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For the past few weeks each time I entered the YMCA for my weekly French class I was confronted by the sight of a slim woman sitting at a table beside the entrance, totally engrossed in her work. On closer inspection, I found that she was writing what is known as micrography around the edge of a large sheet of paper, her tiny handwriting amazingly legible. Beside her were several books in English, and her work involves turning sections of these texts into beautiful, handwritten art.

When I finally plucked up courage and asked her what she was doing and why, she seemed only too happy to interrupt her work and talk to me. Her friendly demeanour and readiness to describe the undertaking behind her presence here in Israel captured my interest immediately, and as we talked the minutes simply flew past until it was time for me to enter the classroom. As I later discovered, micrography, which is a traditional Jewish art form, evolved in the 9th century as a form of decoration which does not contravene the Second Commandment. Originally Hebrew letters were used, although today it has parallels in Christianity and Islam.

Together with three other artists from various disciplines, Diane Samuels, who is from Pittsburgh, is spending ten weeks in Israel under the aegis of the American Academy in Jerusalem as part of a 10-week fellowship for distinguished artists, architects, and planners from abroad. The Academy seeks to help strengthen the city of Jerusalem as a vibrant, pluralistic center of arts and culture, and is under the aegis of the Foundation for Jewish Culture. The Foundation invests in creative individuals in order to nurture a vibrant and enduring Jewish identity, culture and community, stressing the importance of Jewish culture as a core component of Jewish life.

At a lecture-cum-presentation given earlier this week at the American Center in Jerusalem by Diane and her partner, former businessman Henry Reese, the audience was treated to a talk interspersed with a series of clips describing the philanthropic project, City of Asylum, which the couple has established in Pittsburgh. The concept parallels similar projects in other cities, but is unique in being financed solely on a private basis, with no government or university funding (as is the case with the other projects).

Originally, Diane and Henry bought a crumbling house in their neighbourhood, refurbished it and made it available to a writer in exile who had been persecuted for his work in China, his country of origin. The writer in question, the poet Huang Xiang, also painted his poems in Chinese characters on the outside of the house. When asked by local children to recite one of his poems he launched into a spirited rendition of one about a tiger, causing his audience to ask for more, and eventually leading to public performances of his work. From the clip we were shown we could understand the children’s enthusiasm.

In the framework of the project, the individual writer, together with his or her family, is able to stay in the house rent-free for two years, and is given an annual living stipend of $30,000, medical benefits and assistance in transitioning to exile, the goal being to help the writer become stable and self-supporting. If necessary, the writer is able to stay on in the house after the initial two-year period, in the hope that eventually he or she will be able to pay a nominal rent.

Other writers who have stayed in the City of Asylum project include Burmese poet Khet Mar, Horacio Castellanos Moya from El Salvador, and the program has been extended to include visiting international writers in residence.

Over time the project has evolved from its modest beginnings and now encompasses several houses in the same street, Sampsonia Way, each one decorated on the outside by local artists in a unique way, as well as monthly poetry readings, public poetry and jazz performances and an extraordinary awakening of a sense of community in a neighbourhood where once few people had any connection with their neighbours.

Truly a remarkable and praiseworthy achievement.