Sunday, April 5, 2009

Leviathan in Jerusalem

Jewish tradition teaches that God created ten measures of beauty, then gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world.  While this is clearly a bit of hyperbole (after all, the Grand Canyon is a pretty nice piece of work) there is also much truth to it: Jerusalem is a magnificently beautiful place.  The buildings are all made of Jerusalem stone, which changes color with the changing light and seasons, and makes the entire city glow with an almost heavenly radiance. And there is intense beauty in the history, too--in knowing that wherever you walk here, you follow in the footsteps of prophets and sages, of holy men and women.

There is also a unique beauty to being a Jew here.  Living in the diaspora, we get accustomed to being a minority, to having a calendar and culture that are not always in sync with those of our neighbors.  Arriving here nine days before Pesach, one experiences a different world.  Kosher for Passover products fill the markets and they are not priced exorbitantly.  And wherever you go, people wish you "Chag Sameach--a joyous holy day!"  This feels almost miraculous after so many years of attending public school Christmas concerts and Easter egg hunts.

And yet, for all of its beauty and holiness, this is also a deeply troubled and divided city. Everyone knows about the division between Jews and Arabs, of course.  When the political right here talks about "one Jerusalem," refusing to negotiate the status of the city, they are living a lie, because whatever the official line, in practice, this is already two cities.  East Jerusalem is entirely Arab and the Jews just don't go there.  Sovereignty is, by and large, a technicality.

But the divide that is more shocking to me is the one between the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, and everyone else.  When I lived here twenty-five years ago, the "black hats" dwelt mainly in Mea She'arim, an ultra-Orthodox quarter.  But in the intervening time, their population has boomed and the city is now more and more the domain of religious separatists.  The demographics are simple: the hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox have eight, ten, twelve children, so the math isn't hard to figure out.   Meanwhile, the secular and even modern Orthodox continue to flee to the rest of Israel.

And the haredim are, by and large, very poor.  Many of the men don't work, prefering to study Torah full time.  They also do not serve in the military.  As a result, the city's tax base is rapidly deteriorating.  This is very evident as one walks down the main streets.  The infrastructure is collapsing and the buildings are increasingly dilapidated.  The city is building a light rail system down Rechov Yaffo, the main street, hoping that this will stimulate urban renewal.  But many here suspect it will have the opposite effect, enabling the last secularists to move to the suburbs and commute into town for work, then return to their homes far outside the city limits for the night.    

In short, Jerusalem is on a trajectory to become a third world city.

There are, of course, still bastions of the old Jerusalem that I knew.  Neighborhoods in the southern part of town--Rechavia, Talbiyeh, Bakaa, the German Colony--still offer the kind of sophisticated European atmosphere that Theodore Herzl envisioned in his pioneering Zionist work, Altneuland (The Old-New Land.)  In those places, one finds cafes, restaurants, and religious moderates and secularists from America and Western Europe.  But these worlds are fading in Jerusalem. There is a real danger that Israel could become, de facto, two nations: a theocracy with its capital in Jerusalem and a secular state centered around Tel Aviv.

There are people who are working hard to bridge this divide.  David Hartman runs an institute devoted to Jewish pluralism.  I'll be studying there later this summer.  But he certainly has his work cut out for him.

One thing that hasn't changed much, though, is the reality that life here, while rich and fascinating, is also difficult.  It is an obvious truth that Israel finds herself in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by nations that long for her destruction.  But that tension is exacerbated by a kind of survival of the fittest mentality that exists among Jewish Israelis.  There is a lot of pushing and shoving and shouting and just generally aggressive behavior.  I hasten to add that there are many, many wonderfully polite and considerate Israelis, but the culture itself does not put much value on the fineries of etiquette.  There is a kind of coarseness to life that wears me down.  This is also manifest in the driving habits which are, to put it mildly, murderous.  The roads here are filled with  carnage.  One day I rented a car and drove to the Galilee; along the way, I witnessed three serious accidents and many more near misses.  

I thought of all of this while listening to a podcast of Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac." Keillor noted the birthday of Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher whose magnum opus, Leviathan, notoriously described the human condition as "a war of everyone against everyone."  That captures the nature of street-life here.  I have enough experience living in Israel to know that in their homes and with their friends, Israelis are among the most generous and big-hearted people on earth.  But daily interactions really do have that Darwinian feel.

Interestingly enough, Hobbes's title, Leviathan, is also signficant in Jewish life.  Legend has it that when the messiah comes, we will all eat the meat of the leviathan, the mythical beast of the sea.  Indeed, hasidim sing songs fervantly longing for the moshiach and exulting the virtues of the subsequent feast of leviathan fillets.

As for me, I'm wary of messianic fervor.  Focusing one's hopes on a divinely-sent savior distracts us from the every day work of repairing the world.  I believe, like most liberal Jews, that the messiah is a metaphor, the symbol of an age that is more an ideal to work towards than a physical reality.  

And if I'm wrong, and I don't get invited to the feast of leviathan, well--I'll gladly take a pass as a vegetarian.

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