“A Street in Jerusalem: A Journey through Time, from the Biblical Period to the Present,” by Hannah and David Amit, with illustrations by Evgeny Barashkov. Kinneret, Zmora Bitan (Hebrew, 32 pages, NIS 84)
There are several criteria for examining the impression that a particular book has made on you as a reader. For example, how many times you’ve read it; how many times you’ve thought about it after putting it aside; how many copies you bought and gave as a gift to the people dear to you; to how many of your acquaintances you recommended it and urged them to read it. The final criterion is: How many hours did you spend in its company? And that’s a very deceptive criterion, which has to take into account several points − first of all the size of the book, since clearly you’ll spend far more time with a 750-page book than a 75-page one.
There are books that I have reread many times since first encountering them, chief among them being S.Y. Agnon’s “Tmol Shilshom” (“Only Yesterday”). Over the years, too, I have given out about a dozen copies of Lea Goldberg’s “Meeting with a Poet,” about Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, to my close friends. But the book with which I have spent the most time, relative to its size of course, was a book that I received even before I could read. A good friend of my mother who returned from London, a trip that was a rare event over 60 years ago, brought me an illustrated, colorful book about that city.
It was composed of double folio pages. Each double page was dedicated to a different period in the city’s history and each included a panoramic picture, which slowly filled up with buildings and people as they advanced in time − from the first double page, devoted to the prehistoric period, which featured a picture of prehistoric man and his partner lighting a bonfire on the banks of the Thames, to the last double-spread depicting post-World War II London. It showed red double-decker buses driving along streets that still showed signs of the Blitz, men in Anthony Eden homburgs and women in tailored suits, newspaper boys and the Queen’s Guard in their fur hats.
I would spend hours in the company of the book and was still hungry for more. Every time I looked at it, I discovered details and facts that I hadn’t noticed earlier.
My mother, who was apparently surprised at my enthusiasm, commented that if the someone were to prepare a book like that about Jerusalem, she was convinced that it would be much thicker and richer than the one I received as a gift from her friend, since Jerusalem is at least 2,000 years older than London.
Over 60 years after that conversation, the dream has come true even if on a smaller scale than imagined. Twelve double-spreads that describe everyday life in Jerusalem during major periods of its history, beginning with the biblical patriarchs and ending today, have been published in a book that is a joint effort of three people: artist Evgeny Barashkov, a graduate of the of art history department at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art; editor Hannah Amit, who led the bimonthly literary journal Eit-mol to impressive achievements; and her husband archaeologist David Amit, who, before passing away last week, conducted many digs in Jerusalem and its environs, wrote and edited books about the city during the First and Second Temple periods, and is one of the few people who really knew the city inside out. (The Amits earlier published another book together: “Mar’ei Makom: Touring the North of the Country in Light of the Sources,” published by Yad Ben Zvi.)
The result is surprising, enriching and enlightening. This is a true celebration of a wealth of knowledge: about architecture and means of transportation, clothing and food and drink; trades and lifestyles. Take, for example, Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman period. As though incidentally, anyone who looks at the panoramic illustration learns about the construction methods of the period, including domed ceilings, air vents made of ceramic pipes, external staircases, and the hesitant introduction of Marseille clay tiles for use in modern European construction.
The prominent presence of red tarbooshes worn by the men makes it clear to the observer that the Turks are the local rulers. But the flags of the foreign powers flying on the roofs, and the large number of European figures, tourists and clerics in the illustrated space, succeed in demonstrating Western penetration of the Orient without saying a word.
An additional perusal of the same illustration reveals a pair of British tourists in travel garb, including the cork hats, Franciscan monks in brown robes and Dominican monks in white and black, European generals and local rulers engaged in a clandestine discussion, Westerners who are enjoying the alluring charms of the East − belly dancing and narghile smoking − and last but not least, a Gypsy walking around with a bear in chains. A final glance reveals the street lighting, the rats running around in the streets, the first automobile and the post offices belonging to the foreign powers, as one of the aspects of the “capitulation” rights granted to these countries by the Ottomans.
Generalizations and common denominators are inevitable due to the very nature of this book, which can include only few representative figures. I personally was sorry not to find a single Ashkenazi (Jew of Central or Eastern European origin) among what is generally called “the Old Yishuv” − the community whose members gradually captured their place in Jerusalem both inside and outside the Old City walls in those days. But of course the book cannot and is not obligated to do justice to every shred or fragment or piece of reality. Instead, it is like an appetizer that will entice young readers to learn more about the many subjects involved in the experience of the Eternal City, as the poet called it.
The primary importance of this charming album lies in two matters that, although they are outside its purview, were fundamental to its preparation: first, the understanding that history is not a sequence of wars and crises, as it was written and studied for generations. Or, as Yudke in Haim Hazaz’s book “The Sermon” complains, that Jewish history is no more than a chain of pogroms and decrees and exiles. The history of mankind, as those who immerse themselves in the Amits’ book will discover, is a varied, colorful, polyphonic, multicultural tapestry, with wars and crises violating and disrupting and destroying what was built with so much effort.
Wars are present in this book in the wealth of weapons in evidence everywhere you look, in the destruction they leave behind, and the pages about the divided city demonstrate that well, with all the attendant cruelty and pain. But there is also reason to smile − for example, the kite being flown beyond the wall of hatred, with nobody able to see the hand that is holding it, an homage to one of the most beautiful poems about the divided city, written by poet Yehuda Amichai.
And second, the book teaches us modesty. Leafing through the pages reveals how everything that we consider stable and durable and eternal is vulnerable and temporary and fleeting. “Houses are destined to sink, houses are not destined to stand,” as poet Natan Alterman wrote. And if the solid and stable stone houses are destined to sink, what about the human beings who populate the pages of this volume with their activities − and who are buffeted by every wind?
This is a lovely package of a dozen capsules of concentrated visual memory, which were prepared with great expertise about the various aspects of life over a period of about 5,000 years. The Amits’ book enables readers to accept the recommendation of Benjamin Tammuz, the editor of the Haaretz Shelanu children’s newspaper, and later the editor of this newspaper’s Culture and Literature supplement, who presented his young readers with a weekly column to nurture their visual intellectual ability: “To see, to look, to observe.”