‘Secret’ tours aim for fresh look at well-trod Jerusalem
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‘Secret’ tours aim for fresh look at well-trod Jerusalem

A Mekudeshet Festival jaunt brings participants to lesser known sites — and people — around the city

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Birder Amir Balaban handles a bulbul in front of a group of Sacred Festival participants at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Birder Amir Balaban handles a bulbul in front of a group of Sacred Festival participants at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Headphones on, gazes slightly out of focus, a group of about 40 adults strolled down the sidewalk between the leafy border delineating the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and the cement wall and barbed wire fencing of the Knesset compound.

It was a hot September morning, and the group had just left the bird observatory where they had been introduced to several avian specimens.

“This place is a magnet for birds,” said founder Amir Balaban, keeping a delicate but firm hold on a small, sprightly bulbul and pointing to a faint yellow line on the songbird’s feathers that were indicative of food deprivation for the last week. “This guy, he makes a lot of noise, he’s a thief. He’s a symbol of this place, he’s even on our T-shirts.”

There was another bird, a bar-tailed lark, “visiting from Caucasus, it’s a miracle that all these birds get here,” and then a view from the bird observatory, binoculars at the ready, before heading up for a look at the living roof on top of the center’s gift store and exhibition room, where sea quills are part of the growth that is only watered by nature, said Balaban.

“We need 50,000 visitors a year in order to prove ourselves and not be bothered by the Knesset and the Supreme Court,” said Balaban, referring to the observatory’s placement in the heart of Jerusalem’s government complex. “But there’s the richest migration of birds that takes place right here.”

The living roof above the Jerusalem Bird Observatory center, where seasonal flowers grow year-round (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The living roof above the Jerusalem Bird Observatory center, where seasonal flowers, including tall stalks of sea quills, grow year-round (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This was the beginning of the sixth of “Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries” — tours created by Mekudeshet, a festival ongoing in Jerusalem, to bring participants on “doco-theatrical journeys into alternative realities.”

The tours are three to four hours long, and their contents are a secret, with only the initial meeting point posted on the Mekudeshet website. The goal of each journey is to take participants to places and sites they may not otherwise reach, and to meet people — performers and regular folk alike — who offer a different perspective on the city of Jerusalem.

It’s all fairly typical of Mekudeshet, an entire festival that has been culled from the Sacred Music Festival that was initially one part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC). The Sacred Festival has now became JSOC’s raison d’etre, and seeks to introduce and acquaint participants with the tapestry of Jerusalem through an array of performance art, music, lectures and tours of the city.

As participants walked from speaker to speaker on Journey 6, their headphones and MP3 players streamed an audio recording made by musician Neta Elkayam, who spoke and sang (in Hebrew, although there are two English tours as well) about the complexities of the city and the wonders it can bring to those who are open to learning.

It was a short stroll from the bird observatory to Sacher Park, where stools and mats awaited the group. Everyone was served shots of Turkish coffee or tea with a slice of cake while listening to the story of Yiscah Smith, an American-born transgender religious woman who spoke about her 40-year search for her true self.

American-born religious transgender Jew Yiscah Smith speaks to Mekudeshet participants on Journey 4 about her search for truth (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
American-born religious transgender Jew Yiscah Smith speaks to Mekudeshet participants on Journey 4 about her search for truth (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Each speaker during the tour had about 25 minutes to present to the group, or as long as it took one of the Mekudeshet staffers to wind bright green string from a ball onto a pencil.

Fortified by caffeine and sugar, the group made its way through the park and into the hot sun and deep, dry vegetation of the Valley of the Cross. They passed an ancient monastery where monks have lived since medieval times, with a stop for cucumber water and another to take small paper bags of raw almonds thumb-tacked to an announcement board.

The final destination was the Ephron Dance Center for a performance and conversation with three members of the Ka’Et Ensemble, a religious men’s modern dance troupe that is part of the Kol Atzmotai Tomarna dance program run at Ephron.

As the three men — yarmulkes off — danced a soulful and powerful piece set to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, audience members, a mix of local Jerusalemites and some visitors from Tel Aviv and Haifa, were struck by the dissonance of religious men and dance and asked questions:

“Dance is so much about bringing together men and women and the different part of their sexualities and strengths. How can you dance without that?” asked one woman.

And, “aren’t there religious issues with dancing? How can your religious practice allow you to do this?” said another.

The answers came from all three dancer, as well as Ronen Izhaki, the secular director of the troupe who was approached more than a decade ago to teach an initial group of men who wanted to dance.

“There are enough religious men who want to dance,” said Izhaki. “There’s strength and courage to see things differently, even with their religious lifestyle.”

“We allow ourselves to play with it,” added Hananya Schwartz, one of the dancers.

Three members of Ka'et Ensemble performing for Journey 4 of Mekudeshet on September 14, 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Three members of Ka’et Ensemble performing for Journey 4 of Mekudeshet on September 14, 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The three-and-a-half-hour walk ended next door at Hacubia, a workshop and gallery for art, where the group met Elkayam, who sang in Hebrew and Arabic before handing out needles threaded with bright, thick cotton colors for sewing a transparent map tracking the walk just taken. This was the opportunity to jot down thoughts about the journey, the quotes of the different speakers and performers still running through everyone’s brain.

“You’ve become the soundtrack in my head,” said one woman to Elkayam. “You make it all feel and look so different.”

That was the idea.

Mekudeshet Festival runs through September 22. More information is available on the Mekudeshet website, including additional “Seven Ways to Dissolve Boundaries” journeys.

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