A Tale of Two Cities

Not long ago, Miriam and I introduced our 7-year-old daughter to An American Tale, a cherished film from our childhood.  When Ellie heard our movie night would be a classic from years before she was born, when her parents were just kids, she smiled and asked, “Is it in black and white?”

I write these words on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean having just spent two weeks in Israel, much of that time in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is wholly unique, at once ancient and modern, black and white projected in full technicolor.  It’s easy to forgive an adult for losing one’s temporal bearings there; one so easily feels like a child trying to get a handle on the unfurling of time.  And yet, on the spectrum of old and new, Jerusalem favors the ancient, the modern paying homage to the past three thousand years during which Jews inclined their hearts and prayers toward this holy city.

As I reflect on my trip, two particular days come to mind.  The first included a visit to Mt. Hertzl, Jerusalem’s cemetery of soldiers and dignitaries, an apex from which one, standing at Herzl’s grave, can see the expanse of the city.  In 1902 Hertzl wrote Altneuland, “Old-New Land,” a utopian novel about a Jewish state he could only imagine.  The book was published in Hebrew translation as “Tel-Aviv” from which the modern Jewish city would one day take its name.  

Which brings me to my second memory.  As a religious Jew, I had always been inclined toward Jerusalem, it’s golden hues and ancient stones.  The ride to Israel’s capital is a true ascent, an aliyah, eliciting in me a strange mix of anticipation and calm.  But, it was on this trip that I began to more fully appreciate Tel-Aviv.  Strolling the Mediterranean boardwalk on Shabbat afternoon, taking in sights and sounds of children frolicking in fountains, of lovers holding hands along tree-lined boulevards, I began to understand what Herzl meant. Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv are sister cities.  They complement each other, challenge each other.  

I had once thought that just as Jerusalem is the “Holy City,” Tel-Aviv is, while surely not “unholy” at least “a-holy.”  It struck me as a distinctly secular place where Shabbat and Jewish values were an undercurrent at best, an afterthought at worst.  What I found, however, is that Tel-Aviv is at once a cosmopolitan and diverse city as well as a deeply Jewish one.  Some go to shul and others go to the beach.  Most have meals with family and visit museums or sit in cafes with friends while enjoying the distinct rhythms of the Sabbath in a country where time is dictated by the Jewish calendar. They experience Jewish living and “observance” differently, but here is a city at a minimum striving to embody what it means for Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people.

In a way, Reservoir Hill is the “Tel-Aviv” of Baltimore.  The “Jewish” in the New Jewish Neighborhood is subtle, less overt.  The Jews who live here and those who pray and study at Beth Am, recognize the value of Jewish tradition in our lives.  But we, like Herzl, also appreciate the intersection of old and new — and like modern Tel-Avivians wish to create a new paradigm for Jewish living, one that surely does not preclude the more traditional forms of Jewish community and practice, but also allows for a great deal of openness and innovation.  In other words, our “Jewish” is in part a reflection on our history, the past Jewishness of this community, and equally important, the diversity and dynamism of our neighborhood today.

Tel-Aviv means literally the rebirth of the ancient, a new layer built above the fossilized remnants of civilizations past.  But as I learned last Shabbat in the Land of Israel, the present need not supersede the past.  Living communities exist in relationship with elapsed time and, as Herzl understood, the healthiest among these are intentional about that relationship.  The old breathes life into the new which, in turn, resuscitates the old.

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