This was the weekend to forget the knives, the differences, the guns that stick out of ordinary people’s pants pockets. Open House Jerusalem is a weekend of prying and poking into peoples’ houses, lives, and even into cemeteries. It was the weekend of Jerusalemites and brave visitors exploring and owning Jerusalem’s streets on foot with colourful Open House brochures at hand.
Open House is an international initiative which takes place across over twenty cities worldwide. Alon Bin Nun, an architect and the curator of Open House Jerusalem, explains that it’s about opening up the city to its treasures of architectural design. What we usually experience is the urban surface of a city, but who doesn’t want to peek into other peoples’ homes and tour their city’s public spaces from the inside.
For Jerusalem especially, Alon emphasises, it’s about opening doors free of charge, so that the city is accessible to everyone. Usually the event attracts 50,000 visitors, 70% come from outside of Jerusalem. This year alot less were expected due to the current security threat.
But this wasn’t going to stop me and many others from adventuring into a weekend of exploring over one hundred Open House destinations.
Mount Zion Hotel
My first stop was the Mount Zion Hotel. I was lucky enough to be invited to tour with a group of foreign design journalists from Europe. If I hadn’t been invited I never would have thought to go on my own. I had no idea that the hotel is a stately, historic building that used to be an eye hospital.
I stood on its Presidential suite’s balcony where CNN likes to film its Jerusalem broadcasts. It was that perfect time of day, dusk, where the light plays with day and night, so that time stands still, and you forget the past, present and future. Looking onto the walls of the Old City and the sand stone houses around it. All so different and yet uniform. All so contentious and yet at that moment I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place to be.
The official opening event of Open House Jerusalem took place at the newly renovated Ticho House. It was a magical evening under softly lit olive trees, with live music and waiters waltzing through with trays laden with lovely little salad bowls, pargiot on butternut puree, hefty beef burgers, and an odd hors d’oeuvre of sashimi, which tasted like ginger jelly. But I wasn’t there for the food, I promise. I was there to be encouraged to face the challenges of daily life in Jerusalem. ‘Live as normal,’ Mayor Nir Barkat reminded us, despite the terror.
The exciting bit came next. Not dessert, parve dessert is never that captivating. But the tour of the Ticho house and museum. We had a lovely, knowledgable guide who walked us through the house passionately explaining the ins and outs of this one time residence of Dr Avraham Albert Ticho and his wife, the talented, well known artist, Anna Ticho.
Dr Ticho was a well regarded ophthalmologist and I had a particular interest in visiting his house because decades ago he treated my grandmother, who had a glass eye. One of the interesting facts I learnt on the tour was that Dr Ticho was knifed in the back during the 1929 Arab riots. He was badly injured, but survived. It’s not reassuring to consider that not much has changed in Jerusalem.
Anna Ticho’s story as an artist was beautifully told in a brilliant documentary which repeats itself on two parallel screens with images that interact. It brings Anna Ticho to life as a vivacious, passionate artist who dances on screen as if she was still alive and painting in her home.
The main emphasis of the tour was the house’s architecture. Our guide explained to us that any changes in the renovation to the original house were purposefully created with a modern look, so that the original house could be clearly seen. I kept looking for signs of the old house: they had one wall with the Ticho’s dark wooden bookcases and books, as well as the Doctor’s chanukiah collection which he was renowned for. I would have liked to see more of the Ticho’s domestic presence in the house.
What the architects had preserved well was the magnificent wooden staircase which gleamed in the middle of the building. It led upstairs to the most beautiful, fresco ceilings that the Tichos’ weren’t aware of in their time. Here will be the Ticho restaurant, which I hope opens soon. One of the reasons Anna Ticho left the house to the people of Israel was so that they could enjoy Apple Strudel and coffee, an idyllic escape from the every day hubbub of Jerusalem living.
The City of David
The Jerusalem we see, according to Alon and many others, is the tip of the iceberg. There are worlds underneath the roads we drive on, the shops we shop in and the parking lots we park at. Literally. The City of David tour I did on Friday opened up this underground, archaeological world. An entire parking plot had been excavated. They found ruins, which included an entire intact mosaic Roman floor, Hellenist period remains, a treasure of gold coins, as well as a central water drainage tunnel from the Second Temple period. We ventured down into the narrow, musty, underground shaft where we could see the foundation stones of the Western Wall. It left me thinking that every Jerusalem parking lot needs to be dug up.
The Greek Colony
Open House Jerusalem is a whole new experience on Shabbat. It’s a communal day where a kaleidoscope of people visit venues in their neighbourhood. I popped into the Open House locations around the German and Greek Colonies where I live. I discovered a quaint house that I often pass, on 3 Rachel Emeinu street, that was once a Greek doctor’s, it’s now maintained by the Greek community. I also entered The Greek Community centre, which is ten steps from our apartment. There I met the Greek carer, Alex, who lives on the property and proudly spoke about the long Greek history in Jerusalem, which hailed from the days of Alexander the Great.
The Templar Cemetery
One of the events I was especially looking forward to was a tour of the Templar Cemetery on Emek Refaim. I’ve walked by it a thousand times and have always wanted to go in. I discovered that it wasn’t just a Templar cemetery but it’s also an international cemetery with many empty spots.
The best place for a good story is a cemetery. The story began with our guide, a messianic Jew who grew up speaking Yiddish in Bnei Brak. I was captivated by the story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s daughter Dola, who is buried in the same grave as her Christian husband, Max Whittman. Another inspiring story was about the German Reverend who helped Jews escape Germany on illegal boats to Israel, one of them being the infamous Exodus. Stories upon stories buried in a graveyard opposite one of my favourite cafe’s in Jerusalem. Coffee is never going to taste the same there again.
I could go on about the places I canvassed at Open House Jerusalem. Anyone who has participated has their stories. From meeting their spouse (two marriages have taken place thanks to Open House Jerusalem), learning something astounding about the city they love, to feeling a sense of togetherness in a city which is perceived and reported upon as a seat of frenzied conflict and strife. What Open House exhibits is a city of peace, the true meaning and prayer of Jerusalem.