Raison d'Etre / Editorial
May, 1998 /Iyar, 5758

Where Heaven Kissed Earth

"Ultra-Orthodox Taking Over Jerusalem, Seculars Unwelcome," or "Jerusalem: Where Your Gelt is Accepted, But You Are Not" might well have been the headlines in several publications, both here and abroad, that in wake of the world's focus on Israel's jubilee have reported on the increasing presence and visibility of fervently Orthodox Jews in the City of Gold. But it may be that the desired effects — hysteria and anger — are somewhat premature.

As a youngster, I was greeted at my Jewish day school in suburban Washington, D.C., by a poster of an ancient map detail depicting Jerusalem as the world's center. The drawing, of course, was geographically inaccurate, but it sent a powerful message to generations of impressionable children living as a minority in a country envisioned by its own founders as the "new Jerusalem."

Years later, as a rabbinic candidate studying in the Holy City, I found the idea of Jerusalem's centrality taking on a far more tangible meaning. It was the summer of 1989; and my father called me with a request. Distant cousins would be in town shortly. Would I be willing to forego part of my week-and-a-half vacation to act as their tour guide? "Certainly," I said. It sounded exciting.

The Kayes were from Northridge, California. Mr. Kaye had grown up in an observant home and attended a modern-Orthodox day school. The family, though, was living a more secular lifestyle. Aspiring to be the consummate host, I sought out places I reasoned the family would find of interest.

We met a few days later at the LaRomme Hotel. When the conversation began to falter, I whipped out my list of must-see tourist sites, bus arrivals and departures, and costs: "Israel Museum, Center One Shopping Mall..." Mr. Kaye, though, soon grabbed my hand and smiled.

"We've been in the country for over a week. It's been an almost endless parade of museums, restaurants, kibbutzim and the like. We came to Jerusalem to see Jerusalem, not more of American exports and not more Western culture."

It was a response I had not expected.

For the next several days, a yeshiva-mate, Avrumi Sitko, and I took the cousins on a tour of Jerusalem as seen through the eyes of the "ultra-Orthodox." We traveled by foot and when necessary by bus, tuning our senses to the vibes of the city and the small details lost on large, fast-paced tour groups. We visited the holy sites and shared a Sabbath meal at the home of a famous rabbi, where all were impressed with our host's accessibility and humanity. We joined in the joyous dancing as a new Torah scroll was paraded through Jerusalem's labyrinthine alleyways. We watched Chasidic children pray and play and, to top it off, went on a shopping spree in Mea Shearim.

Although Mrs. Kaye's revealing clothing — it was summertime and hot — undoubtedly violated the protocol of the Chareidi neighborhood, she was not stoned, spat at, or cursed, contrary to the warnings given in America by secular Israeli friends, yordim who had given up life in the Land of Milk and Honey for the Country of Steak and Money.

Weeks later, I received a parcel from my cousins containing several photos and a letter. Of their three weeks in Israel, the note read, it was the time we spent together in Jerusalem — sans the glitzy nightlife and more earthly distractions — that was the most memorable. It was the one stitch of their trip that made them forget they were tourists and reminded them they were Jews. Indeed, the experience helped solidify their understanding of why Jerusalem, despite Jewry's seemingly endless exile, has always remained central to Jewish life.

It is the reason, I suspect, why someone, somewhere created that ancient map of my childhood.

NOW THE CHARGE that the "ultra-Orthodox" have "conquered" Jerusalem and are holding its secular residents and visitors hostage to a minority's whims should be dismissed; we should re-evaluate the supposed ills brought to the city by its fervently-religious population, including the "tragedy" of Chareidim raising large families (thereby offsetting the skyrocketing Arab birthrate); the "scandal" that their children actually need schools and governmental agencies to accredit and fund them; the "outrage" that when those progeny marry, they buy homes and tend to settle in enclaves, as do both secular Israelis and Arabs; that due to limited space, real estate prices have begun to soar and, in turn, have forced factories to relocate; that the community has created a service market tailored to its needs; that the group puts its collective electoral power behind candidates sympathetic to its causes; that a generation later, the process begins yet again.

Certainly we should dismiss these "ills" — and the complaints of those who would be satisfied with nothing less then ghettoizing, far from the eyes of tourists, Jerusalem's black-hatted "primitives."

BUT OF COURSE, whether the ultra-Orthodox like it or not, the truth is that the Holy City over the last half-century has gone cosmopolitan and is likely never to turn back. What is most troubling, however, is that tourists from the Diaspora — whose grandparents might have voluntarily sold their life's possessions for the chance to go "home" to the Land of the Bible — or secular Jerusalemites — would today choose to advance agendas to alter the character of the one city in Judaism that more than any other epitomizes Jewry's historic claim to its homeland. Why, having crossed seas, would visitors want to wile away the time at outdoor cafes or watch Forrest Gump with Hebrew subtitles on the Sabbath instead of discovering, in a city so fertile with ideas, why life is so much more than a box of chocolates?

Secularism and hedonism are alive and well elsewhere in a Jewish state that more and more has become merely a state of Jews. Jerusalem, however, is Jerusalem only because it remains Jerusalem, the center of the universe or, as the Talmud describes it, the place where Heaven first kissed Earth.

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky,
Publisher and editor-in-chief


© 1998, Jewish World Review