This Normal Life: Secular in the city

In a city that can seem very black and white at times, the real Jerusalem is waiting to be discovered.

'If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem, it's because of Tel Aviv' seen on a wall in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood. (photo credit: TEHIYA BEN ZUR)
'If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem, it's because of Tel Aviv' seen on a wall in Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood.
(photo credit: TEHIYA BEN ZUR)
Yaniv doesn’t like Jerusalem. “It’s nothing personal,” he said nonchalantly between demonstrative slurps of my wife Jody’s famous chicken soup, as he joined us at the Shabbat table a few weeks back. “I just don’t feel welcome here – in the city that, is,” he added, looking sheepishly at Jody. “It’s just so… you know… religious.”
There’s nothing particularly new in Yaniv’s disdain for Jerusalem. Born and raised in Tel Aviv and proudly secular, Yaniv’s attitude is simply the latest embodiment of the long-standing clash between Israel’s free swinging liberal culture center and Jerusalem’s religious mystical bohemian vibe, a dispute over ethos and geography that has been going strong since before the founding of Israel’s unofficial capital on the beach 100 years ago.
But I really want Yaniv to like Jerusalem. It’s not just that I feel rejected or defensive for my hometown – although I feel that too. It’s that the economic, political and demographic future of Jerusalem depends on secular young adults like Yaniv and his friends, at least some of them, deciding to make Jerusalem their home; to work here and pay their taxes here.
That’s not going to be easy, if a very unscientific poll I conducted on Facebook has anything to say about it. I posted a simple if biased question: “What do Tel Avivians have against Jerusalem?” – on two online forums, Secret Jerusalem (with 25,000 members) and Secret Tel Aviv (90,000 members). The hundreds of responses I received revealed that the gap between the two cities is much wider than the 70 or so kilometers of Highway 1.
Some of the responses were more about personal preferences than anything terribly deep or serious. “There’s no sea.” “The Jerusalem Stone architecture is cold and monotonous.” “There are too many tourists.” “Jerusalem is not a good place to raise a dog.” “The sidewalks are too narrow.” “There’s no good Mexican food.” (The owners of the new Burrito Hai near Mahaneh Yehuda would beg to differ.)
But if there was one common thread that repeated over and over it was this: “Jerusalem is too religious.” “It’s the world capital for fundamentalists.” “There’s nothing open on weekends.” “People judge you by what you wear.” “There are extremists everywhere.” “Religion plays an inordinately large role in people’s lives.” “Jerusalem demands compliance with a capital C.”
Maybe Yaniv is right. Maybe there is nothing here for a secular Tel Avivian like him. But the outpouring of intercity vitriol that filled my Facebook feed for a solid week ultimately seems so superficial. There has to be something more than just these tired old clichés.
Tovi Fenster is a professor in the department of geography and human environment at Tel Aviv University. She believes that there’s something about the physical layout of Jerusalem’s inner city neighborhoods that contributes to the feeling of alienation experienced by those who don’t adhere to Orthodox religious behavior or dress. In a 2010 paper about “urban citizenship,” co-authored with Itay Manor, she describes how the center of Jerusalem is “a crossroads where the edges meet. Each neighborhood has a distinct social character and elements that distinguish it from the others.”
Because Jerusalem’s neighborhoods are so close to one another, though, and because the borders are not clearly marked, it’s very easy to “accidentally” cross a cultural boundary to where one might not be entirely welcome.
Think about a secular woman straying into Mea She’arim on a hot summer day. The city’s spatial geography implicitly “produces feelings of alienation, exclusion and hostility. Wandering around the city is limited to certain areas, especially in the center,” Fenster writes. Tel Aviv, by contrast, has a “wide and dense urban center with diverse characteristics.” Its neighborhoods are further on the fringes. As a result, there isn’t the same feeling of constriction.
Elissa Ash, responding to my question on Facebook, remembers when she lived in Jerusalem thinking, “I can’t go over there because I’m Jewish, I can’t go over there because I am a woman and don’t cover myself appropriately. In Tel Aviv, you can go anywhere and do anything and nobody else cares!”
Hebrew University political science professor Avner de Shalit thinks comparing the two cities is missing the point, much like other urban rivalries (think Los Angeles vs San Francisco, Rome vs Milan). “Different cities offer their inhabitants different ethos or spirits,” he says.“There’s no one place that’s right for everyone.”
Expecting Jerusalem to appeal equally to all Israelis is like saying that every American should love living in Las Vegas.
So who is Jerusalem for? “My feeling is that most people in Jerusalem have some relationship with religion or Judaism. They’re connected and/or they struggle with it. It’s part of their worldview,” says Deena Levenstein, founder and manager of Things to Do in Jerusalem, a Facebook group about culture in Jerusalem.
Levenstein has a good point. It’s not that Jerusalem has nothing to offer a young, secular Tel Avivian like Yaniv – there are more restaurants, pubs and movie theaters open on Shabbat than ever before, and the number of hi-tech startups in the city is expected to double in the next year (we’re even getting our own WeWork) – but if you’re not engaged somehow with religion, are interested in religion at least as an academic topic, or have an appreciation for the “by-products” of living in a city with a strong religious character, you’re probably not going to find Jerusalem compelling in the long term.
So, for example, even the most secular Jerusalemite might also enjoy popping into Beit Avi Chai (or Pardes for the Anglos) for the occasional lecture. They might go to a rock-and-roll Kabbalat Shabbat “experience” at the First Station or at one of the city’s growing alternative minyanim like Baka’s Tzion congregation.
Traditional Friday night rituals at home would not be out of place even if afterward everyone goes out dancing. If they’re absolutely positively not interested in those things, then yes, Jerusalem might very well feel oppressive.
“I wonder how many people really wish that Shabbat was like a regular weekend day, as in an American or European city,” Levenstein ponders. “I think that a lot of people in Jerusalem appreciate the change of pace in the city, the quiet that descends.”
Or as comedian and one-time resident Benji Lovitt, quips about Shabbat in Jerusalem, “A nap is enjoyable everywhere, but there’s nothing like doing it in solidarity with your neighbors when approximately 87.4 percent of the city is doing the same.”
Jerusalem’s religious nature also creates opportunities that simply are not available elsewhere. Rachel Rosenbluth immigrated from Toronto and moved to Tel Aviv. “I love it there,” she says. “I find it incredibly creative and open.” Nevertheless, Rosenbluth had no choice but to move to Jerusalem last year because she wants to study Torah towards rabbinic ordination, and Orthodox smicha programs that are open to men and women exist only in the Jerusalem area.
Rosenbluth still yearns for Tel Aviv. “Everywhere I go in Jerusalem, I feel I have to define myself, to explain who I am.” But that’s the dichotomy, the double-edged sword of Jerusalem: Rosenbluth couldn’t study Torah “in a serious way” anywhere else, and yet is not fully accepted for her choices.
So given all this, is there room in Jerusalem for a secular young person like Yaniv, for whom religion is a non-starter or worse? The hard truth is: probably not.
“Suppose someone with an entirely secular lifestyle migrates to Jerusalem,” writes Avner de Shalit in his 2011 book The Spirit of Cities, which he co-authored with Daniel A. Bell.
“Suppose they choose this not because they like the city’s ethos but because their spouse works here or they need to take care of their elderly parents. Does this mean that they must accept the ethos? Do they have to respect ultra- Orthodox people and not drive down their streets on Saturday? My answer would be yes… to some extent people must respect the ethos of faith and religion in Jerusalem. Because living in the city denotes tacit consent to accept its ethos.”
So to Yaniv, I would say: You don’t have to live here. I accept that we’re not right for everybody. You don’t even have to like us. But I hope you’ll get to know us and maybe even try to understand what Jerusalem has to offer for those who call it home; that something important and authentic is happening here.
Or as Benji Lovitt says, “It’s easy to state that Jerusalem is boring and everybody’s religious when you don’t live there. Yeah, well, New York is expensive and everybody is rude. Except when you spend some time there and realize that life isn’t always so black and white.”
In a city that can seem very black and white at times, the real Jerusalem is waiting to be discovered.
You just have to appreciate what’s between the cracks as much as the stones. 
The writer is a freelance journalist and editor. His blog, “This Normal Life,” has appeared online at The Jerusalem Post since 2002.