The People’s Holy Space

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece on South Jerusalem’s unofficial, non-establishment, do-it-yourself holy place is now up at the Hadassah Magazine site:

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 Be’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 Be’av, regulars say.

The Armon Hanatziv 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 Be’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, the tayelet is an undeclared shrine to unestablished religion.

Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

6 thoughts on “The People’s Holy Space”

  1. Interesting article, especially the bit about religious activities being a conscious part of the original design.

    While the choice of this site may be grass-roots, the religious practice as described doesn’t sound that way. Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, Islam – all of these are organized religious movements or religions. But there are true grass-roots, folk-religious sites in Israel: the graves of famous rabbis. They’re sites of pilgrimage for both religious and nonreligious Israeli Jews (mostly Sephardi it seems), many of whom arrive on chartered buses.

    Also, your description of the scene at the kotel (Western Wall) actually sounds pretty good by the standards of this article. It’s multivocal (“different styles”), lively (“cacophonous”), “incomplete”, “unplanned”, anarchic. The tayelet by contrast, despite the free activity there, was carefully, consciously, rationally planned by architects. So that one paragraph on the kotel kind of subverts the message you were overtly trying to get across.

    Anyway, there’s only one kotel, so it’s a good thing that it’s controlled by some single traditional voice of Judaism. It’s a good thing that the tayelet and other unofficial sites are not under any such control. Once again, the State of Israel manages to find, implicitly, a workable arrangement with Judaism. And the establishment hasn’t tried to suppress or co-opt pilgrimages to rabbis’ graves – a true folk religious practice – so I wouldn’t worry too much about the tayelet either.

  2. These promenades are an ugly eyesore built upon stolen Palestinian land. It is an obscenity for you to worship there unless you are worshipping the dollar

  3. The promenades are beautiful, and link different neighborhoods, both Jewish and Moslem, together, and both peoples walk there, talk there (even together), worship there, picnic there, and play soccer and fly kites there. I used to live a block from the tayelet and saw beauty and co-existence where there was once barbed wire and mine fields. “Ugly” in this context is in the hate of the ignorant.

  4. Years ago we stayed in South Talpiot and visited the then new promenade overlooking the city. It’s wonderful to hear what it has become. I hope that Lawrence Halprin, one of the two architects that planned this, knew of this success before he passed away in late October. The New York Times obituary quotes a Wapo architecture critic on Halprin: “All of Halprin’s designs reflect this passion to give people as many options as possible to go this way or that, to reverse directions, to pause, to start over, to be alone, to meet others, and to experience as many different sights, smells and sounds as the site permits,”

    NYTimes obituary of landscape architect LawrenceHalprin

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