a day (or two days) in jerusalem
There's good news and bad news about the new light rail system in Jerusalem. The good news is that it's efficient, spotless, and at least for the time being free of charge. The bad news is it doesn't come very often and, when it does, doesn't go most of the places you would want to get to. Oh, and a few stones were thrown at it when it passed through an Arab area recently.
The light rail is a good metaphor for the city itself. Many Tel Avivians avoid Jerusalem, which they regard as backward, poor, overrun by religious zealots, and generally speaking out of the Israeli mainstream. There's something to this: much of the city is indeed slumlike, it takes a surprisingly long time to get here (the rail line stops in the suburbs and the main road hasn't been updated since the 70s), and there appears to be an informal agreement to keep women--any women--off public advertising, leading to an aggressive countercampaign. But the city has grown enormously--there are something like a million people if one counts all the Arab areas, certainly if one reaches out to nearby Bethlehem and Ramallah--and more to the city than first meets the eye.
Part of the variety, of course, involves those very Arab areas--the Old City and surrounding suburbs--together with the remaining secular enclaves (The German Colony, parts of Rehavia, etc.) But there is also a surprising degree of diversity among the "religious" elements, who range from secular Zionists to ordinary Haredim ("ultra-orthodox" or "black hats") to sects actively opposed to the entire Zionist enterprise. For example, the city is the birthplace of the Shira Hadasha minyan, which retains a division between men and women but allows each of them to lead various parts of the service. Even among the Haredim, there are divisions: many of the complaints against religious excesses (e.g., separate sidewalks for mean and women) are brought by Haredi women themselves, and a recent poll showed that a third or more of Haredim disapproved of such zealotry.
There's also just an extraordinary amount of cultural activity going on in the city, although some of it is admittedly esoteric in nature. Today I am visiting the Museum of the Italian Jewish Community, while already this week I've passed on lectures about the attitude of European rabbis to the Land of Israel between the two world wars (Hebrew University) and the poetry of Avraham Sutzkever (Agnon Institute). Much of this, like the city itself, does not easily fit any category: it is "Jewish" (or "Arab") in a broad sense but moves easily across boundaries and challenges easy assumptions about people and categories.
The other day I saw the movie Footnote (he'arat shulayim), which tells a story about a father and son who share positions in the Hebrew University Talmud Department--and not very much else. Unlike many other films that I've seen, the picture neither glorifies nor demonizes the study and practice of religion, but simply presents it as another aspect of life worthy of observing and retelling. I saw it in Tel Aviv, but it is in a sense a quintessential Jerusalem story. We need to hear more stories like it.