Healing in the Holy City

A new exhibit at the Tower of David Museum explores the crossroads between medicine and miracles, faith and health over the centuries in Jerusalem.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

For diabetes you might have been proscribed fenugreek. Internal bleeding or urinary problems might have been treated with stinging nettles. And for common fertility problems, a dose of medicinal skink – that’s a stubby-legged lizard, in case you didn’t know – might be just what the doctor ordered.

Medicine in Jerusalem has come a long way over the centuries and millennia, and in a city that three major faiths call holy, healing has often emerged from some hybrid of spiritual and physical elements. Tracing this journey of medicine through the ages is the focus of “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis,” an unusual new exhibit at the Tower of David Museum. Launched on Wednesday night in the presence of Mayor Nir Barkat, Health Minister Yael German, and Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian patriarch, the year-long exhibit opens at a time when many Jerusalemites are concerned about the precarious state of medicine in the city. A few hours before the launch, museum director and chief curator Eilat Lieber noted, Barkat was working to help broker a compromise in the ongoing crisis in the dual-campus Hadassah Medical Center, which is in danger of collapse.

In fact, Lieber tells Haaretz, the idea for the exhibit arose about two years ago when she was approached by Dr. Yoel Donchin, a professor at Hadassah. “He likes history and has a big collection of pictures in Hadassah, and since he recognized the difficult situation there, he was worried that no one will take care of them. He thought it might be a good idea to do something with the pictures,” Lieber explains. “The first time I saw them, I felt something very strong. I saw the city of Jerusalem, the buildings, the streets, the faces of young and old, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and I realized that there’s a big story to tell here.”

Those pictures include images of the earliest days of Hadassah, whose predecessor was the Rothschild Hospital, founded in 1888 on HaNevi'im (Prophets) Street. The photographs, including some on loan from collections in London and Washington, help create an eye-opening portrait, for example, of what medicine was a century or more ago, when Jerusalem suffered outbreaks of cholera, malaria and typhus.

In one picture, dated 1903, a crowd is assembled on the slopes of the Mount of Olives – facing the eastern walls of the Old City – on the occasion of a rare wedding beneath a black wedding canopy. “The Ashkenazi belief at the time was that if you marry two orphans you can stop the epidemic or prevent the next one,” says museum guide Oren Cytto, pointing to the unusual black chuppah in the photograph.

Some of the photos are from an album that was given to Baron Edmond Rothschild on the occasion of his 80th birthday by Hadassah Medical Center to its wealthy benefactor as a kind of “medical report card” of advances there in 1925. “The photo album is amazing as it really shows the best of Hadassah at that time and particularly boasts of the x-ray machine, which was then new in Jerusalem,” explains Caroline Shapiro, the museum’s international public relations director. Other images come from The G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, owned by the U.S. Library of Congress, a treasury of photos from historical Palestine, shot mostly between 1898 and 1946.

But the research for the exhibit really got underway when Lieber invited Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, an expert on various Jerusalem communities, onto the project as curator. She reached out not just to Jewish but also Muslim and Christian organizations in the city and asked them to contribute documents, artifacts, books and the like. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Contributions were also made by Teva, a co-sponsor of the exhibit. It is now a major pharmaceuticals company, but when it started in 1901, it was a modest operation that imported medicines and looked for ways to create new ones based on local herbal remedies found in nature, or “teva” in Hebrew.

Thus we come to the display case that includes wild herbs as well as the amazing lizard-cure; the exhibit inside the sprawling Tower of David complex also includes a live herb garden that features herbs mentioned in different healing potions in the exhibit. On display for the first time is a 2,100 year-old incense shovel recently found in a dig in the City of David, thought to have been used for supplying the specific mix of incense biblically proscribed for use at the Temple, something that could be considered a ritual in the interest of public health. Less ancient but particularly interesting are some of the hand-written medical journals and books of remedies, which look more like Kabbalistic guides than anything one would expect a doctor to have compiled.

The exhibit also narrates the wars of faith and missionary activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which led to the establishment of various hospitals and clinics: a sanatorium established by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, Marienstift Children’s Hospital, Meyer Rothschild Hospital (the first Jewish hospital outside the Old City), Bikur Holim, English Mission Hospital and the Italian Hospital.

The last three months before the exhibit have been particularly poignant for Shalev- Khalifa. Her mother-in-law, Ora Khalifa, whose family has been in Jerusalem for over 200 years, fell ill and passed away within a month. “Here I am, working night and day on this exhibit on illness and healing, and then it happens to you, to your family,” Shalev-Khalifa says in an interview with Haaretz. She found herself wondering why the positive relations inside hospital, where patients and caregivers from all of the city’s different communities coexist and cooperate so smoothly, can’t continue once they exit the hospital doors. “I’m looking at all those people and asking, why they don’t they take that with them – that mercy – outside?”

'Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis'.Credit: Archives of Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi
Dr. Nirit Shalev-KhalifaCredit: Ilene Prusher
'Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis'.
'Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis'.
The Hadassah Medical Organization Album.
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'Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis'.Credit: Matson Collection, Library of Congress
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'Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis'.Credit: Archives of Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi
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The Hadassah Medical Organization Album.Credit: Manor Archive at Windmill Hill, U.K.
Healing in the Holy City

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