Confessions of a Jerusalem wanderer

Years of prayer experiences in modern Orthodox shuls on three continents have left me feeling that there are multiple ways of connecting with God, and not all of them are to be found in a shul.

Streets of Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Streets of Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 I’ve been reluctant to admit it to all but a handful of close friends, but after a lifetime of pretty regular Shabbat morning synagogue-going, I’ve now substituted long walks through Jerusalem’s almost deserted streets and parks as my preferred Shabbat spiritual sustenance.
Years of erratic prayer experiences in modern Orthodox shuls on three continents have left me with the feeling that there are multiple ways of connecting with God, and not all of them are to be found in the confines of a shul. Especially when you happen to be in Jerusalem and it’s a glorious day. Modeh ani, I am grateful, indeed.
I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that I’m not alone in this feeling among those of similar age and background.
At a recent Friday night dinner, old friends who were once very active in their Jerusalem congregation admitted that they, too, now make much less frequent appearances there. Both our shuls are graced with dynamic rabbis who are exemplary leaders and outstanding orators.
The rabbis are not the problem. It’s the difficulty we have maintaining a meaningful prayer experience that’s led us to quietly seek an alternative Shabbat scenario.
Sometimes my early Shabbat morning wanderings take me to the Old City and the Western Wall; other weeks it’s through the quiet streets of the German Colony and along the Mesila Park toward the peaceful flower-framed alleyways of Yemin Moshe. Occasionally I’ll meet up with a friend, but most weeks I’m happy not to have to schedule a meeting place ahead of time, or plan a particular route in order to get my Jerusalem Shabbat fix.
One recent cold but sunny Shabbat, I took the advice of the old friends and took off toward the Valley of the Cross.
The pathway passes the Monastery of the Cross, an 11th-century hulk of a structure that looks slightly incongruous in modern- day Jerusalem. It’s too early to see any of the few Greek Orthodox monks who live and pray in a small section of the compound, and I’m slightly disappointed that the almond trees in the valley that leads up to the Israel Museum are not yet in full bloom. On the path I pass several anxious-looking runners who must be training for the upcoming Jerusalem Marathon.
Through the pedestrian tunnel that leads seamlessly to Sacher Park, I find myself looking over the main lawn where so many concerts and events take place in the warmer months. How many great Israeli performers have I heard there over the years? Everyone from Yehudit Ravitz to Idan Raichel and even a rendering of the iconic Bustan Sephardi musical.
At this hour the park is virtually deserted, with little presence of the dozens of city-dwelling dog owners who will fill the precious urban green space later in the day.
From the park I cross Ben-Zvi Boulevard to Bezalel Street, one of the city’s busiest intersections on weekdays. Not a single car is to be seen in any direction at this hour on a Shabbat morning. There are several little shuls on the lower part of the southern side of Bezalel, and familiar Shabbat Shaharit melodies waft out over the quiet street.
I stop for a breather on a bench outside the Turkish synagogue to watch as a man wearing a tallit, together with his son, scan the horizon to try to hustle up a minyan. It’s now almost 9 a.m. and he’s looking a little desperate. A few likely suspects wearing kippot and Shabbat clothes hurry by, politely refusing his plea since they’re needed to make the minyan in their own shul. Eventually he corrals the four guys he was missing, and he almost sweeps them into the synagogue with his tallit and a broad smile on his face.
I turn off into Even Sapir Street that leads into the heart of Nahlaot. Many of the buildings bear faded plaques with the name of the family that built the house, mostly around the early 20th century.
Gentrification is slowly encroaching here, but there are plenty of buildings that could be the setting for any number of movies on religious life in Jerusalem.
An unusual sight catches my eye – two twenty-something women emerge from a side street, dressed in skirts, with no head covering, and one of them is carrying a Torah scroll covered respectfully with a tallit. I follow them as they walk purposefully up the street and disappear around a corner – perhaps heading for the Mayanot Shul? As Even Sapir hits Narkis Street, I climb the stairs into Hirschenberg, one of those tiny Jerusalem streets that feels so secluded and other-wordly and connects Nahlaot to the Sha’arei Hessed neighborhood.
Over the past two decades, this network of eight or nine tiny streets and pedestrian courtyards, founded by two rabbis in 1909 to accommodate religious Jews, has become the epitome of Jerusalem gentrification.
Along Porush Street, majestic threeand four-story homes with shiny new Jerusalem stone facades, hide behind ornate iron security gates, while across the street one or two of the original houses still stand in a state of neglect. Many of the newer residents of Sha’arei Hessed today are wealthy, religious English- and French-speaking Jews who relish the barricades that close off the area to traffic to preserve the Shabbat tranquility.
As Porush crosses Keren Kayemet it becomes Haran Street, and both the properties and the population changes.
This is the edge of Rehavia, built a decade or two later than Sha’arei Hessed and originally peopled by the Ashkenazi intellectual elite of Jerusalem. On this sunny Shabbat morning, students are sitting on rattan chairs on the balconies of the yet-to-be-renovated buildings, and a few older folks are emerging for a Shabbat stroll.
I make my way across Ibn Ezra to Alharizi – one of my favorite little Jerusalem streets. Here, behind the greenery lining the narrow street, you can still see a few of the original single-family homes built in the 1930s, complete with the name plaque of the first family that lived there. Far grander buildings dominate the shady street today, home to some of Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens.
The signature Rehavia Garden City walkways and a little urban park surround Yad Ben-Zvi, once the home of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben- Zvi.
In the spirit of this peaceful Shabbat morning and the shul experience I’m passing up, I contemplate the fact that the street names of this part of Rehavia – Abarbanel, Ibn Gvirol, Ibn Ezra, Alharizi, Ben Maimon – all conjure up the great scholars of the Golden Age of Spain.
My understanding is that both Rambam and Ibn Ezra were insistent that men had the obligation to pray with a minyan. The Talmud asserts that someone (male or female?) who lives in a city with a shul but chooses not to go is called a shachen ra – a bad neighbor (Brachot 8a).
Are my friends and I who drink in the unique Jerusalem Shabbat atmosphere “bad neighbors,” or can we get away with being a new brand of spiritual seeker, grateful for every moment of Sabbath peace in this holy city?