'The Law Is You Have to Excite People': Squatters Breathe New, Underground Life Into Jerusalem

Art centers, performance halls and clubs popping up in deserted movie theater, army bunker and office building by an artist cooperative with an unusual take on the law

Part of the complex that was transformed into a party club and a tattoo parlor, with a beer and snack bar.
Emil Salman

Five years have gone by since the Rav Chen movie theater complex in Jerusalem’s Talpiot industrial zone shut down overnight. Considered the finest movie theater in Jerusalem in its day, its seven halls have stood abandoned and crumbling, its screens ripped, its seats torn out. It was hard to believe it would ever see new life.

But on Tuesday that’s exactly what happened, when it was transformed into an integrated arts center. One hall became a movie theater again, with rows of seats from old cars. Another became an art gallery, a third a performance hall and a fourth is reserved for children’s activities. The lobby will be a party club and a tattoo parlor, with a beer and snack bar.

The Taltalistim cooperative in the Rav Chen movie theater complex, Jerusalem, Israel, July 2019.
Emil Salman

The people responsible for this metamorphosis is a group of Jerusalem artists calling themselves the Taltalistim. They have developed an unusual expertise – temporary takeover of abandoned complexes to bring them alive again. So far they have organized pop-up parties in an abandoned restaurant, on the floor of an office building and in an army bunker. The Rav Chen’s renaissance is their biggest project yet.

>> Read more: Artifacts from across Mideast found in 9,000-year-old city by Jerusalem ■ 'We go back 800 years': Palestinian fights settler NGO's takeover of Jerusalem hotel

The Taltalistim established their cooperative 12 years ago starting with two artists, Yaakov Berav and Naomi Shaprun, who started out organizing drag and gay parties, which Jerusalem had never seen before, in an apartment downtown. A group of artists and promoters gathered around them, who began organizing wild street parties with municipal support.

Three years ago they discovered “community squatting” – turning abandoned premises into something good for the community. “It was Purim and there were lots of parties. I wanted to find a new location where there had never been a party,” said Nadav Yihya, a party promoter and member of the cooperative. Yihya and his friends saw an abandoned restaurant and went in. “It was all full of dirt and cats, dead and alive, with no electricity or infrastructure,” he says. Undeterred, the Taltalistim started cleaning up and when they finished they asked the owner if they could hold a party there. “I told him I have a feeling that a month later, the place will be rented, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Nadav Yihya
Emil Salman

The next stage was to hold a semi-secret party. The location this time was a partially abandoned office building in the Talpiot industrial zone. “We blacked out all the windows, and we brought people in shuttles and brought them in through the emergency exit. The police realized something was going on and the blocked the downstairs, but they didn’t find us,” Yihya says.

In December they took the idea to the edge. They invited 1,100 people to a semi-secret party in an abandoned army bunker in Ein Karem. “There were huge amounts of garbage and disposable dishes. After we cleaned up we invited people to come downtown and from there we shuttled them to the bunker. The winter wind covered the noise of the party and in this case as well the police didn’t interfere.

The Tatalistim parties are not always legal. But breaking the law isn’t a matter of principle, Berav says. “The idea is innovation…there have been queer events before, but this is to create an exciting experience. The law is that you have to excite people.”

The Taltalistim organized a party for the gay pride parade in Jerusalem last year because unlike Tel Aviv, gay pride parade in Jerusalem is more of a protest. “It’s hard to be gay here … we realized that we have to celebrate the parade, people can march, but as a pretty wild promoter, it was important to get people to dance,” Berav said.

The new complex
Emil Salman

This year they were also looking for a place to celebrate the gay pride parade. One of the members suggested the abandoned Rav Chen complex. The Taltalistim approached the owner, businessman Rami Levy, negotiated with him and the idea took off. Levy’s people wanted to rent the premises on a longer-term basis and not for a single event, and so the idea came up of a “culture mall” that would operate all summer.

As in other cases, here too, the artists had to use ingenuity and their ability to improvise to make the half-ruined site usable quickly. The collected used carpets from defunct events halls and bought car seats at bargain rates from nearby car repair shops. With some sponsorship, municipal support and volunteer work from most of those involved, they launched the place, although clearly the renovations were not finished.

But that’s part of the idea too, they explained. “When we come into the place we start at minus 100. We get rid of the garbage, paint the walls and install chairs. On opening day we’re at zero and then every evening something gets added. Artists who work here add something every day. When we close we’ll be at 100 percent,” Ido Farber, who is the group’s curator and in charge of construction, says. 

Yehuda Meir, a member of Taltalistim, is formerly ultra-Orthodox, as is Berav, a few of the other members and many of those who attend the events. “There’s something after you leave religion that pushes you to nightlife. You’re curious about the world and you want to go to an extreme,” Meir explains.

Taltalistim are also patriotic about their city. “In Tel Aviv you leave home and say, ‘OK, where’s the party.’ If one place doesn’t suit you, you go somewhere else. In Jerusalem people plan for our parties for a whole week,” Yihya says. “If you take our party to Tel Aviv, it will be big and everything, but it won’t be the same. There’s something that breaks out at 4 or 5 A.M. and you can’t compare it. We’re doing underground. In Tel Aviv, you don’t have to be underground,” Meir adds.

A hall in the Rav Chen movie theater complex transformed into an art gallery.
Emil Salman