Discovering Secular Jerusalem

T+L explores the secular side of Jerusalem—an ancient, sacred, embattled, and beloved city.

There is something about Jerusalem that seizes the imagination when you first come upon it. I have been traveling there for over four decades, ever since I was a child, and I never fail to be surprised by my first glimpse of the place, the way it appears without fanfare as you drive southeast from Ben Gurion International Airport, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, into the Judean Hills. From the road you see the arid landscape begin to curve and stretch and grow more lush as the car, still in the valley, begins to climb. Eventually, the view is all-embracing, with miles of green hills, red-tiled roofs, and open skies off in the distance.

It is a city of singularly spartan beauty, built entirely out of different shades of native stone—yellow, pink, and gray—and pocked with scrubby growth as well as sudden, random bursts of bougainvillea, forsythia, and honeysuckle. For an ancient city, Jerusalem is enamored of the new: luxury apartment buildings under construction loom at odd intersections, with an eye to American and European Jews who look to buy second homes here. (Sadly, many of these apartment buildings are fated to remain unoccupied for most of the year, giving certain sections of Jerusalem an increasingly ghostly aspect.) Olive trees, pines, firs, and small maples dot the land, speaking to the city’s hardy survivalist ethos, and everywhere you look is sky, which appears to hang lower here than it does in the West. I have never arrived in Jerusalem without feeling an intensification of ordinary emotions, as though the light, shimmering over the hills, carried with it a weight all its own. Call it the weight of history: that would be the obvious connection for a city that is close to 4,000 years old and whose existence has been documented—and contested—ever since biblical times.

Jerusalem is best known, of course, for its international standing as a religious destination for flocks of the pious. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worshippers each have their claim on parts of the city: the Western Wall is here, as is the grave from which Jesus is said to have risen, as is the Dome of the Rock, as is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I myself made my first trip here as a 10-year-old with my family on a kosher cruise ship called the Shalom as a way of connecting with the Zionist dream that was important to both my parents but particularly to my mother, whose family had emigrated to Jerusalem in 1936 to escape Hitler’s scourge.

Although my mother left Palestine a year before the new state of Israel was declared in 1948, and eventually settled in New York City, her heart remained tied to the land where her family first found refuge. Indeed, during my childhood she sang Hebrew lullabies, one of which dated from her own youth and was composed to celebrate the ideal of a Jewish homeland. As a little girl I loved this particular song and would lie in bed listening raptly to its mournful tune and hopeful lyrics. It began by imitating the whistling sound of an approaching boat, packed with Jewish pioneers coming from far and wide to build a new nation. I was a somewhat timid child, but all the same I found myself identifying with this intrepid group, carrying pails and shovels across vast distances as easily as if they were going off to the neighborhood playground. As I began to drift off toward sleep, I would envision myself signing up, shedding my schoolgirl clothes and urban pallor for the safari-flavored outfit and bronzed complexion of a genuine chalutz (pioneer), taking off for foreign and possibly hazardous shores. When I became a mother myself, I sang this lullaby to my daughter in turn; her own first trip to Israel took place when she flew in a baby carrier next to me on one of El Al’s overcrowded and noisy planes.

Although the emotional logistics of travel are usually fairly straightforward and rational—we go to the Caribbean because we love the sun and languor, the image of ourselves sipping picturesque drinks at day’s end as the sky turns pink—the logistics of traveling to Israel, and to Jerusalem in particular, have a degree of the irrational about them, if only because they involve the potential for danger. On the same road that brings you into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, for instance, you pass a series of discarded armored cars used in the 1948 War of Independence, arranged in a long row and cemented to the ground, bringing home the reality of Israel as a country that has been besieged from its inception.

I can remember arriving in Israel five or six years ago a day after a popular restaurant several blocks from my sister’s apartment in Jerusalem had been blown up; in the afternoon of the same day a suicide bombing had taken place in Tel Aviv. I felt a kind of stoicism-under-fire that I continue to feel whenever I visit Israel and that my American friends find hard to understand: Why would one voluntarily travel to a country that has the potential to ignite? The answer lies somewhere in my bones, in those childhood lullabies, in a fierce sense of Zionist pride that has not diminished despite the fact that Israel has proved itself an imperfect entity, part legitimate state and part occupying force.

I recently decided to try on the role of a tourist visiting Jerusalem not for its inherent spiritual meaning or emblematic power, nor because I have close family there (my sister and her family moved there nearly 30 years ago), but to explore it as a secular city like any other—home to restaurants, museums, movie theaters, and art galleries. The un-holy side of Jerusalem, you might call it. I wondered whether this ancient city, with its large ultra-Orthodox (haredi) population and little of the popping nightlife of Tel Aviv, would stand up to agnostic scrutiny. Could it hold its own as a cultural destination if you took God out of the equation?

I met up with Stephen Horenstein, an American composer and musician who moved to Israel 30 years ago, who generously agreed to be my guide. Horenstein is a man of many enthusiasms, one of which is his adoptive city. “The key to Jerusalem,” he told me as we shared a Moroccan-inspired lunch (including the de rigueur trinity of hummus, falafel, and baba ghanoush) at a family-style steak house in the so-called Industrial Zone—a commercial area that includes car dealerships, two shopping malls, a film school, and the city’s only bowling alley—“is that things are hidden. Tel Aviv is in your face. Here, there’s a sense of mystery. There are so many parts of the city I’m still discovering after all these years.” It was a sentiment I would hear over and over again, the sense that there is always more to be uncovered.

Later that first day, we went to visit Steve’s friend, the internationally renowned sculptor Israel Hadany, who was at work at his studio in the artists’ colony in Chutzot Hayotzer, located in the valley at the foot of the Old City and the Tower of David. (The studio has since moved.) Hadany, who served us glasses of mint tea and has about him a kind of concentrated energy that borders on serenity, said that Jerusalem is a city of conflicts, divided both between observant Jews and nonobservant Jews, and between Jews and Arabs. Although not a religious man in the conventional sense, Hadany is drawn to Jerusalem’s layered quality and the way it brings one inward: “In most places, what you see on the first day—that’s what’s there. In Jerusalem, you need a lifetime to discover what’s underneath.”

On a sunny Wednesday morning, Steve and I made our way to Emek Refaim, the main thoroughfare in the German Colony. This chic and bustling part of the city was settled in the 1870’s by the German-Templars, who belonged to the Christian Zionist movement that arose with the European rediscovery of the Holy Land from 1840 on. It is one of the most charming areas in Jerusalem and is known for its blend of Ottoman and British Art Deco architecture (the latter stemming from the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, from 1920 to 1948) as well as for its café culture. Students hang out here, and both creative types and professionals choose to live here. (Or at least those who can afford to: the area has grown increasingly expensive over the past decade, as have most neighborhoods near the center of the city.) The Germany Colony is also home to the Smadar Theater, an art-house cinema on leafy Lloyd George Street that has drawn the artist-erati for more than 80 years. As the first movie theater in Jerusalem to remain open on the Sabbath—which begins at sundown Friday and ends at nightfall on Saturday—it is also a symbol of pluralism in a city that is seen by some as yielding far too often to its ultra-Orthodox residents, who make up only a fourth of its population. (The celebrated Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai refers to the Smadar in this liberating context in two of his poems.) Plans, since abandoned, were recently afoot to sell the Smadar and turn it into another luxury development.

More prominent than the Smadar, however, are the numerous coffee bars; one, the Coffee Mill, is owned by a pair of Chicago-born cousins, Debbie Katz and Rosie Nathan. The walls of the tiny outpost, which sells coffee and tea from all over the world, are blanketed with covers from The New Yorker. Across the street is a children’s music conservatory, and young mothers with strollers are everywhere you look. The sounds of someone expertly playing violin come out from one apartment and a breeze stirs the leaves on the trees that were planted by the German Templars. The old community house is still here with its apse, small bell cote, and green-painted front door, as is a cemetery behind a cluster of small homes set in gardens.

The next morning Steve and I went to see the residence of the late Nobel Prize–winning writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon in Talpiot, not far from the Industrial Zone. Agnon has special meaning to me not only because of his writerly gifts but also because he was a close friend of my maternal grandfather, Isaac Breuer, who started a religious political party in Palestine after he moved there and eventually had a street named in his honor. Agnon himself remained an observant Jew throughout his life; the synagogue he helped establish in Jerusalem was named for him after his death. When he and his wife stopped in New York on their way to Sweden, I went with my mother to pick them up for Friday night dinner at our apartment. I can still remember the excitement I felt at being in the presence of literary greatness. Although it would be years before my Hebrew was good enough to delve into Agnon’s stories and novels for myself, I understood him to be a rare spirit, steeped in the religious training of his background while also immersing himself in contemporary culture.

As luck would have it, Agnon’s home has just been extensively renovated and reopened to the public. It is a modest house, built in 1931 in a pared-down version of the Bauhaus style by a German-born architect who lived across the street. Unlike most of the houses in the city, it was not built of stone—the law that required this was not yet in effect in this neighborhood when it was planned—but is instead covered with a light-colored plaster. Its narrow windows are hidden behind metal latticework, giving the building a fortified appearance. Agnon’s study takes up the entire second story and includes an impressive library filled with thousands of volumes, ranging from books of Jewish learning from the 16th and 17th centuries to works by Freud and Harry Stack Sullivan and copies of Peer Gynt and Tom Jones. There is a green tiled floor and a lectern at which Agnon often wrote standing up, in the manner of Virginia Woolf. On his desk are a shoehorn, a bottle opener, and a Remington typewriter. The whole atmosphere is very casual, with few guards or roped-off areas or explanatory notices in sight; if you felt like walking off with Agnon’s beer opener, no one would stop you. I found myself thinking how different the Israeli approach to officialness of any sort is from the American or European approach, such that stepping into the house of one the greatest Hebrew writers of novels and short stories feels less like an auspicious occasion and more like stopping by to visit an old, bookish uncle.

The ideal of Jerusalem as a renaissance city inspired Teddy Kollek, the mayor from 1965 to 1993—a man who is often referred to as “the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod.” One of Kollek’s first projects after he took office was the creation of the Israel Museum, whose buildings cover 540,000 square feet and which is the country’s largest cultural institution. As James Snyder, the museum’s director since 1997, told me: “Teddy, in 1965, decided there would be a national museum that would in short order be on a par with the world’s leading museums.” It has recently undergone an ambitious $100 million renovation, and reopened in its entirety last July.

Snyder, who was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 22 years before he came to the Israel Museum, says he took the appointment mostly on the basis of its location. “I’m not sure I would’ve come,” he said, “if it were in Tel Aviv.” Snyder refers to Jerusalem’s “secret subtext”—its “fluctuating intercommunal fabric”—which gives it an international flavor that he finds lacking in Tel Aviv and that is reflected in the museum’s far-ranging collection of nearly 500,000 objects, dating from the 12th century B.C. to Damien Hirst. Together we walked through the exquisitely designed Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world. At this point Snyder left me to take a stroll in the museum’s Billy Rose Art Garden, designed by the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, where I wandered among sculptures by Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Menashe Kadishman, and Auguste Rodin, all set against the dramatic Jerusalem backdrop.

But perhaps the most sensuous experience to be had in Jerusalem is a most basic one, available every day except the Sabbath, requiring nothing more than energy for haggling and eyes for seeing. I’m referring, of course, to Jerusalem’s labyrinthine open-air market, Mahane Yehuda—also referred to as the “shuk”—which is located between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. It is the largest and busiest outdoor market in all of Israel and is always full, even the day after a terrorist attack. (During the period of the Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, the market was the scene of several bombings; today guards check everyone entering.) It gets more and more crowded toward the end of the week and by Friday afternoon, when the prices have been reduced, students and foreign workers come to stock up on bargains.

The market dates back to the 1920’s and is fast-paced, colorful, noisy, invigorating, and enervating all at once. It contains hundreds of stands and shops selling vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, baked goods, candy, eggs, household appliances, toiletries, and Judaica. Within the past decade Mahane Yehuda has been modernized and cleaned up: tiled floors have replaced the cobblestones, and there is an indoor area with small places to eat. Two Georgian brothers have opened a sparkling boutique, Babar, that carries cheese from all over the world as well as wines and olive oils from Israel—seven different types of olive oil from one kibbutz alone. There are competing spice dealers who will ladle out couscous to measure, the grapes look too plump to be true, and the fish are jumping. (All the meat and fish are kosher.) The smells are enticing, the characters are picturesque, and you come away with a sense that between the eagerness of the multiethnic vendors to cut a deal and the eagerness of the multiethnic shoppers to go home with the freshest wedge of halvah at the best price possible, peace in the Middle East might be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

If you hang around Jerusalem long enough and talk to the right people, layers will begin to unpeel and you’ll find out all sorts of intriguing tidbits. That the best view (as well as the best Sacher torte) in Jerusalem is to be found on top of the Austrian Hospice, tucked away in the Old City. That Israel’s best film school (it has more than 15, itself a surprising fact) is in Jerusalem—the Sam Spiegal Film & Television School. And that the city Jerusalem is compared with most often by its most sophisticated residents, such as Emmanuel Halperin, a well-known TV journalist who drives into Tel Aviv twice a week to teach literature courses at Tel Aviv University, is Paris. “I think someone who comes from Paris can’t live anywhere else in Israel,” Halperin said. “Tel Aviv tries to be a melting pot but it’s a syncretic culture. Cosmopolitan is not a mixture of different sources to create something new. It’s different people living side by side—that’s cosmopolitan. Jerusalem is truly cosmopolitan. You can be yourself among strangers.”

At the end of the day, Jerusalem is not a city like any other city. You can forget its history, what Halperin refers to as “the feeling of the weight of the ages” for a time, even for weeks at a go, but then all of a sudden, at certain places, at certain hours, it comes back to you. In between you can hear first-class string quartets at the YMCA; take in new plays at the Khan Theater; walk around in dusty quarters of the Old City watching neighborhood regulars drink tea, black coffee, or arak, a liquor made from anise, at little cafés as they play backgammon and cards all the livelong day; and shop for one-of-a-kind pieces by Israeli designers at the wonderful Sofia boutique. But at some point, perhaps when you look up at the sun setting over the hills, you will think you have come to a place that has managed to cast a mysterious spell over you, composed of equal parts history and immediacy, tension and lassitude, ferocity and calm.

Getting There

Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and El Al Airlines fly nonstop from New York City or Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv. Most other major carriers connect through London. Visas are not required for U.S. visitors.


T+L A-List agent Rachel Epstein ( organizes tours of the city’s significant cultural sites, including the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.


King David Hotel A stone’s throw from the Old City, this 1930’s property has hosted numerous international heads of state. 23 King David St.; 972-2/620-8888;; doubles from $376.

Mamilla Hotel New 194-room property consisting of historic and modern spaces, less than a mile from the Old City. 11 King Solomon St.; 972-2/548-2222;; doubles from $500.


Austrian Hospice 37 Via Dolorosa; 972-2/626-5800; dinner for two $38.

Coffee Mill 23 Emek Refaim St.; 972-2/566-1665; lunch for two $25.


Babar Etz Haim St., Mahane Yehuda; 972-2/625-7969.

Israel Hadany 19 Yad Charutzim, Talpiot; 972-50/839-0899; visitors by appointment.

Mahane Yehuda Located between Jaffa Rd. and Agrippas St.; Sunday-Thursday 8 a.m. to sunset, Friday and holidays 8 a.m.-2 p.m.

Sofia 2 Bezalel St.; 972-2/625-2765.

See and Do

Agnon House 16 Klausner St.; 972-2/671-6498;; admission $5.

Al-Aqsa Mosque Temple Mount, Old City; currently open only to Muslims. Saturday-Thursday 8-10:30 a.m. and 12:30-2 p.m.

Chutzot Hayotzer Chativat Jerusalem St.;

Dome of the Rock Temple Mount, Old City; currently open only to Muslims. Saturday-Thursday 8-10:30 a.m. and 12:30-2 p.m.

Israel Museum Ruppin Blvd; 972-2/670-8811;; admission $13.

Smadar Theater 4 Lloyd George St.; 972-2/561-8168.

Western Wall Jewish Quarter, Old City; open 24 hours daily.