The dingy Dung Gate

Is this how we treat the city of 70 names, that inspired love songs from King David, Naomi Shemer and Matisyahu?

Guards stand at the entrance to the Dung Gate. While the spot has great historic and spiritual significance, the physical manifestation of it falls short of its potential. (photo credit: YISHAI FLEISHER)
Guards stand at the entrance to the Dung Gate. While the spot has great historic and spiritual significance, the physical manifestation of it falls short of its potential.
(photo credit: YISHAI FLEISHER)
Every day, as I pass the Dung Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, I am reminded of a story: A few years ago, my wife and I had a 17-hour stopover in the Czech Republic. Before we flew in, we reached out to listeners of my radio show to see if we had any fans in Prague, and indeed we got an email back almost instantly.
Marcella and her Christian-lovers-of-Israel friends offered to show us around their great town, which is sometimes called “the Jerusalem of Europe.”
Prague is a spectacular city and our hosts were immensely proud of its history and beauty. They brought us to the tomb of the Maharal and to the Jerusalem Street synagogue, and we even saw Hitler’s Judaica collection, which he had planned to put in a museum of the extinct people called the Jews.
Last but not least, at around 11 p.m., just before our flight, our friends took us to the majestic Prague Castle, the official residence and office of the president of the Czech Republic. The castle’s history stretches back to the year 870 CE and at 70,000 square meters, it is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ancient castle in the world. Basically, it is huge! Due to the late hour the castle was closed, so with the few minutes we had before rushing to the airport we walked around the beautifully maintained grounds. Suddenly, in the darkness, I spotted a lonely worker kneeling on the floor while laying a new cobblestone on the side of the driveway leading to the castle. Intrigued, I said: “Sir, can I ask you something? Do you people usually work laying bricks at 11 at night?” The man looked up at me, smiled and answered simply: “No, no, of course not.
But you know... this is the castle… ” Even a Golem can understand what the Czech bricklayer meant: The places that are the foundations of your history, the places that you cherish, love, and share with the world, those must be treated with extra care, extra reverence, extra love.
That was the Jerusalem of Europe, but as I look around our beloved Jerusalem of the Middle East, it is clear that we do not operate with the same conviction.
Somehow, we don’t treat our Jerusalem as she truly deserves.
Jerusalem is the foundation of our civilization, our ultimate castle, but I have not seen workers up in the dead of night beautifying it.
The Dung Gate area of the Old City is where tour buses drop off close to four million tourists a year to visit places sacred to half the earth’s population. However, the Dung Gate suffers from an unfortunate name, and surroundings that live up to it. Dust, tree stumps, broken pediments patchily fixed, screwy traffic patterns and oddly parked truck vendors are what the tourist visiting the Western Wall initially sees.
After that, he or she is greeted by a gray metal detector with wires hanging from the ceiling. There, bags are checked by smoking guards wearing faded blue shirts, funky glasses and modern-art haircuts. At the Kotel plaza itself, long green signs marred by decaying bumper stickers describe with peeling small print the importance of the place (with a long list of Dont’s).
This sense of neglect is not limited to the Old City.
As you drive up to Jerusalem from the airport for the first time in your life, the tension builds. Whether you are a Taglit-Birthright student or a Christian pilgrim, you can hardly contain the excitement of seeing the legendary city. Suddenly, you are greeted with a bland block letter display spelling out “Bruchim Haba’im [‘welcome’],” stacked on AstroTurf. Not impressive. At the eastern entrance from Ma’aleh Adumim and the Dead Sea, there is a dark metal cutout version of the same words, reminiscent of a Holocaust memorial. At the other entrances, there are but blue traffic signs that say “Jerusalem.”
For God’s sake, back in Wayne, New Jersey, they had a nicer welcome sign! Are these the entrances to the great Golden City of King David? Is this Jerusalem, the city that magnetized Crusaders to march across Europe and Turkey? The place that cartographers of old put in the center of the world map? Is this the city of 70 names that inspired love songs from King David, Naomi Shemer and Matisyahu? Is this the capital of the Start-Up Nation, the techno-medical-military wonder which overcame all odds to survive and thrive? There is a dissonance between the majestic history and literature of Jerusalem, and the underwhelming aesthetic reality of our modern city. Yet, I am sure some readers are saying, “Those are all externalities, Jerusalem is about inner beauty!” – and this, of course, is true. But husbands, go tell your wives that you think their inner beauty is so fantastic that you’re voting to nix clothing and jewelry from the family budget. Not going to happen.
To be sure, there are grand projects that beautify Jerusalem, from the Bridge of Strings to the Mamilla Mall, to the new Waldorf-Astoria which promises to be stunning. There are also people and cutting-edge organizations who really get it. Aryeh King is a Jerusalem city councilman who has spearheaded “Project 5800,” bringing together philanthropists, architects, and city planners to draw up a vision of Jerusalem for the next 40 years. Author Yehuda Etzion has teamed up with noted architect Yoram Ginzburg to realistically plan out the city with a Temple at its heart. Mayor Nir Barkat has organized festivals to bring tourists from within Israel and without, while the City of David has hosted thousands of young Israeli soldiers, connecting them to their Jewish roots in Jerusalem.
Yet the shoddiness of places like the Western Wall Plaza and the entrances of Jerusalem remain, thereby allowing the city to underwhelm. Why? It’s not a problem of money. It’s a problem of attitude.
When we don’t see Jerusalem as the cultural, spiritual, historical heart of Jewish civilization, then Jewish money doesn’t find its way towards Jerusalem beautification. If New York or Toronto is just as Jewish as Jerusalem, don’t be surprised if there are more glorious Jewish buildings there than here.
For the last 2,000 years, we were tasked with keeping the memory alive by saying “Next year in Jerusalem,” but now that we, as a people, have arrived at a new era, we are being called upon to actually build it. Therefore, the building of Jerusalem should be conceived as a unifying global Jewish project, one which brings together all parts of the Jewish people irrespective of religious affiliation or geographic location.
Imagine if, together, we could build golden arches above every entrance to Jerusalem, a beautiful portent of your imminent entrance to Yerushalayim Shel Zahav – Jerusalem of Gold. Imagine if the guards at the Western Wall were given some etiquette training and dressed in gold trim, to give honor to the place you are about to enter. Just take a page from any major landmark – from Prague Castle, to Buckingham Palace, to Disney World, to Herod’s Jerusalem – to get a clue about how to do it right.
While on the one hand our generation has a chance to build it, on the other hand Jerusalem is on the chopping block. Powerful forces just can’t wait to wrest it from our hands and undermine our claim with an alternative narrative.
When Jerusalem looks shoddy, when we undervalue the most important historic places, we essentially say: This is not ours, we do not take responsibility for it – and maybe the other narrative is right.
Therefore, the best way for us to assert our eternal connection with Jerusalem is by glorifying it, cleaning it, settling it, unifying it and building it! We need to fall in love with this mission, and not be seduced by other Sirens or be blinded by fear.
Today the Dung Gate may be dingy, but tomorrow, with our courage and dedication, the Gate of Mercy will again be open for all.