Last night I walked down five stairs in our apartment building and stepped into a twilight zone that could exist only in Jerusalem.
The occasion was a parlor meeting to introduce Yael Weiss Gadish, 36, a candidate for the community council that represents four upscale areas: “Old” Katamon, “The Colonies” (the Greek Colony and the German Colony), Talbiya and Yemin Moshe, and Rehavia and Kiryat Shmuel. The council has no budget but does have a voice in municipal decisions, and this is the first time its members are to be elected by the residents, explained Weiss Gadish, who aims to represent Katamon.
Then she laid out her priorities.
“The largest population sector in the neighborhood is young families, among them many ultra-Orthodox ones,” she began. “I want to bring pluralistic Jewish [elementary-school] education here,” added the educator and mother of three.
To my surprise, every one of the ten other participants—all of them about the same age as the candidate and all but one of them easily passing as “secular” on the basis of outward appearance—thought this was a great idea and launched into a long discussion of exactly what they wanted. Many of them had grown up Orthodox and some are still religiously observant to some degree. Some are in “mixed” marriages, in which one of the partners is religious.
“There are a lot of people who are confused,” said one man, who then offered an example of what this Jerusalem neighborhood needs. “In the Yahad School in Modi’in, everyone—religious and secular—feels comfortable. They coexist.”
“I don’t want to commit myself to a particular category,” said Weiss Gadish. “I’m secular and I’ll be happy if my kids pray in the morning.”
But she and others made it clear that although they want to give their children some kind of Jewish education, they are uncomfortable with the growing ultra-Orthodox presence in the neighborhood. Jewish, yes, but not that kind of Jewish.
It was a discussion that probably could not have taken place among the children of the previous generation of secular residents in the neighborhood. In fact, it certainly could not have taken place because, except for one of our children, almost none of the others still live in Jerusalem. If they haven’t moved abroad, they’re in Tel Aviv, where secular young people go in search of jobs and to escape feeling under siege by the increasingly religious atmosphere of the capital.
When my husband and I moved to “Old” Katamon in 1964 (the true name is simply Katamon), the neighborhood had a mix of university-educated secular or non-Orthodox residents, educated Orthodox Jews who chose to live in a mixed neighborhood, evacuees from the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and a sprinkling of ultra-Orthodox Jews. There were plenty of nonreligious nursery schools and kindergartens. No longer.
In recent years many apartments have been bought by well-heeled Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews from abroad, only some of whom live here year-round. The two nonreligious elementary schools can barely fill classes, and it’s doubtful that a pluralistic Jewish elementary school would have a chance.
But a minor miracle revealing the power of the people and the community council ushered in this week in which Hanukka begins: A Jerusalem Magistrates Court judge gave a reprieve to the Jerusalem Pool, in the German Colony, whose owners wanted to replace it with luxury apartments. When the pool opened in 1958, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community protested vociferously against the abomination of men and women swimming together. More than 50 years later, the community council protested the plan to close the pool.
Now it remains to be seen whether, in this state that can’t figure out how to be Jewish and democratic, the people can create a neighborhood that is Jewish and pluralistic.
Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.