Jerusalem Architect Follows in Footsteps of His Friend Amos Oz in New Book

‘I wanted to give it to him on his 80th birthday, but he died on me,’ says David Kroyanker, author of ‘The Jerusalem of Amos Oz’

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A sketch of the office building where the Rex and Studio Cinemas used to stand in Jerusalem
A sketch of the office building where the Rex and Studio Cinemas used to stand in JerusalemCredit: Racheli Tzairi and Elisheva Galperin, based on photos by David Kroyanker / Keter
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“Sometimes I would go with friends to the Tnuva unloading area to see them coming from beyond the hills of darkness in a truck laden with agricultural produce, dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime, and I would walk around them to inhale the smell of hay, to become drunk on the fragrances of distant places.”

That’s how Amos Oz describes the Tnuva dairy on Yehezkel Street in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, in his book “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The dairy, like many of the buildings Oz wrote about in the book, no longer exists. It operated from 1935 in a three-story building dwarfed by a tall water tower. The dairy closed in 1964, and in the late 20th century the building in which it was located was demolished, and replaced by an apartment house for the ultra-Orthodox. Architect David Kroyanker wrote about it in his new book “The Jerusalem of Amos Oz,” which focuses on sites and buildings that Oz wrote about in this book and others.

Kroyanker returned to “A Tale of Love and Darkness” three years ago. “I read the book for the first time, like everyone else, in 2002, and since then I’ve read it several more times,” he says in the studio in his Ramat Aviv home, where he has lived since leaving Jerusalem. “I said to myself, go and write about the paths along which Amos Oz walked – and I started to map the places. I did it myself, nobody knew about it except for my wife. I wanted to give him the book on his 80th birthday, on May 4, 2019, but he died on me half a year earlier.”

Amos Oz at his Tel Aviv home, March 1,2013. Credit: OMER MESSINGER / NurPhoto / AFP

Kroyanker is the main cartographer of Jerusalem in the past five decades. After many books about its various aspects, this is the first book he has written in the footsteps of a literary work about Jerusalem architecture. “All along I wanted to show the book to Amos Oz, so he could make comments and get an impression,” he says. “After his death I went with the initial copy of the book to Fania [Oz’s daughter] and Nili [Oz’s wife]. I met with Fania in a café and she was enthusiastic.”

The book, whose subtitle is “In the Footsteps of ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ and Other Works,” was published by Keter, which published the books by Oz and Kroyanker. In the first chapter there are four walking tours, which include dozens of milestones from Oz’s books. At every milestone there are citations from Oz’s works, a short historical-architectural explanation and one or two illustrations.

One of the routes includes 37 milestones and extends from the Schneller Complex, on the margins of the Kerem Avraham neighborhood, to Talpiot and Armon Hanaztiv in the south of the city. It connects to a route along which Oz walked once every two or three weeks to the home of his father’s uncle, Prof. Joseph Klausner, who lived not far from the celebrated writer S.Y. Agnon in Talpiot. Klausner lived in a relatively large apartment for those days, when most of the families in Jerusalem were crowded into apartments of one and a half to two rooms.

Oz wrote of it: “The palace of Prof. Klausner seemed to me an example of the Sultan’s palace or the Palatine of the Roman emperors.” This house no longer exists either, notes Kroyanker. Shortly after Klausner’s death in 1958, the house was demolished and an apartment house was built in its place.

The Jerusalem home of Oz's great uncle, Prof. Joseph Klausner, which seemed to Oz "an example of the Sultan’s palace or the Palatine of the Roman emperors."Credit: Central Zionist Archives

In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz often described the area where he lived: The book opens with a detailed description of the apartment in which he grew up, which was inadequate and crowded. Amos Street, where the apartment was located, is also described in detail. At the end of the book Oz also describes Kibbutz Hulda, to which he moved at the age of 14. But he discusses the Jerusalem of his childhood at length, and occasionally also mentions his envy of Tel Aviv. Jerusalem also appears in “My Michael,” “The Hill of Evil Counsel,” “Soumchi,” “Panther in the Basement,” “The Third Condition” and “Judas,” his last novel, written in 2014.

They hovered among the tables

Like the dairy and Klausner’s home, the building that housed the Tachkemoni School, where Oz studied starting in second grade, was recently demolished. “In the Tachkemoni School I learned Hebrew: As though the drill had penetrated and struck some abundant vein in a quarry, and already in the classroom and courtyard of Morah-Zelda [Zelda the teacher] I touched it for the first time.” “Morah-Zelda” is the poet Zelda, his beloved teacher.

The school was located in a typical Jerusalem building – a traditional religious educational institution for boys, which was founded in 1909 as a Talmud Torah (a religious elementary school) and wandered among several buildings until it reached its permanent home on Tachkemoni Street in the Makor Baruch neighborhood. Many years ago it was replaced by a Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox school, Talmud Torah Hamesorah, which operated until the building was demolished in 2018.

David Kroyanker in 2017Credit: Moti Milrod

I lost my father at an early age, he suffered from being an orphan. I was a lonely child and he was also a lonely child. There are many similarities between us and I felt a personal identification with his story. I’m familiar with the places that he writes about and identify with them emotionally

Oz also wrote about the Edison movie theater, which was built in 1932 and was Jerusalem’s cultural center during his childhood. The building was demolished in 2006. Two other movie theaters, Rex and Studio, were demolished in the 1970s and today the Ahim Yisrael office building stands there, on 16 Shlomzion Hamalka Street.

Kroyanker notes that Oz recognized that the demolition of cultural buildings was not related to contemporary trends, but was actually part of Jerusalem’s history: “The city was destroyed, built, destroyed, and rebuilt. One conqueror after another arrived in Jerusalem, ruled for a while, left behind him several walls and towers and a few notches in the stone … and disappeared. It’s an old nymphomaniac who squeezes lover after lover to death ... before shrugging him off with a yawn,” wrote Oz.

In “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Oz describes the cafés in Jerusalem as a branch of a European city, Vienna or Berlin. In the cafes in the area of the Jerusalem triangle, wrote Oz, “at every table sat meticulously dressed ladies and important men who spoke among themselves in low voices. Waiters and waitresses in white jackets, an ironed cloth folded on their arm, hovered among the tables and served the guests piping hot coffee, on whose surface floated a white and curled whipped cream-angel, Ceylon tea with essence that would arrive separately, in small china pitchers, and sweets filled with liqueur, yeast cakes and apples cakes with whipped cream. These cafes – Europa, Tuv-Taam, Marcus and Alaska – also disappeared, notes Kroyanker.

Destruction and neglect

His connection to Oz, says Kroyanker, is no coincidence. “We were born in the same year. We both grew up in Jerusalem towards the end of the British Mandate and the beginning of the state. The cultural background of our parents is German culture, which they admired. I lost my father at an early age, he suffered from being an orphan. I was a lonely child and he was also a lonely child. There are many similarities between us and I felt a personal identification with his story. I’m familiar with the places that he writes about and identify with them emotionally,” he says.

Kroyanker is pained by the changes taking place in the city, which has gradually become more ultra-Orthodox since the two were adolescents. This increased Haredization troubled Oz as well.

Haredization is one extreme that characterizes the most significant changes in the urban landscape. Haredization is accompanied by the physical decline, to the point of disintegration, of the neighborhoods in the north of the city. The other extreme is the trend of physical, architectural and environmental renewal, which is accompanied by cultural and tourism-oriented development in several of the southern parts of the city.

Jerusalem's Schneller Orphanage, one of the landmarks in Oz's books, in 2016Credit: David Bachar

“I want to show how the city is changing, not to search for the bad,” says Kroyanker. “The area of Liberty Bell Park, for example, has changed for the better.”

In his work Oz describes the transition from the Jewish-Hebrew neighborhoods to those of members of other religions and nationalities in the south and east of Jerusalem, as a trip to a foreign city. Over the years the line separating Jews and other groups has become blurred, and a different boundary has been created in its place.

“This invisible boundary passes along the route of Hanevi’im Street between Haredi Jerusalem and Jerusalem to the south of it, which is trying with all its might to maintain its secular-pluralistic lifestyle and sanity,” writes Kroyanker.

In the second chapter of the book he cites two examples of destruction and neglect. The first refers to King George Street. There is no similarity between its houses today and the magnificent London buildings that Oz described in his dreams, which had “a continuous, decorous, arrogant and discreet façade.” Kroyanker describes the neglect of the buildings since that time: “The stylized iron gates on some of the houses were uprooted from their place and adhering to the facades are thickets of air conditioners, electric cables, plastic window boxes, tattered awnings and ugly signs.”

Kroyanker also dwells on the building at 10 King George Street, which reminded Oz of the buildings in his mother’s place of birth. Oz wrote that these houses are characterized by “a neoclassical style and an almost continuous façade of apartment houses in which members of the middle class lived.” Not much remains of the beauty. The stylized iron gate at the entrance to the house has been uprooted, to be replaced at the entrance by an ugly iron closet, cables and posters.

Oz’s attitude towards Jerusalem was multifaceted, as is indicated by the third chapter of Kroyanker’s book. Oz’s complex, contradictory attitude was also described in a personal letter to writer Ortzion Bartana in 1995. Oz requested that its content not be published during his lifetime. “I’m from Jerusalem and I wouldn’t be able to live without it, but in recent years I find that it’s hard for me to stay there for more than a few days, because the atmosphere is full of extremism,” wrote Oz. “But it does me good to come and to be there for a few days and more. … Jerusalem is very close to me but I don’t love it so much now. Tel Aviv is not close to me and I actually quite like it now.” The letter was cited in the Haaretz culture supplement after Oz’s death.

In the last part of his book, Kroyanker illustrates Oz’s sensitivity to unique elements in Jerusalem’s architecture. One of them was an element that is characteristic of Mandatory architecture, the menschlech, or “little men.” These were fasteners for the external shutters, which were designed in the image of little men.

Writer S.Y. Agnon's home in Jerusalem in 2009Credit: Tess Scheflan

“Everywhere you could discover all kinds of little ambassadors of Europe, the promised land. For example, the little men, in other words, those little men that keep the shutters open during the daytime. In other words, the menschlech carved from metal,” wrote Oz. “When you want to close the shutters you turn them on their axes, so that every night they hang with their heads facing down.”

To this description Kroyanker added an urban legend. In the past it was said that housewives used to wait for their husbands to leave for work, and then they would turn the shutter fasteners face down, in order to signal to their lovers that the coast was clear. Before the husband’s return they would turn them face up, as a warning to their lovers.

Aside from walking in the footsteps of Oz, what did you add of your own in the book?

Kroyanker: “I do a visual analysis and add an interpretive layer. There are two icons in the book: One is Jerusalem and the other is Amos Oz. I take the elements that he wrote about and create something structured from them. As I do in other architecture books, when I organize the Mandatory era buildings.

What can we learn from the book?

That there’s another Jerusalem that is not well known, a Jerusalem of neglect, tattered, a Jerusalem of Haredi influence, of poverty. It’s a book of contrasts. There’s Jerusalem of longings, of people who look at it from afar, and it can be looked at from up close. And I didn’t invent that, that’s Amos Oz. You can learn about Jerusalem here from a different angle, which is not the Western Wall and not the Knesset and not the walls.”

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