What seems like a million years ago – last May – Steve Greenberg of S-Curve Records flew into Israel for the Eurovision contest. Before plunging into his Tel Avivi music world, he visited us in old-fashioned, delightedly-unfashionable, Jerusalem. Steve lived in Israel for two years and has visited over thirty times. He and his family have done the usual Jerusalem tourist spots – and then some. Rather than just hanging out that afternoon, we had a Jerusalem adventure – seeking out sites he’d never seen.
As Israelis leave lockdown, as quarantined friends abroad continue revising – and re-revising –their travel bucket lists, and, as we all approach Yom Yerushalayim this Friday, May 22, I offer this JerusaleMoment. I hope to entice Israelis to appreciate the imposed opportunity to rediscover our own country while luring friends abroad to visit as soon as possible. Perhaps most important, I want to build a platform for appreciating Jerusalem Day as it should be appreciated: as a holiday for all the Jewish people – and humanity – not one political faction’s private property.
Our walking tour began behind the Begin Center at a newly redone park Ketef Hinnom. At this stunning outlook overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, archaeologists discovered silver amulets with Biblical verses, including the Priestly Blessing (May the Lord bless you and keep you….) – in Priestly tombs from 650 BCE — the First Temple days. Ten minutes in – and already we were steeped in Jewish history, swimming through the millennia.
Crossing the “Valley of Hinnom” – Gehenna – we survived the archetypal valley of death, where pagans sacrificed children 2700 years ago. As happens so often in Jerusalem, we were toggling from blessings to curses, appreciating Jewish history while contemplating human progress. Proud that we evolved beyond child sacrifice, you wonder about other ethical leaps humanity still must make.
The existential questions multiplied as we scampered up Mount Zion – that symbol of Jewish redemption, where King David and Oskar Schindler are buried. We visited Israel’s first Holocaust museum – the gruesome Martef HaShoah, Holocaust Chamber — established in 1949. This chamber of horrors houses German soap made from human fat, ashes of victims from 36 death camps, a crematory-oven replica, a suit made for a Nazi officer from a Torah scroll, and 2000 plaques memorializing some of the Jewish communities the Nazis destroyed.
We recalled how most of our friends growing up in Queens, New York, had American-born parents and Polish-Russian grandparents who arrived in America on “the boat” – that great migration from 1880 to 1924. As kids, survivors seemed mysterious to us: foreign, broken, scary – my parents, whispering, called them “Europeans.” Steve recalled how a rare refugee in his neighborhood was one of the first people they knew to visit Israel. It was after 1967 and the pilgrim proudly returned with a piece of the Wall chipped off, a custom which blessedly hasn’t taken off, but which was understandable, under the circumstances.
We cut across the Old City’s Armenian and Jewish Quarters, searching for the Mohammad Ali bakery near Damascus Gate – which we frequented when Steve was on Young Judaea’s Year Course and I attended the Machon LeMadrechei Chutz La’aretz, decades earlier. We found it – now run by a grandson, if we got the story right. We hung out there with a Palestinian Jerusalemite Steve befriended while producing David Broza’s epic East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem album.
After that multicultural moment, we crashed into more-recent Zionist history, leaving through Damascus Gate, crossing the 1949-to-1967 border, reaching the Museum of Underground Prisoners in the Russian Compound. You can feel the pain of the pre-1948 struggle to establish Israel there – including the heartbreaking martyrdom of Moshe Barazani, 20, and Meir Feinstein, 19. They blew themselves up with a grenade smuggled in an orange, rather than give the British the satisfaction of hanging them as scheduled.
We ended our tour in the lovely, circular Kidane Mehret Church, the Ethiopian – Covenant of Mercy built 120 years ago – then went to a 1920s-style speakeasy behind a revolving bookcase – Gatsby Cocktail Room — finishing at the incomparable, delectable Harvey’s Smokehouse, a kosher Kansas City Barbecue joint.
In seven hours one Tuesday, we rode the rollercoaster of Jewish history, covering 27 centuries, from Temple-times to the Zionist revolution. We honored the city’s holiness to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, while toasting Israel’s reunification, which ensured freedom for worshippers from all three religions.
We celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, as it ought to be celebrated. Instead of aggressive ultra-nationalist Old City parades that intimidate non-Jewish fellow Jerusalemites we embraced Jerusalem, the city of peace, the Jewish people’s capital, embodying our particularist pain and universalistic message, our national achievements – and international appeal.
Unintentionally, we modeled for today’s Corona-craziness how much Israelis can benefit by touring locally, helping guides, hoteliers, and restauranteurs, recover economically. And, modern-Israel style, we ended with fine wine and a first-class kosher meatfest. At that moment, struck also by how much Jerusalem developed in the four decades since we first visited, we felt lucky to experience twenty-first-century Jerusalem – and Israel.
One surprising, draining, year later, we feel particularly lucky we had that day.
So…. calling all Israelis: celebrate Jerusalem Day by planning your day in Jerusalem soon. And calling all Jerusalem lovers – celebrate Yom Yerushalayim by making a JerusAlbum. Post on social media images and words of you or loved ones writing new chapters in Jewish history in the Jewish people’s eternal capital – and come join us here soon to make more eternal memories!
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .