On the last night of Hanukkah, I had an extraordinary experience. Thirty plus residents of German Colony, Katamon, and Baka, from a wide spectrum of social and religious backgrounds and countries of origin, gathered in our apartment to hear the strikingly divergent life stories of three of their neighbors.
Tzion, from a Persian family, set his story within the larger story of how German Colony came to be what it is today. His face lit up when, with the passion of a true botanist, he described the seven or eight types of strawberries that used to grow around here, and the pistachio tree that stood on Emek Refaim. And with the joy of a man who loves to pray (but quickly), he told us about the seven synagogues that once adorned Rehov Hatzefira (there are still four!).
Yosef’s family were Hungarian Shoah survivors. He grew up on a kibbutz in the north and moved with his wife to Katamon just two years ago, to be closer to their grandchildren. He spoke powerfully, without a trace of nostalgia, of his kibbutz childhood. His memory, from the age of five, of the arrival of Moroccan refugees remains vivid to this day, and influenced many of his life choices.
Nili was born in Paris and raised in a strongly Zionist home. Moving to Jerusalem in the ’90s fulfilled a personal and collective dream to live in the land of the Patriarchs. Asked if and how the reality differed from her dream, she replied emphatically, “No. It’s exactly as I imagined it.”
The evening was free and no registration was required. The audience — drawn mainly by posters on the street and Facebook posts — listened with rapt attention. Their own journeys to this neighborhood began from all corners of the globe — from Persia to Paris, the east coast of America to Eastern Europe, Tunisia to Thailand, and even Meah Shearim. Most people in attendance did not know most other people, or at least not well (a woman who looked familiar jogged my memory: “We know each other from the bra shop”). Yet conversations flowed like rivers.
The catalyst for the evening, Stories of the Neighborhood, was a remarkable young community activist named Michal Shilor. Michal was born to Israeli parents, but raised in America. At the age of 17, she decided to return to Israel to join the IDF, and her family came with her. Now she’s completing a degree in social work at Hebrew University, and devoting vast amounts of her time, energy and prodigious talent to trying to make Jerusalem a better place to live.
A few months ago, Michal sent out emails inviting like-minded people to join her in an ambitious project to increase community-based social activism projects throughout the city. One sunny but chilly Friday morning, I and two other women, Aramit and Tamar, along with Tamar’s beautiful baby daughter, Naomi, sat together with Michal on the railway park promenade, talking animatedly about what was missing in our neighborhood — and what, realistically, we could do to improve it.
Tamar lamented that although many French families live near her in Katamon, she has no connection with them. After an hour of discussion, a few emails (notably to Valerie, an extraordinary French resident of Katamon whose husband is an English-born hazan extraordinaire in the Spanish and Portuguese tradition), and another short meeting a week later, we had formulated a plan. We would try to build a greater sense of openness, awareness and mutual respect in our neighborhoods by inviting three people from different segments of the community to share some of their life stories, and all who were hungry for contact and connection to come and hear. We decided not to serve actual food — so often a means of bringing people together, it would more likely be divisive in our particular context.
It seemed wildly ambitious when, in mid-November, Aramit suggested that the first meeting should take place on the eighth night of Hanukkah. But we set to work writing social media announcements in Hebrew, English and French, and, designing and printing posters, with a great deal of assistance from Efrat, a Bezalel student who was keen to help.
Very nice, you may be thinking. But what’s extraordinary about it? I’ll try to explain what affected me so strongly. For much of my life, belonging to Jewish communities had the unintended benefit of allowing me and my family to cross social borders and break down generational barriers. Here’s an example. In Williamstown, Massachusetts, the exclusive, picture-postcard college town of 4,000 (at the time) mainly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, where my late husband Peter z”l taught philosophy in the mid-80s, it was hard for most residents to negotiate the “town-gown” divide within Williamstown, let alone have meaningful relations with people in neighboring North Adams — a run-down post-industrial town whose ‘difference’ was crystallized for me on the day we pulled up outside the CVS pharmacy and found ourselves inches from a dead deer attached to the bumper of the pick-up truck in front of us (our first hunting season).
North Adams was the location of the only synagogue in the area at the time, and we became active members. We didn’t meet many hunters at shul, but we did meet people who, unlike most Williams College professors, were born and raised in northwestern Massachusetts and had deep, complex connections to their hometown. Instead of socializing mainly with academics, our circle included the local judge, car dealers, a scrap metal merchant, caterers, accountants, real estate agents, furniture salesmen, engineers, doctors (most memorably, Doctor Rosenthal, whose 70-plus-year-old wife always referred to him as “the Doctor”), nurses, and kindergarten teachers. Instead of being surrounded mainly by people of their own ages or ours, our young children were in regular contact with people aged from eight days to 80 years. Our lives were so much richer than they would have been if we hadn’t been synagogue-going Jews. This pattern repeated itself in our next home, Cambridge, England, another town where it’s easy to be trapped in a bubble; it was the Jewish community that secured our family’s social and generational mobility.
I pride myself on expecting the unexpected, but I was unprepared when, on making aliyah five years ago, I realized what should perhaps have been obvious: being a synagogue-going Jew in the Jewish state, or at least in Jerusalem, won’t necessarily help you to cross social and cultural borders and break down generational barriers. Jerusalem synagogues are more homogeneous than many of their Diaspora equivalents, reflecting the greater homogeneity of their locations. Even if the people praying in them happen to span a wide range of ages, professions, and countries of origin, there’s often little chance to strike up friendships with people you don’t already know. Synagogues here don’t typically serve the social and communal functions they do in the Diaspora; many don’t even have regular kiddushim — the social hub of their Diaspora counterparts.
To be fair, I am luckier than most when it comes to the ability to move in diverse circles. My close friends and extended family range from secular to haredi, with pretty much everything in between. Between us, my husband and I pray in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, and we are fortunate to have friends of all ages. Nevertheless, I finally understood last Monday night how much I missed my Shabbat dinners in Cambridge, England, where, from my perspective, whatever holiness was there emerged from our guests, a human tapestry of Jewish traditions, levels of observance, other religions, countries of origin, ages, walks of life, and life experiences. In the multiply-divided city of Jerusalem, where difference is often perceived as more of a threat than a blessing, it’s very hard to recreate that gorgeous variety in a single room. But last Monday night, at our first evening of Stories of the Neighborhood, I had the sense of finally coming close.