Upon arrival here on Tuesday afternoon (it is now Thursday), I felt nothing but a sense of wonder at being here. I still feel it. Mind you this is not a romanticized sense of wonder, for it’s impossible to be here for more than a few minutes without gaining an awareness of the contradictions, complexities and confusions of this churning, ancient, modern city of so many oft-colliding cultures and ideologies. Driving from the Ben Gurion Airport, the barbed wire along the roadways and the occasional check-points and armed towers overlooking Arab territories illustrate how fraught conditions can suddenly become. Yesterday afternoon one of our hosts at the Jerusalem Season of Culture, David, took my travel mate Trevor and me to the Goldman Promenade on a ridge south of the Old City. It’s not the popular promenade for a romantic view of Jerusalem. It’s a less-traveled and more telling view, that shows not just the Old City with its radiant pale walls and gleaming gold Dome of the Rock, the forested Mount of Olives rising on the hill to the north, but also the under-developed Arab village on the eastern hillside and in the dusty wadi below, and the long, tall Wall built by the Israelis on West Bank, on the theory that this would facilitate suppression of incoming Palestinian suicide bombers. Jewish settlements, flagged by their red tiled rooftops, are visible distant on the West Bank. Further north and west you can see the Galilean desert, the Dead Sea to the south, and on its far side, Jordan. Behind the Old City loom the tall buildings and cranes of the modern city on the hill. If you are there at a time of day of Islamic prayers, you hear the call to prayer piercing across the wadi.
You cannot walk a block even in the modern city without encountering the haredi — the ultraorthodox Jews that represent the most conservative branch of Judaism and represent a third of the population of the capital. “They only study and have children,” one person remarked as we drove to an outdoor event last night. “So I pay for their children and mine.” Several had been on my flight; I watched as one gathered his minion of men in black to chant prayers in the airport lobby at Newark before we boarded. Nearby, an Arab family with four children sat under a flat screen monitor broadcasting CNN.
The artists and curators hosting us describe the conflicts and frustrations openly, and talk freely about the complexity of Jerusalem as opposed to, most notably, Tel Aviv. “Very difficult, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem thing,” one person commented. “Jerusalem is all about the issues of politics and religion, in Tel Aviv they want to party and go to the beach.” Yet many who work in Jerusalem live in Tel Aviv and commute the 45 minutes each way. The concerns of our hosts, in the artistic work and curation that they do, revolve around positing that there are other ways to frame human experience than through the lens of the conflicts that dominate this part of the world. “Artists can criticize the problem…to a point,” we were told. “But it is not all that Jerusalem is.” On the other hand, one said last night, after we had paid our driver and exited our taxi, “he’s an Arab. They kill us.” The bitterness seems rarely more than a layer away. “When you get onto a bus,” another person remarked, “you can’t help but look around at each person and wonder, ‘does he have a bomb? does she?'”
The young woman who met me at the airport asked, as we drove to Jerusalem, “were you afraid to come to Israel?” I answered, “I can’t say I didn’t think about the possibility that anything could happen at any moment here…but that wasn’t going to stop me.” She smiled and answered, “Good.” She is a sabra, born here. I’ve met many others who immigrated from the U.S, each with stories of how they came and why they stayed. Most say things like “I meant to stay for two months. That was 24 years ago,” or, “the first time I came to study for six weeks, and I knew I would come back and stay.” It sounds like a calling.
The wonder continues, as do the fish dinners and the falafels and the gallery visits and walks through the market (I saw, yesterday, the Iraqi Market where men gather to drink tea, smoke, and play backgammon all day long, throwing their die in the uniquely “Jerusalem way” with a special flick of the wrist). I visually study the black haredi hats on ultraorthodox heads after learning from David that the different families have different hats, where the brim size may differ or the crown have its distinct shape. “They must wear what their grandfathers wore, and their grandfathers before them,” he explained. I relish the sunshine, the Los Angeles-like weather, the constant patter of Hebrew on the street, the passion and energy of our kind hosts. Conundrum upon conundrum.