In 1984 I worked on an educational film produced by the Gesher Foundation. Titled “The Journey,” it told the story of a 13-year-old boy during World War II Russia who was being sent off by his aunt to stay safe with distant family. It was also his bar mitzvah, but the boy knew nothing about Jewish coming of age ceremonies. Fortunately, just as the boy is boarding the train, the aunt spots a very assimilated Jewish man from the States. She begs him to teach her son what it means to be bar mitzvah on the long journey. He protests, claiming even less knowledge than his traveling partner, but by the end of the trip, the two have fashioned a make shift bar mitzvah during a daring escape into a Russian forest. Both sides grow and the message on the importance of bar mitzvah is duly imparted, if not overly heavy handed.
Of course, we didn’t have the budget to travel to the former Soviet Union to film (actually, at the time, it wasn’t former yet), so we dressed up the Jerusalem train station with propaganda posters and Russian signage and peppered it with actors in Russian army uniforms. I have a video of the film, which I’ve posted to YouTube and you can see at this link. Watch the beginning few minutes for some 1984 station nostalgia.
So began my long and somewhat intimate link with Jerusalem’s Ottoman era train station. Originally opened in 1892 and closed in 1998, I was probably one of the few people who ever rode the train to Tel Aviv in its waning years. And two of my children went to a kindergarten located right along the tracks (shout out to Shimon!) where one of the daily highlights was the train passing by every morning (by that time, there were only two trips a day).
Following the station’s closing, it fell into serious disrepair, taken over by squatters, drug dealers and some of Jerusalem’s less talented graffiti artists. The track leading from the station was just as decrepit – a narrow line of weeds, mud and rubbish, mostly fenced off, and lined by cars making it the German Colony’s main free parking lot.
All that is a distant memory. Over the last two years, the train track has been transformed into what’s being called by some the most successful community-based urban renewal project in Israel’s history: a 6-km walking, biking and jogging path that leads from the train station itself into the hills outside Jerusalem where it hooks up with a 42-km bike path that circles the city. It’s hard to describe the impact it’s made on the neighborhoods around it – from an empty and dangerous dumping ground to a mixed use, beautifully landscaped space that is now so crowded with families out for a stroll on weekends and holidays that it’s almost defeated its own purpose of providing a refuge from the congestion of the city. But who’s complaining?
The last part of the urban renovation has been the train station itself, which held its formal grand opening last week, on Erev Shavuot. The workmanship is stunning. The station has been restored to its former glory – better, actually, than I ever remember it. The area where the trains once stood is now an enormous 3,000 square meter wooden deck, similar to the Tel Aviv Port, which contains several “stores” built as large glass railway cars along, along with temporary stands which will fill the space on market days: designer clothes, organic food and children’s activities.
The people behind what’s called the First Station are the same as the developers who renovated the train line’s matched pair near Jaffa. But that is considered in many ways a failure. Sure it’s beautiful, but there’s nothing to do other than shop and eat, the establishments there are all on the very high end and, as a result, other than the chic and hopping Vicki Christina bar, the “Tahana” is too often a ghost town devoid of locals.
The developers are going out of their way to ensure that the First Station in Jerusalem beats those blues. The day before the opening, I happened to meet entirely by coincidence Shuli Oded at a social event. Oded is building out the multimedia sound and lighting component of the station that will give it an interactive similar to the annual Old City Light Festival. He explained to me that the station will only succeed if it’s 50% shopping and eating and 50% “culture.”
To that end, on opening day last week, there was a large area set up for dance performances from local professional and student Hora Jerusalem group. A 160-meter art gallery featuring works from Bezalel students will be going in. Several shows from the upcoming Israel Festival will take place at the station. Public Pilates lessons, yoga and Zumba are all planned.
And on Friday afternoons during the summer, a pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat will be held, similar to the one that draws thousands at the Tel Aviv Port. Nava Tehila, the rock and roll Jewish Renewal congregation that my family is a member of (see my previous post), will be doing four of the summer’s eight Fridays; they started last week and drew a standing room only crowd of hundreds (note to organizers: move it to a larger space). The idea is for the First Station to become the new Jerusalem “town square.”
To be a town square means encouraging interaction, and the First Station will also be an ambitious experiment in coexistence, balancing between kosher and non-kosher, with about half of its establishments open and the other half closed on Shabbat and holidays. The upscale Adom French bistro has moved to the facility and is open on Shabbat, as is a branch of the Landwer coffee chain. But there is also a sign for a kosher “chef’s restaurant” coming soon, and the new Fresh Kitchen will be the country’s first kosher one. The branch of the Tel Aviv-based Vaniglia ice cream chain will serve up its frosty delights on weekends; the RE:Bar smoothie stand will not.
On the opening day last week, the place was packed with many thousands of visitors. The kids had plenty of activities; there were gourmet cheeses for sale and a stand that made popsicles out of real fruit (you chew don’t suck them). A farmer’s market, which will regularly appear on Thursdays and Fridays, sold plenty of fresh from the fields produce. There were artists hawking hand made knick-knacks and a designer clothing section. All these will alternate during the week; we were treated for a one-stop feast.
What else? There will be two bike shops, one for purchase and one for rentals – grab a cycle and head to the adjacent bike path into the woods. And most important – free bathrooms, open on Shabbat (never underestimate the drawing power of a toilet on a long hot stroll).
One glaring error I noticed, however, on a visit a few days before the opening, was a total lack of official signage in English – a strange omission if the site wants to cater to tourists, especially those who have few other places in town that are open on Shabbat. There are lovely descriptions and pictures of the station’s history but all in Hebrew. I brought this up when I met Oded; he informed the entrepreneurs who he said responded with a virtual gasp and pledged to look into the situation immediately.
But that’s just a small quibble. The First Station looks to have the right stuff to boldly thrust itself onto the cultural, culinary and travel circuit. It’s a fabulous addition to the city for those who have never been; for someone like me who has been watching the station for nearly 30 years, it’s nothing short of a Russian revolution…this time not on film.