Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Jerusalem’s Pollution

My Tree House
My Tree House

There is a classic story: trumpeter Miles Davis gave a great performance in a famous Boston jazz club; a guy from the audience walked up to him and said, “Gee Miles, you sounded GREAT tonight”. And Miles responded, “Well M…F… (expletive) maybe you’ze just LISTENING GREAT!

So I ask, how well do we really LISTEN? How much do we use that miraculous organ called the inner ear/and/brain? How much do we filter out? Do the sounds around us prevent us from deeper listening (“Sh’ma”)? How much do sounds effect our psyche, our moods, our pace of life, our very well being?

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Indeed when we speak of pollution, we imagine thick clouds with particle densities that explode in our faces. We imagine ourselves with deep searing coughs and gas masks to close out the gunk (as in New Delhi or Beijing). Yes, for sure, these horrors are among us, even here. I deplore them! I feel Jerusalem, as is the world, is choking. HOWEVER, I am a musician by trade, and naturally turn to the aural aura around us, including the level of harmful cacophony. This is most evident on Shabbat when decibel levels are lower, making our Jerusalem lives more livable. While the density of blaring cars decreases, the pastoral heart of Jerusalem’s mysterious sound universe awakens; one might actually hear faint sounds of the ancient temple, choirs, orchestras, strange instruments! (ok, perhaps I exaggerate!).

Just this past Shabbat I marveled at my rough count: passing cars going from 10 per minute to 1/2….fading almost to 0. With such a reduction, broad flocks of birds feel to roam and sing: dulcet choirs, reminiscent of days gone by; gigantic belly laugh of crowds hearing a Lenny Bruce monologue for the first time. This past Shabbat I even saw heard  sounds as if they were “peeking through” the receding clouds of crashes, booms and bleeps of my neighborhood!

If you don’t believe me, take an “ear tour” of Jerusalem on a week day. Try crossing the different neighborhoods spanning various ethnic, religious and occupational zones. While you’re doing that, try downloading a decibel meter to your portable phones, and see just how dangerous the levels get. And if you dare, go into a traditional Jewish wedding and measure the sound levels there–for we know that many active wedding musicians (poor souls) are permanently deafened because of their profession, while they selflessly bringing “simcha” to the chatan and kalah! They fiddle while “Rome burns”, or rather while “eardrums fry”.

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So I would like to go on record. I officially call for a public “mishmar ezrachi” (citizens’ guard) for sound pollution in my beloved city, for the mapping out Jerusalem, documenting where the most dangerous pollution is located. Anyone who wants to join me in this quest is welcome. I am now officially retired (though I continue to compose music), SO I HAVE THE TIME! Please contact me if you want to be part of this. Some see me as the Johnny Appleseed of peace and quiet, planting the seeds of tranquility. Please join me in my quest!

I propose that we start with several quite obvious locations:

1) The Israel Knesset (especially the inner chamber)

2) The Talpiot Industrial Zone (one would think that the “crane” has become Israel’s new national bird!)

3) Talpiot Arnona neighborhood (where I live, I have protectia to start here because after all I am, for now, your fearless leader)

4) City Center

Any other suggestions?

And where are our “sound gems”, the various oasis points of quietude?

1) Bill Rose Garden, Israel Museum, which the late Isamu Noguchi built as the “Acropolis” for the Middle East (oh, but now we have Begin Boulevard)

2) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (try it, you are in for a surprise)

3) Jerusalem Forest (now with gobs of traffic, light rail, frantic building, etc.)

Do I make my point? Where can we actually find quiet in our beloved city?  What kind of society are we creating when we cannot even hear our heart beats when we are in love?

We know that noise makes us lousier people—grouchier, less patient, frenetic, less friendly, more tense and more inclined to do rash things like scream at our neighbors, friends, wives and husbands. Research has documented more serious ramifications (something I will document in further writings). Of course we can fill our ears with gobs of cotton (but then how can we hear what our children are saying to us?). We can blare all kinds of music into our earphones, but, unfortunately music most can also pollute (unless it is Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and something that which I have composed) (smile).

As I sit and write this, I can hear faint cars in the distance, occasionally rising, but by and large I can hear faint winds in the trees, and an occasional bird or two–for these relaxing minutes, I am in heaven. I feel blessed.

These words are meant as an awakening. So I ask, who is with me? Who wants to join in my new crusade, in the name of Jerusalem, our personal and collective abode! Shall we wait for the mayor, or strike out on our own? I for one opt for the latter. Onward and upward! Here’s for slowly turning down Jerusalem’s decibel dial. We owe it to generations to come. We owe it to ourselves.

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and hermit. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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