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Urban Nature in Jerusalem

Edited by: Anat Rivlin
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One’s sense of time is quite the elusive concept. Time, as we experience it, whether it whooshes by or rather, slowly trudges along at a snail’s pace, changes not just in relation to whatever pleasure or anguish it brings us. It also takes on different shapes as we transition from childhood to adulthood. I can easily put my finger on that moment in life when, just like that, weeks turned to years that flew by in the blink of an eye. The Jerusalem Reels, taken from the Micha Shagrir Collection – available at the Israeli Film Archive, offer those who grew up in an ever-developing Jerusalem a rare opportunity to revisit and re-experience the places and moments that made up an integral part of the tapestry of local life, in the days before the city’s boroughs and neighbourhoods began their drive towards mass development. Personally speaking, as someone who was a young girl during some of the periods captured in the reels, those were moments in time when each and every minute was a world entire.
I was born in Jerusalem and spent 23 years of my life living there. In hindsight, I can now say that the single greatest influence on the person I went on to become was, in fact, the city’s proximity to nature. Yes, I did get to grow up in a big city (with all the implied benefits that go hand in hand with life in a cultural and commercial metropolis), but at the same time I also had the luxury of access to all this nature and green spaces, a mere stone’s throw away.
The neighbourhood of Yefeh Nof where I grew up was just round the corner from Jerusalem Forest. Leading into the forest was a small ravine full of rocks that had been ‘barooded’ to pieces (the nickname given to those contained explosions that made the rugged mountainy terrain viable for construction.) And there was all this wild oat growing out of the rocks whose sharp, prickly seeds we would pull out in one fell swoop along the stalk and then throw at each other; which was how we would predict the number of children we were going to have when we grew up – the same as the number of seeds that got caught in our shirts.
We experienced the seasons through the woods, with the scent of all the herbs and mushrooms that came into full bloom in winter, and the dry branches we would already start collecting in spring, after Purim, to use at the massive bonfire we would build at the forest clearing on Lag Baomer [Jewish bonfire night] and stay up all night watching until the very last embers flickered out at daybreak. In springtime, we would hike towards ‘Elephant’s Tooth’ (‘shen hapil’) – this enormous rock at the end of the forest, just by the junction between the neighbourhood of Givat Shaul and the small town of Beit Zayit. From there, we could walk all the way to the Beit Zayit dam that was actually built at a spot where the water would seep very quickly deep into the ground, giving us only a few weeks’ worth of sights in the shape of blossoms from a lake altogether foreign. In the summer, we ran along the forest’s asphalt road all the way to the Zippori Centre [local guesthouse] that was home to a swimming pool all the local kids would use, which looked as if it had been plucked straight out of a European resort – surrounded by this great forest and overlooking Ein Kerem Valley and the lush green mountains towering over it.
Every morning, we would rush to school up the steep flight of stairs that connected Nof Harim St. and Yefeh Nof St.; and from there, all the way up Tirzah St. which, in autumn, would be covered in all the dry leaves that had fallen off the many cottonwood trees planted along the road and would make the most intoxicating crackling sound whenever you stepped on them. In the afternoon, we would all get together in the middle of the street and play a game of Seven Stones until the sun disappeared behind the mountain and the streetlights would come to life, enveloped by their misty halo. When we were slightly older, we would walk over to Denya Square and climb the ship statue that was put up there in honour of the Danes who had smuggled Jews out of Europe during World War II. Later on, a commercial centre was opened there which soon became a regular hangout for many of the locals.
The houses on the road I grew up on could be seen through the gaps between the pine trees planted on Mount Herzl. Many a sound have I heard coming from that mountain growing up, including “Charge, fire!”, followed by the bellowing echo of shots ringing out – a noise I was all too familiar with, long before I had any grasp of the actual meaning behind it [the three-volley salute, customary at military and police funerals.] We could even hear all the way from our balcony the sound of rehearsals for the annual state ceremony that marked the end of Memorial Day and the kick off of Independence Day celebrations (rehearsals that would begin well in advance, before Passover): sounds that included a marching band’s playing interrupted by the voice of the ceremony commander asking them to, “take it from the top, again.”
Diving into the Jerusalem Reels, taken from the Micha Shagrir Collection – a compilation of video reels commissioned by the local council from 1968 (in the aftermath of the Six-Day War and the city’s unification) to 1983, allowed me to look back from the present day at the many places I’d spent my childhood; sites of urban nature that provided work and leisure to countless Jerusalemites. Highlights of the reels feature extraordinary footage of Independence Day celebrations across Jerusalem, and the traditional event where then mayor, Teddy Kollek, hosted that year’s recipients of the Freedom of the City honour at a special reception at Hinnom Valley and the Tower of David (aka the Citadel).
Watching the reels has taught me that the valley surrounding the Old City walls was originally planned as a national park whose construction began after the Six-Day War and the city’s unification, which was meant to host many cultural events, as well as preserve and enhance the abundance of natural beauty, archaeological gems, and cultural assets peppered round the walls. That scheme prompted the refurbishing of the commercial centre buildings – the place that was once home to the Arab Jurat el-Anab neighbourhood (later, Gov HaShizaf) which went on to become the Artists’ Colony (aka Hutzot HaYotzer) where, for years, we would spend our summers going to amazing gigs and browsing the stalls of the most incredible arts fair where we would carefully pick out precious accessories with which to decorate our dark, brooding teenage bedrooms.
The city’s green spaces drew countless locals to their lush expanses. And indeed, the reels feature some truly stunning footage of Sacher Park, back when the hills around it were still barren; Wohl Rose park on the outskirts of [local neighbourhood] Talbiyeh (aka Komemiyut), and a slew of other gardens and parks which, according to the reels (that were PR-geared by design, one might add), were built and maintained by the council for the benefit of the local children, so as to keep them off the busy roads. The footage allows one to observe the rise of contemporary Jerusalem from the rugged, stony terrain – at times, through the clever, balanced harnessing of the local natural environment and at other times, in a building and paving frenzy that might well have compromised whole areas of precious nature.
In a place like Jerusalem, urban development is a complicated, nuanced process not only in the sense of nature conservation but also, from a place of attending to the sensitivities of the locals’ diverse cultures and faiths. For instance, in February 2022 development works on the National Park around the city walls were halted on account of the local Christian population’s concerns that church-owned lands may be disturbed; this, on top of all the existing tensions between residents in [the neighbourhood of] Silwan.
The city is currently home to several areas of breath-taking nature that has undergone conservation. Therefore, in that sense, urban development does not just come down to the loss of green spaces but also, to the understanding that urban nature can and should be conserved, as long as the powers-that-be make sure to bear in mind its many qualities and major importance in an eco-sense, whilst also utilising it as a space for a wide range of local events all year around for the many communities that call Jerusalem home.
The following is a collection of footage shot back when the Jerusalem Reels were in production, which chronicles the development of several cultural and social spaces, some of which also happen to be green. Watch out for the short descriptive text below every segment in the collection.

Anat Rivlin
Content and Comedy Editor
Born in 1973, Rivlin is a content and comedy editor who has spent the past two decades editing a range of comedy and satire programmes on various Israeli TV networks. She holds a BFA in screenwriting from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television Studies and an MA in Hebrew Literature from Ben Gurion University. In recent years, Rivlin has been a key figure in a number of nature conversation schemes, carrying on the work of her late mother – scholar, science researcher, and former presidential First Lady, Nechama Rivlin. The late Mrs. Rivlin’s special affinity for the cinematheque and its wide-ranging body of work yielded a precious content collaboration which now, also extends to her daughter, Anat.

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