People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why Are There Two Jerusalems?

Why is Yerushalayim plural,

One on high and one below?…

I want to live in one “Yerushal,”

Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.

—- Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”


Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?

Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.

On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

On a geographical level, there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem is on the border between the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv, and the wilderness that begins to its east. As soon as you leave Jerusalem, and head east, the Asian desert begins. Jerusalem, therefore, is at the nexus point of a Mediterranean climate and central Asian climate.

What is the origin of the “two Jerusalem” theory?

The first mention of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14, in the account of Abram’s war against the kings.

There Abram encounters Melchizedek, who is both the king of Salem and a priest of the Canaanite god El Elyon, God Most High. Melchizedek greets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon. It is the first interfaith dialogue in history. There, the place is called Salem, or Shalem.

A few chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham returns to that place. He brings his son, Isaac, to “the land of Moriah” as a potential sacrifice.

Abraham calls the place Adonai-yireh, “God will see” — or simply, Yireh.

Abraham named the place Yireh, and Melchizedek knew it as Shalem. Yireh-Shalem becomes Yerushalayim. Those two names are soldered together: One name, given to it by a pagan king who blesses Abraham — representing the possibility of peace; and another name, given to it by Abraham himself, representing the presence of God and the sacrificial offerings that will be there at that place.

Peace between people and peace with God — wedded together in one name. A promise and a goad. A duality.

But, there is far more than this; as the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, intimates, there is a spiritual duality as well.

Jerusalem is Yerushalayim because of a subtle duality that is nevertheless omnipresent in our literature and thinking — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

Where does one begin on this quest for the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem?

The idea of a supernal Jerusalem begins in Isaiah 6. The prophet has a vision of God in a supernal temple, surrounded by angelic beings, each one chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”

The rabbis imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem served as an alternative and antidote to the real, imperfect Jerusalem. Their fantasies took on new fervor after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believed that the heavenly Jerusalem had its own temple with its own elite of priests and prophets.

Resh Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where millstones grind manna for the righteous, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the very altar are built, where the angel Michael stands and every day brings an offering.

The Rabbis idealized Jerusalem, twisting it beyond its own reality. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. The heavenly Jerusalem is the place of the new covenant sealed through the blood of Jesus.

But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from Revelations. John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelations 3;12)

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem marvels at the beauty of Jerusalem stone as a building material.

The man who first figured this out was Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, and a vicar’s son. He enacted a law that permitted only Jerusalem stone to be used as a building material used in construction in Jerusalem. In his memoirs recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.

By contrast, the Jewish view of the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is actually not entirely in heaven.

In fact, the heavenly Jerusalem is adjacent to the earthly Jerusalem.

Towards where should we pray? Rabbi Hiyya said: Toward the heavenly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: Toward the earthly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Pinchas said: There is no disagreement here. The earthly holy of holies is directly opposite the heavenly Holy of Holies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5).

Jerusalem represents the revealed presence of God in human history. In the liturgy, in seder kriat ha-Torah (the service for the reading of the Torah), you would expect references to the place from which Torah came – Sinai.

Not so. Instead, Jerusalem has a starring role. As we take the Torah from the ark, we echo the plaintive cry of Jews in Jerusalem during Crusader times: “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” “For out of Zion Torah goes forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” In fact, the revelation at Sinai is absent; instead, the Torah service asks us to remember and dramatize the first time that Ezra read the Torah to the returning exiles at the newly built, makeshift second Temple.

Jerusalem represents the homecoming of the soul. At the end of Neilah, as well as at the end of Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

We can understand singing those words at the end of the seder; we have just imagined ourselves leaving Egypt, and about to trek into the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel/

But, why do we say those words at the end of the Day of Atonement? Because, here, Jerusalem is not “really” Jerusalem. It is a metaphor for inner wholeness, forgiveness, and redemption.

Jerusalem ultimately represents God. The Jerusalem Talmud says that in days to come, the name of the city will be “Adonai is there.” “Do not read ‘shama,’ there, but rather, shemah — her name.”

Jerusalem and God will have the same name.

Let us not read this as the deification of a city.

Rather, let us read this as the urbanization of an ideal of holiness.

Let us return to the Christian perception of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Because Jerusalem is not just Jerusalem. It is, properly, Zion – and beyond that, it is the state of Israel itself.

A theology is only as good as the implications that flow from it. Were it not for Christian (more precisely, British) philo-semitism of the nineteenth century, Zionism could never have come into existence. Sir Ronald Storrs – but not only Storrs, Balfour himself – personified that thrust. Christian Zionism is itself a child of this phenomenon – an over-idealization of the Jews and their land.

Over the last fifty years, since the Six Day War, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted. While some of the sharper, more pointed critiques verge on anti-Semitism, not all of them do.

Some, in fact, are the results of a welcome, but ultimately misplaced, philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels. The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, perfect, beyond reproach.

Christian perceptions of the heavenly Jerusalem crowd into the public imagination. It is the problem of a misplaced philo-semitism. Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted, fantastical views of Jews and Judaism. Philo-semitism can become a malevolence, masked in benevolence. In fact, this love-hate relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the most pre-dominant themes in Christian history.

Philo-semitism is the hope – even the expectation – of the moral excellence of the Jewish people. It is a moral excellence that has yet to be achieved.

The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jew because the Jew has rejected Jesus. The liberal Christian philo-semite is merely disappointed with the Jew because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves. The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed, sometimes, radically disappointed — that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here. They are not like the fabled Southern anti-semites who used to look for the horns on the Jews they met. They are looking for angel’s wings. And when they do not find those wings, the disappointment can become anger, can become hatred.

That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals. But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem. The tension is built into Zionism, and Jewish historical longing – the struggle between being a “light to the nations” or “like all the nations.”

It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress. Reb Naftali of Ropschitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.


Hebrew word of the week: eqsit

Trendy American words are quickly incorporated into Israeli Hebrew and cherished by the media gossips. They are taken from the English, as seleb (בלס) “celeb,” or selebrita’it for “female celebrity;” a formal Hebrew synonym is yedua’nit (less common).

Eqsit takes informal English ex, meaning “ex (wife),” and adds the Hebrew feminine suffix -it. Other examples are studentit for “female student,” seqsit for “sexy female,” qulit for “cool female.” 

*Spelling foreign words in Hebrew requires that all K sounds — whether from X, K, Q, C — are spelled with the Hebrew quf (ק = q), for example, meqsiqo is “Mexico,” sheqispir is “Shakespeare,” qolombus  “Columbus,” qvarts “quartz,” qumunist “communist.” An exception is aleksander “Alexander,”  which uses a kaf.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Once dreaming of a Hebrew charter school, now only Mandarin is offered

When the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEA) opened in August 2010, part of the draw for parents was the chance for students at the Santa Clarita charter middle and high school to study Hebrew. 

Since then, AEA backers have submitted petitions to set up elementary schools in the Newhall School District, Los Angeles Unified School District and Ventura Unified School District, without success. In August 2012, a revised version of its twice-rejected petition for an elementary charter was submitted to the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita. Among the changes in the newest version was eliminating offering Hebrew at the school, at least initially. 

“We will offer only one second language at the beginning; it will be Mandarin,” Shannon Perches, the principal and lead petitioner for the proposed elementary school, told the Saugus district’s board of governors at a well-attended public hearing on Sept. 19. 

In denying an earlier version of the charter petition, the board expressed concerns about the proposed school’s financial plan and its ability to accommodate students with special needs, as well as those whose first language is not English. 

As for teaching a second language, a central element of AEA’s unique curriculum, the board’s objection wasn’t to offering Hebrew, per se. 

The board’s concern was focused on how the proposed elementary school would go about teaching multiple foreign languages. 

“The AEA petition fails to state how students would be assigned to either Hebrew or Mandarin instruction, or whether there would be any consideration of the child’s ability to learn either language,” states a report by the Saugus district staff adopted by the board when it rejected the second version of the charter petition in April 2012. 

Hebrew may yet return to the proposed school’s curriculum, according to Jeffrey Shapiro, the executive director of the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEALAS) Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization designed to support and develop AEA schools. 

“In future years, we intend to add additional languages,” Shapiro said. 

Other public schools in California teach Hebrew, including public charter elementary schools. At the AEA high school, 80 students are enrolled in Hebrew classes this year, the vast majority of them new learners of the language, and not all of them Jewish. 

“It’s like a miracle,” said Nehama Meged, head of the school’s Hebrew department. On the wall in her classroom are half a dozen framed photographs of her students on a school trip to Israel taken after the end of the 2011-12 academic year. 

Twenty students traveled through Israel on an itinerary that featured both Jewish and Christian historical and holy sites; five of the students were not Jewish, Meged said. 

“The kids, who had zero knowledge not just about the language, but the place, the people learned so much, and they care about Israel,” she said. 

Taking Hebrew out of the AEA Saugus elementary petition is just the most recent step in a long process that has dramatically reduced the prominence of Hebrew language instruction in AEA schools. 

In order to get the high school’s charter petition approved by the William S. Hart Union High School District, the backers of the AEA high school dropped a curriculum that would have offered Hebrew-immersion instruction. That change led the Hebrew Charter School Center, the leading organization dedicated to developing Hebrew-language charter schools, to cut ties with AEA. The school also abandoned their plan to locate in a newly planned Jewish community center building.

The school was, from the first, the vision of Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, and Blazer spoke publicly to parents, officials and the media during that initial AEA charter approval effort. He has since taken a much lower profile, though he remains president of the board of the AEALAS Foundation. Blazer attended the Sept. 19 hearing but left before the proceedings began.

Local Israelis dig glossy ‘zine

“Anachnu Beh America!” “We’re in America!” proclaims the title of the nine-month-old Hebrew-language monthly glossy aimed at Los Angeles’ Israeli community.

The magazine, which averages around 40 to 50 pages, is eye-catching. The February issue shows a boy kissing a girl holding a rose; December had a large white dreidel on the cover; last September, the second issue, showed Israeli supermodel Noah Tishby.

Inside, the pages are also splashed with colorful headlines, bright photos and cartoony illustrations.

B’America is being distributed to more than 200 locations locally, targeting where Israelis shop, dine, learn and gather. An employee at Super Sal, an Israeli grocery store on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, said they receive weekly deliveries of about 100 to 150 magazines on Wednesday, and by Friday the waist-high stack of free glossies just outside the main doors vanishes.

David Mashiah, a 28-year old Israeli who works in private security, explains what compels him to pick up the magazine nearly every month.

“First, it catches your eye because of the colors,” he said. “Second, it’s interesting to read and it offers something that the Israeli newspapers here don’t offer. Articles that are easy and fun to read. They’re lighter than newspaper articles.”

“This magazine is not about Israel,” said Ori Dinur, Anachnu’s editor-in-chief. “It’s about Israelis that live here in America.”

Dinur has a background in theater and has been living in Los Angeles for seven years; she said the target audience has been living in the United States for more than six months — people who are building careers and families here and have no immediate plans of returning to their homeland.

Articles have included coverage of the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, advice on how to be a successful salesperson, a calendar section called “Poking Your Nose Out of the House,” a regular feature answering immigration-related questions and a first-person narrative about a failed intermarriage.

“Our contributors write from their hearts about very personal things that Israelis here can relate to,” Dinur said. Most of the magazine’s regular contributors (there are 17 listed on the masthead), live in Los Angeles. They are not paid for their contributions and most have never been published elsewhere. Despite this, and the fact that the masthead lists a staff of just four, with only Dinur on the editorial staff, the magazine does not appear amateurish.

“We wanted to do everything top of the line,” said Eddie Grimberg, one of the founders and owners of the publication. A Russian-born Israeli who has been living in the United States for 20 years, he said the magazine was not a commercial venture.

“We’re doing this as a service to the Israeli community,” he said. “We’re filling a need.”
Grimberg is very active in the Jewish community and is this year’s chair of this Sunday’s Israeli Independence Day Festival in Woodley Park.

“Our purpose is to entertain, educate, touch and improve people’s lives., ” said Dinur. And with characteristically Israeli passion, she added, “It’s my baby! I’m in love with it!”

For more information, visit

The Ties That Bind Two Schools of Faith

Azmeralda Alfi is the administrator for the Bureau of Islamic Arabic Education (BIAE).

Aviva Kadosh the director of day school and Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE).

And although on the face of it, it may seem otherwise — they have a lot in common.

For the past four years, Kadosh and Alfi have been meeting regularly to exchange pedagogical advice, offer insight into each other’s communities, pay visits to the other’s turf and, above all, continually affirm how educators of different faiths can help each other.

These two women have formed a solid friendship, and whether or not that will eventually lead to an enduring bridge between Jewish and Arab educators in Los Angeles, they have set an important precedent.

“We never talk politics,” Kadosh said. “We focus only on our shared agenda.”

“Our job is education and so we have no problem,” Alfi added. “Ideally, we all come from Abraham and so religion should bring us together but the only way to really achieve that is through education.”

Kadosh and Alfi face similar challenges. Both Jewish and Arab educators deal with students who do not come from religious homes, yet their parents have sent them to religious schools. Both teach language and values that stem from holy texts. Both teach a contemporary spoken language that differs from the ancient written language.

“We both teach children the relationship between the values in our holy texts and who we are today as people,” Kadosh said.

Kadosh and Alfi both work for educational organizations that function as resource centers. Some 150 schools affiliate with the BJE, which offers curriculum development, program funding, accreditation and professional expertise. BIAE, an outgrowth of the Islamic Center of Southern California, primarily provides curriculum and development assistance to a network of four private schools collectively called New Horizon.

Since their first meeting, Kadosh and Alfi have initiated several dialogues between Hebrew and Arabic day school teachers. They also sponsored an event where third-grade students from the Pasadena New Horizon School spent the day with students from the nearby Weitzmann Day School. The students learned what different words meant in both Hebrew and Arabic and together, they read the book “The Secret Grove” by Barbara Cohen, which tells the story of a Jewish boy and an Arab boy who meet in an orange grove on the Israeli-Jordanian border and discover how much they have in common. After the students read the book, they went into the Weitzmann garden and planted an orange tree.

“They had such a good time that day,” recalled Lisa Feldman, head of the Weitzmann Day School. “Throughout all these activities, the kids really gravitated toward each other.”

The success of that event prompted the two schools to cultivate an ongoing relationship. The Weitzmann students visited the New Horizon students at their school while the teachers from both schools began visiting each other. “Not only do the kids have a good time, but also when the teachers meet, they see how much they have in common,” Feldman said. “They have the same issues of teaching a second language and ensuring that religious studies is as valued as secular studies.”

“Exposing children to different ethnic groups and religious beliefs is part of our job as teachers,” said Lina Kholaki, who also serves as the Arabic program coordinator at the New Horizon School. “Being exposed from an early age in a loving and fun exchange of language, tradition and beliefs will ultimately lead to loving and peaceful individuals.”

Kholaki has nothing but praise for Kadosh and Alfi. “These wonderful ladies work very hard to serve their communities,” she says.

Sitting in Kadosh’s office at the BJE, the two educators exhibit what seems to be a genuine mutual regard.

“I’m planning to invite her [Kadosh] over to my house,” says the 70-year-old Alfi, whose hat and dark stockings render her virtually indistinguishable from an observant Orthodox Jewish woman. “I miss her when we don’t speak.”

Alfi and her husband, Omar, a pediatric geneticist credited with discovering a rare chromosomal disorder have been immersed in activism and philanthropy since they emigrated from Egypt in 1970. Their activities have ranged from joining interfaith dialogue groups to helping establish the New Horizon school system in 1984.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” said Kadosh, 60, of Alfi. “And I’m impressed by her work in Arabic studies and by what her family has built in this city.”

Initially, a mutual acquaintance had suggested that Alfi, new to her position a the Islamic Center, contact Kadosh for advice.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” recalled Alfi, who had previously worked in human resources and as a lab manager. “I knew I needed to talk to someone whose language was also related to religion.” Kadosh recently invited eight Arabic language teachers to attend a BJE Day School Educators Conference.

“What’s amazing,” Kadosh said, “is that the Arab teachers talked to the Jewish teachers and discovered that they all dealt with the same problems.”

Kadosh in turn, has been “fascinating and bowled over” by what she has learned from visits to the New Horizon Schools. Observing a prayer service at the Pasadena campus and watching some of the kids apathetically mouth words they didn’t seem to understand, it struck her how “they were behaving just like Jewish day school kids. The issue of kids coming from non-observant homes to learn about their heritage is exactly the same,” she said.

Kadosh and Alfi stress the importance of more teacher and student interaction between the Hebrew and Islamic day school systems and profess an indefatigable commitment to continuing their work.

“We’re going to keep at it,” Kadosh said. “People need to talk to each other and the only way to do that is just to do it and create this tiny drop of peace in the world.”