History and Culture

Jerusalem’s ugliest building (hint: it’s not the Holyland)

The Amir Center in Jerusalem

For years, whenever I have driven down King George Street, near the Great Synagogue and the Leonardo (formerly Sheraton) Plaza Hotel, the building at the corner with Agron Street has pained me – a tremendously ugly, 7-story, dilapidated monstrosity that I have waited patiently for some announcement of its pending demolition that never comes.

And now I learn that the building was not only once considered a paradigm of daring optimism and ”modernity,” but the architect behind it has become one of the most celebrated in the country’s history.

That’s not to say that the Amir Center (as the building is officially called) won’t someday be torn down to build another luxury apartment tower; other high-rise buildings have already been approved in its immediate surroundings. But a retrospective, almost loving article in today’s Haaretz may temper those ambitions.

In 1958, architect David Resnick was asked to design a new residential building at the intersection in question. In an interview, he praised its innovations, which broke out of the classic Jerusalem Stone look and feel to splash a dose of modernist paint on the city. The Amir Center was built on a large 10 dunam plaza, its 7 floors propped up on stilts, with a Supersol supermarket (the first in Jerusalem) down below.

While Resnick was pleased with his creation (it even won an award in 1963 for technological innovation), the building was immediately dubbed “Jerusalem’s ugliest building” in street interviews that took place at the time, Haaretz reports.

That controversy, however, helped raise Resnick’s public visibility, and the architect went on design such more acclaimed Jerusalem landmarks as the dome shaped synagogue on Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, the Mormon Center on Mount Scopus and the Van Leer Institute, among many other always-modernist style projects.

That said, Resnick admits that the Amir Center has been “modified” beyond its original clean lines: residents have enclosed balconies, added unattractive air conditioning units. Indeed, Resnick says “When I walk past the building today, I look the other way. I can’t bear to see what they did to it.

The city is promoting a plan where a contractor is given the rights to build an extra floor or two at no cost provided the residents’ current living space is upgraded (including making it earthquake proof). But the building’s shell, apparently, isn’t strong enough to bear the additional weight, so for now, it’s either demolish or stay ugly.

While “to date no plan has been formulated or submitted,” according to a municipality spokesperson, Resnick would undoubtedly be opposed. “The question of nice or not nice is irrelevant,” he says. “I think that the Israeli establishment does not understand what architecture is and its importance to the state.”

In another 50 years, will they be talking this way about the Holyland project too?


Castration Clinic

Monty: before

At first glance, it looks like any other veterinarian’s office. Pictures of dogs and cats on the walls, efficient and busy animal doctors flitting around in blue cotton smocks. But the pets coming this morning to the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSPCA) in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone all had one thing in common: they were about to get snipped.

That’s because the JSPCA specializes in sterilization: spaying for females, neutering for males. It also has the lowest price in town, NIS 438, a good 25% less than our regular vet. You can get the job done for even cheaper if you want to schlep out to Atarot – only NIS 300. The Atarot facility also doubles as a rescue shelter.

The animal in question was our Maltese, Monty. “But he’s just a puppy,” the kids cried out when we told them of our plan to introduce Monty to the joys of sexual ambiguity. The kids were right about his age: Monty’s one-year birthday is coming up at the end of February. And there is a school of thought – dismissed by all the best selling dog trainers in their books – that a male dog should have the chance once in his life to copulate, while girl dogs should have at least one litter.

The problem is that the offspring of those unions more often than not end up at the pound where they’re likely to be put down. So, letting your dog sow his wild oats could be a death sentence for the resulting puppies.

For male dogs there are even better reasons. High testosterone levels lead to a greater chance of testicular cancer. Males also have a tendency of charging into the street to chase females in heat, another potentially fatal move. Plus neutering makes dogs less aggressive. The best age to neuter, the experts say, is between 5-7 months. Protestations from the children aside, our mind was made up.

Still, I was a bit put off by the vet’s first words to me. “He’s here for a castration?” he said in wobbly English. “Well, we prefer to call it ‘neutering,’” I replied somewhat testily (must have been the testosterone). “But he’s so young,” the doctor then added. Hey – are you reading the same books I am, dude?

“He should be done after noon. We’ll call you.”

A few hours later, we picked Monty up. He barely acknowledged us; the anesthesia was still wearing off. For the next couple of days, he dragged around the house looking pained, both physically and undoubtedly broken hearted for the breech of trust (OK, he’s a dog, he probably just didn’t feel well).

But then I had a thought. What about the royal eunuchs who worked the palaces in days gone by? Perhaps there might still be a bright future for Monty serving in the court of a golden retriever or a greyhound. In some cases, less could very well be more.


Snake vs. kid – snake loses head, kid wins

Imad and his dad (without the snake)

Indiana Jones famously didn’t like snakes. Neither, apparently, did a one-year-old baby in Israel: he bit off its head and killed it.

The kid is Imad Gadir from Shfaram. At some point in the early hours of the morning, little Imad noticed a “coin snake” in his bedroom. Whether acting out of some self-defense instinct or just being curious, Imad put the snake in his mouth and took a nice bite.

As Imad is only one, he isn’t telling whether the snake was tasty or not, but his mother certainly had another opinion. According to Ynet, mom said, “I went to the kitchen to get him some milk, and when I came back I saw he was already eating.” She then “screamed until the neighbors came.”

Imad’s grandpa Shaheen added, “”It wasn’t a pretty sight. He’s a baby, he didn’t know what he was doing. He thought it was a game.”

“Luckily for him, the coin snake isn’t poisonous, otherwise it could have ended in a tragedy,” Ynet quoted veteran snake catcher Eli Cohen. This type of reptile chokes his prey, Cohen added. “If it was a bigger snake, the boy could have been strangled.”

Unless Indiana Jones conquered his fears, swooped in on a rope and saved the boy. In the meantime, we’re happy that Imad hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.


Olive pit spitting: don’t try this at home, kids

Pit spitting in Spain

If its organizers were not so earnest, this would definitely qualify for the world’s wackiest competitive sport: olive pit spitting. Yes, there is an association, the International Federation of Olive Pit Spitting that operates out of Spain and is promoting pit spitting to be included as an official sport at the next Olympics.

Now, Israel is getting in the game. The Givat Brenner Pickled Olive Festival has invited the pit spitting federation to come to Israel and run our first official contest. Israel21c’s Viva Sarah Press reports that event is scheduled for February 10-11, 2012 at the Givat Brenner Nurseries.

Now before you fire up the TV and play Monty Python’s “Spot the Loony” game, consider this: olive pit spitting may go back to the stone age. According to the federation, prehistoric cave paintings depicting the sport were found in the Spanish city of Cieza; the town would like the pictures to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right…

Archaeologists speculate that the competitions moved from caves to villages and, by the time of the Greeks, were even proposed for the Olympic games (they lost to the Discus Throwing Competition). The pit spitting website also goes into great detail about how the sport was banned (Islam didn’t much care for it, so Christians needed to play clandestinely).

The rules for a pit spitting competition are remarkably detailed. Participants with false teeth are recommended to “fix them well into place…the organization will not be held responsible for any injuries.” Ditto if “a participant experiences abdominal pain caused by a massive ingestion of stones,” or if a stone hits someone on the head (that spitter will also be disqualified). And just to be sure, the rules state that there must be no sexism – men and women are invited to compete in full equality.

As for the Israeli competition, our Sabra newbies have their work cut out for them. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the number one spit projectile at 21.32 meters.

As they used to say on television: “don’t try this at home kids.”


Internet medicine is coming: doctors protest

In my last post, I wrote about how I managed to get an MRI done in a hurry by arranging it in Beer Sheva, rather than Jerusalem where I live. The trip was a schlep, but the best part of the experience was actually after the fact.

Rather than needing to call the hospital for the results and then have them faxed to me, I was given a website, username and password and told to simply log in a week later, where my MRI information would all be online. I am happy to report that the system worked as promised.

It’s not the first time I’ve been able to handle medical issues via my computer in Israel. I can routinely check the results of blood tests – they’re updated in real time – and I can also request and receive permission for a referral to a specialist and even make appointments without ever picking up the phone.

Sounds like Israel’s HMOs are finally getting their digital act together. Which was why I was rather surprised to open the morning paper and discover that doctors and the Israel Association of Family Physicians were loudly protesting increased use of the Internet for the very functions I’ve found so useful. The reason: it’s likely to “downgrade the professional status” of doctors.

The complaints so far are being directed at the Clalit HMO, probably following a very public advertising campaign to raise awareness among the public of the new services being offered. Clalit is the nation’s largest HMO with 3.9 million insurees.

Listen to what some of the doctors quoted in the article are saying: “You no longer have to go to the doctor – the clerk in the branch will do what you ask via the Internet.” How is that a bad thing? It saves time for both the patient and physician.

And “this campaign and others continue to destroy the image of the expert family doctor, which was created with great effort – the doctor who specialized for years and is a professional in his field and provides good medical care for his patients.” Oh really, how exactly do you spoil the image of the gruff, abrupt Israeli doctor with no observable bedside manners? Sure, the Internet has no bedside manner, but you don’t expect it to.

The physician’s association was more measured. “There is room for online work alongside a family doctor, as well as for the use of various technologies, but… there should be limitations.” That is, “Internet medicine is good when it’s done in moderation.

Look, no one is saying that a website can replace a doctor entirely, heaven forbid! If my Internet service provider says cough or bend over, I’m making sure that I’m still on the Israelity site and not some “other” URL. Still, anyone who has ever waited hours in a cold Israeli HMO clinic fighting with the other patients over who was there first (“I was after him” is as common at the doctor’s office as in the line in the supermarket), increased computerization is the last thing I’d want stifled.

A Clalit spokesperson got it right: “We have to suit the service to a new generation that wants quick answers and quick service. Medicine is no different from other services, such as those of an electric company or a bank….why can you get forms on the Internet today from any government institution, and only in medicine will people have to continue visiting the clinic and waiting in line? In such a situation, the patient will also develop greater responsibility for his health.”

The services offered by Clalit are still rather limited and can always be superseded by a doctor’s request – for example, in many cases you can renew a prescription automatically over the web, but the doctor can insist the patient come in for an appointment first.

The real revolution – and the one the doctors probably fear the most – is when the HMOs start providing complete transparent access to your entire medical records. Imagine the whining that will arise when you or I can actually see what our doctors have written about us – entirely unmediated by the professional judgment of an inflexible stethoscope.

Clalit hopes to launch the new service by the middle of 2012. Physician: heal thyself.