Interpreting a Place: Is the City a Talmudic Book?

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June 1, 2012
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David Stoleru

Recently, I chanced upon a very interesting program about the power of consciousness. A Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto, photographed the molecular structure of water in a bottle. He established the experiment with the water a few times, each time writing a few different words on the bottle: “I love you,” “I hate you,” “beauty.” The physical structure of the water profoundly changed with the different words: As the words “I hate you” were written on the bottle, the crystals were disordered and one choked the other; as the word “beauty” appeared on the bottle, a fantastic molecular shape appeared.

The experiment reminded me of the power of words in Jewish tradition, and concepts such as “shmirat halashon” (guarding one’s tongue, or speech).

I started thinking about place. Is a place transformed by the events that happen in it? Does place include the memory of historical situations?

I worked as an architect on the preservation of heritage sites, and the idea that memory shapes place has informed much of my work. The reality of a place is the sum of the different moments and histories that occurred in it. The role of the architect is to reveal the true essence of a place by creating a subtle connection among past, present, and future.

Heritage sites are built of many layers, each of them related to different parts of the local culture. Today, such places play an essential role in relation to the development of an inclusive identity. They offer opportunities for people to understand how diverse cultures can be connected through public space, and for people to experience the relationship of contemporary society to its history.

With the support of several foundations, I’ve recently launched an educational project that proposes to turn heritage sites into places of study, reflection, and meeting — creating activities for students from Jewish and non-Jewish schools around Europe. The basic concept asks: How might meaningful historical places speak about the present rather than the past?

In Paris, we worked on the fringes of the Jewish area known as the Marais, finding points of intersection between Asiatic immigration and the local gay area. We also worked in the ghetto in Barcelona and the Isola Tiberina in Rome. Every site led to new questions, all related to the Jewish experience of place, life, and society.

The Beit Project (thebeitproject.org) offers a form of chevruta study (partnered learning in which each student brings his or her own interpretation of a text) for children from different backgrounds who reside in a shared urban space. The children first create a sense of ownership of the place by building a nomadic school made of units that they will assemble and transform into a house of study, or beit midrash. They begin to understand the place through the research of any tangible and intangible traces of history they find, as well as through the extraction of concepts in the shadows of historical moments.

Then, the students begin to interpret those concepts in relation to contemporary situations. This interpretation of the place leads to a dialogue as the students engage peers and elders in interviews.

The word “beit” (or “bayit”) means “house,” and is often combined with other words to refer to various places: “beit sefer” means “house of the book” and refers to a school; “beit knesset” means “house of community” and refers to the synagogue. These designations include a notion of proximity with certain public places that propose a meaningful relationship with the urban environment.

This project promotes a new perspective on place, one that understands heritage as a complex set of relationships in which the site is only one visible aspect. The preservation of a site, then, becomes an opportunity to enable educational interactions and practices rather than creating a design of a fixed, enduring, or inactive object. We generally think of preservation as the conservation of a building or artifact. But preservation should be construed as a verb. We should emphasize the use of a heritage site as a platform to raise awareness of how contemporary society links its past, present, and future.

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David Stoleru lives in Barcelona, Spain. He is the founder and director of thebeitproject.org, a collaborative study project at Jewish historical sites in Europe.

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