One of our daughters spent a year of her national service in a mediumsized US city. After she and her roommate finished putting away their clothes and books, they decided with great excitement to “go out” and see America, or at least the town in which they’d be living.
To their surprise and disappointment, the city center was closed. Nary a coffee shop nor a magazine stand was open.
I thought of their experience last week when my husband and I took a stroll on a balmy Jerusalem evening to the Old City. The Light Festival, the fourth festival this year in the Old City, was in its final night. Remember, please, that Tel Aviv is the chic, trendy Israeli city chosen by European magazines as one of the world’s hottest venues for young people.
Jerusalem is often maligned as a deprived and soporific town dominated by prim, monochromatic religious folk.
We entered the Old City via the Mamilla Mall, where shops were doing a lively business and every open-air café and restaurant was filled with animated diners, Jewish and Arab.
A Palestinian friend told me recently that she shops in Jerusalem because she can’t afford the prices of high-end clothing in Ramallah – prices driven up by rich American (Arab) tourists! Mamilla is easily accessible to all. I’ve taken part in more than one organized Israel- Palestine women’s dialogue over coffee and brioche there, but there’s always plenty of dialogue going on.
Jaffa Gate was inaugurated in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent, and the gate was opened for German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. In July 2011, it greeted us with giant trees and flowers sculpted with colored light.
It’s after dark, but the words of the morning prayer come bubbling out: “Or hadash al Tzion ta’ir” – a new light will shine on Zion.
Inside the gate, we squeezed into the packed throng of men, women and children – the stroller set was well represented despite the late hour – streaming into the city. Thirty thousand people were there on the night we went. Nonetheless, there was no waiting. All you had to do was choose a trail of colored light, which led you along winding paths of astonishing light sculptures, dramatic soundand- light shows, and soulful street musicians.
We followed the orange trail, which ran through the Armenian Quarter, down to the Western Wall and out the Dung Gate to the City of David. Several personal favorites were an 11-meter weeping willow lit by cascading neon bars, and Night Train, a whimsical 3-D projected light show in which a virtual night watchman walks along the walls of Rothschild House.
I felt that Tinkerbell had sprinkled those familiar stone walls, moats and towers with her fairy dust and turned them into the Magic Kingdom. But ours is real. The hi-tech, modern art sculpture plays off against stones.
Besides, Disneyland requires a substantial entrance fee and a security check. At the Old City Light Festival, there was no entrance fee and, wonder of wonders, no guards checking your bags in the square kilometer known for religious and political friction. For the first time, the Light Festival included the Muslim Quarter and Damascus Gate, to the reported delight of shopkeepers there.
We went on a weekday (a school night), but when we left at 10:30 p.m., there were still more visitors entering than leaving. We had to squeeze through the passages to get out. No pushing, no screaming. More than a quarter of a million visitors walked the alleyways of the Old City without incident during the festival.
The Light Festival is the most conspicuous example of cultural revival in Jerusalem, but the city has become a smorgasbord of modestly priced musical offerings. Who would guess that there would be standing room only for a jazz concert at the Yellow Submarine on a Friday afternoon, when Jerusalemites are reportedly cooking and swabbing? Kudos to Mayor Nir Barkat for catalyzing the cultural renaissance, planting trees, installing benches, laying bike paths and pedestrian malls.
City Hall is also promising a revolutionary, revamped transportation system that will relieve residents and tourists of the irritating traffic congestion. Apropos, I received an irresistible invitation last week to take a maiden journey in those futuristic silver bullets known as the Jerusalem Light Rail.
The rail ride was preceded by a complex briefing with dazzling maps of the tracks, high-speed buses, feeder buses, control centers, situation rooms and an electronic screen connected to satellite updates of train positions.
But the question that dominated the press conference was simpler: How will a vehicle with 12 simultaneously opening doors be protected from terrorists? Both the CEO and spokesperson for the Transportation Master Plan seemed to shrug off the query; security is the responsibility of the police. And why, they asked, would citizens who are enjoying such a wonderful new addition to their lives want to do anything to destroy it? Why indeed? At last, we boarded the slick train and sailed along Jaffa Road. Out of habit, I looked around to see where terrorists could position themselves to wreak the most destruction. We turn north at the Old City, achromatic in the midday sun. A quarter of a million people, the same number as visited the Light Festival, use public transportation weekdays in Jerusalem.
What if every day they woke up in the morning and could board the deluxe train, feeling both the pride and security that pervaded the festival? Or hadash al Tzion ta’ir. Continues the supplication: Shenizkeh kulanu mehera le’oro. I’ve seen several translations: “We shall be worthy of the light,” or, alternatively, “We’ll all rise and prosper together.”
Now there’s a goal worthy of our prayers.
The 2012 Light Festival in the Old City will take place June 6-13. There is no fixed date for the inauguration of the Jerusalem Light Rail.The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.