Slim and smartly dressed, with a shock of white hair, James Snyder is the opposite of the high-octane Israelis he manages as director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But since arriving in Israel 15 years ago, Snyder has mastered the art of quiet diplomacy.
Working across from Israel’s raucous Knesset (parliament building), the 59-year-old has strayed far from his former life as deputy director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and an Upper West Side resident. Home today is a stone-clad, 1920s “gothic-Moorish” flat in the leafy Talbieh district in the heart of Jerusalem’s cosmopolitan, secular core, where Snyder and his wife, the author and graphic artist Tina Davis Snyder, landed with their children during a late 1990s respite from Israel’s endless cycles of terror and conflict.
“Talbieh is an encyclopedia of great period architecture; from high-Ottoman to the international style,” adds Snyder, who admires Talbieh’s Bauhaus buildings by master architect Erich Mendelsohn. “Perhaps we were drawn to Talbieh because of our strong interest in classic modernism; plus from our porch we can see all the way to Bethlehem.”
Beyond those fable-like views, the apartment also has an impressive pedigree, having been the home of former Israeli president Golda Meir during Israel’s first government, when she served as minister of labour. Equally enchanting is the fact that “our backyard is filled with fig, apricot and loquat trees,” Snyder adds.
The Snyders quickly learnt that nothing is more ephemeral than Middle Eastern calm. In 2000, Israel became embroiled in the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and road blocks and suicide bombings transformed the holy city into a fearful ghost town. “I don’t know how we managed to remain so composed,” Snyder recalls. “There was this need to feel normal, only we had to establish a new sense of normal.”
That “normalcy” was necessitated by the Snyders’ children – now in their twenties and working in the US – who found a haven in an Anglican-run, English-language school close to their home. It was an unorthodox choice for a Jewish family yet the school’s English-language curriculum and Jewish/Arab/Christian student body helped the Snyders integrate into this complex, confounding city.
Still, Israelis can be sceptical of outsiders. “My greatest challenge as an American has involved developing the capacity to drop into a foreign setting and feel comfortable functioning smoothly and successfully,” he says.
Today, Snyder has secured his place in Israel’s cultural firmament following his museum’s $100m expansion displaying new works by international artists such as Anish Kapoor and William Kentridge. The museum is a high-profile example of Jerusalem’s slow march to modernity, which includes Moshe Safdie’s Mamilla project near the Old City and an elegant Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge on its western flank. Jerusalem is also home to a sleek new $1.4bn light-rail system.
For Snyder, such symbols of ancient-upon-modern can often feel “surreal, out-of-body, hard to contextualise”. Whether shopping in the bazaar-like Mahane Yehuda market or standing atop the Dome of the Rock, Snyder says he feels “the stretch of time and place at all times”.
More than five years after the end of the intifada, Jerusalem is wealthier – economically and culturally – than when the Snyders arrived. Snyder concedes he will return to the US once he retires. “Our roots and families are there,” he says, “and something you learn by living abroad is that sooner or later, you want to live back home.
“Jerusalem is a city built out of its bedrock and there is a simple beauty in the way the landscape and architecture merge,” Snyder says. As for those notoriously straight-talking Israelis whom he now calls colleagues, Snyder insists smoothing even the roughest edges was simply a matter of professionalism and patience. “Coming from the museum world, you feel as if you are always curating,” he says, “like you have the ability to go anywhere and create your own experiences.”
● Historic surroundings coupled with a rich cultural, and multicultural, lifestyle
● Modernisation is ongoing
● Tel Aviv’s beaches, restaurants and shops are a 45-minute drive away
● Israel’s security situation cannot be ignored
● Jerusalem’s religiosity can feel overbearing
● Housing is becoming increasingly expensive
What you can buy for …
$100,000 A small apartment in an “assisted-living” complex in the well-heeled Rehavia neighborhood. In other words, not much
$1m A four-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment in the upscale Talbieh district in buzzy, modern Western Jerusalem
● Jerusalem Homes, www.jerusalemhomes.com/english, tel: +972 2 582 1150
● AngloSaxon Real Estate, www.anglo-saxon.com/en, tel: +972 2 6251161