For the Jewish Chronicle published October 5 2018
Every visitor to the Old City of Jerusalem must wish that he or she could take endless photographs, to try to capture the essence of the area.
So often, that essential image escapes us — and we are never there for long enough.
Rejoice then, in the luxurious privilege of photographer Michal Safdie, whose stunning book of photographs, Under My Window, has just been published.
Safdie, who is almost never without a camera in her hand or one very close by, has produced an extraordinary record of the sights and sense of Jerusalem — and all of these pictures were taken on a camera, perched on a tripod and placed in the window of her family’s exquisitely-sited apartment.
As she explains: “Perched up on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, along the fragile border between the Jewish and Muslim Quarters, is our home. My husband Moshe was one of the architects responsible for the renovation of the Jewish Quarter following the unification of the city in 1967. At that time, his involvement led to the opportunity to restore a ruin, that became our house. Facing east, it overlooks the Temple Mount and the Western Wall precinct, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the Mount of Olives and the Augusta Victoria Hospital behind them.
“To the north unfolds the Muslim Quarter, with Mount Scopus in the skyline; to the west, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Christian Quarter”.
Safdie, who divides her time between Jerusalem and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has an enviable bird’s-eye view from each part of her home. But the main focus of the book is on the people of Jerusalem, the strictly Orthodox, the soldiers, Jews, Muslims, Christians and tourists, old and young, who pass through the alleyway under her window, day and night.
With the camera as her silent partner, Safdie has captured some extraordinary moments. Here, for example, is a picture of young armed soldiers, apparently chatting amicably with two strictly Orthodox Jews, draped in kaftans and tallitot. It’s hard to tell if there’s much difference in their ages, too.
Or here is a picture for which Safdie’s husband woke her in the middle of the night, saying there was something down below which she ought to see. It is a rabbi’s “tisch”, a celebratory meal presided over by a rabbi and attended by dozens of his students. It looks, Safdie says accurately, as though she has stumbled into a Rembrandt painting.
I wondered if those whose faces Safdie had caught on camera had ever been aware of what she was doing. “It’s a very sensitive issue for me”, she says. “I witnessed a lot of personal and intimate moments, some of which I decided not to include in the book. But sometimes people did look up, and they saw me. I saw, for instance, a group of Palestinian men praying under my window, the first time in 40 years I had seen Muslims praying in the Jewish Quarter piazza. It was late at night, and I felt at one with them. And one of the men lifted his head — and we acknowledged each other”. Safdie has worked on these particular images for about four years, although she has been a photographer for a lot longer. But she was frustrated at her initial attempt to put this book together. “I thought I had a story after about a year, but when I looked at what I had it looked like a publication from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism”.
She decided that she had to give some context to her pictures, “to show the architecture, the alleyways, the piazzas.” Hundreds of people pass through the area on a daily basis, whether it is “Palestinians making their way to their workplaces, schools, and markets… Christians [going] to the Holy Sepulchre… Muslim pilgrims during Ramadan, and other holidays, on their way to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). It is also the path connecting Jews residing in the Jewish Quarter and the western part of the city to the Kotel.
“My window over this spot is like a premium box in an opera house, overlooking the stage — displaying a constant performance of the theatre of life of Jerusalem”.
So Safdie is able to show “public faces and private spaces”, and “the friction between Israeli and Israeli, between nationalists and Zionists, between the secular and the religious”.
And she is never short of subject matter. One day, during “one of the Gaza wars”, she watched a Palestinian child carrying a toy rocket on his shoulder, together with his traditionally dressed mother, on their way back from their morning prayer at Al-Aqsa on the last day of Ramadan.
On another afternoon Safdie observed “two young Palestinian boys, sitting on the edge of a planter, chatting”. One was demonstrating to the other how he was handcuffed when arrested.
Late on in the day, there is a “shidduch date” on a bench in the alley, as two profoundly shy young Orthodox Jews, a bouquet of flowers between them, tentatively explore the beginning of a relationship. On another occasion the same bench is a platform for a young secular couple, engaged in a passionate embrace — two couples who could not be more unalike and yet are all fodder for Safdie’s clear-eyed view.
Often there are striking snapshots of hundreds of people in front of the Kotel — Orthodox men celebrating a festival, or young soldiers who have just graduated and are solemnly pledging their service to the country.
If she has a central message in the book, Safdie says, “it is to show the complexity of living around the holy places. There is a such a convergence of different communities, their daily lives and how they all, somehow, live together.”
Though Massachusetts is really the Safdies’ main home, they travel back and forth to Jerusalem every couple of months.
She admits that the family constantly discusses the possibility of selling the Jerusalem apartment. “But I don’t think I will ever give it up”, she says. “We live in the pulse of the world”.
Under My Window by Michal Safdie is published by PowerHouse Books