“Jerusalem is a small city, fortified by three walls. It is full of people whom the Mohammedans call Jacobites, Syrians, Greeks, Georgians and Franks and of 35 people of all tongues.” So wrote Benjamin, a Jewish merchant from the Spanish town of Tudela, over 800 years ago. Today we know him as Benjamin Metudela (from Tudela), and are grateful for the diary in which he gives details on Jewish communities in dozens of cities in Asia, Europe and Africa.
But what if Benjamin were a 21st century backpacker, a young Jerusalemite consumed by wanderlust, instead of a 12th century traveler? If, on his way to – say, Paris – he had walked through Jerusalem, is it possible that he might have remained in the Holy City instead of continuing on his way? What would Jerusalem have to offer a young man of infinite prospects anywhere in the world?
Last year, the Plastic Arts Department at the Jerusalem Municipality asked poet/playwright Roie Ravitzky to come up with an innovative project for revitalizing Gaza Street, the main byway in the neighborhood of Rehavia. Utilizing our mythical traveler, now called Benny, Ravitzky and the artists with whom he worked created a unique format for keeping pedestrians from whizzing by the small businesses along the road.
Called Street Talk, it combines brightly colored illustrations, fascinating abstractions and clever poetry to come up with an absolutely riveting product. And while the texts are in Hebrew, and not everyone will be familiar with some of the sites and people that are mentioned, the illustrations are exciting enough to make them universal.
Benny begins his Jerusalem trek near his childhood home at #2 Metudela Road on the corner of Gaza Street, and ends his walk at Paris Square at the far end of the road. That Square was chosen because Paris was one of the stops on the original Benjamin’s European travels.
Along the way Benny meets four friends, at sites picked for their proximity to a side street or square that bears his/her name. Each offers Benny a completely different slant on why he should remain in the Promised Land, pointing up a dilemma faced by many of our young people today: they feel at home in Israel but have a passion for wandering in foreign pastures.
In the first illustration, drawn by Yaniv Torem, Benny strides along, never looking back at the houses in his neighborhood. We see them however, and they include a bike, an LGBT flag, and the empty bottles from parties Benny and his young friends held inside.
He doesn’t even turn around to see the camel, the Temple, and the domes that he is leaving behind. In the adjacent poem, Ravitzky notes that Benny has been in Rehavia for too long and absolutely must move on. The “ants in his pants” won’t let him remain where he is . . . so it is no wonder that this morning he said: I am going up the road, in the direction of Paris!”
Benny now begins ascending Gaza Street, passing some of the small businesses along the road: a bookstore, a small grocery, a barbershop with an unusual façade. Near the junction with HaAri (the Lion) Street, he bumps into neighbors who try to convince him to stay in Jerusalem.
The first speaker is Rabbi Isaac Lurie, A.K.A. HaAri, a famous 16th-century mystic. “Sure, wander around,” he advises Benny. “But do it in your thoughts! You can jump into the mouth of a volcano – in your mind! Use your soul to explore a vast variety of scenery, even pluck pearls from their shells, without getting off of your couch!” But Benny – stubborn Benny – just keeps on going.
A fascinating combination of contemporary technology, virtual reality and historical fact, the mural illustrated by Shimon Engel is startling enough to stop passersby in their tracks. For us it brought to mind the story about HaAri in the forest outside the northern town of Safed. He is said to have told his followers to imagine – and believe – that they were in Jerusalem at the Temple (actually destroyed in 70 C.E). And that is where they would be!
Like HaAri and Metudela, every street name in Jerusalem has a tale to tell. Ravitzky explains that part of the reason for the creation of Street Talk – which will be continued in other neighborhoods – was to tell these stories and make their names more than words on a sign. Street Talk is meant to bring them to life.
Which is what happens at the next stop, adjacent to a square named for a woman whose name is far less familiar. Shoshana Halevy was a 20th century historian and author who did in-depth research on pre-State Jerusalem. Barring Benny from ascending higher, she suggests in Ravitzky’s poem that he is so blinded by the idea of traveling to foreign parts that he is missing out on the wonders found right here. Pit Jerusalem against the rest of the world and Rome, Switzerland the mighty Nile and Euphrates Rivers would all lose out, she says.
Look to the right, she tells him, to see a myriad of accomplishments from the British Mandate, look left for the sight of a Corinthian capital. Just turn around, she adds, to find an unusual Mameluke artifact and 30’s architecture along with ruins from the Temple Mount.
Although pictures of Shoshana exist, only the hair of the woman in Noa Kelner’s illustration matches her actual description. Larger than life, drawn as a modern-day tour guide, Shoshana could either be embracing all that the city has to offer – or be trapped inside. Thus the depiction offers an excellent representation of the ambivalence that often grips our young men and women.
But Benny is still not convinced, and continues up the street – pausing only when Lord Balfour begins to scold him in the adjacent poem. After all, it was Balfour’s Declaration in 1917 that legitimized the land of Israel as the Jewish Homeland.
Einat Tzarfati’s Balfour illustration was created on the glass façade of the apartment building at #5 Gaza Street – a feat unique in itself. This time, the main character is quite recognizable, as he sits next to a cup of tea that spills over into the scenery of the Holy Land. Disappointed with Benny’s ingratitude, he can’t bear to see the ease with which a Jew spits in the face of the miracle for which the Jewish people yearned over 2,000 years – and finally has in hand.
So he asks the young man how he can give it all up “on a whim.” Balfour’s comparisons are grating, as he shouts in Hebrew rhyme: Chocolate pudding (the Israeli Milky) in Berlin? Pogroms in Poland! Satisfying your curiosity? An insult to Zionism! New tastes and experiences? Patriotism!
Surprised and a bit embarrassed, Benny nevertheless is determined to be on his way. But just before he reaches Paris Square, he is surrounded by the memories and thoughts of your average Jerusalemite. In the most unusual facet of Street Talk, the four artists involved combined their efforts to produce a mural that expresses their feelings about Jerusalem. Details – a steaming cup of coffee, a typical Israeli sandwich, a child dancing in the rain, a vine climbing ever higher, leaves blowing in the wind, a bearded ancestor, one dark and one light hand, clasped together. Are they wrestling? Are they shaking hands?
And this is what stops our Benny in his tracks, not the grandiose arguments of his famous friends but the little things. A street light shining on the ankle of a young girl, cats huddled against the cold, and the sound and sight of Hebrew on signs, in poetry, in the words of the people who pass him by. . .
At the end of the last poem, posted next to the mural, Ravitzky notes that Benny never makes it to Paris Square. And then he asks those of us who remain in Jerusalem what tiny details, what mini-anchors, keep us in this, our city?
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.