How many cities can be said to embody an idea? Athens, the cradle of the Western
tradition of scientific inquiry, comes to mind. So does Rome, the seat of
humanity’s most far-flung empire, instrumental in disseminating both Greek
culture and Christianity.
Some cities’ legacies have been tainted by
recent history – Vienna and Berlin, for instance. Others – Nagasaki, Guernica,
Dresden – are known primarily as the site of horrible battles. African or Far
East cities such as Timbuktu, known for its gold, slave trade and the Great
Mosques of Djenne, or Qufu, the location of the Temple of Confucius, seem too
exotic and inaccessible to be truly relevant to the Westerner. And American
cities are, as writer Cynthia Ozick put it, places “where time has not yet
deigned to be an inhabitant.
In contrast, Jerusalem, quoting Ozick again,
is a “phoenix city” with a “history of histories” where “no one is a
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham nearly sacrificed his
son Isaac in Jerusalem. Seven hundred years later – around 1000 BCE – King David
turned the city into the capital of a united Jewish state and his son Solomon
built the First Temple there. Jerusalem has been sacked and razed and rebuilt
and destroyed yet again for dozens of centuries. Assyrians, Babylonians,
Seleucids and Romans have come and gone. In the past millennium, Muslims and
Christians – each with their own ideas about Jerusalem’s meaning – have killed
each other for the right to rule the city.
Since the destruction of the
Second Temple, Jews yearned to return to Jerusalem. They prayed for the
rebuilding of the Temple and the ingathering of the exiles. A built Jerusalem
was conceived not principally as a physical place so much as an ideal, a symbol
of Jewish resurgence preceding the Messianic era.
But Jerusalem was never
so completely spiritualized that it became nothing more than a metaphor. Jews
never lost sight of yerushalayim shel mata – the earthly, material Jerusalem of
bricks and concrete. Except for exceptional periods in history there has been an
unbroken Jewish presence in Jerusalem throughout the long years of exile. This
ember of hope that one day the city of Jerusalem like the mythological phoenix
would one day rise up helped fuel the Jewish national movement.
1930s the Jewish population in Jerusalem exceeded 50,000. By 1948 it had
doubled. And 19 years later in 1967 it had nearly doubled again to
But it was not until the reunification of Jerusalem 45 years ago
today, on the 28th of Iyar, that the city truly began to flourish. No longer
shackled by oppressive Jordanian rule over its eastern half, it could thrive and
Though the Temple remains in ruins, the earthly, material city
has truly been rebuilt. Just wander the streets around Mamilla or visit the
outlaying neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neveh Ya’acov.
Israel’s largest city, was home to 801,000 at the end of 2011. Never before has
Jerusalem thrived so impressively. It should not be a surprise that it is the
most desired place to live among new immigrants, according to a Jerusalem
Institute for Israel Studies report released on Jerusalem Day.
not to say that Jerusalem as a city does not face challenges. It has a huge
haredi population (65 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in ultra-Orthodox
elementary schools) and its Muslim population, presently 35% of the total, is
growing only slightly slower than the Jewish population. According to Central
Bureau of Statistics data, Jerusalem is the poorest of the six large cities.
Monthly expenditures per capita were just NIS 3,223. Just 45.7% of work-age
Jerusalemites participate in the labor market compared to a national average of
57.4%. And Jerusalem is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian
But integral to the Jewish people’s return to Jerusalem is the
need to grapple with the nitty-gritty endeavor of shaping reality in the image
of the idea.
On Jerusalem Day we should feel thankful for living in a
generation that has witnessed a rebuilt Jerusalem, and daunted by the many
challenges that yerushalayim shel mata presents.