Jerusalem Season of Culture

by rebeccaswirsky

Photo by Noam Chojnowski


It’s 3 a.m. in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. In a modest building that is normally a music centre for Arabic and British children, I’m standing in a circle, holding hands with women I’ve never met, participating in a Sufi ceremony. Our circle contains two further concentric circles of men. At the centre, instead of a traditional Sufi sheikh, stands an imam. In unison, heads and bodies dip to the mantra of “Allah”. It’s a beguiling sound. The space, too, is beautiful. Muslin strips hang from the ceiling like opaque light shafts. Designed by Tal Erez, the artist who represented Israel at the 2012 Venice Biennale, the strips are inscribed with devotional language from the three Abrahamic faiths in Arabic, Hebrew and Western languages.

Four hours earlier, Dervishes and Dervisha had whirled, hands on hearts, aiming to build a connection to Allah. In an atmosphere as potent as perfume, sinuous music spun from Sufi instruments including the oud, drums, kamancheh, ney and daf. Like Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism is Islam’s mystical element, though some Muslims consider it heretical. However, the imam chanting the mantras (whose name cannot be printed for safety reasons) came from Islam’s third holiest site, Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. Equally astonishing was the presence of the other religious leaders: five imams from Nablus (a city in the West Bank), Copts, sheikhs, nuns, monks and Christian clerics and rabbis from varied denominations and genders, ranging from an Orthodox rabbi, dean of a West Bank yeshiva, to a female rabbi, Rabba Tamar Appelbaum – whose dream the evening, and week, stemmed from. Yet that evening, despite their differences, everyone present held hands and chanted “Allah”.

How, one wonders, does a multi-faith initiative occur in one of the world’s most hotly contested cities? Amen – A House of Prayer for All Believers was the result of eight months of meetings between religious leaders; for one week, all could say “Amen” together. Participating faiths took turns to lead the day’s prayers. The emphasis one evening was on absolution and forgiveness. When Coptic monks sang from John’s Gospel, the discovery was made, on the night, that the Coptic praying style bore striking similarities to Hebrew davening. This made sense given the presence of Hebrews in Ancient Egypt, presenting a fascinating example of dissemination, in which elements of cultures and religions become normalized into other cultures and religions until origins are forgotten or erased. The week was rounded off with worshippers invited to Muslim prayers on Friday, a Jewish Shabbat service on Saturday, and a Catholic Mass on Sunday. The hope is that seeds of unity and acceptance will germinate. None of the religious figures was alone; all have congregations behind them, all have been open about their involvement.

Amen was one strand of Jerusalem’s progressive Mekudeshet festival (“holy” in Hebrew), presented by the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC) between September 4 and 26. Many of its events were free. Those attending Rustling in Jerusalem’s sliver of forest could roam until daybreak, experiencing an uncanny night-time audio experience, while Jerusalem Confessions, an evening of risqué immersive theatre, made the audience the drama’s focus. Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries offered seven four-hour journeys on which participants met, along the way, those deemed to be “boundary dissolvers”. These included Yiscah Smith, a father of six and ultra-Orthodox believer who underwent gender-realignment surgery from male to female; Chaya Gilboa, also previously ultra-Orthodox, now a leading voice for pluralism and women’s rights; and Sarah Weil, a lesbian who became an LGBT activist after sixteen-year-old Shira Banki was fatally stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride festival. Using the city’s light rail tram (controversial, for connecting North Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev settlement to the city centre), our group met with East Jerusalem’s volunteer cultural co-ordinator, Mahmoud Muna. At the Educational Bookshop, Mahmoud’s bookstore in the American Colony Hotel, where books include The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg, tiny biscuits were dipped into Arabic coffee as Mahmoud confronted his mostly Israeli or Jewish audience: “Israeli soldiers may be your friends or loved ones, but to us they are a symbol of the occupation, and a legitimate target”.

JSOC’s clear-eyed gaze, energized by an enduring love for its city (which in 2013 had 499,400 Jewish residents, 281,100 Muslim residents, 14,700 Christian residents, 200 Druze and 9,000 residents not classified by religion) is striking, given recent cultural crackdowns. In December 2015, the novel Borderlife, a love story focusing on an Israeli and a Palestinian, was banned from schools. In January this year, the Education Ministry’s cultural blacklist of the “politically undesirable” was exposed. In February, the Justice Ministry approved the Culture Minister Miri Regev’s “Cultural Loyalty Bill”. Condemned as McCarthyite by its critics, the Bill aims to halt funding for cultural activities that “contravene the principles of the state”.

JSOC’s Executive Director, Naomi Bloch Fortis, remains hopeful. “The official point of view has many shades. But yes, Miri is creating harm to our consciousness. People are getting scared, cowed. Jerusalem faces issues before any other places in Israel. With this festival we are focusing on what pulls us together rather than what separates us.” JSOC’s Artistic Director, Itay Mautner, added, “In Israel we rarely go out of our comfort zone. Culture has been held for so long in one party’s hand – rich, white, secular men who looked down on other cultures. Jerusalem is made up of so many different people who speak different languages. The potential is that there are all these parallel realities going on simultaneously. I’m not saying that’s realized – but it’s there”.

It is indeed a city of warring narratives. I left Israel as flyers were being handed out in Zion Square, the site of recent right-wing rallies, denouncing JSOC’s activities as the work of Christian missionaries – initiatives that include bringing trees and herbs temporarily into the square (the trees worked: karaoke, canoodling, dancing and eyebrow-plucking ensued). The group responsible for the flyers, Lehava, a small right-wing faction, is noisily opposed to Jewish assimilation.

In an essay published in 1966, the Jewish theologian, philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are heirs to a long history of mutual contempt among religions and religious denominations, of religious coercion, strife and persecutions”. Amen’s positioning within a culture festival, both for the religious and the arts world, is deliberate and new; had the project been positioned within purely theological or political contexts, it would have had less breathing space.

Rabba Tamar told me: “Religion at its best and culture at its best speak to the same point about what reality should be. Being here is the result of regular meetings, learning about each other’s ways of praying. Not one religious leader said ‘no’. At the end, eight of us went into the desert and rehearsed under the stars, each in his corner praying until 2 a.m. Here, we don’t lose our identities, but stand strong in them together”. I’d been reminded of Fr Rafic’s words, spoken earlier that evening: “Forgiveness is a special power. Only a strong person can forgive”. I’d also thought of the thirteenth-century Islamic philosopher Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. Outside, in the cool summer air, observing a Mizrachi (Oriental) rabbi serenade a couple of delighted-looking Coptic monks on an oud, Rabba Tamar nodded. “We must go forward. We can’t go back.”

This article was first published in the TLS on 28th September