Secular youngsters leaving J’lem in droves
Secular youngsters who grew up in Jerusalem are leaving the city in droves. This general sentiment is corroborated by official data, which present a dismal future for the capital of Israel. In this story, part of Ynet’s special project ahead of Jerusalem Day 2006, the young Jerusalemites explain why they decided to leave, how they establish Jerusalem-like enclaves in Tel Aviv – and what will become of the city they love so much, but preferred to leave behind
Once, Jerusalem was a fun city to live in. The pubs were hip, foreign languages were heard everywhere, the town square was bustling and life was beautiful. Right about the same period, in 1979, Meir Micha, his older brother Moshe, and Sela Chen opened their humus joint on the corner of King George St. and Histadrut St., and named it “Pinati” (On the Corner). The place became known mainly because of the combination of great humus and a warm Jerusalem smile. A year later, local soccer team Beitar won the national cup for the first time, beating their heart and soul nemesis from Tel-Aviv. The taste of victory was sweeter than ever and the guys from Pinati gave away free humus to the crowds of Jerusalemites celebrating in the streets.
A fair number of years have gone by, and the lively atmosphere on the capital’s streets has given way to the feeling that the city, with its unique young character, is in decline. It is as if there are not enough young people to carry the torch. “When I asked my best customers that stopped coming here – What happened? Where are you? Where did you disappear to?” Micha remembers, “They said they had moved to Tel Aviv. I asked - what was the reason, isn’t there good humus in Jerusalem?” For his young customers this was still not a good enough reason to stay, and they would reply to Micha: “To tell you the truth, Tel Aviv is a whole other world.”
There is a basis to the feeling that Jerusalem is being abandoned in favor of the city at the end of Route #1. According to a research by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, more than 32,000 residents left Jerusalem during 2000-2004. The cross-section of the population that has been greatly reduced in comparison to others is the young population – “those who just completed their military service to 40-year-olds,” says Dr. Maya Choshen, who conducted the research. “It can be noted,” she added, “that Jerusalem is losing her young residents. If this trend continues, the role of the middle class will be reduced, since Jerusalem is losing primarily a young and strong population.”
How do you recognize someone from Jerusalem?
Back to the Pinati humus joint. Two years ago, at Sela’s children’s request, they decided to open up a branch in Tel Aviv. When it opened on Bugrashov St., the two boys abandoned their parents’ home, moved to the big city and left the City on the Mount behind. On Wednesday, at around 8 PM, when the Jerusalem joint is already about to close up, Shlomi Chen, Sela’s son, is still filling plates with humus at the Tel Aviv branch. You can recognize from miles away that young Chen is from Jerusalem. It’s almost as if it’s written on his forehead – “Go Beitar!” When you ask him if he is from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Chen Junior proudly says “I will always be a Jerusalemite”, and he also claims he only dates women from Jerusalem. He is pleased by the change of scenery, and explains why: “Tel Aviv is totally different, more open, everything is free. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you go. Just do whatever you want to. Live and let live – that’s the Tel Aviv scene. There’s no pressure on you – this is a stress-free city.”
Western Wall (Photo: Michael Huri)
In “Little Jerusalem” in Tel Aviv, not only are the humus, the yellow Kubeh soup and red sauce meatballs imported, but there is also an attempt to bring in the warm atmosphere of the home base. “Culture shock,” that is the definition that Chen chooses to describe the experience that a Tel-Aviv-native undergoes when first entering Pinati in Tel Aviv. “Because everybody here is from Jerusalem,” he explains, “and then the jive starts, about Beitar, some politics and whatever else is happening in Jerusalem – parties, stuff and friends. Everyone knows that this is a Jerusalemite institution.”
They are not the only people from Jerusalem who emigrated to Tel Aviv. Yair Kindler, Itay Pishgoda (a.k.a. Pish), Toy Nimmer, and Guy Osdon founded the “Eliezer” bar on Ben Yehuda St. in Tel Aviv. Three people out of the group are former residents of Jerusalem, which has made the place into a Jerusalem stronghold in the city of lights and pubs. For years, since they completed their military service, they would promote hot spots like “Hauman 17”, “Night Bar”, and finally the group moved to Tel Aviv about four years ago.
During the first two years following his army service, Kindler still lived in Jerusalem, even when he started studying at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and continued organizing parties in Jerusalem. “Then it simply moved to Tel Aviv, and from party to party, many people living in Tel Aviv, but originally from Jerusalem, started showing up.” Kindler tips his hat to his friends that still work in Jerusalem, because “Jerusalem is much harder than Tel Aviv as far as promoting nightlife, and anyone who makes it there deserves all the credit.” He confesses, “sometimes, I fanaticize about this bar but in Jerusalem, and I just picture how it could be over there.”
Once, everyone would sing “Jerusalem of Gold” and were very excited. Today, the radio does not stop playing the popular song by “Fish Snake,” which many people in Tel Aviv identify with. At “Eliezer”, there is hardly a night that “Here I Come” doesn’t break out and puts a smile on almost half of the people in the crowd. And “there is even a way to recognize who is from Jerusalem and who is not, and that’s guaranteed,” Pish and Kindler reveal the new identification method they have discovered during their stay in Tel Aviv.
“People from Jerusalem ask for three drinks with their pinky, and not their thumb like all the rest. We discovered this with time, and it’s 100 percent accurate,” Kindler proves his point by asking two Jerusalem-native ladies who pass by the table to count to three using their fingers.
'Jerusalem is not competitive enough'
So why are young people leaving? Jerusalem, one must remember, is the poorest city in Israel, with about 38 percent of its residents living under the poverty line. The average salary is lower by 25 percent than in central Israel, and the resources dedicated to education, sports and youth are meager compared to other cities. This reality does not leave many choices to the young people. Even students from out of town, who move in to study in one of the leading academic institutions in the country, end up packing their things and leaving at the end of their studies.
Jerusalem city council member Nir Barkat claims that above all “Jerusalem is not competitive enough, compared with what other cities afford and offer.” And when comparing Jerusalem to other cities in Israel, it is evident that it falls far behind in its investment in areas that are supposed to draw in a young population. In education, for instance, Jerusalem spends almost half of what other cities do, according to Ministry of Interior figures. In Herzliya, for example, its city council spends about NIS 1,600 (USD 355) a year per resident. In Jerusalem, education spending per resident amounts to no more than NIS 900 (USD 200). The capital is easily surpassed by cities like Beer Sheva, Ashdod or Petach Tikva.
And there is more: In the largest city in Israel, numbering a little over 719,000 residents, the budget for cultural activities is only NIS 4,000,000 (USD 887,000). In Tel Aviv the annual budget for cultural activities is NIS 65,000,000. In most cities in Israel, funding for sports associations and related activities is NIS 20-80 (USD 4-18) per resident. In Jerusalem, the 2003 budget listed a sports funding of NIS 5 (about USD 1) per resident.
When Barkat established the “New Spirit” foundation for improving the connection between the youth population and the city, he asked the Rafi Smith Survey Institute to conduct a research among the young population in Jerusalem. University students were asked about the likelihood that they will live in Jerusalem at the end of their studies. 53 percent answered that there is a high likelihood that they will stay. 47 percent replied anything from “there is hardly any chance” to “some likelihood but not high”.
Why not? They were asked, and the reasons were: unconformity with the “Jerusalem mentality”, lack of entertainment hotspots and because the city itself is not interesting. Barkat claims the conclusions are clear: “This city must become a preferred location for students and youth. Until that happens – there will be no resurrection of Jerusalem.”
Trying to keep young people inside ‘Incubator’
Sunday evening, around 10 p.m., dozens of young people start filling up the space around the bar at “Yellow Submarine,” a longtime Jerusalem institution and a club located at the industrial zone at Talpiyot. After 20 minutes of drinking beer and chitchatting, everyone enters the relatively small performance hall, which includes a wooden stage, a reasonable sound system and several dozen black plastic chairs.
A year and a half ago, Erik Asat, founder of the Nissan Nativ drama school in Jerusalem, decided to feature a play entitled “Incubator.” In it, his young students could implement and develop what they had learned. Asat defines the Incubator project as an attempt to plant the seed in the industry.
One after another, in several relatively short but extremely amusing bits, the novice actors present scenes of gangster talk in Yiddish, horny youngsters, an overly zealous religious man praying, and jokes about homosexuals and Ethiopians. When the candle was almost out and the city was practically void of lively and creative culture, which is the oxygen of secular Israel, Asat decided to take action. He embarked on an exhausting struggle against the continued cultural decline, determined to keep the young people in the city.
“The youngsters are leaving the city, because there is no industry that can sustain them,” Asat analyzes the dismal reality. “This is because of a continuous policy of a city that has invested too much in buildings and less so in people.”
Even the current industry relies almost entirely on the gleaming neighboring city on the beach. “Even the Khan Theater, a distinguished Jerusalem institution,” Asat reveals, “does its rehearsals in Tel Aviv, because the entire industry is there. And so, all the graduates that finish their studies leave the city. After all, Jerusalem is a superpower of culture-related schools, but the city purse-holders were not wise enough to build up the next stage. They did not put up galleries or a big theater, and when there is not institutional core, even fringe culture, where young people can be active, cannot develop. There are many people that love the city, but it is extremely difficult to survive in it.”
Asat’s dream is to see people from Tel Aviv arriving to Jerusalem “to see culture, and that one day, Jerusalem will be an importer of culture, and not just an exporter. I want my students to be able to create here and market themselves from within this city.”
Danny Zehavi, who arrived to perform that night, left for Tel Aviv when he was 26 years old, after completing his studies. What made him move out was the fact that in Tel Aviv the opportunities are readily available and widespread almost like the sand across the Mediterranean seashore.
“I moved to Tel Aviv because everything is there, from auditions to commercials and movies.” Zehavi explains. “So instead of driving back and forth to Tel Aviv all the time, it’s simpler to ride my bicycle.”
After two years, he returned home, and today, apart from performing at the “Incubator”, he also teaches drama at the School for the Performing Arts. As a teacher he confessed that “the secular schools are losing students”. And he warns: “the secular population has its own specific needs. Soon, with everything that is going on, we won’t be able to go out to the theater or see a movie. If we don’t do something, we will simply lose the city. It will not be ours anymore.”