Daring heritage project takes Jewish history underground

When award-winning designer Eliav Nahlieli was commissioned by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Israel government to create an experience linking young people today with the heritage of millions of Jews, he was initially at a loss as to how to go about it.

But Nahlieli need not have feared. The Chain of Generations Center, which opened last year near the Western Wall, takes visitors on a spiritual journey through what he calls “an experiential, theatrical, museological world.” Using music, light, smoke and in particular the monumental sculptures of glass artist and sculptor Jeremy Langford, the center seeks to link visitors to the past.

To follow the “Chain,” visitors descend into the catacombs adjacent to the Western Wall plaza, not far from the Temple Mount, and are guided through 3,000 years of history.

Nahlieli’s main inspiration for the center’s concept came from a story written by Moshe Amirav, a paratrooper during the 1967 Six-Day War.

“It is about a Polish Jew whose biggest dream is to walk in the streets of Jerusalem,” said Nahlieli. “Even when he and his friends are skeletons in the camps, he hallucinates that they are dancing and singing ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’ They are all killed in the Holocaust. From then on, the paratrooper feels that he is fighting not only on behalf of the present generation but for the hundreds of generations that have gone before.”

At the heart of the exhibit are eight majestic glass sculptures created by British-born glass artist and sculptor Jeremy Langford, who is considered the leading glass artist in Israel today.

“Jerusalem,” etched into a glass column against a background of verses from Chronicles, is the first of the sculptures.

“I envisioned the glass pieces as milestones to symbolize landmarks on the path taken by our ancestors,” said Nahlieli. These were inspired by the Romans’ use of milestones and the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Prague. The physical design of the center was inspired by an Escher illustration of marching figures going up a ramp. “I wanted to create a feeling of endless movement as the visitor walks slowly along the long, long trail.”

Nahlieli, who designed the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv, has gained international recognition and has been a guest designer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Langford describes himself as an architectural glass artist who works with his environment. “I have created many glass art works for public buildings, synagogues and private residences around the world,” he said, “but this was my biggest dream and my greatest challenge.”

He used a cold-glass method of carving, which involved using many thousands of layers of glass to create sculpted and stacked monuments. “The layers echo the layers of history of the Jewish people and the different civilizations that have built on and inhabited Jerusalem,” he said.

It took five years and 150 tons of glass to design and complete the project. His wife, Yael, a chemist, helped him solve any technical problems that cropped up.

“Before I began, I sat whole nights in the tunnels sometimes from midnight till dawn, connecting to the energy of the site. I communed with kings, prophets, conquerors, holy men and madmen,” said Langford. He decided to use abstract forms, columns with straight lines, etched with names to avoid the biblical prohibition against graven images.

“The Patriarchs,” which has the names of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah etched into three green-tinted pillars, leads the historical procession, followed by a row of columns in a narrow passage with the names of the 12 tribes.

A highlight of the walk is the 15-ton “Yearning” pillar, representing the symbolic return to the Promised Land of Israel.

An unexpected challenge foiled the original plan to pour concrete and sink the pillar into the ground. Archaeologists on site found oil pots from the time of the Hasmoneans and a ritual bath from the Second Temple period during excavations.

Langford and his team found a perfect solution — to suspend the pillar in the air on steel girders connected to the walls of the chamber. Visitors walk over a glass floor: Looking up, they can view the pillar; looking down, they see the ancient ritual bath.

The final glass sculpture — a rough-textured, wavy Memorial Wall entitled “Remembrance,” honors the soldiers killed in the battles for Jerusalem in 1948 and 1967.

To complete the tour, visitors are invited into a small, dimly lit subterranean theater. While candles burn and delicate rays of light are reflected off the walls, visitors are told the moving story of the paratrooper who fought in the victorious battle to reunite Jerusalem.

Visitors emerge onto the Western Wall plaza.