Archive for June, 2014

Where good health is next to godliness

June 22, 2014

Faith and healing have been intertwined throughout Jerusalem’s history. Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis—a new, thematic exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, inside the Old City walls—reveals some of the sublime and grotesque examples of that link in the Holy City.

Take, for example, the caduceus, two intertwined snakes on a stick, that has come to symbolize healing and the medical profession. Westerners usually think of the symbol as Greek, but it actually dates back to third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the serpent as a life-healing symbol was commonly found in the Canaanite fertility cult.

In the exhibition we learn about the Nehushtan, a sacred object in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. The name of the object is a play on the Hebrew words for snake (nahash) and bronze (nehoshet). The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were afflicted by a plague of serpents because of their lack of faith, and it describes how Moses used a “fiery serpent”—a snake on a pole—to cure them (Numbers 21:4–9).

Later, the Nehushtan was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when it became an object of worship in its own right for its purported ability to cure sickness, King Hezekiah—the anti-idolatry reformer—tore it down (II Kings 18:4).

According to Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director, Jerusalem’s historical connection to healing is largely a function of its being a city of pilgrimage. Medical services had to be provided for the faithful who flocked to the holy sites. And this city, where there has long been strife between the religions, was the only place, Lieber said, where each hospital provided services for members of all religions.

But hospitals in Jerusalem were also used for missionary purposes. On display is a podium that stood in front of the Anglican Hospital in the city center. To attract Jewish patients, the podium is adorned with a Star of David, and the hospital made it known that it served kosher food to patients. But the rabbis threatened the hospital’s suppliers of kosher meat and forbade Jews to seek treatment in Christian hospitals.

According to Lieber, a story is told of a Jewish woman in the nineteenth century who fell in the street just outside the missionary hospital next to Christ Church and was brought inside for treatment. She subsequently died there, and after she was brought to Jewish burial her body was exhumed by extremists who claimed that she might have converted to Christianity in the hospital.

Jerusalem is home to a thriving pharmaceutical company, Teva, which began as a small business started by the Salomon family. All pharmaceutical developments in the city were based on plants growing in this hilly area, Lieber said, and the Franciscan order of monks had the city’s first pharmacy. In the eighteenth century, when the city was beset by bubonic plague, a Franciscan monk named Antonio Menzani di Cuna concocted a remedy from forty-two Jerusalem herbs that was dubbed “Jerusalem balsam.” The list of ingredients and jars like those seen in an early photograph of the pharmacy are on display. A version of the remedy is still produced ( and marketed as a cure-all.

When, in 1860, Moses Montefiore built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, no one wanted to move there, according to exhibition curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa. It took the cholera epidemic of 1865 to spur interest in the new neighborhood.

But epidemics continued to beset the city. At the time, there was a Jewish belief that a “black wedding” could help. Two orphans, or two other individuals who could not afford a wedding, would be married under a black canopy in a cemetery, with the hope that the righteous dead interred around them would act as intercessors with God. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 photograph showing such a wedding of two Yemenite orphans, and the young groom appears so terrified that he has started running away.

The real answer to epidemics, of course, came in the form of modern hospitals. By the middle of the nineteenth century Jerusalem had three Jewish hospitals: Bikur Cholim, Misgav Ladach, and Meir Rothschild. Shaare Zedek opened in 1902; Dr. Moshe Wallach, who was strictly Orthodox, was its director until 1947 and lived there all his life, speaking only Yiddish or German. Records were kept in German, and on display is a page from a ledger during a typhoid outbreak showing, in neat German script, that twenty-five of the twenty-seven patients listed had a diagnosis of typhoid.

To this day, the hospital is run according to stringent Orthodox law and custom, though it is open to all Jerusalem residents (I gave birth to three children there), and although Wallach adopted a young Syrian girl who was abandoned there by her father.

According to Lieber, a story is told about a sick man who was brought in a carriage to Dr. Wallach on the Sabbath. After asking the man what was wrong, Wallach told him to wait until the Sabbath was over. The man died. Consequently, the rabbis excommunicated Wallach, then rescinded the excommunication. The true import of the incident was that it forced Jerusalem’s rabbis to clarify what was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life.

In 1888, the Rothschild Hospital relocated to what is today the center of modern Jerusalem, and in 1918 the Hadassah organization established the American Zionist Medical Unit, which took over the hospital. In 1925, when the hospital’s founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, made his last visit to Jerusalem at the age of eighty, the staff presented him with an album showing all the departments in the hospital. On the cover is an image of Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah organization.

One photograph in the album is of the hospital’s X-ray room, with a plaque stating it was dedicated to the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew, who died of tuberculosis. X-rays were used to diagnose this illness, which was common at the time. In addition to the album, which is on loan from the Rothschild Archives in England, the exhibition includes an X-ray machine—with a US Field Army label on it—similar to the one used in Hadassah. As is evident from the photograph, the dangers of exposure to X-rays were not yet well known, and neither patients nor staff were protected against them. Today Hadassah is a medical empire with two large hospitals and schools of medicine, nursing, and dentistry.

Some 300 objects, many of which have never been shown to the public, are on display in this, the largest exhibition the museum has ever undertaken. The exhibition and related tours will run through April 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.





Dying for Love and Beauty: La Traviata at Masada

June 13, 2014

The moon shone brightly as more than 7,500 people came Wednesday night to Masada, on the shores of the Dead Sea, for the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the moment, the desert had disappeared, and they found themselves in a reception area that evoked a Parisian street—complete with a boulangerie, brasserie, and charcuterie and arches suggesting the Arc de Triomphe. That was part of the magic of the Opera Festival at Masada, now in its fifth year. Only after tasting the delights of this transported milieu did the audience enter the glittering and colorful, but ultimately tragic, world of the demi-monde.

The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, is young, vital, and beautiful, with an unusual capacity for self-sacrifice. But she is La Traviata (the fallen one), a kept woman. Hers was a position characteristic of mid 19th century France. And Violetta has consumption, another characteristic ill of the 19th century, especially of 19th-century heroines. To make everything worse, after she has given up her life of luxury to be with Alfredo, the man she loves, his father arrives to break up the relationship. After many complications, without which no opera could get by, and just as true love is about to triumph, Violetta dies.
There was a real-life Violetta named Marie Duplessis, who by the age of 17 was one of the most sought-after women in Paris. She also hosted a salon, where artists, writers, and politicians gathered. In 1844 an affair began between Duplessis and Alexandre Dumas fils, the poor and illegitimate son of the writer Alexandre Dumas. Realizing after a year that he could never have her all to himself, he ended the affair. She died of consumption two years later, at 23.
A few months after her death, Dumas fils wrote a novel based on their affair, La Dame aux Camelias, and after its success he turned it into a play. That became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera.
The role of Violetta, as sung by Aurelia Florian, is one of sheer beauty and memorable arias, for example, Ah, fors’è lui (Ah, perhaps he is the one). But opera is spectacle, and besides the many haunting arias and duets there were festive party scenes with the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Kielce Dance Theater in lavish, LED-lit costumes designed by Joanna Medynska. In one party scene the women wore skirts that consisted of colorful streamers hanging from the hip on a hoop.
And, of course, there were fireworks, and fire, and horses, and wagons, and acrobats on stilts—all the things that make opera fun for the masses. Looming behind the sparkling stage, like a harbinger of Violetta’s death, was the mountain itself, with its 2,000-year-old fortress and palace.
Daniel Oren, who has conducted all the opera productions at Masada, each time with the Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, had this to say about the experience: “Year after year I stand in awe in front of this powerful and majestic mountain and sense in my very being the pure harmony between nature and music in a country like Israel which is full of traditions yet in which the opera tradition is still young.”
La Traviata was the first opera ever presented in pre-state Israel. That was in July 1923, in Tel Aviv. It was first performed by the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera in May 1987.
This was the fourth time in five years that the Israeli Opera Festival returned to Masada. Previously, the festival featured Nabucco, Aïda, and Carmen, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from Israel and abroad. These expensive productions involve trucking in many tons of equipment over winding roads, in essence setting up an entire “city” for backstage workers, extras, and the performers themselves, plus the themed reception area—all of which must be dismantled and rebuilt anew.
This year’s festival will extend to Acco, in the north of the country, with an all-Mozart program, including Don Giovanni, Requiem, and an abbreviated version in Hebrew (for the entire family) of The Magic Flute.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. The image is by Yossi Zwecker, copyright 2014 by the Israeli Opera.