Community outdoor library in memory of Rabbi Isaac Goss z”l enriches historic Jerusalem neighbourhood

The new Talpiot-Arnona street library

The historic neighbourhood of Talpiot-Arnona in the south of Jerusalem celebrated its centenary this year.

Situated on a promontory overlooking the city and the Dead Sea, Talpiot-Arnona was built in the 1920s by architect Richard Kauffman as an upscale garden suburb.

It attracted intellectual and cultural icons, becoming home to the likes of Joseph Klausner, historian and professor remembered for creating the Encyclopedia Hebraica; Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, often seen as the driving force behind the modernisation of the Hebrew language; and Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Agnon, father of modern Hebrew literature and winner of the 1966 Nobel prize for literature.

Architect Michelle Frankel, who made aliya from Johannesburg in 1993, and has lived in Talpiot for some years, recounts that three years ago, “There was this group of volunteers that became interested in doing something for the neighbourhood… We needed a library, a street library.”

“Every year the irya (municipality) gives a modest grant to neighbourhood projects and initiatives, through an organisation called Placemaking. Anyone can write a proposal and apply. My friend Tzippi Moss came up with the idea to make a street library, because after all Talpiot was well-known as a place where many intellectuals and writers had lived, and still do. We had the idea to ‘brand’ our neighbourhood as the neighbourhood of the book.”

“So we wrote a proposal, and were given money with which to build the first library. We wanted to make it out of old books, so we ran a campaign for people to donate books that would not likely be used again. It functioned well and exceeded all our expectations. At the time there were a few street libraries built in Jerusalem, but ours in particular became a hub in the neighbourhood and was very well used.”

Frankel continues, “The neighbourhood volunteer group had been aware of the fact that our old library had to be replaced. We threw around a couple of ideas, pretty half-heartedly. Nothing was happening, so I took the initiative by asking my friend and ex-business partner Lewis Levin if he would be interested. I had been mulling over this idea for some time, knowing that he had designed the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, with donations and community involvement; and also that he specialised in sculptural metal structures.

“When I was in The Netherlands (where he lives), I mentioned it to him. He was interested and so I brought him to see the existing library, introduced him to everyone and brought him on board.”

We applied again — this time with Lewis on board. We sent a proposal to Placemaking, broadening the scope of what we wanted to do, and offering to supplement the grant with fundraising.

Lewis came up with the idea of making this library a tribute to his former teacher, Johannesburg educator and visionary, the late Rabbi Isaac Goss, who invented the ‘day school’ movement in the 30s and 40s. Rabbi Goss believed that Jews should have a national/religious education — day-school — and that they should be well-versed in their knowledge of Jewish culture, texts and religion, while still receiving a well-rounded western education. He is famously quoted as follows: ‘If you only know about Judaism, then you do not even know about Judaism.’

Through his education, Levin credits Goss with “bringing Agnon and Klausner and Ben-Yehuda to South Africa,” making this architectural project one of nostalgia and great personal significance.

After contact with a group of South Africans who were looking for a way to memorialise Rabbi Goss, and by contacting his son, funding was secured and the project became a reality.

A particular interest in fabrication and sustainability informed the design, which comprises modular components made of renewable and durable materials such as bamboo, steel and anodised aluminium. These parts were fabricated in South Africa, making use of the expertise, technological capabilities, affordability and access to materials that exist here. They were then shipped to Israel where they were assembled on site in time for the official opening that formed part of the neighbourhood’s centenary celebrations.

The library has become a vibrant centre for community involvement, acting as a meeting point for people to come and read, drink coffee, socialise, hold arts and craft activities, concerts, talks, and birthday parties. Day-to-day maintenance is provided by locals who demonstrate their sense of ownership by showing up unbidden to clean glass, sweep floors and tidy and organise the books every day.

Frankel says, “We have made a setting for things to happen… It was designed with the geometry around this tree so that you can sit there and feel like you’re in an outside space. I want to see how this is going to develop organically. How do people inhabit the space? What do they do? That’s up to the community. One of the main ideas of doing a ‘kit of parts’ was to develop a durable model that could be replicated elsewhere, especially in neighbourhoods that are less privileged. I have an actual specific social agenda with this because I think literacy and reading are such a central part of who we are.”

This project was made possible with the help of donors Bridget Sherman, Colin Schachat, Monty Hilkovitz, David Goss, Leon Welcher, David Friedland, Mark Todes and Lewis Levin. (There was also a community initiative to raise money locally). Thanks also to Donovan Dymond, George Williams of Woodspec, and Andy Page of Moso Bamboo.

Photos by Shai HaLevi. Find out more about the Talpiot-Arnona street library facebook page • Michelle Frankel: website and instagram • Lewis Levin: instagram

• Published in the PDF edition of the October 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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