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Running through eternity

I was here in Jerusalem's Old City just last week when a riot broke out, now we are running through the landscapes of my childhood
Thousands of runners take part in the 2018 international Jerusalem Marathon in Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem Old City on March 9, 2018. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90
Thousands of runners take part in the 2018 international Jerusalem Marathon in Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem Old City on March 9, 2018. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90

Just below the Mamilla Hotel, as the view of the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate came into our field of vision, I recalled the biblical verses that I once read aloud during an assembly in high school: “A song of ascents by David. I rejoiced when they said to me: Let us go up to the house of the Lord. Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built up as a city united together, where the tribes, the tribes of the Lord went up, as a testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord” (Psalms 122:1-4).

For some reason, at precisely that moment — approximately the sixth kilometer — when we were barely on our feet, those were the words that came into my head. It was then that I realized that I was not just at the Jerusalem Marathon, but on a nostalgic trip through the landscapes of my childhood. This trip was the most magical, meaningful, and beautiful of all the marathons I had run in Israel and abroad — not only because of the city’s loveliness, but also because of the emotional context.

I was back in the city of my birth, my childhood, and my youth. I was running a half-marathon there for the first time, in an official race. The marathon’s starting point, at the intersection of the Israel Museum and the Knesset, was very close to my parents’ home and my former high school. Every kilometer seemed to carry a sense of longing and a memory of its own, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the Rocky series.

Here was Jaffa Street, where we used to meet on Saturday nights or on Fridays after getting back from a particularly busy week in the army. Here the Old City came into view, with the “city united,” as in the verse from Psalms — and for a moment, this seemed to be the reality. The throngs running in the marathon (approximately 40,000) turned toward Jaffa Gate and began the ascent into the Old City. It was profoundly moving to see this link between the two parts of the city — east and west, the alleyways full of runners from all over the world, those who spoke English (the vast majority of the participants), Hebrew, German, Japanese, and many others. Then, on reaching Zion Gate, they headed outside the walls once again to circle the Sultan’s Pool.

But the heavy presence of Border Police troops, mostly as we approached Hebron Road, reminded us that, with all due respect to the biblical verse, the rift between the eastern and western parts of the city is still very much alive and kicking. I was here just last Tuesday, in the alleyways of the Old City, when a riot broke out on the Temple Mount after a firebomb was thrown at the police station there. The police closed off the entrances to the Al-Aksa compound and Damascus Gate. But today, at least for a few hours, the ancient conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis was pushed aside, and nobody even mentioned the rockets that Hamas had fired at Tel Aviv. They just ran. And they ran against the backdrop of breathtaking landscapes, like the Temple Mount and the entire eastern part of the city, which spread out before their eyes from the promenade in Armon Hanatziv.

But that was not the only thing that took our breath away. The hills — ohhh, the hills of Jerusalem! Here, unlike the Tel Aviv Marathon, which is fairly level (and in which I ran three weeks ago), the hills are grueling, excruciating, backbreaking. The upward climbs of Bezalel Street, Jabotinsky Street, and particularly toward the end, from the Old Katamon neighborhood to the President’s Official Residence, are particularly tough on the lungs and the leg muscles. But fortunately, my body, and my legs in particular, remember these hills from a young age, even after many years of running in Tel Aviv. You have to slow down, lean into the pain, and then just keep going up. At least toward the end, at the twentieth kilometer, the descent of Aza Street allows us to stretch our legs and minds once more and realize that we’re getting close to the finish line.

Now comes an upward climb that’s a bit more moderate, truly the last one in the final kilometer. Here, in the valley between Nachlaot, once known as the “Kurdish Neighborhood,” and the Knesset (the former Sheikh Badr neighborhood), where my grandfather and grandmother lived after they came here from Kurdistan, looking down from above, my friends and I crossed the finish line. It was worth every kilometer, every drop of sweat. And Jerusalem, as it always does, left me with a sense of yearning and the desire to run another marathon, or at least a half-marathon, next year too.

About the Author
Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.
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