Lions in Zion

It is not common for the mayor of Jerusalem to write to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old. But it is similarly not the norm for them to write to him. The subject of this exchange was a new, unusual art project carried out by the Jerusalem municipality.

The perception in most of the world is that Jerusalem is a besieged, dangerous city, devoid of pedestrians, with its full attention focused on preventing terrorist attacks. While it is certainly true that Jerusalem is hurting for tourists and that there have unfortunately been far too many residents murdered in recent months, it is not true that the city is ignoring all else.

My children clamor to visit the capital, a 30-minute ride from our home in Beit Shemesh. They enjoy visiting the Kotel and seeing their many relatives. But the reason they really want to go of late is so we can look for more of the lions that are currently dispersed throughout the city, ones that are soon to be removed, much to my children’s chagrin.

Just as Los Angeles had its angel statues and Chicago had its cows, Jerusalem has its symbol — the lion. Eighty-two life-size sculptures of lions are scattered throughout the city. They range in color and posture: some are sitting, some standing, some have wings, one even has the face of jailed politician Aryeh (Hebrew for lion) Deri. There is a caged lion, multicolored lions, a lion high up on the top of the Generali Building, a lioness with exaggerated mammary glands, a lion with metal giant ants crawling on it, a lion in a harp, a lion with meshing through it, and so on.

The idea of scattering statues with a theme around a city did not originate with Jerusalem. In the summer of 1998 hundreds of plastic cows decorated by different artists were placed around Zurich, Switzerland. The idea was surprisingly refreshing. It involved pedestrians and motorists in a huge, open-air, citywide art exhibition. The Swiss model spawned similar ideas in cities around the world. Nearly two years ago, Tel Aviv had a similar project. They inexplicably choose to place fiberglass penguins around the city; currently they have a dolphin exhibit.

Jerusalem, or more accurately Aliza Olmert, the wife of the Mayor Ehud Olmert, first thought of the lion for Jerusalem.

The lions are practically ubiquitous, and visitors, including my children, are continuously on the lookout for new, as yet undiscovered, lions. But the lions are an endangered species for Israel.

The original plan had called for them to remain on the streets of Jerusalem for six months, at which point they were to be transferred as a pride to the Jerusalem Zoo for one month and then auctioned off with the proceeds going to Jerusalem charities.

However, the lions have been a big hit, and some have suggested alternatives. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman proposed that the lions be auctioned off to Jewish community centers, organizations and institutions in the Diaspora. He said presence in those places would serve as a perpetual link between those Jewish communities and Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the spiritual center of world Jewry. He mused that he would, of course, love to see one in the lobby of the ADL building.

My children, and many other children and adults, are not so happy with those plans. They enjoy searching for and finding the lions all around the city.

So my 7-year-old daughter, Shlomit, wrote a letter to the mayor, accompanied by drawings made by her brother Yosef, 5. They thanked the mayor for the project, but also expressed their wish for the lions to remain.

The mayor responded with a personal letter in which he acknowledged their letter and reiterated the goals of the project. But, to their disappointment, he concluded by stating that the plan is still to auction off the statues. As a sort of consolation, he noted that the proceeds would go towards projects that help the children and youth of Jerusalem.

In the meantime, the lions are still there, and for my kids, the lions are reason enough for us to visit Jerusalem.