Jerusalem is the eternal dichotomy. It is the embodiment of the holy and profane; the religious and secular. The two coexist side by side, just as in Judaism itself for over two thousand years. Yet Jerusalem is not known for it’s secular culture in the diaspora.
It is a slow and steady current that runs through the city streets.
To experience it is to believe in it.
Within Israel itself, many Israelis see Jerusalem as a place for the religious and Tel Aviv as a place for the secular. The rest of the world has also promulgated this notion. I find myself face to face with the reality of what Jerusalem is in actuality. We do not have to look far to see that this is not unique or new in any way. Our roots as living with a secular component are consistent in our history.
Hilonim, the Hebrew word for secular Jews is first used in the Midrash, contained in the rather famous story about the Oven of Akhnai as well as discussions on the holy versus the profane. In the Oven of Akhnai, Kosher or not, all the rabbis say it is unclean and one Rabbi Eliezer says it is clean. He is the only one with this position and asserts- the Torah is not in the heavens, it is here on earth. He proceeds deeper and claims that “we” will decide what it means. He believes God has endorsed this concept that it is not in the heavens. (Deuteronomy 30:11,12):
“For this commandment, which I command you this day,
is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in
heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven
for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can
I find this assertion rather rebellious towards the rabbinate itself. The rabbinate uses this to serve a purpose of human autonomy. The story demonstrates an impulse or mentality that there is autonomy from God. For our purpose, this is a possibility to exploit a later modern secular philosophy.
This Midrash is evidence of Jerusalem’s past and present that I have come to call home. I am immersed in this diverse peoplehood and I am in love with the cosmopolitanism of Jewry here. Yet it appears to be our best-kept secret!
As I sit here and write this piece, I am in Musrara. It is an old Arab neighborhood, or it was originally. After 1967 it was part of the Jerusalem capture. I am surrounded by old Mizrahi Jewish families who immigrated here from all over the Middle East. Our view overlooks the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
This neighborhood abuts into Mea Sherim, where the Haredim live.
Across the street is Damascus gate; this is the Eastern side of Jerusalem where 155,000 Palestinian residents of Israel, non-citizens live.
I can smell spicy foods being cooked by someone’s ima next door. Musrara is where the famous art and media institute resides. I have the pleasure of browsing their galleries to look at all of the exhibitions throughout the year. Today is a Muslala event. Many of the arts and cultural events of Musrara are under the auspices of Muslala. These are typically concerts and performance art, funded by the Jerusalem foundation. They are held at the Musrara Art Institute and Naggar School of Photography.
I have had my windows open all day. The sound of electronic music, very experimental, hip, transcendent and sensual is flooding the area. It is welcomed because it drowns out the sounds of stabby gate (that’s what I call Damascus Gate). It’s a 24/7 circus over there with constant police sirens, arrests, horns honking, the loud route 60, with Yafo street traffic and the train all competing at once.
The numerous synagogues do not complain about the Muslala events. The Haredim from Mea Sherim do not protest or disrupt them. At night, I can walk past the Musrara venue and it is lit up with orange neon lights. It looks so cool and it reminds me of an urban, ultra edgy place you might find in New York or London. Yet this is Jerusalem, not the US and not Europe.
When most people think of Jerusalem they think of it as the most contested city on earth. They think about the conflict and about the presence of the three Abrahamic religions. They are unaware of the jaw dropping art and the powerful exhibitions here. They are oblivious to the vibrant LGBTQ community- and yes, many of them are Orthodox. The world does not associate Jerusalem with multi-culturalism, diversity or progressiveness.
We are a complex peoplehood and our culture is painted with every stripe from all of our host countries. The costumes, the trappings, the way each of us dress, the foods we prepare, the accent in our Hebrew pronunciations- are all a reflection of the melting pot of our ancestors. We are pagan and we are First Temple Period. We are Hellenized and we are Second Temple Period. We are Middle Eastern and we are European. We are Jewish.
The secular and religious cohabitate peacefully here because it is an ancient tradition of ours; the mixed multitude, which stood together at Sinai. We are the holy and profane. Whether it is a sexy beach or technology, a tallit or an archeological dig- we are Jerusalem.