Discovering Secular Jerusalem
Published: November 2010
By Daphne Merkin
T+L explores the secular side of Jerusalem—an ancient, sacred, embattled, and beloved city.
There is something about
Jerusalem that seizes the imagination when you first come upon it. I have been traveling
there for over four decades, ever since I was a child, and I never fail to be
surprised by my first glimpse of the place, the way it appears without fanfare
as you drive southeast from Ben Gurion International Airport, on the outskirts
of Tel Aviv, into the Judean Hills. From the road you see the arid landscape
begin to curve and stretch and grow more lush as the car, still in the valley,
begins to climb. Eventually, the view is all-embracing, with miles of green
hills, red-tiled roofs, and open skies off in the distance.
is a city of singularly spartan beauty, built entirely out of different shades
of native stone—yellow, pink, and gray—and pocked with scrubby growth as well
as sudden, random bursts of bougainvillea, forsythia, and honeysuckle. For an
ancient city, Jerusalem is enamored of the new: luxury apartment buildings
under construction loom at odd intersections, with an eye to American and
European Jews who look to buy second homes here. (Sadly, many of these
apartment buildings are fated to remain unoccupied for most of the year, giving
certain sections of Jerusalem an increasingly ghostly aspect.) Olive trees,
pines, firs, and small maples dot the land, speaking to the city’s hardy
survivalist ethos, and everywhere you look is sky, which appears
to hang lower here than it does in the West. I have never arrived in Jerusalem
without feeling an intensification of ordinary emotions, as though the light, shimmering over the hills, carried with it a
weight all its own. Call it the weight of history: that would be the obvious
connection for a city that is close to 4,000 years old and whose existence has
been documented—and contested—ever since biblical times.
is best known, of course, for its international standing as a religious
destination for flocks of the pious. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers
each have their claim on parts of the city: the Western Wall is here, as is the
grave from which Jesus is said to have risen, as is the Dome of the Rock, as is
the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I myself made my first trip here as a 10-year-old with my
family on a kosher cruise ship called the Shalom as a way of connecting with the Zionist dream that was important to both my
parents but particularly to my mother, whose family had emigrated to Jerusalem
in 1936 to escape Hitler’s scourge.
Although my mother
left Palestine a year before the new state of Israel was declared in 1948, and
eventually settled in New York City, her heart remained tied to the land where
her family first found refuge. Indeed, during my childhood she sang Hebrew
lullabies, one of which dated from her own youth and was composed to celebrate
the ideal of a Jewish homeland. As a little girl I loved this particular song
and would lie in bed listening raptly to its mournful tune and hopeful lyrics.
It began by imitating the whistling sound of an approaching boat, packed with
Jewish pioneers coming from far and wide to build a new nation. I was a
somewhat timid child, but all the same I found myself identifying with this
intrepid group, carrying pails and shovels across vast distances as easily as
if they were going off to the neighborhood playground. As I began to drift off
toward sleep, I would envision myself signing up, shedding my schoolgirl
clothes and urban pallor for the safari-flavored outfit and bronzed complexion
of a genuine chalutz (pioneer), taking off
for foreign and possibly hazardous shores. When I became a mother myself, I
sang this lullaby to my daughter in turn; her own first trip to Israel took
place when she flew in a baby carrier next to me on one of El Al’s overcrowded
and noisy planes.
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.
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
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?
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.
More prominent than
the Smadar, however, are the numerous coffee bars; one, the Coffee Mill, is
owned by a pair of Chicago-born cousins, Debbie Katz and Rosie Nathan. The
walls of the tiny outpost, which sells coffee and tea from all over the world,
are blanketed with covers from The New Yorker. Across the street is a children’s music
conservatory, and young mothers with strollers are everywhere you look. The
sounds of someone expertly playing violin
come out from one apartment and a breeze stirs the leaves on the trees that
were planted by the German Templars. The old community house is still here with
its apse, small bell cote, and green-painted front door, as is a cemetery
behind a cluster of small homes set in gardens.
The next morning Steve
and I went to see the residence of the late Nobel Prize–winning writer Shmuel
Yosef Agnon in Talpiot, not far from the Industrial Zone. Agnon has special meaning
to me not only because of his writerly gifts but also because he was a close
friend of my maternal grandfather, Isaac Breuer, who started a religious
political party in Palestine after he moved there and eventually had a street
named in his honor. Agnon himself remained an observant Jew throughout his
life; the synagogue he helped establish in Jerusalem was named for him after his death. When he and his wife
stopped in New York on their way to Sweden, I went with my mother to pick them
up for Friday night dinner at our apartment. I can still remember the excitement I felt at being in the presence of literary greatness.
Although it would be years before my Hebrew was good enough to delve into
Agnon’s stories and novels for
myself, I understood him to be a rare spirit, steeped in the religious training of his
background while also immersing himself in contemporary culture.
As luck would have it,
Agnon’s home has just been extensively
renovated and reopened to the public. It is a modest house, built in 1931 in a
pared-down version of the Bauhaus style by a German-born architect who lived across the street. Unlike most of the houses in
the city, it was not built of stone—the law that required this was not yet in
effect in this neighborhood when it was planned—but is instead covered with a light-colored plaster. Its narrow windows are hidden behind metal latticework, giving the building a fortified appearance. Agnon’s study takes up
the entire second story and includes an impressive library filled with
thousands of volumes, ranging from books of Jewish learning from the 16th and 17th centuries to works by Freud and Harry
Stack Sullivan and copies of Peer Gynt and Tom Jones. There is a green tiled
floor and a lectern at which Agnon often wrote standing up, in the manner of
Virginia Woolf. On his desk are a shoehorn, a bottle opener, and a Remington
typewriter. The whole atmosphere is very casual, with few guards or roped-off
areas or explanatory notices in sight; if you felt like walking off with
Agnon’s beer opener, no one would stop you. I found myself thinking how
different the Israeli approach to officialness of any sort is from the American
or European approach, such that stepping into the house of one the greatest
Hebrew writers of novels and short stories feels less like an auspicious occasion and
more like stopping by to visit an old, bookish uncle.
The ideal of Jerusalem
as a renaissance city inspired Teddy Kollek, the mayor from
1965 to 1993—a man who is often referred to as “the greatest builder of
Jerusalem since Herod.” One of Kollek’s first projects after he took office was
the creation of the Israel Museum, whose buildings cover 540,000 square feet
and which is the country’s largest cultural institution. As James Snyder, the museum’s
director since 1997, told me: “Teddy, in 1965, decided there would be a
national museum that would in short order be on a par with the world’s leading
museums.” It has recently undergone an ambitious $100 million renovation, and reopened in its entirety last July.
Snyder, who was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for
22 years before he came to the Israel Museum, says he took the appointment mostly on the basis of its location. “I’m not sure I would’ve come,” he said, “if it were in Tel Aviv.” Snyder refers to Jerusalem’s “secret subtext”—its “fluctuating intercommunal
fabric”—which gives it an international flavor that he finds lacking in Tel
Aviv and that is reflected in the museum’s far-ranging collection of nearly
500,000 objects, dating from the 12th century B.C. to Damien Hirst. Together we
walked through the exquisitely designed Shrine of the Book, which houses the
Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world. At this point
Snyder left me to take a stroll in the museum’s Billy Rose Art Garden, designed
by the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, where I wandered among
sculptures by Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Menashe Kadishman, and Auguste Rodin, all set against the dramatic Jerusalem backdrop.
But perhaps the most
sensuous experience to be had in Jerusalem is a most basic one,
available every day except the Sabbath, requiring nothing more than energy for
haggling and eyes for seeing. I’m referring, of course, to Jerusalem’s
labyrinthine open-air market, Mahane Yehuda—also referred to as the
“shuk”—which is located between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. It is the
largest and busiest outdoor market in all of Israel and is always full, even
the day after a terrorist attack. (During the period of the Second Intifada,
between 2000 and 2005, the market was the scene of several bombings; today
guards check everyone entering.) It gets more and more crowded toward the end
of the week and by Friday afternoon, when the prices have been reduced,
students and foreign workers come to stock up on bargains.
market dates back to the 1920’s and is fast-paced, colorful, noisy, invigorating, and enervating all at once. It contains hundreds of stands and
shops selling vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, baked goods, candy, eggs, household
appliances, toiletries, and Judaica. Within the past decade Mahane Yehuda has
been modernized and cleaned up: tiled floors have replaced the cobblestones,
and there is an indoor area with small places to eat. Two Georgian brothers
have opened a sparkling boutique, Babar, that carries cheese from all over the
world as well as wines and olive oils from Israel—seven different types of
olive oil from one kibbutz alone. There are competing spice dealers who will
ladle out couscous to measure, the grapes look too plump to be true, and the
fish are jumping. (All the meat and fish are kosher.) The smells are enticing, the characters are picturesque, and you come
away with a sense that between the eagerness of the multiethnic vendors to cut
a deal and the eagerness of the multiethnic shoppers to go home with the
freshest wedge of halvah at the best price possible, peace in the Middle East might be forthcoming in the not-too-distant
you hang around Jerusalem long enough and talk to the right people, layers will
begin to unpeel and you’ll find out all sorts of intriguing tidbits. That the
best view (as well as the best Sacher torte) in Jerusalem is to be found on top
of the Austrian Hospice, tucked away in the Old City. That Israel’s best film
school (it has more than 15, itself a surprising fact) is in Jerusalem—the Sam
Spiegal Film & Television School. And that the city Jerusalem is compared with most often by its most sophisticated residents, such
as Emmanuel Halperin, a well-known TV journalist who drives into Tel Aviv twice
a week to teach literature courses at Tel Aviv University, is Paris. “I think someone who comes from Paris can’t live
anywhere else in Israel,” Halperin said. “Tel Aviv tries to be a melting pot
but it’s a syncretic culture. Cosmopolitan is not a mixture of different
sources to create something new. It’s different people living side by side—that’s cosmopolitan. Jerusalem
is truly cosmopolitan. You can be yourself among strangers.”
At the end of the day, Jerusalem is not a city like any
other city. You can forget its history, what Halperin refers to as “the feeling
of the weight of the ages” for a time, even for weeks at a go, but then all of
a sudden, at certain places, at certain hours, it comes back to you. In between
you can hear first-class string quartets at the YMCA; take in new plays at the
Khan Theater; walk around in dusty quarters of the Old City watching
neighborhood regulars drink tea, black coffee, or arak, a liquor made from
anise, at little cafés as they play backgammon and cards all the livelong day;
and shop for one-of-a-kind pieces by Israeli designers at the wonderful Sofia boutique. But at some point, perhaps when you look up at the sun setting over
the hills, you will think you have come to a place that has managed to cast a
mysterious spell over you, composed of equal parts history and immediacy, tension and
lassitude, ferocity and calm.
Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and El Al Airlines fly nonstop
from New York City or Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv. Most other major carriers
connect through London. Visas are not required for U.S. visitors.
Austrian Hospice 37
Via Dolorosa; 972-2/626-5800; dinner for two $38.
Coffee Mill 23 Emek Refaim St.; 972-2/566-1665; lunch for two $25.
Babar Etz Haim St., Mahane Yehuda; 972-2/625-7969.
Israel Hadany 19 Yad Charutzim, Talpiot; 972-50/839-0899; visitors by appointment.
Mahane Yehuda Located between Jaffa Rd. and
Agrippas St.; Sunday-Thursday 8 a.m. to sunset, Friday and holidays 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sofia 2 Bezalel St.; 972-2/625-2765.
See and Do
Al-Aqsa Mosque Temple
Mount, Old City; currently open only to Muslims. Saturday-Thursday 8-10:30 a.m.
and 12:30-2 p.m.
Dome of the Rock Temple
Mount, Old City; currently open only to Muslims. Saturday-Thursday 8-10:30 a.m. and 12:30-2 p.m.
Smadar Theater 4 Lloyd
George St.; 972-2/561-8168.
Western Wall Jewish Quarter, Old City; open 24 hours daily.