It’s a hunched beast the size of a small home. With a spotted hide like a melting cow, it menacingly leans over its territory, fixing its eyes on all who pass. Those eyes, one bulbous and all black, the other concave and bloodshot, the kind of gaze you instinctively don’t want to match, the kind you can’t hold for very long. And it’s mouth, it’s terrible, massive mouth. Three long slovenly tongues loll out of that mouth, bright red and hungry, razzing the entire world.
What is this beast? Some ancient creature of antiquity? Some monster dreamt up in a special effect lab? No, it’s only the Milfetzet, a beloved piece of children’s park equipment!
The Rabinovich Park in Kiryat HaYovel Jerusalem is where the Milfetzet calls home. How it came to be is an interesting story with a distinctly Israeli twist. The idea for the Milfetzet was famed sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle’s. Saint Phalle’s work is characterized by bright colours, abstract shapes, and sometimes confronting images. It is no surprise then that when she initially approached the Jerusalem Parks Commission, it did not go over well. Originally conceptualized as a Golem from Jewish folklore, the idea was to install a piece of art into a park that could also be used as a play apparatus by children. Rather than the typical swings and slides featured in any park, the idea was to integrate art, play, and history into one large piece of equipment in a bold and unique way. While the commission could not be swayed, Saint Phalle found a surprising ally to assist her.
Mayor Teddy Kollek went to bat for the piece. Teddy, a former special intelligence agent who coordinated with MI6 during World War 2 to support Jewish partisans and Israel’s nascent military was an immensely popular mayor, elected five times over the course of his political career. He was a community builder with an eye for tradition and Israeli culture saying of Jerusalem "I think Jerusalem is the one essential element in Jewish history. A body can live without an arm or a leg, not without the heart. This is the heart and soul of it.” But he also had a soft spot for the odd, the interesting, and the strange. He was a man who saw value in both tradition and experimentation at once, doing much over his tenure to help build the Jerusalem we all know and recognize while also quietly taking other odd projects such as Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo (once ran out of a private home, now a national place of pride) under his wing.
Teddy backed up Saint Phalle’s justification for the Mifletzet, that it was important for children to be able to confront and adapt to the strange and grotesque in a safe way. By adding such a bizarre and even frightening piece to an ordinary park, it would allow children to process and deal with the imagery at their own pace. The idea was that children would slowly learn to understand the equipment and it would turn from an unsettling sight into a welcoming one. With Teddy’s backing, the Commission re-evaluated the piece and eventually approved it in 1971.
It turned out that Saint Phalle and Teddy’s predictions about how the piece would be received were more on the nose than they even thought. The "monster” instantly became a beloved element of the neighbourhood. Fondly enjoyed by children and treated as a whimsical and unique landmark by adults, Kiryat HaYovel embraced the strange creature as a kind of unofficial mascot of the neighbourhood. When a light rail expansion threatened the Mifletzet, a wave of successful petitions were circulated to save it, and a nearby co-op pub and community center has adopted its name and likeness. Truly, the monster is part of the town.
The Milfetzet has enjoyed decades of local celebrity and multiple generations have grown up sliding down its many tongues and climbing its sloped back. And Teddy Kollek? He retired to Kiryat HaYovel living within a stone’s throw of the monster he championed so long ago until his death in 2007.