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Discovering Secular Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

More prominent than the Smadar, however, are the numerous coffee bars; one, the Coffee Mill, is owned by a pair of Chicago-born cousins, Debbie Katz and Rosie Nathan. The walls of the tiny outpost, which sells coffee and tea from all over the world, are blanketed with covers from The New Yorker. Across the street is a children’s music conservatory, and young mothers with strollers are everywhere you look. The sounds of someone expertly playing violin come out from one apartment and a breeze stirs the leaves on the trees that were planted by the German Templars. The old community house is still here with its apse, small bell cote, and green-painted front door, as is a cemetery behind a cluster of small homes set in gardens.

The next morning Steve and I went to see the residence of the late Nobel Prize–winning writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon in Talpiot, not far from the Industrial Zone. Agnon has special meaning to me not only because of his writerly gifts but also because he was a close friend of my maternal grandfather, Isaac Breuer, who started a religious political party in Palestine after he moved there and eventually had a street named in his honor. Agnon himself remained an observant Jew throughout his life; the synagogue he helped establish in Jerusalem was named for him after his death. When he and his wife stopped in New York on their way to Sweden, I went with my mother to pick them up for Friday night dinner at our apartment. I can still remember the excitement I felt at being in the presence of literary greatness. Although it would be years before my Hebrew was good enough to delve into Agnon’s stories and novels for myself, I understood him to be a rare spirit, steeped in the religious training of his background while also immersing himself in contemporary culture.

As luck would have it, Agnon’s home has just been extensively renovated and reopened to the public. It is a modest house, built in 1931 in a pared-down version of the Bauhaus style by a German-born architect who lived across the street. Unlike most of the houses in the city, it was not built of stone—the law that required this was not yet in effect in this neighborhood when it was planned—but is instead covered with a light-colored plaster. Its narrow windows are hidden behind metal latticework, giving the building a fortified appearance. Agnon’s study takes up the entire second story and includes an impressive library filled with thousands of volumes, ranging from books of Jewish learning from the 16th and 17th centuries to works by Freud and Harry Stack Sullivan and copies of Peer Gynt and Tom Jones. There is a green tiled floor and a lectern at which Agnon often wrote standing up, in the manner of Virginia Woolf. On his desk are a shoehorn, a bottle opener, and a Remington typewriter. The whole atmosphere is very casual, with few guards or roped-off areas or explanatory notices in sight; if you felt like walking off with Agnon’s beer opener, no one would stop you. I found myself thinking how different the Israeli approach to officialness of any sort is from the American or European approach, such that stepping into the house of one the greatest Hebrew writers of novels and short stories feels less like an auspicious occasion and more like stopping by to visit an old, bookish uncle.

The ideal of Jerusalem as a renaissance city inspired Teddy Kollek, the mayor from 1965 to 1993—a man who is often referred to as “the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod.” One of Kollek’s first projects after he took office was the creation of the Israel Museum, whose buildings cover 540,000 square feet and which is the country’s largest cultural institution. As James Snyder, the museum’s director since 1997, told me: “Teddy, in 1965, decided there would be a national museum that would in short order be on a par with the world’s leading museums.” It has recently undergone an ambitious $100 million renovation, and reopened in its entirety last July.

Snyder, who was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 22 years before he came to the Israel Museum, says he took the appointment mostly on the basis of its location. “I’m not sure I would’ve come,” he said, “if it were in Tel Aviv.” Snyder refers to Jerusalem’s “secret subtext”—its “fluctuating intercommunal fabric”—which gives it an international flavor that he finds lacking in Tel Aviv and that is reflected in the museum’s far-ranging collection of nearly 500,000 objects, dating from the 12th century B.C. to Damien Hirst. Together we walked through the exquisitely designed Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world. At this point Snyder left me to take a stroll in the museum’s Billy Rose Art Garden, designed by the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, where I wandered among sculptures by Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Menashe Kadishman, and Auguste Rodin, all set against the dramatic Jerusalem backdrop.

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