The Impossible Lightness of Jerusalem

Remote Jerusalem; photo by Mike Vonotkov.

By Eyal Sher

Last week I attended a dress rehearsal of Remote Jerusalem, a fascinating city-specific audiovisual performative tour, in which the streets of Jerusalem become a theatre set and the attendees the performers in it. Produced by the Swiss-German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll, the show is an invitation to reflect on our movement in the city, the possibility of individuals to become a group, and the tension between obedience and free choice.

As a hardcore Jerusalemite – are any Jerusalemites not hardcore? – I pride myself on knowing the city inside and out, its highs and lows, east and west, history, present and future development plans. And so, while I enjoy discovering new spots in Jerusalem, I also take it personally when I come upon a breathtaking rooftop, an underground hole-in-the-wall bar or a new quaint café-bookstore I didn’t know before.

During the Remote Jerusalem tour, which will be presented at the upcoming Israel Festival, I did not discover such new spots as much as I discovered an intriguing new way of looking at the city – by getting lost within it.

My colleagues in the art management field and myself often complain that Jerusalem is not tourist-friendly: public parking is scarce, there are no maps with “you are here” arrows, and unlike in many other cosmopolitans around the world, bus stations don’t bear names that highlight the city’s cultural assets, such as the Jerusalem Cinematheque Station, Botanical Gardens Station or the Israel Museum station. Indeed, the Waze navigation app may be a brilliant Israeli invention, but we Jerusalemites like our secret hidden gems to remain just so, secret, least they get “ruined.”

Willi Dorner, Bodies in Urban Spaces. Photo credit Lisa Rosti

The city may be ever-developing and modernizing, but it’s a known joke that when you ask a Jerusalemite for directions, he or she will inevitably tell you, “You go where the old train station was, turn right where the old Mint used to be, straight past what used to be that elementary school, you’ll see the store where the shoemaker was, you know, near where the hairdresser used to be before.” In these digital times when “everything happens now,” time in Jerusalem still moves differently. Built of layers upon layers of history, temples, prophecies, kingdoms, empires, wars, the city is ultimately made of people. People and their stories. And what better way to celebrate people and stories than through the arts?

Like in Rimini Protokoll’s Remote Jerusalem, another participant in the upcoming Israel Festival, Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner, invites us to join him and 15 dancers on a physical, ephemeral intervention in the public sphere. In his site-specific walking tour Bodies in Urban Space, physical compositions shed a new light on the urban architecture, expanding out perception of the boundaries demarcated by the city and the playful possibilities held within them.

Life in Jerusalem is filled with contradictions – conflicting political, religious, economic, social and cultural affairs intertwining in a most unusual way. The city may be at the epicenter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, yet for the most part, Palestinians and Israelis residents interact smoothly in every facet of daily life. Still, few socialize with one another and it is artistic events such as these in the public sphere that fill in this gap. By bringing together people from all walks of life, artistic interventions dissolve the real and imaginary barriers, allowing us to personify and humanize the “other.”

With 190,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, 270,000 Palestinian Arabs and 400,000 secular Israelis, many of whom are conservative or traditional, the demographic complexity goes far beyond merely politics, contributing to social alienation and cultural fragmentation. The Israel Festival offers a unique space for dialogue and encounter, celebrating diversity and promoting tolerance and understanding.

Theater Basel / King Size / Michael von der Heide, Nikola Weisse

And more challenges: Jerusalem is one of the poorest cities in Israel, yet more and more people want to call it their home and urban development is in full swing; young people leave town, seeking career opportunities and a lighter lifestyle in Tel Aviv – or Amsterdam, Berlin, London or New York – yet thousands of students continue to flock to the numerous prestigious higher education institutions of Jerusalem; Cultural centers that struggle for adequate funding, yet consistently create some of the most interesting art and cultural events. Unbearable traffic jams to and from the city yet … well, no, there is nothing to counter that but the highly anticipated completion of Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rapid train, which has once again been delayed.

It is against this backdrop, that the Israel Festival, now in its 57th year, presents a distinctly innovative interdisciplinary artistic lineup, enriching the cultural landscape in Jerusalem and in Israel to the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Indeed, our mission goes well beyond being merely a stronghold of cultural excellence, to advancing education, empowering community, enhancing tourism and contributing to the economy. These are monumental tasks that require the commitment and engagement of numerous partners with shared values, among them the Ministry of Culture and the Israel Foreign Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality Cultural Department, the Jerusalem Foundation, foreign embassies and private foundations.

This Sunday was Jerusalem Day, which marks the the reunification of the city 51 years ago during the Six-Day War. The festivities include the controversial Flag Parade, which sees thousands of marchers waving Israeli flags as they pass through Jerusalem’s old city, including the Muslim Quarter.

On Saturday night, Israelis broke out into the streets in spontaneous celebrations as Neta Barzilai won the Eurovision singing contest. On Monday, Jerusalem saw the historic opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem, a great national achievement, marred only by the fact that it is a unilateral step rather than the culmination of a comprehensive accord with our neighbors. This same week is the Palestinian’s Nakba Day, “Day of the Catastrophe,” an annual day of commemoration of what they consider their displacement in 1948. How we dread these events that hold the potential to reignite another cycle of bloodshed and violence in the region, bringing more pain, sufferance and hate instead of building for a better future to all in our region.

And then, on May 23, the Israel Festival will open.

It is this dichotomy in our daily life that that we call the unbearable lightness of Jerusalem. In this strenuous formidable reality, art and culture in Jerusalem is not just another exhibit, theatre show, concert or festival. It’s not a “nice to have,” but a “must have.” It’s what keeps this 3,000-year-old city young. It’s what brings sanity to the complexity. It’s what allows us to celebrate diversity rather than be torn by our differences.

The Israel Festival is what allows us to look around, inside, to explore, be inspired and know that, as we say in Hebrew, “yihiye beseder” – everything will be ok.

Eyal Sher is CEO of the Israel Festival Jerusalem.