Jerusalem’s magical mix of old and new, East and West

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-12-11

I am tired of Israelis complaining that Jerusalem turned “black” – the dismissive shorthand for ultra-Orthodox. And I am tired of visitors on missions visiting Jerusalem on the “seam” – only viewing the real city through the prism of conflicts – between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – then waxing poetic about its spirituality, reducing it to a Jewish theme park. The real Jerusalem magically mixes old and new, East and West. This modern metropolis is also a living repository of history and holiness. It struggles with challenges but is also uniquely positioned as the Jewish people’s capital, and a world class city where modern, entrepreneurial, democratic values meet traditional, communitarian sensibilities.

Jerusalem does what cities should do, centralize and synthesize as well as symbolize. The sociologist Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man says a city is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” The words “city” and “citizen” share common roots. Linking these two ideas, cities work when they unite different people through a shared sense of responsibility. Cities become great when a critical mass of creativity and community feeling develops, so these newly-bonded citizens can express their accomplishments individually, institutionally, monumentally.

In this reading, Jerusalem’s diversity enhances the city. Visitors should watch Jerusalemites cooperate, rather than assuming differences always cause conflict. We could define Jerusalem by the few ultra-Orthodox fanatics who desecrated the Sabbath last week by stoning drivers just outside their neighborhoods. Or, we could define Jerusalem by the vast majority who prayed peacefully in one of the most exciting living laboratories in Jewish history, South-Central Jerusalem. There, every Shabbat, thousands of learned, pious Jews live tradition amid modernity, balancing continuity and change. This quest is best exemplified by the many creative experiments involving women in prayer, but goes much further. And it flourishes in a spirit of acceptance, with open dialogues and even, believe it or not, socializing between women who cover their hair and those who bare their shoulders, between men who always wear kippot and those who keep a kippah conveniently rolled in their pockets – folding leaves creases.

This Sunday, my wife and I again experienced Jerusalem’s breathtaking range. Our evening began on the Israel Museum’s magnificent terrace, viewing vistas of modern monumental Jerusalem, especially the Knesset, symbolizing Israeli democracy. We attended the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy’s (CIJA) reception celebrating Canada Day and Canada-Israel relations. In true Jerusalem style, the Director of CIJA’s Israel office, David Weinberg, toasted Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with the perfect Biblical allusion, comparing Harper’s warmth toward Israel with “the magnificent, unique friendship” King David and King Solomon both enjoyed with Chiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre in Lebanon – who helped build the Temple.

The Canadian Ambassador Paul Hunt, the Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein and MK Yochanan Plesner celebrated the common values of innovation and democracy, freedom and multicultural tolerance, uniting the two nations. Illustrating Jerusalem’s role as Israel’s capital, Ambassador Hunt and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman then signed the latest bilateral agreement encouraging Canadian-Israeli research and development.

We then dashed across town to the Talpiot industrial zone, a gritty corner of the real-life city, to a fabulous Henna ceremony celebrating the marriage of my friend Moshe’s daughter, Shelly. Moshe is one of those storied cab driver-philosophers brought to life – memorialized in the line from Tel Aviv Taxi, the 1956 Israeli film classic by Larry Frisch featured this week at Jerusalem’s Film Festival that Israeli cabbies are like all cabbies, except they are better story tellers.

Moshe immigrated to Israel from Algeria in 1948 when he was a toddler and has grown up with the state. His delightfully peppery mother Miriam told us that when he served in a legendary Golani combat unit during the 1967 Six Day War – which was B.C., before cell phones — she wandered the Golan Heights looking for him, shouting his name, until she found him.

Henna is a gloopy, chocolatey plant extract pressed into guests’ palms, dying the skin orange temporarily – for lasting good luck. This ancient Middle Eastern custom provides a great excuse for a pre-wedding party. Minutes after leaving our subdued, sophisticated Canadian-Israeli cocktail, we were bobbing on the Club Kazablanka’s dance floor, rhythmically pumping beautifully wrapped and beribboned trays over our heads filled with Sephardic delicacies. I had doffed my sports jacket and, at Moshe’s insistence, donned a fez and a djellaba, the flowing, Arabic robe – mine, poetically, was blue and white.

While dancing with the joyous Mediterranean abandon for which Israelis are so famous, we were moved by the reverence for their elders and their heritage the young revelers displayed. The throbbing crowd parted to let the parents and grandparents advance to the front and bestow gifts on the couple. The parents and children all wore Moroccan dress and headdresses. Unlike me, they pulled off the feat without looking ridiculous, feeling thoroughly at home – even as their traditional costumes covered cell phones and our usual digital gadgetry.

The two contrasting parties were actually in concert with each other. City Councilor Rachel Azaria insists that Jerusalem must feature affordable housing, flowing traffic, and great schools, as well as accessible monuments, a splendid story and an alluring aura. Jerusalem’s salvation will come from what has emerged as this characteristic Zionist mix.

Great accomplishments will result from the kind of tomorrow-oriented innovative spirit and democratic values the Canada-Israel evening celebrated. But deep meaning still derives from the poetry of everyday life, preserving traditions and imbuing them with the youthful passion we experienced at the Henna. Jerusalem itself should become the ultimate model of urban renewal, demonstrating the old and new magic stored in any great city but particularly defining this ancient yet still evolving metropolis.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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