Paradise Lost

A museum project spurs a trip down memory lane in Haifa.

A few Saturdays ago, I found myself leading a group of several dozen people through the streets of Haifa's Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood. It was part of a project by Haifa Museum of Art and its recently appointed chief curator, Ruth Direktor.

Concurrent with an exhibition titled "Lines Made by Walking," which draws its inspiration from the work of British artist Richard Long, who in 1967 walked back and forth on a piece of grass in the countryside until a straight line was created, and the exhibition "And What Shall We Do with Painting in the 21st Century" - both of which are on display under the overall title "Formally Speaking" - Direktor organized a project called "Haifa Walks," in which I took part along with many others.

Haifa's reali School - Itzik Ben Malki
Itzik Ben Malki

Artists and writers who have close ties to Haifa (such as film director Amos Gitai and writer Judith Katzir ) were invited to recreate with their feet - and with the feet of anyone who might care to join them - the route they created while walking during their Haifa period. Or as the museum's website put it, "The aim of this project is to connect the city with the museum, and to map the city differently - not according to official maps and divisions but according to walks made by people."

The Haifa Museum is even older than I am, yet I don't remember ever visiting it during my 20 years in Haifa. In fact, the only time I entered the building was about a decade ago when the museum had an exhibition by Motti Mizrachi, about which I wrote an article. That's surprising, given the fact that as a youngster I considered myself an art lover and even studied the history of art in school.

This time, having been invited to take part in the project, I looked seriously for the first time at the old building that stands so close to the place where my mother spent her childhood. The museum is in a logical square form, very convenient for finding your way around and so different from the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which I will leave to others to bad-mouth. This is, of course, a far smaller museum than the one in Tel Aviv, but if Direktor's plans work out, it will eventually be connected to the adjacent Artists' House by a new building, creating a large space for art in Haifa.

It wasn't easy for me to decide on the route of my walk in Haifa. The fact is that the course of my life in the city traversed a few areas: Neveh Shaanan, where I grew up; the Lower City, where my grandparents lived; the old cemetery, where my grandfather's uncles and father are buried; and Hadar Hacarmel, the location of the Hebrew Reali School, where my grandfather and grandmother met and fell in love, and which I also regrettably attended. Also located in that neighborhood are the municipality buildings, in three of which my grandfather and father both worked, to the huge chagrin of the latter.

To cut a long story short, I chose Hadar Hacarmel for my walk. On the appointed day, I found myself fiddling with the "Madonna microphone" I had been given and walking at the head of a group along a route of some 600 meters at most. Naturally, thanks to my nonexistent sense of direction, I got lost five times during the walk, but the good burghers at my side and behind me steered me back on course.

As a starting point I chose Beit Hakranot, at the corner of Herzl and Balfour, which during my childhood used to house luxury stores (I was especially fond of a music store there ). From there we walked up Balfour Street toward the old Technion, now the site of MadaTech - the Israel National Museum of Science, and the site of Bosmat School in the period when I attended the Reali. I used to take the bus to school together with those hunks in their dark blue school uniforms.

The gate of the Reali School was shut, though that didn't prevent me from telling the brave members of my group the story of how my grandmother and grandfather met, and how they eloped to Jaffa to get married because they were the first mixed couple in Haifa. And how, in their innocence, they asked one of their teachers - who just happened to be in Jaffa - to be the witness at their wedding. Upon returning to Haifa, he congratulated my great-grandfather, to the latter's immense astonishment and anger. He passed on the scandalous news to my grandmother's father, who thereupon locked her in the house and afterward sent her to Beirut to nursing school.

Her studies were aborted when my grandfather appeared at her residence in Beirut and threatened to jump off the roof if she didn't return to Palestine with him so they could be together, in spite of the family's objections. Only when their first child was born did my grandfather's family forgive them.

From there, after consulting with the group, we walked down the stairs of the Valley of Olives. My grandmother used to ascend them every Saturday to reach the old Technion, where the finest lecturers gave talks. She especially liked the talks in history, the Bible and philosophy, and above all adored Yeshayahu Leibowitz. But we walked in the opposite direction: down. Because in Haifa, as in Jerusalem, there are four directions: right, left, up and down. After some minor but essential directions from the group, we arrived at the house in which my grandmother and grandfather lived during my childhood, the house on Safed Street.

As soon as I took my place on the elevated sidewalk in front of the house, I was assailed by a sense of a vanished world. It's not that Haifans left Haifa; it's the beautiful Haifa of yore that left them. That feeling intensified as we continued along Hanevi'im Street (Street of the Prophets ) to the place where there used to be a lovely fountain, now gone. Nor did we find the building in which the properties department, administered by my father, was located. Additions have made it impossible to recognize, like the other magnificent stone buildings of the past that are now so run-down. There was filth everywhere, as though Haifa had never once been the cleanest city in the country.

It took two and a quarter hours to traverse the 600 meters - an average speed of about four and a half minutes a meter - which reminded me of what a well-known tour guide once told me: "I never met anyone who walks so slowly and talks so fast."