theater for the Performing Arts. After all, they could have named only the new wing after Aviva and Sami Ofer, while the other halls in the museum would commemorate the names of other donors, with the overall name of the "Tel Aviv Museum of the Arts." That is an honorable solution, which would have commemorated the Ofer family in a suitable manner, and would also have enabled the museum to raise additional donations for renewal and expansion.