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Discovering Secular Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

Although the emotional logistics of travel are usually fairly straightforward and rational—we go to the Caribbean because we love the sun and languor, the image of ourselves sipping picturesque drinks at day’s end as the sky turns pink—the logistics of traveling to Israel, and to Jerusalem in particular, have a degree of the irrational about them, if only because they involve the potential for danger. On the same road that brings you into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, for instance, you pass a series of discarded armored cars used in the 1948 War of Independence, arranged in a long row and cemented to the ground, bringing home the reality of Israel as a country that has been besieged from its inception.

I can remember arriving in Israel five or six years ago a day after a popular restaurant several blocks from my sister’s apartment in Jerusalem had been blown up; in the afternoon of the same day a suicide bombing had taken place in Tel Aviv. I felt a kind of stoicism-under-fire that I continue to feel whenever I visit Israel and that my American friends find hard to understand: Why would one voluntarily travel to a country that has the potential to ignite? The answer lies somewhere in my bones, in those childhood lullabies, in a fierce sense of Zionist pride that has not diminished despite the fact that Israel has proved itself an imperfect entity, part legitimate state and part occupying force.

I recently decided to try on the role of a tourist visiting Jerusalem not for its inherent spiritual meaning or emblematic power, nor because I have close family there (my sister and her family moved there nearly 30 years ago), but to explore it as a secular city like any other—home to restaurants, museums, movie theaters, and art galleries. The un-holy side of Jerusalem, you might call it. I wondered whether this ancient city, with its large ultra-Orthodox (haredi) population and little of the popping nightlife of Tel Aviv, would stand up to agnostic scrutiny. Could it hold its own as a cultural destination if you took God out of the equation?

I met up with Stephen Horenstein, an American composer and musician who moved to Israel 30 years ago, who generously agreed to be my guide. Horenstein is a man of many enthusiasms, one of which is his adoptive city. “The key to Jerusalem,” he told me as we shared a Moroccan-inspired lunch (including the de rigueur trinity of hummus, falafel, and baba ghanoush) at a family-style steak house in the so-called Industrial Zone—a commercial area that includes car dealerships, two shopping malls, a film school, and the city’s only bowling alley—“is that things are hidden. Tel Aviv is in your face. Here, there’s a sense of mystery. There are so many parts of the city I’m still discovering after all these years.” It was a sentiment I would hear over and over again, the sense that there is always more to be uncovered.

Later that first day, we went to visit Steve’s friend, the internationally renowned sculptor Israel Hadany, who was at work at his studio in the artists’ colony in Chutzot Hayotzer, located in the valley at the foot of the Old City and the Tower of David. (The studio has since moved.) Hadany, who served us glasses of mint tea and has about him a kind of concentrated energy that borders on serenity, said that Jerusalem is a city of conflicts, divided both between observant Jews and nonobservant Jews, and between Jews and Arabs. Although not a religious man in the conventional sense, Hadany is drawn to Jerusalem’s layered quality and the way it brings one inward: “In most places, what you see on the first day—that’s what’s there. In Jerusalem, you need a lifetime to discover what’s underneath.”

On a sunny Wednesday morning, Steve and I made our way to Emek Refaim, the main thoroughfare in the German Colony. This chic and bustling part of the city was settled in the 1870’s by the German-Templars, who belonged to the Christian Zionist movement that arose with the European rediscovery of the Holy Land from 1840 on. It is one of the most charming areas in Jerusalem and is known for its blend of Ottoman and British Art Deco architecture (the latter stemming from the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, from 1920 to 1948) as well as for its café culture. Students hang out here, and both creative types and professionals choose to live here. (Or at least those who can afford to: the area has grown increasingly expensive over the past decade, as have most neighborhoods near the center of the city.) The Germany Colony is also home to the Smadar Theater, an art-house cinema on leafy Lloyd George Street that has drawn the artist-erati for more than 80 years. As the first movie theater in Jerusalem to remain open on the Sabbath—which begins at sundown Friday and ends at nightfall on Saturday—it is also a symbol of pluralism in a city that is seen by some as yielding far too often to its ultra-Orthodox residents, who make up only a fourth of its population. (The celebrated Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai refers to the Smadar in this liberating context in two of his poems.) Plans, since abandoned, were recently afoot to sell the Smadar and turn it into another luxury development.

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