The column | If I forget thee, O Jerusalem

When I was living in Tel Aviv in the mid-’90s, it was fashionable to turn up your nose at Jerusalem. That congested, embattled, dusty little city on the hill? The one filled with frum, starry-eyed Americans, impoverished Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and crazy haredim throwing stones at your car on Shabbat? Not to mention the provincial cultural scene. Feh, who needed it?

I knew some hard-core Tel Avivians who wouldn’t set foot in Jerusalem, except under duress. Sure, they carried the disdain way too far, but I, too, couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the country. Jerusalem is too weighed down by its own history, we told each other. It’s too close to the border, too religious, too Middle Eastern — in short, it’s just too hard to live any kind of normal life there.

As the years have passed I have changed, and so has Jerusalem — slowly, almost imperceptibly. Young secular Israelis who grew up in the city aren’t all leaving after university. Mahane Yehuda, the boisterous farmers market, is ground zero of an exciting culinary renaissance. Transportation is improving — slowly, slowly — and the children of the early Russian and Ethiopian immigrants are asserting their rights and claiming the city as their own.

On my last trip to Israel a year ago, I actually enjoyed Jerusalem more than Tel Aviv. My teenage romance with the city, first lit in 1974, was reignited. In contrast to the sweltering heat and endless construction that plagued Tel Aviv, the capital seemed green and leafy, welcoming, mysterious. I could smell the jasmine.

But the religious divide is as ugly as ever. I’m talking Jew vs. Jew here, intra-family squabbles. Every week at work I cringe as I edit yet another article about discrimination at the Western Wall, or opine on yet another roadblock to full equality for the liberal movements. This week alone, a woman reportedly was forbidden entrance to the Wall because she was wearing a kippah, and Israel’s newly appointed religious services minister said on the radio that Reform Jews aren’t really Jews. Seriously, how can the world’s only Jewish state do these things, and still look at itself in the mirror?

That’s why I was so encouraged by the final plenary session at Limmud Bay Area, the big Jewish learning confab held June 26-28 at Sonoma State University (our story is on page 5).

Called “Jerusalem of the People,” the plenary featured a diverse group of young Jewish residents of Jerusalem — secular, observant and haredi — who believe in the future of their city, who love its diversity and energy, and who are working to break down social and religious barriers. They’ve been meeting regularly this past year under the auspices of Kolot, a pluralistic beit midrash (study hall) in Jerusalem, to discuss Jewish text and how Jewish values can animate their social justice projects.

Along the way, they have also learned respect for each other’s traditions. Daphne Dean, a self-described secular Israeli who has a master’s in law and is bureau chief for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, admitted that she was “anti-Judaism” when she joined the Kolot group. Now, she says, “I’ve found a sophisticated way to connect the text with what I do in my personal life.”

Panelist Amnon Rabinovitz, also secular, explained his recent move to Jerusalem, saying “I like the diversity. In the market, you see haredi, you see homeless, all kinds of people. If we don’t build bridges, things won’t be good.”

“We’re all trying to find a way to talk to each other,” agreed kippah-wearing Ofer Hadad, who works as the West Bank correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2 news.

The sole haredi member of the panel, Menachem Bombach, grew up in ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim and spoke only Yiddish until he was 20. Now principal of a haredi school that dares to teach secular subjects, he suffers regular protests by his own community, a community he says will thank him one day. For now, he admitted, “it’s hard.”

“We have much more in common than what separates us,” he said of his experience studying with secular and non-haredi Orthodox Jews in his Kolot group.  “For me, Jerusalem is a diamond. Everyone values it, and everyone wants a piece of it. It belongs to everyone, Jew and non-Jew.”

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].