Till We Have Built Jerusalem

By – May 3, 2016

In Till We Have Built Jerusalem, Amer­i­can-born author Adi­na Hoff­man cre­ates a new genre: a mashup of cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal his­to­ry and intrigu­ing whodunit.

Hoff­man focus­es on three archi­tects who worked in ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Jerusalem: world-renown dis­placed Ger­man Jew­ish mod­ernist Eric Mendel­sohn; lit­tle-remem­bered Austen St. Barbe Har­ri­son, the Chief British gov­ern­ment archi­tect in Man­date Pales­tine; and the tan­ta­liz­ing­ly obscure (verg­ing on for­got­ten) local builder/​architect Spy­ro Houris.

Not much con­nects these men beyond their pro­fes­sion, their work­ing years (rough­ly 19201937), and the small­ish num­ber of Jerusalem build­ings they designed. Hoff­man, how­ev­er, sees them as pro­vid­ing over­lap­ping lens­es on the holy city: This book is an exca­va­tion in search of the traces of three Jerusalems and the sin­gu­lar builders who envi­sioned them.”

The chap­ter on Mendel­sohn presents a chilly per­fec­tion­ist flee­ing the Nazis, unmoored from his right­ful place as a lead­ing light of inter­na­tion­al archi­tec­ture. Much of Mendelsohn’s Jerusalem work was nev­er real­ized, but he did build a mod­ernist man­sion for pub­lish­er Salman Schock­en and part of a cam­pus for Hadas­sah Hos­pi­tal on Mount Sco­pus. The Mendel­sohn chap­ter explores Jew­ish Jerusalem of the 1930s, filled with the pol­i­tics of the Yishuv (Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Pales­tine) and rocked by Arab-Jew­ish unrest.

Austen Harrison’s sec­tion touch­es on Man­date Pales­tine from the British point of view. A mod­est, artis­tic, nom­i­nal­ly Chris­t­ian Eng­lish­man, Har­ri­son was fas­ci­nat­ed with Mid­dle East­ern archi­tec­ture and expressed it in land­marks that endure to this day — most notably the Rock­e­feller Muse­um of Near East­ern Antiq­ui­ties and the Cen­tral Post Office Build­ing in Jerusalem.

Hoffman’s third pro­file is filled with ques­tions about some­one with vir­tu­al­ly no paper trail — just a few hand­some Jerusalem homes and a set of com­mer­cial build­ings with stones inscribed Spy­ro Houris, Archi­tecte. Who was this man with the Greek first name and Arab sur­name? Why is there so lit­tle evi­dence of his once-flour­ish­ing prac­tice? In an infor­mal yet evoca­tive chap­ter focused main­ly on Hoffman’s posthu­mous man­hunt for Houris, we glimpse anoth­er Jerusalem — the eclec­tic, mul­ti­cul­tur­al city of Greek Ortho­dox monks and Armen­ian pot­ters, Cru­saders and Ottomans, Jew­ish archivists and Arab poets.

The book reveals much about Jerusalem’s roots. For exam­ple, until 1867 the city had been …lit­tle more than a hill­top vil­lage con­tained by a wall…a cramped, dark, dis­eased, and by most accounts foul-smelling place whose gates were locked at night.” Hoff­man also pro­vides unset­tling echoes of today, such as the 1921 rumors that Jew­ish inhab­i­tants planned to tear down the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque and build a new Tem­ple on the site.

The author, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Con­necti­cut, has writ­ten oth­er books on the Mid­dle East, includ­ing Win­dows: Por­traits from a Jerusalem Neigh­bor­hood and My Hap­pi­ness Bears No Rela­tion to Hap­pi­ness: A Poet’s Life in the Pales­tin­ian Cen­tu­ry. She clear­ly knows and loves this com­plex, con­found­ing city. Hoff­man also crafts wit­ty sen­tences, call­ing one British high com­mis­sion­er the much dec­o­rat­ed and extreme­ly mus­ta­chioed Field Mar­shall,” and describ­ing anoth­er as a proud con­nois­seur of his own con­nois­seur­ship.” She offers bit­ing assess­ments of not­ed con­tem­po­rary archi­tects Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie.

Iron­i­cal­ly for a pub­li­ca­tion high­light­ing archi­tec­ture, how­ev­er, lit­tle atten­tion is paid to visu­als. Pages are dot­ted with inter­est­ing pho­tographs, but many are too small. The pho­to cap­tions are in the back of the book, which forces read­ers to flip back and forth. And it is most unfor­tu­nate that no map is includ­ed, as it would have clar­i­fied the rela­tion­ship of build­ings and neigh­bor­hoods being discussed.

But Till We Have Built Jerusalem deliv­ers a rich por­trait of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry evo­lu­tion of the city, its his­to­ry and archi­tec­ture. Read­ers inter­est­ed in those top­ics will find much of val­ue in this deeply researched, thought­ful book.

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Far­rar, Straus & Giroux

  • Till We Have Built Jerusalem is a por­trait of three very dif­fer­ent archi­tects who helped to build the mod­ern city of Jerusalem. Each of them came from some­where else and brought with them cer­tain ideas about build­ing and life, even as they learned impor­tant things from the city itself. How would you describe what drew each archi­tect to come and work in this con­text? What were they look­ing for, and how did they learn from what they found there?

  • In the open­ing sec­tion, Beyond Jaf­fa Gate,” Adi­na Hoff­man writes of two dif­fer­ent dimen­sions to her expe­ri­ence of walk­ing around mod­ern Jerusalem. She describes what I see” and what I don’t see.” What does she mean by these terms in rela­tion to each oth­er and the city? What doesn’t she see, and why doesn’t she see it? What does she see? How is this sim­i­lar or dif­fer­ent from your own expe­ri­ence of walk­ing around and observ­ing the place where you live? Is Jerusalem unique in terms of what is vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble, or is what she’s describ­ing true of every city?

  • Why does Hoff­man char­ac­ter­ize the book as an exca­va­tion” at the end of this open­ing sec­tion? Where and how does this notion return through­out the book, and what is the effect of this image?

  • How would you char­ac­ter­ize Erich Mendel­sohn? What is his rela­tion­ship to build­ing in gen­er­al, and to build­ing in Pales­tine in par­tic­u­lar? How do the com­ments made by his wife, Luise, col­or your view of his char­ac­ter? How does the com­men­tary from oth­er peo­ple affect your sense of his per­son­al­i­ty and his approach to his work and to oth­er people?

  • This is a book about build­ing in a lit­er­al sense — about con­struc­tion in stone and mor­tar — but it’s a book about build­ing in oth­er ways as well. What oth­er sorts of build­ing are tak­ing place in the Jerusalem­strasse” sec­tion? Who are some of the oth­er builders at work here, and what is it that they hope to con­struct? How are their visions of what they’d like to build sim­i­lar to, or dif­fer­ent from, plans like Mendelsohn’s? Are these builders” able to con­struct what they’d envi­sioned? Was Mendel­sohn? Why or why not?

  • What is the basis of Mendelsohn’s cri­tique of many of the oth­er Euro­pean-born Jew­ish archi­tects work­ing in Pales­tine dur­ing his time there? How does he char­ac­ter­ize his visions for the archi­tec­tur­al future of the coun­try in con­trast to theirs? What would he like them to under­stand about the coun­try and the land­scape that he feels they don’t? How do his ideas about archi­tec­ture in this con­text relate to his polit­i­cal ideas about the future of the country?

  • How does pol­i­tics affect the process of build­ing through­out the book? What are the effects of cur­rent events” on the abil­i­ty of the three archi­tects to see their build­ing plans through? How does each of the archi­tects respond to these challenges?

  • Austen St. Barbe Har­ri­son is a very dif­fer­ent sort of char­ac­ter from Erich Mendel­sohn. How would you char­ac­ter­ize him in rela­tion to Mendel­sohn? How are the quo­ta­tions from his own let­ters tonal­ly dis­tinct from those Mendel­sohn wrote and which are quot­ed in the book? What does this tell you about him?

  • Con­sid­er the quote from the William Blake poem that appears on page 139. How does this relate to the sec­tion of the book about Har­ri­son, (“Beau­ti­ful Things Are Dif­fi­cult”), and how does it relate to the book as a whole? Why do you think the book has the title it does?

  • Both Mendel­sohn and Har­ri­son left Jerusalem. Why? Why do you think Har­ri­son uses the term escape” to describe his leav­ing? What made things so dif­fi­cult for him there?

  • In the course of the book, we meet var­i­ous sup­port­ing play­ers who have an impor­tant role to play. These include Salman Schock­en, Else Lasker-Schüler, Chaim Yassky, David Bomberg, Eric Gill, Heleni Efk­lides, Khalil Sakaki­ni, Yom-Tov Hamon, E. T. Rich­mond, David Ohan­ness­ian, and C. R. Ash­bee. What role do these dif­fer­ent fig­ures play in the sto­ry? How does this range of peo­ple from var­i­ous back­grounds affect your sense of Jerusalem’s his­to­ry and culture?

  • Why do you think Hoffman’s quest for the traces of Spy­ro Houris was so dif­fi­cult? What were the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges she faced in try­ing to unearth his his­to­ry that she did not face when writ­ing about Mendel­sohn and Har­ri­son? Are there cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, or per­son­al rea­sons that his foot­steps were so hard to follow?

  • Hoff­man sets out look­ing for Houris in the mid­dle of the Gaza War in the sum­mer of 2014. Why does the tim­ing of her search mat­ter? How does the pres­ence of the war in the back­ground affect her search for this for­got­ten fig­ure? Why do you think the last sec­tion, Where the Great City Stands,” lists two dates for its start­ing point: 1914 and 2014? What is impor­tant about 1914, and how does that relate to 2014?

  • If you were look­ing for some­one in your town or city who you knew had once been impor­tant but who had been almost entire­ly for­got­ten, where and how would you look? What kinds of records would you turn to? Who would you talk to? What oth­er meth­ods could you use to find her or him? How is a quest for some­one like Spy­ro Houris, in a city like Jerusalem, sim­i­lar or dif­fer­ent? Are there par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges to such a search in the con­text of the Mid­dle East?

  • How would you com­pare the kinds of papers left behind by fig­ures like Luise and Erich Mendel­sohn, Austen Har­ri­son, Ronald Storrs, Yom-Tov Hamon, and C. R. Ash­bee and those left by Spy­ro Houris? How have these papers been pre­served and why? How does the Rock Paper Scis­sors” epi­logue relate to this question?

  • How does Hoffman’s descrip­tion of Alexan­dria at the end of the book relate to Jerusalem? What is the con­nec­tion she is draw­ing between these two cities? What are the dan­gers she is warn­ing of?

  • How does the por­trait of the city in the book dif­fer from or relate to the ideas of Jerusalem that you had before read­ing the book? How does it relate to the image of the city that one finds in news­pa­pers? Were there things about Hoffman’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the city that sur­prised you?

  • The book focus­es on three archi­tects, not one or two. Why do you think this num­ber is impor­tant in rela­tion to Jerusalem? Would the book have had a dif­fer­ent effect if just two archi­tects were fea­tured? How would this alter the vision of the city that emerges from the book?