This article was first published as “An Alternative Side of the City” in the San Diego Jewish Journal.
People dream of visiting Jerusalem to put a note inside the cracks of the Western Wall, seeing the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and watching the sun set over the city’s ancient, golden stones. But if these are the only things you do once you get here, then you are missing out on what the more contemporary and secular side of Jerusalem has to offer.
Rabbinic literature has for millennia referred to the Jewish people’s eternal spiritual capital as having a dual nature. There is Jerusalem on High (Yerushalayim shel malah), but also Jerusalem on Earth (Yerushalayim shel matah). And there is no better time than the summer months to discover the city’s contemporary cultural gems that fly below the radar of the usual Jewish tourist itinerary. Summer may be coming to an end this month, but it’s never too soon to start planning for next year’s vacations.
The news of recent years has been about the exodus of secular Jews from Jerusalem for Tel Aviv and its environs.
“This very important city…became irrelevant. It became irrelevant to me and my friends who left it. It became irrelevant to my parents and their friends who left it. It became irrelevant to Israeli society, and in many ways it became irrelevant to many parts of the world, because all they heard about it was the political narrative and the religious narrative,” said Itay Mautner, artistic director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC), a new annual showcase of Jerusalem-focused arts and culture running from mid-May through the end of July. “Those narratives do, of course, exist in the city, but alongside those two big narratives throughout 3,000 years has been a cultural narrative…this cultural narrative in Jerusalem is way different than any other cultural narrative that you see anywhere else in the world. It’s different for thousands of reasons. It has a lot to do with the religion, with the historical layers, with the complexity.”
Jerusalem has always been a key producer of major Israeli artists and cultural figures, but most have left the city after completing art school or early in their careers in search of more work and a more robust mainstream artistic environment. However, since the election of secular Mayor Nir Barkat in 2008 (thanks, in large part, to support from newly active grassroots liberal political movements founded by the city’s young people), things have begun to change. Contemporary artists are now starting to live and work more in Jerusalem, and they are being increasingly backed by governmental institutions, private sponsors and nonprofit organizations.
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© 2011 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.