Haim Watzman used to run in the Jerusalem Marathon. Then one Shabbat, the married father of four and acclaimed author suddenly fell ill. Lethal bacteria had invaded his body; his vital organs began to shut down. After three terrifying months in Hadassah University Medical Center's Intensive Care Unit, Watzman was finally back on his feet. On his feet, but without his 10 toes. All of them were gone. He couldn't run, but he could swim. So Watzman became one of the local devotees of the Jerusalem Pool on Rehov Emek Refaim. He swims Sunday-Friday, arriving by bike to do his three kilometers in the water. He doesn't own a car.
How fitting that Watzman is heading the volunteer public committee to keep the Jerusalem Pool open. Breichat Yerushalayim isn't just a pool. The no-frills body of water smack in the midst of Jerusalem's German Colony is an aqua-community - an eclectic mix of Jerusalemites, many in need of healing of one sort or another.
Take Greta. Like many swimmers, she has a tattoo. But hers is on her forearm, from Auschwitz. She swims daily, early mornings. "If you can get up in the morning and come here to swim, then life is okay," she likes to say in the locker room, expressing the sentiments of most swimmers within hearing. "I can't imagine what I'd do without the respite of the pool."
Greta's locker is across the bench from that of Varda, a redheaded great grandmother who dispenses folk wisdom and sometimes peddles her self-published book on Kurdish cooking. Nearby, a business consultant from California is busy helping autistic teens she has the skill and patience to teach to swim. Another woman is wheeling in her physically-challenged daughter. Conversations flow in Hebrew, English, Farsi, French, German, Arabic, Amharic and Russian.
In one corner, an earnest discussion of a case of an aguna and a recalcitrant husband is taking place; across the room cholent recipes are being swapped. Happy greetings are bestowed on a tall young woman, back at the pool after her honeymoon, and to a dark-haired older woman who is able to get back in the water after recuperating from surgery. Busloads of preteens and teens without cars arrive, comparing the fits of their bathing suits.
Tiny tots from a progressive nursery school get toddler swimming lessons. Older kids on a swim team practice butterfly and back strokes in the lanes. Many mornings, you'll find a government minister from a right-wing party is swimming laps opposite a leader of Peace Now. A grey-haired TV sports reporter gives a victory shout when he finishes his impressive routine. A dozen women commanded by their cardiologists to work out are engaged in water-aerobics. You can arrive as early as 5:30 a.m., but you won't be the first one in the water. Early swimmers are as devout and earnest as those watching for first light at the Western Wall. On women-only Monday nights, a group of students from one of the religious seminaries invites other girls with Down's syndrome out for a swim. In one lane two women are discussing the week's Torah portion, a weekly hevruta in the water. They quote Rashi as they do the sidestroke.
SUCH IS the texture of the Jerusalem Pool. Teaching your child to swim is an obligation in Judaism. But pious Jerusalemites have been notoriously sluggish in keeping this important mitzva, hampered by the Holy City's inland location. The Jerusalem Pool with an estimated 600 members and hundreds of others who buy tickets, serves as the city's beachfront - a classic meeting place of people of all ages, religious outlooks, socioeconomic groups, ethnic identification in mostly harmonious interaction. There are occasional contretemps over proprietorship on the locker-room benches or length of showers, but for the most part the pool works as a rare example of upbeat, integrated, vigorous Jerusalem life in a cantankerous city.
The Jerusalem Pool opened in the late 1950s in what was an open field used during the British Mandate for public fairs. It was built by the famed hotel developer Chaim Schiff. Veteran Jerusalemites recall the demonstrations against feared immorality of mixed swimming. It was called the "Pool of Abomination" by the objectors, and threats were made to boycott Schiff's kosher hotels. He sought a buyer, and the pool was taken off his hands by Moshav Shoresh, a communal village in the Judean Hills, as a profit-making enterprise.
In the 1980s, the Ela family of contractors joined Shoresh in the franchise, building commercial real estate around the pool area. Hence, today this full-sized Olympic pool (50-meters) serving the average Jerusalemite is hidden behind a busy mini-market and video store on the city's trendiest street. The two operators signed a 49-year commitment, (19 years are left) to maintain the pool. The mayor is personally entrusted with setting the entrance fee to make sure it doesn't become an exclusive club for the wealthy.
You might think of having the pool as a perk to make up to Jerusalemites for all the extra difficulties of our city - the frequent days when traffic is rerouted because of foreign dignitaries and demonstrations, expensive parking, high taxes and a downtown paralyzed for years with a mythical light rail. Like bookends, the Beit Yehudit Community Center (formerly called ICCY) and the Jerusalem Pool now provide genuine recreation and rehabilitation for children and adult Jerusalemites on opposite ends of Rehov Emek Refaim.
WHILE THE popularity of the German Colony with tourists is cheering, the plethora of cafes, boutiques and gift shops must ultimately rely on business from us Israelis who regularly visit this area. There are buses and off-street parking spaces in the nearby area. Rumors say that if the owners of the franchise have their way, the pool will be buried beneath a concrete parking lot. The city doesn't need to lure hundreds more cars to the quaint German Colony. Just the opposite. Without coordinating ahead of time, all the members of Haim Watzman's committee biked to the last planning meeting.
Commercial interests are often short-sighted, but we count on our municipal government to ensure the protection of our city resources and character. Mayor Nir Barkat has entrusted this matter to one of his deputy mayors. All eyes are on Deputy Mayor Koby Kahlon, who holds the Planning and Construction portfolio in the city council. Promises to preserve green space and improve the health of the citizens of Jerusalem must be more than lip-service. We need to preserve this city treasure.
Archeologists are still uncovering the ancient pools in landlocked Jerusalem. In times past, our foreparents overcame plumbing challenges to bring in water for health, ritual and healing. We can certainly do as much.