Israel rooftop tours

Togetherness in Israel Sits on Rooftops

Mekudeshet asks Jerusalem to conquer invisible barriers every summer

Guy Zidel

Jerusalem is a city shaped as much by the religious devotion of its communities as the walls that separate them. For a holy land home to hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues—and thousands of worshippers—peaceful coexistence is contingent on knowing where you belong and how far you should venture.

Some of the walls are concrete and irrefutable. Take the 440-mile (708-kilometer) security barrier topped with barbed wire, for example, that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories. Other walls are can only be learned over time. For Arabs, Christians and Jews that call Jerusalem home, invisible lines create a community defined by shared religion—the Arab quarter, the Haredi neighbourhood—for the sake of safety and comfort, while keeping others out. 

But for the past three years, a team of artists and activists determines to dissolve once inviolable barriers by looking high for new ground. Every summer, Mekudeshet ("Sacred"), a massive city-wide festival operating under the Jerusalem Season of Culture, puts together an original rooftop tour to ferry participants out of their comfort zones and onto the rooftops of buildings they would never otherwise venture. "In Jerusalem, people eat on the roofs, have meetings on the roofs, have sex, sleep on the roofs—the roofs are a very integral part of civil life," says Kim Weiss, a translator and member of Mekudeshet, “On the ground, there’s so much tension. But from above, you get a whole new perspective.”

We see these Ultra-Orthodox men coming to the rooftops to enjoy the art, we see young babies crawling on the floor, children running around.
These “Above and Beyond” tours involve art installations, architecture exploration, and personal narrative, all presented from a new vantage point. The program on each roof is designed with the goal of digging deeper into the places that residents have, over the years, come to associate as either safe or out of bounds. One participatory audio tour, called "I Would Like To Say Sorry", takes me inside and onto the roofs of Bikur Cholim, a hospital that serves the Ultra-Orthodox community." Of the buildings involved, the Ultra-Orthodox Bikur Cholim Hospital in Jerusalem was the first to open its doors and agree to participate in the event, because they thought that no one would be able to see what goes on in the hospital otherwise," says Naomi Block Fortis, director of Mekudeshet.

At the entrance, we are given headsets. The first stop is a narrow walkway between the private maternity ward and the public waiting area. Here, under the sloping roof of a public stairwell, is a cramped makeshift room with curtains for walls and a solitary light source. “I would like to say ‘I’m sorry’ to Galit, the secretary of the ward who has been huddled under the stairway for 13 years, receiving women, discharging them, noting every newborn, also the silent ones,” says Alit Kreiz, our guide, through the headset.

An average of 16 babies draw their first breath at Bikur Cholim every day. It is the oldest hospital in the country, and one with the most well-established obstetrics department. While it is nestled near the Haredi neighborhoods of Guela and Mea Shearim, and caters to the Haredi population—by observing Shabbat, putting timers on ovens for food so no buttons are pressed—one-third of the doctors at Bikur Cholim are Israeli Arabs. As I step into the fluorescent lights of the maternity ward, I hear fans whir above newborns, parents smothering them, family members cooing along. Kreiz urges us to consider: how many Jews were born into this world at the hands of Arabic doctors?
If this is not art or activism, at least, it is an attempt at reconciliation taken onto Jerusalem’s highest stage.
What many may not know is that close to 40 percent of Jerusalem’s residents are Palestinian. Majority live East of the “Green Line,” a border which once separated the predominantly Jewish community in Israel from the Arab majority in Jordan. When Jordanian forces were defeated during the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel annexed the captured territories, one of them being East Jerusalem. With only Israelis in the municipality government, municipal support in the territories is sorely lacking. "I would like to say sorry to those who live in East Jerusalem, for that they have only six maternity clinics compared to 27 clinics in the Israeli neighborhoods, even though you make up [so much] of the city’s population," Kreiz tells us. 

We ascend the staircase and emerge onto the hospital roof. Laid out on the rooftop are the same beds from the maternity ward below: nondescript metal frames holding up thin mattress pads. Left outside under the mercy of the elements, they are soaked in rain. On Kreiz’s instructions, we lay on them to look at the sky. Like children listening to a bedtime story, we hear about the fights and crimes that riddle the neighborhood, even though the city had hopes the hospital would be the intersection of peace. Kreiz recalls: the hospital across the street used to have a yard full of cows, and patients would get fresh milk delivered to their bedsides every morning. What is it now?—Shuttered. The peace and the cows now seemed sepulchered in a faraway past, a silenced longing."Thirteen hospitals were built on Haneviim Street, a street all pilgrims and crusaders passed through. Three were eye hospitals, perhaps not by chance, in a city where people have difficulty seeing one another," the narrator quips. 

Each stop reveals a layer otherwise unexposed to the hospital’s patients or the average visitor. The day’s itinerary includes a tour of the hospital’s water tank, where inside, we pour ourselves some tea; an archival room where we beheld every birth the hospital had documented, a machine room where we observed water was softened for the kidney dialysis patients below.At least the hospital is still here. Designed by German architect Conrad Schick in 1867 outside the walls of the Old City, the hospital’s downtown location meant it was the first to receive emergency victims of terrorist attacks, of the 1929 Palestinian riots, and the Arab Revolt in the 1930s.
The hospital is one of five stops, stretching from Hanevi'im St to Shlomo HaMelech, in the “Above and Beyond” tour. A monologue of three caretakers of the Saint Louis French Hospital for terminally ill patients, called “Soul of an Island”, plays on another rooftop at Safra Square. On the same roof is “The No Zone”, footage from a drone approaching the Old City in Jerusalem projects onto a gigantic wall. The drone hits and bounces off the walls of an invisible bubble and fails time and again to reach the sacred Temple Mount. The bubble is in fact the No Fly Zone (NFZ), constructed by the Israel Airport Authority in order to forbid drones from entering a 1.5 kilometer radius of the historic Temple Mount. Here, this invisible boundary is rendered onto the screen.

In a city where locals find boundaries on the ground hard to cross, rooftops have become an avant-garde neutral ground; a way for Arabs, Jews, Christians to come together and reckon the boundaries of their home under the umbrella of art. “We see these Ultra-Orthodox men coming to the rooftops to enjoy the art, we see young babies crawling on the floor, children running around,” said Weiss. “It’s actually a good way for Haredi men, for example, to enjoy art, because a lot of their activities are regimented by their religious rules and art on rooftops is still something neutral, and interesting, and they’re curious.”

No one is afraid to admit that diversity is still a work in progress. At the moment, none of the rooftops are in Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. Only two members of Mekudeshet are Palestinian—one was just recruited last year—and majority of the staff and volunteers are Israeli.Standing on the rooftops of the historical Bikur Cholim hospital, the streets below calm and harried, I remember when Kreiz directed my gaze to East Jerusalem and then apologized that the view had since been obscured by a grand hotel. “Have you heard of bad blood?,” she asked, as she invited us inside the machine room to write an apology (to anyone), while hospital pipes next to us sieved waste products from blood for the patients below.

If this is not art or activism, at least, it is an attempt at reconciliation taken onto Jerusalem’s highest stage. The city, in participating, is better for it.

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