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January 16, 2012
NY Times' big travel spread on Jerusalem through the eyes of an anti-Zionist atheist
The New York Times devotes three full pages in its weekly travel section to Jerusalem seen through the eyes of a writer soured on Israel and Judaism. Naturally one could expect that. This is after all the secular, liberal Times which still hasn't reconciled itself to the rebirth of a Jewish state.
Right at the start of his article ("Lost in Jerusalem" Jan.15) Matt Gross spells out his peculiar bona fides to tackle Jerusalem as a travel writer. Among all the countries in the world, he writes, "there was only one that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel."
Why? Because "to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden."
As for any religious sensibilities and connections, Gross proudly confesses that "I'd tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible."
Yet, despite his atheistic, anti-Zionist armature, Gross finds lots of interesting things in Jerusalem. "The Old City turned out to be, at least in terms of geography and architecture, exactly the kind of place where I feel comfortable," where he was turned on by trying to master the paths of its dense warren, laid out with sense of order.
His first point of special interest is the "Kebab Shop" and then some cybercafés. Because as readers soon discover, Gross may superficially allude to Jerusalem's great landmarks - Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher -- but what really turns him on are the restaurants, cafes and bars. Especially the latter where he spends many hours getting half drunk.
"The Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Holy cow, it was right there, mere steps from the Kebab Shop," he exclaims.
Gross may be enchanted by the Old City's geography and architecture, but what is singularly lacking in his lengthy piece is any sense of Jerusalem's real history. And this in Jerusalem, of all places, where history and archeology predominate as in no other city. Take away a couple of small hotels, a few restaurants and some bars from Gross's personal-interest agenda and you're left with a postcard view of his kind of Jerusalem.
What's next for the Times travel section -- a tour of Rome without the Forum and St. Peters? Or Philadelphia shorn of Constitution Hall?
One instructive example: Gross briefly mentions the "gorgeous domed Hurva Synagogue" and other rebuilt synagogues as he ambles through the Old City. But he shows zero interest into why these synagogues had to be rebuilt. Not an inkling from reading this article that the Hurva was the grandest synagogue of them all until the Jordanians destroyed it, along with dozens of other synagogues, during their occupation of the Old City from 1948 until 1967.
History -- the very essence of Jerusalem -- is totally missing. Even recent history. When the Hurva again rose in its glorious renewal, the Palestinians termed it a bellicose provocation. Why? Because they oppose the "Judaization" of Jerusalem. Such history, however, is not what grabs or interests Gross.
And outside Jerusalem's Old City? Gross is relieved to find a part of Jerusalem where "secular society predominates." And he's thrilled when he finds a "center of dining and night life; mostly my time in the new city was devoted to one thing: eating well." And ah! local bars like Shoshana and the Lion's Den, and especially Uganda "where the D.J.'s were spinning old Iggy Pop and '80s New Wave, and Sira, whose dark, roughstone interior and soundtrack of Radiohead and Devendra Banhart evoked memories of similar spots in Berlin, Budapest and my home, Brooklyn." No such lyrical outbursts, however, about the Western Wall or other holy sites.
As Gross wraps up his stay in Jerusalem, it becomes clear that "I couldn't find my way into the believers' world." He settles for a pesky tourist guide's compliment that he's a "mensch."
There's at least one thing, however, where the Times gets it right in the three full pages it devotes to Jerusalem -- the deeper meaning of the headline, "Lost In Jerusalem." Gross indeed is lost there -- and so is the Times. Jerusalem is just not within their grasp.
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