Jerusalem and the borders surrounding it

As well as its contentious political boundaries, the capital is home to some more subtle, but no less noticeable, divisions.

Mahane Yehuda market 370 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Mahane Yehuda market 370
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
In his short story “From Foe to Friend,” S.Y.
Agnon describes how he managed to tame the mighty winds of Talpiot, then a sparsely inhabited neighborhood, and how he decided, despite the winds’ best efforts to drive him out, to build his house there.
In those days, Talpiot was still a border neighborhood, where few Jewish families dared to dwell. Designed even before the British Mandate period, it was one of the new neighborhoods planned to push the frontiers of the city outward as much as possible, far beyond the walls of the Old City.
Over the years, at specific times, the city has drawn new borders. The majority of these new neighborhoods were added after the Six Day War in 1967, both inside and outside Jerusalem’s original boundaries.
But Jerusalem also has some virtual inner border lines, which tell – each through different pictures – different stories of the city’s life. The Museum on the Seam, situated on a very old border line, overlooks the abolished frontier between the Arab city under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967, the ultra- Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim, and the relatively modern Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
But there are many more border lines. Some are easy to recognize – they may be socioeconomic, political, sociopolitical or cultural. Two large cemeteries draw the boundaries of the two opposite sides of the city – Har Hamenuhot in the west at the entrance to the city, and the Mount of Olives’ historic cemetery on the far east side, on the threshold of the exit from the city toward the road to Jericho. Arab, Jewish and Christian, rich and impoverished, historical and modern, religious and secular – all are connected through one light rail, and all converge at one meeting point – the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
On a cold and sunny winter morning a few months ago, Alexis Cordesse, a French photographer, stood beneath the old municipality building, which on its rounded façade still bears the traces of bullets shot by Jordanian Legionnaires before 1967, and looked around. In front of him was the soft, sloping path toward Jaffa Gate, along the Old City walls; to his left was the road leading to Damascus Gate, and the Mamilla Hotel and the adjacent mall; and lower down was King David Street. “This is a perfect spot,” Cordesse told this reporter. “I’ll position my camera here and let it tell the story of this border line.”
The result was a large, panoramic photograph of what doesn’t appear to us residents as a boundary but still functions as one. At the same time, it seems to also function as a busy meeting point between the east and west sides of the city – with, symbolically enough, the municipality building dominating the whole area.
According to Cordesse, contrary to known historical and political border lines, most of the boundaries found here are not always noticeable at first sight but are often very persistent. Cordesse’s photographs later became part of an exhibition held at the Romain Gary French Cultural Center, enabling visitors to take a look at not only the city in which they dwell but also the lines that separate and unite them there.
JERUSALEM IS not considered a city of wealthy people, and even the rich do not usually boast about it too much. And since most houses in the capital are built of stone, in quite a few neighborhoods the difference between a well-to-do dwelling and a less privileged one is not always obvious at first sight.
Moreover, in many areas, there have been various processes of gentrification, with small houses enlarged and concrete buildings covered with the ubiquitous Jerusalem stone.
Yet differences still endure, such as on Shmaryahu Levin Street in Kiryat Hayovel. Once an affluent and comfortable location for young academics and scholars, the left side of this long and winding street, which spirals down to the valley and overlooks a magnificent landscape, has a number of villas, some of them luxurious.
Yet on one side of the street, it is another epoch, another world, with small, humble buildings, all built hastily in the late 1950s and early 1960s to house large waves of immigrants. Small apartments, with strangely narrow windows – such a waste when facing such a splendid view – and at the end of the street, Brazil Street, one of the city’s slums. The long, ugly, neglected buildings, some above street level and some below it, lack elevators. The tiny apartments are inhabited by seniors, elderly olim from the ’50s who came from North Africa, or more recently, the former Soviet Union, who reside alongside many families from the Ethiopian community. Outside, there are far fewer cars than up above on the other side of Shmaryahu Levin. But here one can find public benches – when you live in such tiny apartments, a bench outside is highly important – which can replace a living room inside. The same street, or the continuation of one street into another, comprises two different and faraway worlds. The separation point on the ground is the large, modern, stone health fund building, which, nevertheless, serves them all.
The same image appears in other spots across the capital – one of them in Baka. Built in the 19th century with the construction of the railway station, the neighborhood, first established by well-heeled Christian and Muslim Arabs who left after the partition of the city in 1948 – has since been inhabited by a mixture of residents, becoming a real-estate paradise.
Some large families of North African olim who arrived in the early 1950s were installed in beautiful abandoned houses, while most had to get along with newly – and hastily – built apartment blocks. As a result, in much the same way as on Shmaryahu Levin Street, some of Baka’s little streets start with lovely, traditional homes or newly built, large, modern houses, but end with long, ugly and quite neglected blocks such as those on Yair and Naftali streets. One of those apartment blocks, on Bethlehem Road, even had to be demolished after its foundation became unstable.
ANOTHER SUCH acute separation line exists at the beginning of Stern Street – a long and winding street with large, sometimes almost crumbling blocks on both sides, inhabited by both old and new olim and large haredi families. Starting near Golomb Street, the street serves as a clear boundary between the impoverished side of the Stern neighborhood and the well-to-do side of Ramat Denya, with the Malha Arena in between. The arena, which hosts basketball games, attracts large numbers of aficionados, but most of them are not residents of Stern Street, who are either too poor to afford tickets or would rather attend football games at Teddy Stadium.Then it draws a line between Nahlaot on one side – a small neighborhood of old houses and courtyards, highly prized by students with modest resources, as well as wealthy Anglo immigrants.
Despite a large wave of new residents, Nahlaot has managed to preserve a very time-honored atmosphere, incorporating the ancient traditions of Turkish, Yemenite and Mugrabi Jews from the East, with little synagogues, low buildings and narrow streets – a scenic setting for old Sephardi customs and tunes.
In the middle of Bezalel Street stands the Gerard Behar Center. A modern white building, it is very different from the character of its surroundings, and in a way, it is also a border line between ancient and modern. On one side of the street is the old neighborhood of Beit Ya’acov. Built in 1883, it hasn’t changed much since, and is an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi enclave amid one of the most staunchly Sephardi neighborhoods in the city. The end of Bezalel Street, at the intersection with Ben-Zvi Boulevard, marks another border between the old-fashioned and the modern, secular part of Israeli and Jerusalemite society – as illustrated by the Knesset, Supreme Court and Israel Museum buildings.
Looking at the scene, Cordesse found it particularly symbolic: “In such a mixture of ancient and modern, it is not surprising that in the street that leads from Nahlaot and Beit Ya’acov towards the Knesset and the Supreme Court, one has to wait a few seconds at the traffic light before passing from one era to another.”
JERUSALEM IS also the center of the three monotheistic faiths.
Religious sites can be found everywhere in the city, usually in close proximity to each other, perhaps on better terms than their adherents. Take Hanevi’im Street, for example, which begins down in the Musrara neighborhood. Once a target of Jordanian Legionnaires, today it is a center for art schools and a hub of gentrification, with a Breslov yeshiva, an Ethiopian church, a Swedish Protestant theology center, an Anglican school and an old, Turkish synagogue. In the middle, there is the maternity wing of Bikur Cholim Hospital, where Jewish, Christian and Arab women all come to give birth in the same compound. These seemingly separate parts, to which one can easily add the haredi residents of Mea She’arim, are so close and literally tread on a border line, which separates them but also brings them to a shared point.
Operating for almost two years now, the light rail has become an integral part of the city’s landscape, despite all the hurdles and failures involved. But it has also become an active component in the effort to unite the capital into one city with many faces. Putting aside political differences, especially among the east and west sides, Jerusalem is more of a conglomeration of little cities or neighborhoods. The question of whether Jewish Jerusalemites visit the Arab side on a regular basis is far from being the most representative to the issue of unity. How often does a resident of Neveh Ya’acov, for example, visit Talbiyeh? Or how often does a resident of Rehavia walk along the narrow streets of Mea She’arim, other than to accompany tourists from abroad? Let alone Arabs from east Jerusalem coming to the Jewish side? For those and many others, the light rail, with its trajectory across Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem via the city center, and its last stop on Mount Herzl, provides a simple and efficient means of transportation. In its cars, all boundaries seem to be erased, with Arab woman in hijabs, haredi women in head coverings and teenagers in jeans standing alongside Christian clergymen. But the only place where all borders and separation lines are truly eradicated remains, of course, Mahaneh Yehuda. Wealthy bohemians from Rehavia and the German Colony, Hebrew University and yeshiva students, and hardworking mothers all shop shoulder-to-shoulder, especially on Friday mornings or the days before holidays. Arabs, Christians and Jews – rich and poor, leftists and right-wingers, old and young – they all converge around the stalls, choosing the best tomatoes and selecting the freshest fish.
It may sound a little sentimental, but it depicts a reality. •