Jerusalem Day: there's no place like Israel's golden city
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Jerusalem. For many, it is a dream, a place to pray about, read about, reflect about. For me, it is home. Now, although I temporarily call London home, Jerusalem is the place I refer to as my real home, where I will always return.
I first fell in love with Jerusalem during my teenage years – touring the city with my Israeli cousins, exploring the Old City, swimming in a hidden cistern in Ein Karem, shopping for souvenirs on Ben Yehuda Street. After a breathless side trip to Tel Aviv, where I melted in that sweltering city, the return to Jerusalem’s cool serenity was literally a breath of fresh air.
Life took me on some side trips before I actually got to live there. I made aliyah, lived in the Sharon valley for many years, moved up to Jerusalem for a few months, then to the suburbs of Mevasseret Zion and Modi’in, in between went on diplomatic postings to other important cities – Istanbul, Moscow, even Boston – and was finally brought actually to live in the city I had always been drawn to, by love.
Of course that is where I found love.
Where else but in the extraordinary city which had always drawn me to it? The love I found brought me to a fascinating city of contrasts, of ancient walls and alleyways alongside modern office buildings and green parks. A city where Jewish, Muslim and Christian faithful heading to prayer pass by bars filled with revellers, where the latest blockbuster movie is screened inside the ancient Sultan’s Pool, and where one of the best gourmet restaurants is in the middle of a bustling market whose chief customers are those looking to stretch their shekels the furthest. It’s a city of modern, sophisticated culture to rival many in the world, and of history and spirituality which has been fought over for millennia.
Living in Jerusalem means that travelling to and from school on Mount Scopus, I pass by the ancient walls of the Old City as a matter of course, sometimes stopping to have an evening drink with friends on a rooftop overlooking the Temple Mount, watching as the golden dome catches fire from the setting sun, making for a magical perspective.
On the days I go to work in the state-of-the-art Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in the government offices quarter, I may decide after work to visit the nearby Israel Museum, with its pavilions cascading down the hillside, its elegant white meringue-shaped Shrine of the Book, and sophisticated restaurants.
Living in Jerusalem also means often being stuck in traffic, while yet another world leader visiting the city causes massive jams as the roads are cleared for his or her entourage. It can mean fighting the crowds in the Malcha Mall on a busy Saturday night, when Arab families from nearby neighbourhoods compete with Jewish ones from the city and outlying settlements for a waitress’s attention, and teenagers of all religions look for the latest in fashion and gadgets.
For the secular as well as the religious Jew, Shabbat in Jerusalem is unlike anywhere else in the world. On Friday afternoon the traffic slows down, shops close, and quiet serenity enfolds the city. The house has been cleaned of the desert dust which has invaded it over the week, smells of delicious food permeate the house, and, religious or secular, each of us finds his own oneg Shabbat.
While the religious streams have always been able to find their ways to celebrate Shabbat, today there are more and more ways for secular Jerusalemites to enjoy their day in the city. The First Train station, which has been refurbished, is a popular destination on Shabbat, as is the new cinema city complex next to the Supreme Court.
So as we approach Jerusalem Day, a day when we commemorate the reunification of the city which means so much to so many people, I celebrate a city, which for me just means home.
Rony Yedidia-Clein is director of public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London