The word from Jerusalem

Where people can pray together, there's hope.

barkat kotel check caption 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barkat kotel check caption 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Outside the Jerusalem polling station where I exercised my democratic right in the municipal elections last week, heavenly and earthly concerns coincided for a few uplifting moments. Such a sight could not be seen anywhere else in the world. Campaigners from at least four parties, all bedecked in T-shirts sporting electoral slogans, put aside their differences and united in prayer. It was time for the evening service and some 15 men gathered by the gates of the Denmark School on Yehuda Hanassi Street decided Heaven could not wait. So they turned to face the direction of the Old City - so close it often seems easier to walk it than suffer one of Jerusalem's interminable traffic jams to get there - and started to daven. Come to think of it, although there are probably other Denmark Schools in the universe, where else but in Israel can you find a street named after the man who had the foresight to compile Jewish Oral Law? What the men prayed for is a secret - like a vote, a matter of conscience. But the very silence of the Amida prayer reverberated. All around the country people placed their ballots for a mayor who will keep the streets clean, promote education in violence-free schools, enhance public parks, encourage job-providing industries and solve the problems of housing and transportation. All down-to-earth issues. Adding to the significance of the impromptu prayer service was the fact that the race for Jerusalem mayor was for something far more important: the Jewish character of the Holy City. The municipal elections pitted ultra-Orthodox scion Meir Porush against secular hi-tech entrepreneur Nir Barkat. As we have seen, the prayers of Barkat's supporters were answered. THIS WASN'T a political election. Jerusalem hasn't seen that since legendary mayor Teddy Kollek announced in 1993 that a vote for him would be a vote for the Oslo Accords, alienating a huge number of his previous supporters who voted in the much younger Ehud Olmert. Remember, this was in the days before Olmert turned so far to the Left that his spin doctors aren't the only ones spinning. But these elections were very much about religion. The Arab residents of the city largely voted with their feet - sticking clear of the polls as in previous elections, complaining that no mayor ever dealt with their needs and concerns. Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak campaigned heavily in this sector, to no avail. Gaydamak also invested some of his fast-dwindling fortune in buying the debt-ridden Bikur Holim Hospital and the Betar Jerusalem soccer team among other things, but it did not serve to boost his popularity. Even the die-hard Betar supporters who live in my neighborhood complained: "You can't buy votes. Jerusalem is not for sale." The wags added: "Jerusalem's not for sale; Olmert is just giving it away." The vote in the capital, in a sense, hung around the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to the city. As much as people chose their ballot slips on the basis of what they thought of the outrageously expensive bridge and the light rail project it is meant to one day serve, they placed their votes in the aftermath of the "Taliban Affair" that marred the bridge's inauguration in June. The ultra-Orthodox municipal officials presiding over the event at the last minute ordered the schoolgirl dancers to cover their hair and wear shapeless sack cloaks for the performance so as not to offend the sensibilities of the haredi public. No matter that an unmarried woman need not even cover her head. And the ultra-Orthodox were not going to watch the opening on television. The inauguration incident was a bridge too far. Not only the dwindling numbers of secular residents in the capital wondered where this form of religious coercion was taking us. The national-religious sector, too, looked on and saw that this wasn't the Judaism they knew and loved. No wonder Barkat found a sympathetic ear among many of those he met when visiting state-religious schools and neighborhood synagogues. Porush also tried to draw in the national-religious public, promising them "a winning partnership." He even approached the secular, strolling down the trendy Emek Refaim Street on the Friday afternoon before the elections. My seven-year-old, however, sounding like Hans Christian Andersen's boy declaring the emperor is wearing no clothes, later proclaimed: "He looks more like a rabbi than a mayor." ABOUT A DECADE after everyone else, it seems, I have just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, the novel tracing the (mis)fortunes of a missionary family who moved from Georgia to a traditional village in the Belgian Congo in 1959. The book was so gripping that I finished reading it in a very Jewish way: sitting uncomfortably on the edge of the bathtub so late on a Friday night that the Shabbat timer had already switched off the lights in all the other rooms in my apartment. Given the new sensitivities that have gripped the world courtesy of Barack Obama, I was fascinated, among other things, by the description of the elections held among the mud huts. One of the characters notes that the nature of democratic elections in which the majority vote wins means that only half the population is happy with the results; half will continue to be unhappy after the ballot. In the traditional system, the village got together and discussed an issue until reaching a solution that everyone could live with. Of course, this is a romantic version. People are still killing each other in Congo, partly as the overspill of the Rwandan crisis, and the world continues to say: "Never again" as the death toll rises. As a teenager I had a Belgian penpal living in Congo (at that time Zaire). We had met at an international summer camp in the late '70s when we respectively tried to improve our French and English and learn about another culture. The friendship thrived despite the abysmal postal service. "Clo-Clo" sent me a crocodile-skin bag as a present. She also chillingly spoke of massacres and unrest. Our correspondence ended, if I recall correctly, when she returned to Belgium and I left England for Israel. Now in Jerusalem, as I read Kingsolver's novel, I thought of my former friend. That is why the scene outside my polling station was so touching. Clearly a large percentage of the voting public was going to be disappointed, but as long as these campaigners could put their differences aside to pray together, there was hope. It is a thought to cling to ahead of the February national elections.