The heartbeat of Jerusalem

The name Old World may be ethnocentric, but it’s accurate. Across the Atlantic, modern gun emplacements keep watch over the English Channel from Dover Castle’s massive, 1,000-year-old walls. In France and Italy, people drive snazzy sports cars over cobblestones laid down by the Romans in the age of Augustus. And in 1000 B.C., when Solomon built the temple that defined Jerusalem as the spiritual, political and commercial capital it remains today, it had already been a city for at least 3,000 years.

There’s nothing comparable in America. The oldest of our cities is but 400-and-some — a mere baby, in terms of human history. It’s true that we’ve preserved assorted Native American cliff dwellings and burial mounds, plus a few purported Viking settlements. But for most of us, these are museums, curiosities, points of interest. They serve only to remind us of the civilizations that thrived here before Columbus blundered into Watling Island in the Bahamas, thinking it was Asia.

If there’s a common theme behind the 38 color photographs that make up The Spirit of Jerusalem, now on display at Asheville’s Jewish Community Center, it is this: The holy city is not a relic, not a fossil, not a museum. It’s one of the most lively, mixed, active, heterogeneous cities in the world. A half-million people (give or take) from an incredible variety of races, cultures and religions all work, play and worship in this living, breathing, growing urban center every day.

The exhibit — on loan from Atlanta’s Consulate General of Israel — is part of the international “Jerusalem 3000″ celebration (coincidentally, it links up nicely with the state of Israel’s 50th birthday). Jewish Community Center Board member Philip Cohen is responsible for bringing the show to Asheville.

The photographer, Shai Ginott, was born in Jerusalem in 1958, and she lectures and teaches photography in workshops throughout Israel. She’s published several award-winning books, including the best-selling Echoes of a Landscape (1993) and the children’s book It Looks To Me, Seems To Me (1994). Her photos have been displayed in galleries worldwide, including the Barbican Center in London and Tokyo’s Olympus Gallery.

The prints on display are neither titled nor captioned, which may at first seem troublesome. The subjects of some shots are obvious: the city seen from the Mount of Olives, for example, with the glowing, golden Dome of the Rock nestled amongst the urban sprawl; or the faithful and the curious gathered by the Western Wall.

But many, like the flat-tired, bagel-filled bicycle pushcart, or a familiar time-lapse study of the swish of head- and tail-lights passing a construction site at twilight, seem at first to demand some sort of name or explanation. Spend a little time amid the images, however, and the lovely photos of the holy hanging next to lovely photos of the patently mundane begin to drive home the point that this place is much more than a collection of famous structures.

Likewise, the variously distinctive ceremonial, traditional and day-to-day clothing worn by the people in these pictures at first made me want to know what the sundry garments meant: what groups they signified, what parts of the world they came from. But it soon became clear that all the unnamed images — the yarmulke-wearing diners eating shoulder-to-shoulder with tank-top-clad teenagers at an outdoor Thai cafe; the black-draped Palestinian (I think) women carrying household supplies on their heads against the backdrop of an old stone wall; the circle of five Orthodox Christian (I think) clergymen in religious garb, intent upon a subject the camera doesn’t show, as twice that number of video-camera-wielding paparazzi jostle for an angle over their shoulders — simply stand on their own, offering a sense of what it might be like to live in one of the world’s oldest focal points,where the maze of intersecting cultures and identities must defy any attempt at labeling.

And finally, it’s a delight to find that there’s no partisan subtext in these photographs. Throughout the millennia, Jerusalem has been a political football. Conquered by Babylonians, then Hebrews, then Romans, then Arabic Muslims, then Christian “Crusaders,” then Arabic Muslims again (to name only a few), it wound up, at the end of World War II, as the capital of the British mandate of Palestine. After 1948, the city was split in two, with Israel calling the New City its capital, and Jordan governing the Old City. Then, in 1967, after the Yom Kippur war, Israel annexed the Old City. We’ve all heard plenty about the injustices visited by each regime. It’s refreshing, therefore, to find an exhibit about Jerusalem that doesn’t attempt to use the city to grind any political or religious axes.

It’s obvious that Ginott loves the place — the people, the buildings, the streets — as passionately and objectively as the camera does. And after spending a half-hour or so with these clear, accessible photos, it’s easy to see why.

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