The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem

December, 2006 - Copyright by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Jerusalem

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Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal

Exercise and Recreation in Jerusalem

Since so many of the people who come to Jerusalem end up spending lion's share of their day hunched over texts in a Beit Midrash, regular exercise is suggested. For those whose idea of recreation is sitting in a movie theatre or a bar, let me suggest that you at least walk there. Since I walk everywhere, usually several hours a day, I've never worried too much about hitting the gym, pool, field or dance floor, but I occasionally run in Jerusalem, I'll take that as my starting point. If you live anywhere near the center of town, the place to run is Gan Sacher, the park which stretches out below the Kinesset and the Supreme Court. You can follow the asphalt pedestrian/bike path south from Gan Sacher, past the Monastery of the Cross, and through the narrow parks along side HaRav Hertzog, almost all the way to the turn-off for the Jerusalem Mall (Canyon Malka). The whole route is around 2.5 miles from end to end and is amazingly level, so assuming you want to end up where you started, it's a nice five mile run. If you don't mind going up and down hills, the streets around the Kinnesset and other government buildings are as good a place to run as any, with small parks scattered around, and very little traffic outside of commuting hours.

Most runners will notice some profound differences between running in the States and running in Jerusalem, the first of which is the altitude. Jerusalem is in the mountains, at about a half mile altitude, and the air is noticeably thinner than the coastal plains of the US. Very few people run in Israel, aside from foreigners, kids in gym classes, and the occasional reservist trying to stay in shape. If you stray from the asphalt paths and try running on city sidewalks, you'll often find yourself on irregular stone surfaces, so you better have some really soft sneakers. Running in town is very frustrating because of the number of cars parked on sidewalks, the frequent intersections, and the fact that most other pedestrians wait until the last second to give you the right of way. Running in the street is absolutely out of the question, and crossing streets, whether running or walking, is about the most dangerous proposition going in Jerusalem. In the States, they way to cross streets on the run is to make eye contact with the driver and get across, since drivers will slow don't to avoid hitting you. In Jerusalem, if you make eye contact with the drivers, they will speed up, either because they take it as a challenge or because the figure once you've seen them the onus is on you not to get hit. The trick is to watch the cars out of the corner of your eye as you run into the street, and they'll generally slow down for you, since they aren't sure you've seen them.

If running isn't your thing, there are a number of tennis clubs in the city, a couple of swimming pools (very expensive), and a large number of gyms with nautilus and free weights, both private and public. There are also a number of organized sports leagues, most notably the winter touch football league that plays night games at Kraft stadium, just north of Gan Sacher. I've watched a number of games there, mainly yeshiva aged guys playing a pretty competitive game, but also a co-ed flag football league. The main difference between watching football in the States and in Jerusalem is that in Jerusalem, two games are played simultaneously, side-by-side, and a questionable call by a referee can result in a Talmudic debate. The stadium is quite easy to find when a game is in progress, thanks to the intensity of the nightlights and the noise. There are also soccer leagues and soccer pick-up games, including a five-on-five variety played on an asphalt court about the size of a basketball court.

If you prefer your exercise with music, dancing is popular, and some Yoga classes conclude with relaxation music. Dancing is usually co-ed to every type of music imaginable, while Yoga is predominantly for women though again, co-ed classes are common. Being neither a woman nor particularly flexible, I've never attended a Yoga class, but I once heard that bony people can have a bruising time on Israeli floors, even with Yoga mats. Dancing, aside from the nightclub trance music and ecstasy scene, is easily categorized by nation. There are Israeli folk dancing classes followed by open dancing all over town, and international dance nights at different auditoriums. My brief experience with Israeli folk dancing informed me that there are thousands of songs and a different dance for each one. The sound quality is usually pretty lousy since auditoriums make bad acoustic spaces, even if you have a great stereo.

If you prefer your music without exercise, i.e., as a spectator sport, there are more musical performances going on in Jerusalem every night than most metropolitan areas, and the variety is incredible. One you get by the symphony orchestras and choirs, there are nightly performances of jazz, rock, classical, spiritual jazz-rock, ethnic-jazz-rock, etc... Many events are free, along with frequent "festivals", and a surprisingly active local music bar scene. Small venues like the Pargod (curtain) on Bezalel, feature low cost professional acts from all over creation. The best English source of what's going on in the music, theatre and lecture scene is the Capital Calendar in the "In Jerusalem" section of the Friday Jerusalem Post. Other events listed include Scrabble and Bridge clubs, tours, hikes and children's story hours.

The hands-down winner as the passive (and sometimes not-so-passive) activity for getting out of the house in Jerusalem, is talks. If you're worried about variety, you can be sure that at any given time, there are at least two talks being given in different parts of town where the speakers are directly contradicting each other. Popular subjects include, religion, politics, sociology, religion, archeology, religion, religion, history, religion, anthropology, religion and religion. Get the picture? All branches of Judaism are represented on the lecture circuit, as are the opinions of all branches of Judaism about other branches and religions. Some lectures are free, others charge a nominal fee of a couple bucks, many are ongoing series that meet weekly at the same time on the same subject. The main difference between some talks and attending a university class is that you don't have to pre-register for a talk.

I saved movies for last because I wrote a short story about the Jerusalem Cinematheque once and planned on including it here, but it wasn't on my hard drive. The Cinematheque is located on Derch Hebron, below street level, and is normally reached by the pedestrian bridge over Derech Hebron. The bridge dumps you onto a short, uphill side street leading up to the intersection of Dovid HaMelech (King David) and Derech Hebron, which Emek Refaim has just merged into a hundred yards back. The Cinematheque features two screens, a large upstairs theatre that seats around 400 and a small downstairs hall. There are usually two or more different movies shown on each screen every night, though popular films may reappear several times in the course of a month. Even so, they air a more than 100 different films in the average month, with only a small proportion being Hollywood garbage. Unfortunately, they show a lot of European garbage to make up for it, especially French movies about men cheating on their mistresses and woman seducing close relatives for fun and profit, that sort of thing. There has been a definite tend over the years to showing more and more gender challenged films, as a reaction to the perceived disapproval of Orthodox Jews. It's especially unfortunate because it cuts into the number of well-made independent films and masterpieces from the Far East and Central Asia that can be shown. These films, which only deal with such trivial matters as survival, love and the human spirit, can't compete with all the naked bodies and French kissing so beloved by children of all ages. A yearly pass to the Cinematheque runs less than a hundred bucks, so you can afford to be selective about the movies you see.

Found the story on an old CD backup, the following occured around January 1995.

One of my favorite spots in Jerusalem is the Cinematheque, located a proverbial stones throw from the south-west corner of the Old City on Derekh Hebron. The Jerusalem Cinematheque is a combination library and museum with two theaters and a popular cafe thrown in as a bonus. Cinematheque One, the upstairs theater, seats about four hundred, and features a screen larger than most in the States. Cinematheque Two is located on the library level, with a more intimate hundred seat theater often given over to screening documentaries and archival films. By showing several movies in each theater every day, the Cinematheque screens over one thousand different films a year, including a large proportion of foreign films (i.e. those not produced in Hollywood). On the other hand, the last weeks one night mini-festival featured eight Clint Eastwood movies running in both theaters from 10:00 PM to dawn. A unique theme is also chosen each month featuring a particular genre of film maker. This month they are honoring a Haifa native, director Amos Gitai, and I came one evening to see the 9:30 PM showing of his "Field Diary", a documentary about life in the territories before the Lebanon War.

I arrived early to purchase a one year pass, 280 shequalim or about $93.00 for a non-student. The pass provides free entrance to both theaters, although a ticket for the smaller Cinematheque Two must always be obtained at the cashiers due to the limited seating. I paid with a credit card and received the pass, along with instructions to bring it back to the counter on my next visit, along with a suitably sized photo for lamination. In a brief conversation that stretched my Hebrew to the breaking point, I confirmed with the cashier that there is a coin operated self portrait machine in the central bus station. This useful line of questioning rarely appears in phrase books. Armed with my blank pass and a ticket for "Field Diary", I bought a styrofoam cup of English Breakfast tea, and settled down on a bench for the fifteen minute wait.

Almost on cue, three boisterous English speaking teenagers trooped down the stairs, pointing out to each other how little the place resembled a normal movie theater. They had been so incredulous at the lack of a marquee, that one of them had run in to check while the others waited in the taxi. This recollection brought the subject around to a loud discussion of how much taxi fare from the old city should have cost them, and I could still hear them from around a corner and twenty yards away as they trooped off to buy their tickets. On returning to the waiting area, they spotted me looking up a word in my English/Hebrew dictionary, and approached me to get my view on the taxi fare situation.

Jerusalem is a great city for walking so my knowledge of the taxi fare structure is strictly anecdotal. They told me that the driver had wanted 15 shequalim, but they thought this was extortionate and had refused to pay more than 10. The trip had been "off meter" like many nighttime cab rides in Israel, so it comes down to a matter of knowing the going rate, or fixing the price before you get in. Disputes are common, and the municipal government is trying to put an end to the practice, which is illegal. Since the trip couldn't have taken more than five minutes, I conceded that the driver may have been gouging, and now that we were all firmly on the same side, they undertook to introduce themselves.

"We're all students at the Yeshiva Yerushalyim in the Jewish Quarter," declared the apparent leader, who I guessed spoke English as a second language. Yeshiva's in the Jewish Quarter being about as common as soldiers at bus stations, I accepted his claim without challenge.

"Where are you from originally?" I asked.

"Brooklyn," all three answered in chorus. I choked back a laugh.

"Could you tell us which theater "Bad Girls" is in?" one of them continued.

"Cinematheque One," I answered, but couldn't help adding, "Isn't that an odd film for a bunch of young yeshiva students to be going to see?"

"Why?" they looked at me puzzled, "It's rated PG-13"

"I didn't know it was rated," I replied, "But the review looked pretty racy."

They all regarded me with something like suspicion now, thinking perhaps I was making fun of them. They moved off to talk amongst themselves, and I returned to my reading. After a few minutes, the one with the strongest accent came back and asked me doubtfully, "We are talking about the same movie, right? "Bad Girls", with Andie McDowell?"

This was too funny and I broke up laughing again. Apparently they had read the title of the movie in the Jerusalem Post schedule, and assumed it was the female cowboy movie released in the Summer of '94. I read him the description of Amos Kolleck's "Bad Girls" from the December Cinematheque catalog that I'd picked up with the pass.

"Jack is hired to write a book about New York prostitutes. Gradually, a friendship of sorts develops between Jack and two of the "Bad Girls". The film is based on the life stories of Manhattan prostitutes, some of whom appear in the picture along with the actors."

"Oh no!" he exclaimed, "We can't see that! Do you think we can get our money back?"

"I think if you explain to them that you're yeshiva students come out to see a cowboy movie, they'll understand."

They all went back to the cashier around the corner while I cracked up behind the free schedule. A few moments later, on their way out, they told me that the tickets had been cheerfully refunded. "Field Diary" turned out to be a well made documentary, although numerous panning sequences and the occasional footage shot from a moving car made me a little motion sick. I checked the schedule again before heading home and saw that in addition to Gitai's "Wadi" screening tomorrow night at 9:30, "Bad Girls" is being repeated at 7:00. Maybe I'll show up early to get my pass laminated and see what the boys missed.

This guide is in progress, and I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Traveling to Israel | Apartments and Rooms | Food and Shopping | Hebrew Ulpan in Jerusalem | Places to Learn | Getting Around | Exercise and Recreation | Culture Shock