Gil Troy: My Jerusalem jogging track

Center Field: My Jerusalem jogging track

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-26-09

Almost every morning, I walk my children to school in Baka, in south-central Jerusalem, then jog toward the Old City. I jog 35 to 45 minutes. But I journey through thousands of years, celebrating Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital and the spiritual focal point for billions. Doctors debate if jogging is good for your body; my Jerusalem jogging track uplifts my soul.

In Baka, I enjoy the jumble of houses and the mix of people. The Anglo and French immigrants-by-choice often live in the renovated houses. Many older neighbors arrived after Arab countries expelled them in the 1950s. Today, they are citizens, not perpetual refugees. I appreciate the flat, lush terrain amid the hills of the Judean Desert, especially in the stately German Colony.

Already, five minutes into my jog, I have traversed Jewish history. Many Baka street names are biblical. I jog along Jacob’s sons: Judah, Zebulun, Levi. My German Colony route honors non-Jews who helped Jews: Emile Zola, the French novelist whose “J’Accuse” defended Alfred Dreyfus against anti-Semitism; Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister when Lord Balfour recognized Jews’ right to a homeland. Setting out along Derech Beit Lehem, the road to Bethlehem, I pass three institutions symbolizing modern Jerusalem’s cultural vitality. The Khan Theater, built where a Crusader inn once stood, is one of two excellent theaters in walking distance from our house.

The Menachem Begin Heritage Center’s fabulous interactive museum commemorates one of Israel’s founders, while hosting weekly Torah portion discussions, historical conferences, a mock Knesset for students. Behind Begin, archeologists found a First-Temple-era priestly burial site, discovering an engraving of the Torah’s Priestly Blessing, with which we bless our children every Friday night. Further down, the cutting-edge Cinematheque hovers over the Hinnom Valley, known in the Hebrew Bible as Gei (the valley of) Ben Hinnom. Because ancient pagans sacrificed children to Moloch there, “Gehenna” now means hell. This is sobering stuff for a morning jog – but one of many reminders how Judaism civilized the region.

CROSSING HELL, I ascend to the Old City. Mount Zion’s green, sculpted slope reflects the remarkable efforts of so many worldwide to beautify Jerusalem, especially through the Jerusalem Foundation, in this case working with JNF Canada. One friend calls Jerusalem every Jew’s synagogue; all want to make their lasting contribution. To my left into the valley is the no-man’s-land that divided the city for 19 years when the Jordanians occupied east Jerusalem. I often enter the Old City imagining some historical figure resting on my shoulder.

One day King David or King Solomon might be admiring what of his handiwork survived. Another day it might be a medieval rabbi, a Holocaust victim or my own paternal grandfather, who all longed to visit the magical city I enter easily. Coming through Zion Gate, the Jewish Quarter’s lifeline blocked in 1948 which IDF soldiers freed in 1967, I enter the Armenian Quarter. Occasionally, I notice a “map of the Armenian genocide.” Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge its crimes against the Armenians depresses me, as does the world’s indifference to Rwanda’s Tutsis in the 1990s and Sudan’s Darfuris today.

IN THE JEWISH Quarter, I vary my route. Sometimes, I pass the Broad Wall, a 23-foot-wide outer wall from the First Temple period, probably destroyed in 586 BCE. Sometimes, I glimpse the Western Wall, which survived the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Sometimes, I climb the stairs at the end of Rehov Chabad to appreciate the Old City’s skyline with curved rooftops, modern satellite dishes, hanging laundry and sacred Christian, Muslim, Jewish sites jutting into the air. Sometimes, I pass the majestic Hurva Synagogue, its new dome now dominating the Jewish Quarter skyline. Arab rioters destroyed the Hurva, meaning ruin, in 1720, long before Zionism began. Rebuilt in 1864, Jordanian troops ruined it again in 1948. After 1967, Jews rebuilt only one large arch suggesting the dome’s grand height. Recently, this homage to McDonald’s became one of four arches supporting the new dome. The rebuilt synagogue opens soon. The Jewish Quarter tends the past while growing in the present, preserving history without being mummified. Children rush to school above Roman streets. Men wrapped in tallit and tefillin roam. Women scurry in the direction of the Temple Mount or the new city. All reflect the 42-year renaissance since Jews returned to the quarter the Jordanians desecrated.

Leaving the Jewish Quarter, I wander the Arab market, the shouk. Sometimes I jog through the Muslim shouk, smelling the spices, hearing the birds chirp, staring at the butchers’ carcasses hanging for all to see (and breathe on). Sometimes I jog through the Christian Quarter, with its wide streets. Usually I jog up David Street watching merchants arrange their touristy trinkets, exit Jaffa Gate back toward the new city, cross Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City, pass its famous windmill from 1857, then return home. I move seamlessly between the quarters. In years of jogging through Jerusalem, during calm times and after terror attacks, I have never felt fearful. I have never witnessed Arabs and Jews quarreling – or any arguments in the Old City (except when people bargain). I am not naïve. I know the tensions, frustrations, angers. I pass markers commemorating terrorist stabbings and the 14A bus bombing. But I experience the Jerusalem most Jerusalemites experience daily, a city of normal hustle and bustle amid powerful historical and spiritual currents, a city once violently divided now blessedly united. A city that works and prays, learns and plays.

A city that for the overwhelming majority of its residents, an overwhelming majority of the time, lives up to its name, Jerusalem, the city of peace. A city heroes liberated in 1967, 42 years ago yesterday, tended for decades by visionaries like mayor Teddy Kollek, which deserves to be celebrated today and everyday. Happy Yom Yerushalayim.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

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