“The garden is in a good condition and densely seeded, mainly with vegetables. Already at the end of March it has fine lettuces and Arab beans, which the patients are especially fond of. At the moment, there are no large trees in the garden. The strawberry trees that were recently planted are still small, although the fig tree that was planted close to the building allocated for the lepers already stands out with its impressive size. A few flowering pear trees can be seen amid the vines.
“The kitchen is situated on the western side of the central courtyard, and is accordingly visible from the rooms described above. It is separated from the nuns’ rooms by a corridor that leads to the courtyard. The kitchen space is large and filled with light, and it also serves as the dining room for the house fathers, two nuns and the servants. The food for all the asylum’s occupants is prepared in this kitchen, and everyone finds it tasty, abundant and nutritious. At midday each patient receives a full bowl of rice, together with vegetables, beans, lentils or other legumes. Rice is the traditional food of this region, and it is served drier than what we are accustomed to. To this a small slice of meat is always added. For dinner, other varieties of food are served. The lepers, who undoubtedly attach great importance to their food, are pleased with this menu.”
Father Burkhardt on the leprosarium in Jerusalem, 1890
The description by the German cleric from the Moravian Church, who visited the Holy Land in 1890, is not the only testimony about daily life at the Jerusalem leper hospital. “The nuns who ran the place sent annual reports to the heads of the order,” says Ruth Wexler, the head nurse of the institution during its final period, from 1988 to 2009. “The reports are official and businesslike, though not without compassion and heartwarming descriptions of the patients, who were forced to retire from the world and closet themselves between the walls of the compound. In the usual way of commissioned reports, they tend to portray the situation in a way that the readers will find congenial. They cannot be relied on a hundred percent, but they do provide information about the daily routine and about special events such as the Christmas meal.”
The hospital for Hansen’s disease (leprosy), which was established in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood in 1887, had water cisterns, a vegetable patch, groves of fruit trees, a bakery and livestock. “It wasn’t managed as a totally autarkic unit,” says Wexler, who curated the site’s permanent historical exhibition. “They had farmland in Wilhelma [a colony of the German Templer sect near Jaffa], and there’s no doubt that some of the raw materials and commodities were purchased in the city’s markets and shops, but the distance from the Old City and the isolation of the area – there was nothing in the Talbieh neighborhood at the time other than groves and a few Templer homes to the south – dictated self-production of food. Patients and caregivers worked side by side in the vegetable patch, in harvesting olives and in the vineyard. Management of the autarkic unit did not necessarily stem from people’s fear of the lepers – that’s part of the urban legend about both the disease and the compound that is hard to refute – because the fact is, for example, that milk from the cows bred in the compound was sold in the Old City market.”
Pen or barn
Early August, 2018. Just after dusk, the observation tower recently erected in the courtyard of Hansen House – the leprosarium that has become a design and culture center – illuminates the site like a lighthouse. In the yard of Hadir (literally, “the animal pen”) – the bar that opened here a few weeks ago – early drinkers are indulging in their first shot. In the winter, visitors will frequent the narrow, elongated r-shaped stone structure, but on a cool, Jerusalem summer evening, with a delightful breeze swaying the tops of trees planted more than a hundred years ago, many prefer to relax beneath the open sky.
The new bar, like the café that’s been operating at Hansen House for more than a year, is run by the staff of Ofaimme Farm: the brothers Hedai and Yinon Offaim, and their partners, Golan Max and Yinon Peleg. The menu of the vegetarian-dairy café and the items on sale in the adjacent shop are based on the produce of the family farm on Moshav Idan in the Arava desert of southern Israel. On their pioneering farm, one of the first in the country to adopt the principles of fair trade and environmental preservation, the Offaim brothers grow organic fruits and vegetables and manufacture fine goat cheese by means of lengthy traditional processes. The store at Hansen House also sells olive oil, boutique wine and other foods, which come from other small local manufacturers who abide by similar principles.
The café is located in the building that was originally the hospital’s bakery and afterward was converted into the clinic; the bar is situated in the structure that is generally thought to have been the animal pen. Or at least for certain animals. “Don’t tell them,” Ruth Wexler says laughing, referring to the Offaim brothers. “They’re so nice, and the story of the animal pen fits so well with their goat pen and with the autarkic farm they established in the desert. But in my opinion, it was mainly cows that were bred here. There are a few chance photographs of goats, and there’s even a story about a patient who had a small herd of sheep, but most of the citations in the historical sources refer to cows.”
Pen or barn, Wexler believes that the building’s original purpose was abandoned by the time World War I was over. Subsequently it became a storeroom, and in recent years it was empty and desolate. “When we received the building, the wing on the right didn’t exist,” Hedai Offaim says. “When the conservation and restoration work started, the engineer found a German aerial photograph from the early 20th century, which revealed that the original structure was r-shaped. On that basis we were allowed to restore the structure as it had been, subject of course to strict conservation rules and the use of typical raw materials of the period, such as Marseille roofing tiles, stone and wood.”
Other partners in the establishment of the tavern – the vision speaks of a cultural center where musical evenings, Kabbalat Shabbat and other events will be held – were the California-based Leichtag Foundation (which supports Jewish social entrepreneurship) and the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which uses the site for its activities during the day.
The lepers who lived here in the 19th century ate rice and beans with a slice of meat, a rare luxury in that period, along with vegetables from the hospital’s garden. Let’s hope it was washed down with a hefty drink to allow them forget the fate that had befallen them and the betrayal of their bodies. Hedai Offaim dreams of restoring the historic garden (“I have submitted a detailed plan, drawn up with agronomists and garden planners”). In the meantime, the bar offers light dishes that go together with the alcohol menu. Along with a “Jerusalem Syndrome” cocktail (arak, vodka, ginger, cucumber and lemon), the bar serves sweet-peppery, brown-crusted Jerusalem kugel, a plate of salty pickled fish, or fried mashed potatoes.
The dishes that draw their inspiration from Eastern Europe – the Offaims' inclination and DNA – are supplemented by Middle Eastern meze, bourekas with smoked mackerel inspired by Turkish balik ekmek, and a wedge of cheese of French inspiration from the produce of the Arava farm.
Hadir, Hansen House compound, Talbieh, Jerusalem; phone: 052-3666850