Letter from Jerusalem: Peace for the Prayers of Jerusalem
A new tradition is taking root in Jerusalem as Jews seeking free religious expression flock to the promenades overlooking the Old City for holidays and Shabbat.
On the far side of the circle from me, women sang, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” in a soft, melancholy melody. There were a couple of hundred silhouettes in the circle—the women mostly sitting on one side, near the dark shapes of the olive and pomegranate trees on the downhill slope beyond the lawn, the men mostly sitting on the other side, near the rough stone retaining wall of the promenade above us.
The song ended; a young male voice began chanting the Book of Lamentations, “Alas, lonely sits the city once great with people….”
It was actually rather difficult to forget Jerusalem: I needed only to stand to look beyond the trees and across the valley below them to see the Old City walls and, within them, the gold Dome of the Rock illuminated by floodlights. That jewel-like scene was set in the wider panorama of the lights of nighttime Jerusalem, from the hotel and office towers of West Jerusalem on the left to Abu Dis on the right.
At a slight delay, 100 feet away, a new voice began, “Alas, lonely sits the city…” as if joining in singing a round. Another group had reached the point in the Tisha B’Av evening service for reciting the biblical book about the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. In fact, a medley of prayer was in progress all along the landscaped promenade overlooking the Old City.
On the lawn were youth tour groups from abroad and a large circle of soldiers as well as gatherings of young Orthodox families with baby carriages. At the stone plaza at one end, several hundred people had joined the services conducted by Moreshet Avraham, a Conservative congregation from the adjacent East Talpiot neighborhood. All together, the crowd probably numbered in the low thousands. It gets larger each Tisha B’Av, regulars say.
The Armon Ha-natziv Promenade—tayelet in Hebrew—is one of the architectural gems of contemporary Jerusalem. But it is not marked on tourist maps as a holy place. It is a park, popular among joggers, kite flyers, picnicking families—both Jewish and Palestinian. It is a standard stop for tour guides who want to describe Jerusalem’s history from one lookout point. And yet, in a quiet, spontaneous, grass-roots process, it has also become a place of worship—an alternative sacred space, nondenominational, informal, multicultural. It fulfills that function not just on Tisha B’Av, but also Shavuot, Hoshana Rabba (the seventh day of Sukkot) and other occasions. In a city of religious turf wars and jealous religious establishments, thetayelet is an undeclared shrine to unestablished religion.
Officially, there are actually three promenades, named by or for donors. The first to be completed, in 1987, was the Haas Promenade, which stretches along the ridge leading from pre-1967 West Jerusalem to East Talpiot, through what was once a demilitarized zone between Israel and Jordan. The decision to turn the ridge and the slope facing the Old City into a park followed a public battle against commercial development of the area.
The promenade itself is a wide walkway. A stone retaining wall supports it and faces the Old City. Where the wall is highest, tall arches are inset in it. The form, architectural historian David Kroyanker has written, resembles a Roman aqueduct. Below the wall is a swathe of lawn, and then a slope planted with olive groves and other native flora. Rather than an artificially lush garden, it has the soft look and scent of traditional Mediterranean agriculture—a mark of the work of preeminent Israeli architect Shlomo Aronson, who designed the complex together with Lawrence Halprin of San Francisco. Instead of jarringly jutting out from the ancient landscape, like so much Israeli architecture, the park restores it, reveals it.
The second piece of the complex, completed soon after the first, is the Sherover Promenade—a wide staircase descending from the ridge to another walkway, lower on the hillside, leading to the Abu Tor neighborhood. Lookout points with stone benches and wooden pergolas punctuate the walkway and offer space for groups to gather. In 2001, the third piece was added, the Goldman Promenade, a path running through the woods below United Nations headquarters in Jerusalem to the edge of the Palestinian neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.
Together, says Aronson, the promenades “constitute an echo of the Old City walls” and define the southern edge of what is known as the Holy Basin, the religious and historical core of Jerusalem. From the promenades, Aronson notes, Christian tour groups can see the location of all the events of Jesus’ last day. For Muslims, the center of the view is the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque; for Jews, it’s the Temple Mount. Or, for anyone who wants to look without excluding anything, the view is of the sacred space of three faiths, and of rebuilt modern Jerusalem as well, and—to the east—of the high concrete security wall recently built around the city, a discordant reminder of the city’s pain. Beyond that, the view includes the Judean Desert and the mountains rising on the far side of the Jordan River.
The view of the Old City and the Temple Mount is the most obvious reason that the tayelet has attracted people to hold religious services and ceremonies since it was opened. Of course, one can see the mount from much closer up—indeed, touch it—at the Western Wall, which since 1967 has been the best known gathering place for public Jewish prayer.
But the differences between the two sites begin with the visual experience. The view at the Wall is a close-up of the stones of the long-destroyed Temple; from farther back, one also sees the Muslim shrines of Haram al-Sharif atop the mount. The most obvious messages are historical Jewish loss and today’s competition for holy space. From the tayelet, the panorama includes rebuilt Jerusalem—even on Tisha B’Av, the context in which a modern religious Jew places the city’s past destruction. If one is open to the picture of three religions coexisting in the city, the biblical verse that comes to mind is the hopeful, “My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Besides that, the plaza at the Western Wall still has an incomplete, unplanned look. On holidays or Shabbat, the single open space of the men’s side can fill with a cacophonous mix of minyanim praying next to each other in different styles and speeds. From the women’s side, it’s difficult to hear someone leading prayers or reading the Torah. By contrast, the promenades are aesthetically complete. Benches and lawns provide comfortable seating. At Orthodox prayers, men and women can sit separately, but as part of one group. The design of the tayelet creates a series of niches where separate groups can meet. The complex was created, says Aronson, with public events and religious ceremonies in mind—but with no explicit religious symbols. Rather, “you can find a quiet space where you can define what you’re seeing,” he says.
Another crucial difference: The Western Wall is administered by the state as a holy site; it belongs to the bureaucracy of religion. And over the years, the dominant atmosphere has become ultra-Orthodox, pushing away people who once felt comfortable there. “The Kotel has been coopted by a sect of Judaism that does not represent the majority,” comments Brenda Brasher, an American Jewish sociologist of religion. So it’s not surprising, she says, to see a grass-roots response taking place elsewhere. One part of that response is that more modern Orthodox women expect to take part in public worship and, as Brasher puts it, people “tend to be religious as couples.”
An example of that change playing out: For many years a modern Orthodox group from southern Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Talpiot and Baka followed the popular custom of walking to the Wall at dawn on Shavuot after a night of study. In 1998, as usual, the group held its service on the back part of the plaza, where there is no divider between men and women, so that the women could hear the service and Torah reading and join in singing. Nearby, a Conservative minyan prayed, surrounded by a cordon of police to protect it from angry ultra-Orthodox protesters. When the Conservative worshipers and the police left, the protesters turned their anger to the modern Orthodox group, shouting and heckling.
Ever since, says Michael Glatzer, a long-time participant, the group has held its service on the Sherover Promenade instead. At least a hundred men and more women come. At dawn, Glatzer notes, the site is particularly inspiring, as the sun rises from the desert over the city.
The sunrise crowd was much bigger on the morning before Passover began last spring, the occasion of Judaism’s rarest ceremony: the blessing of the sun, held once every 28 years. One of the many services on the promenades was organized by Elie Holzer, a Bar-Ilan University education professor and founder of the liberal Orthodox congregation Shira Hadasha. (For the past three years, Holzer has organized Hoshana Rabba prayers for that congregation at the tayelet as well.) Holzer describes the site as expressing both the blessing’s universalistic message of “giving thanks for light” and the privilege of saying it in Jerusalem. At the tayelet, he could also put together a musical ensemble of violin, viola, drums, guitar, clarinet and flute. Worshipers, he explains, could experience and compare the dimensions of the liturgy, the music and the view of old and modern Jerusalem. He sent out an e-mail to friends, who forwarded the message. Over 300 people came, some driving from the north and south of Israel.
The religious use of the promenades isn’t limited to Jewish holidays, though. On weekday mornings, I have seen individual Jews and Muslims praying there—Jews facing north, Muslims southward. At one quiet lookout point, I recently saw a bat mitzva in progress, the girl reading from the Torah, a few dozen relatives and friends gathered around. On a Shabbat afternoon, I passed a hundred or so African pilgrims singing a slow melody to drumbeat accompaniment while a small circle of celebrants danced in the center of the group. Other times I have seen busloads of American Evangelicals praying and singing hymns in English.
Religious traditions, Brasher says, often begin from the bottom-up—as local responses to dates, people or places. Religious establishments can ignore the new developments, try to repress them or seek to coopt them, to take control of them. So I write about the religious flowering of the tayelet with both excitement and a touch of trepidation. I hope more people find the niche for their kind of religious expression there. I also hope that no institution lays religious claim to the promenades, that no men’s area and women’s area are marked out, that no official appoints a rabbi of the tayelet. The ridge that was once no-man’s land has become everyone’s land, the people’s holy space. Let it stay that way and flourish. H