On January 8, 2017, Fadi al-Qanbar plowed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on an educational tour at the Haas Promenade — the breathtaking “Tayelet” in Armon Hanatziv that spans from Abu Tor to Jabel Mukaber, connecting the various neighborhoods of Talpiot and Arnona, and linking Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. Once the initial deed was done, the 28-year old father of four reversed over his victims, leaving four soldiers dead and 16 wounded.
Meters from the site, two figures stood silently, oblivious to the horror that had taken place just behind their backs. Man and woman, the bronze figures have been standing in silent vigil ever since, striding purposefully, frozen in motion, their robes billowing behind them, supporting them, propelling them. They move in synchrony, like giant birds, against a backdrop of pain at a site of exquisite beauty.
Like the two bronze figures, in the year since the attack on the ridge where Abraham is said to have gazed at the mountain where he was to sacrifice his son, my husband and I have walked the Tayelet, fulfilling the silent promise that I made to four sets of parents I do not know to return to the site regularly for as long as Kaddish was being said for their children, who were of the same age and at the same life stage as my two soldier sons.
Like many other Jewish residents of south Jerusalem, prior to the attack, we had withdrawn from the promenade, spooked by the murder of a young woman on its lower paths during the Second Intifada and the stabbing of two elderly women in the adjacent “Peace Forest” during the Intifada of Knives. Now, however, we were determined not to let terror deter us from visiting this place of spectacular beauty so close to our home.
On the Friday after the attack, the community, still reeling, gathered in the afternoon to sing, remember, and return the light to the promenade. We assembled there in quiet despair, parents of soldiers, grandparents of soldiers, parents of future soldiers, all yearning for peace. A lone minstrel strummed his guitar and sang songs to welcome the Sabbath, as young children stooped down to light candles at a makeshift memorial, under the watchful eye of the police.
Days after the attack, I was at the Tayelet when metal chain link fences were erected to protect pedestrians from further car rammings. I watched as Artists 4 Peace covered a stretch of the fence with a fiery orange banner emblazoned with the verse “May there be peace within your ramparts, tranquility in your citadels,” invoking the name of the neighborhood Armon Hanatziv. Later, I saw the fence taken down and replaced by barriers called “bollards” (such are the words you learn when you live in Jerusalem). The steel canisters filled with concrete were soon encased in Jerusalem stone, as if they were part of the original design of the site.
Mostly, our walks were on Shabbat, when we strolled along the promenade, taking in its sweeping panoramic views, marveling at its resplendent colors, and observing its varied people. We stood, looking out at the center of the universe — at the Old City and the Temple Mount — nestled in the Holy Basin, surrounded by higher mountains, at this place central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
We learned to recognize the domes and spires from which prayers rise up to the same God in different languages: The circular Abbey of the Dormition, the glistening Dome of the Rock, the lead covered dome of the Al Aqsa mosque, the towering Church of the Redeemer in the Muristan, the glowing white dome of the rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the Church of the Ascension rising up on the Mount of Olives, the glistening gold spires of the Church of Mary Magdalene, peeking out from among olive green trees. Towards sunset, the Western Wall would be ablaze in sunlight, while at night it would be illuminated by floodlights. The stunning view was marred only by the sight of the gray separation barrier, snaking its way between the buildings on the opposite mountain, and reminding us of the reality in earthly Jerusalem.
We learned that the Tayelet is a place of surprises. At any time, a man on a white steed may come galloping across the manicured lawns, or a group of Franciscan friars may stroll by, draped in long brown robes. The greatest surprise of all was when we walked the Tayelet on Passover with my friend Sally and her husband, who were visiting from abroad, and stumbled upon scores of picnicking people of color, many with large embroidered crosses on the front of their traditional robes. We were sure they were pilgrims from Africa, until one of their children, being chased by a friend, grabbed my husband’s knees, hiding behind him and calling “hatzilu” (Hebrew for “save me”). It was then that we discovered that they were part of the Eritrean community in Israel.
But mostly, we saw ordinary people, all extraordinary in their own way. A Muslim woman clad in a long black robe and long black hijab carried a black patent leather purse as she ran nimbly across a green lawn, playing soccer with the men and boys of her family, who were all dressed in modern sports clothes. A young, ultra-Orthodox woman, wearing thick black stockings in the scorching summer heat, sat alone, gazing mournfully at the Old City, her eyes full of tears. A toddler with electric blue sneakers walked deliberately, one foot after the other, as a cocky crow walked alongside him with the exact same gait.
We gazed at the spectacular, picture postcard view before us, its shimmering stones and golden hues ever-changing with the angle of the sun. We counted the construction cranes that punctuated the view of Jerusalem’s new city, and wondered where the billowy smoke rising up from the hilltops of the Arab neighborhoods was coming from. As the sun set and the view became a dusky pink, a full moon beamed down in the lavender sky in the east.
Whenever we walked on the promenade with friends, we stopped at the make-shift memorial that was erected for the four young Israelis who died in the attack, a picture frame with four fresh smiling faces too young to have been taken from the world. It especially made an impact on the Christian volunteers who joined us for Shabbat lunches to hear a Jewish perspective during their time in Israel “witnessing the Occupation.” Although the truck ramming was part of our experience, it was not part of the narrative to which they were being exposed.
Over the course of the year, we learned that the Tayelet has the smell of rosemary and pine, and its own special sounds. When it’s time for the muezzin’s call to prayer, the sonorous sounds rise up in sequence, one on top of the other, swelling to a cacophonous crescendo and then fading away. Church bells echo across the valley and the shofar’s call may be heard at any time during the year. And tourists chatter in any language imaginable.
In the springtime, vibrant yellow bursts of Spanish broom catch the sunlight and fill the air with their redolent fragrance, their fluorescent flowers echoing the glistening golden dome across the way.
In the summer, we fed the birds and watched the dynamics between them. The sparrows and pigeons were a model of coexistence, happily sharing space and food. But the territorial crows would swoop down and chase the other birds away, then dunk each piece of bread in a nearby tub of water before eating, and leave only when they were sated. Then the cycle would begin again. We wondered what that might teach us about life in our country.
In the midst of July’s crisis over the placement of metal detectors on the Temple Mount, Jewish and Arab women gathered at the Tayelet under the banner “Women Wage Peace.” As they began to fill the space, booms from the clashes between rioters and the police on the Temple Mount echoed across the valley. The women raised their voices in song, singing “The Prayer of the Mothers” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The fervent lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” and the Hebrew “Mi Ha-Ish Hechafetz Chayim” soon overcame the bursts of sound emanating from the Old City, enabling us to believe — if only for a minute — in the possibility of peace.
Most moving were the embraces between visibly religious women, both Jewish and Muslim, covered from head to toe in the sweltering summer heat, each with their distinctive scarves and head coverings, tied in different ways. People of belief are often seen as extremist fundamentalists, and obstacles to peace. But when we see each other, speak to each other, and draw on our common religious values, there is hope for coexistence in this land.
In late July, we learned that the municipality is planning to renovate the promenade, replacing its high road with tiers down the slope, and adding stone slides that will slither down the mountain, across from the Old City. The proposed plan would transform the pristine landscape into a giant Chutes and Ladders board with tiered terraces and water activities, overlooking a view that is soon to be dotted by cable cars to the Old City. The theory behind the plan is that leisure has changed since the promenade was built, and “attractions” are necessary to bring people to this quiet promenade. I wonder if any attractions would be necessary at all if people would only feel safe.
As the fall approached and the pomegranates ripened, the Tayelet filled with concerts and festivals. The sweet sounds and rhythms of artists such as Kobi Aflalo and Shiri Maimon filled the air, and the stage was lit in pink and purple lights, but the show was stolen by the glistening, golden view of the Old City and the carpet of twinkling lights atop the surrounding mountains, against the dark Jerusalem sky.
In November, the Sigd holiday, celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur, brought hundreds of members of the Israeli Ethiopian community to the Tayelet, where they remembered their longing to return to Jerusalem, as they do at the promenade every year. Their “kessim,” or religious leaders, gathered on the podium under brightly colored umbrellas and led the community in prayer.
Before we knew it, 11 months had passed, and the Kaddish prayers were done. We contemplated giving up our weekly walks to the Tayelet, but decided to continue, first extending until the Tenth of Tevet, the one-year mark on the Hebrew calendar, and then until the Gregorian anniversary, on January 8th. On a morning walk five days before the end of that cycle, I noticed workmen chatting in Arabic as they assembled a memorial to the four victims of the last year’s terror attack. I wondered what they thought about their work assignment. Such are the ambiguities and contradictions of our intertwined lives in this country.
A year after we began, it’s now clear that we will continue to walk on the promenade of promise, perhaps with less compulsion than during the year of my vow. Each step we take will be a step toward the future; each stride will bear a message of hope. And as we walk on the promenade of gold in the land that they so loved, Yael Yekutiel, Shir Hajaj, Shira Tzur, and Erez Orbach, will be with us in spirit, in this magical place where our past meets our present and colors our future.
Thank you to my friends, many of whom are Times of Israel bloggers, who contributed photos to this post: Sharon Altshul of The Real Jerusalem Streets, Laura Ben David (whose beautiful photography can be seen here), Meir Charash, Todd Berman, Karyn Stiefel Blass, Marsha Greengarten Solomon, Eilon Gilinsky, and Eliezer Be’eri. Special thanks to Sally Abrams and Jerusalem Moments for the video of a very special Jerusalem moment.