A tree grows in Zion

Spectrum hosts an end-of-Shabbat event for everyone on September 10 in Zion Square.

The ‘Out of Zion’ tree installation in Zion Square, part of the Mekudeshet Festival (photo credit: DAVID ABITBOL)
The ‘Out of Zion’ tree installation in Zion Square, part of the Mekudeshet Festival
(photo credit: DAVID ABITBOL)
Many Jerusalemites are familiar with Spectrum, an organization under the umbrella of the Jewish Unity Project, or at least with their events that serve to unite Jews and non-Jews alike. Just before Purim, this unity comes in the form of a massive pot luck Shabbat lunch on the Jaffa Road light-rail tracks. “I live in a little alley right off the shuk, and one Shabbat I walked out of my house and saw this extraordinary site of hundreds of people having this celebration on the train tracks,” Karen Brunwasser, Jerusalem Season of Culture deputy director, recalls.
“It was very colorful and beautifully chaotic. I thought it was such a genius idea. I never thought to do an event on the train tracks. It was really innovative and grassroots. There were all kinds of people there from ultra-Orthodox to tourists and non-Jews. They were singing and dancing and it was all keeping Shabbat.”
Brunwasser was so inspired by what she saw that when the Jerusalem Season of Culture decided to sponsor the “Out of Zion” tree installation in Zion Square for the Mekudeshet festival, she immediately thought of contacting Yitzchok Meir Malek, founder of the Jewish Unity Project and Spectrum, in the hope that he would utilize the space to host an event on Shabbat. “The idea is that through an urban orchard of 20 fruit trees on wheels, the public can push them around and create different constellations for sitting or hanging out,” Brunwasser explains.
“Because it’s a public square, we wanted the public to do what it wants to do there. So we’re not producing, but we are letting people know that it’s there, especially people who we know do interesting things in public spaces.”
The trees will be in Zion Square for three weeks, for the duration of the Mekudeshet festival (until September 24). People have already taken to the installation and have been utilizing its interactive feature. “Out of Zion” is a bold attempt to revitalize Jerusalem’s city center, which became run-down and fell out of favor with Jerusalemites after the second intifada wiped out many businesses. “I remember Zion Square when I first came to Israel when I was 16 years old,” Brunwasser says. “I’m 40 now, so that’s a long time ago. You could show up and it was a total scene with live music all the time and people everywhere. Downtown stopped being an attractive place for a lot of people. The city is trying very hard to renew it, but Zion Square got sort of stuck.”
Zion Square has become home base for the Jewish extremist group Lehava, as well as some other negative phenomena, which only serve to further complicate the space. There is much diversity, which can create tension, or apathy as people simply pass each other by.
Since the murder of Shira Banki at the gay pride march last summer, Zion Square has taken on the role of a space where she is memorialized. The Yerushalmit movement has been hosting weekly dialogue circles, which help to bridge the gap between divergent groups of people. “Out of Zion” is a continuation of that ideology.
“Nature is a soft force,” Brunwasser states. “We want to soften up this square that’s kind of harsh. Muslala, a nonprofit organization established by artists, residents and activists, does a lot of new urbanism. They took the roof of this insane building that was a pretty sad place, kind of the white elephant of Jerusalem, and turned it into an urban oasis with all kinds of agricultural and nature projects. So the trees were part of that project that we are borrowing for this one.”
On September 10, the event itself, K’Yaar Tzion, will take place. Spectrum is hosting a potluck Shabbat meal starting at 5:30 p.m., followed by a musical havdala ceremony.
“The word shalom, peace, is bringing together opposites; whether it’s light and dark, physical and spiritual, man and woman, or one and zero,” Malek says.
“The code to creation is putting opposites together. The first day of creation was light and dark coming together. Zion Square died; it got suffocated by stone and concrete. With Zion Square right now, I see the opposites of nature and city coming together. I want to use that as a metaphor for people coming together for this event: haredi, secular, left wing, right wing, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, gay and straight. We may choose to live our lives differently, but for right now, we can be together.”
For local urban planner Maya Tapiero, the tree installations represent what Zion Square could be in the future if it’s redesigned thoughtfully. “I think this is sort of a demo in the interim,” Tapiero explains.
“If they landscape it properly, what could be done with that space? It’s also what should be. It’s not easy to put up trees because of our water situation, but we need shade so badly and they’re the most ecological and economical way to improve the quality of people’s experiences. The fact that they have the trees there is incredibly significant.”
Malek hopes that the event will beget organic, natural mingling and socializing between people who may have otherwise never had the chance to meet. He is also hoping that everyone will sing the Shabbat song Yedid Nefesh together. “It’s a love song essentially,” Malek says. “My favorite line is, ‘My soul is sick with love for you.
Please God, heal me.’ We’re all soul sick with love for each other, so much so that we feel free to get angry with one another.
It expresses itself in ways that we don’t even see as love anymore. That’s why we stopped smiling at each other on the streets.
“I would like for an awakening to happen during this event, where people remember that the same way the trees made them stop and smile, that’s what we can do for one another.”