On a recent Sunday, a friend of mine, a set theory post-doc from Germany, asked me if I wanted to go to a chamber music concert. A small string ensemble would be playing some Mozart and Strauss at the Jerusalem campus of Brigham Young University. It was free, though we should arrive early to pick up tickets. We agreed to meet at the shuk at 6.
The BYU Jerusalem Center is a distinctive landmark in East Jerusalem, with its many-arched facade visible from a number of spots in the city. It was built in the 1980s and immediately sparked controversy. Its most vocal opponents came from the city’s Haredi community. The following is from a local weekly newspaper:
The Mormon organization is one of the most dangerous, and in America they have already struck down many Jews. At the present the Mormons are cautious because of the tremendous opposition their missionary activities would engender, but the moment their new Center is completed, we won’t be able to stop them.
A 1986 pop song by Mordechai Ben David contains lyrics such as:
Overnight – a massive construction
Atop our Jerusalem mountains.
A campus luring innocent souls
To drink from the forbidden fountains.
You better run for your life
Back to Utah overnight
Before the mountaintop opens wide
To swallow you inside.
After protests, death threats, a no-confidence motion against the Israeli government, and a letter signed by 154 members of the United States Congress, the center opened in 1988. It has regularly hosted chamber music concerts ever since. The school was closed to students from 2000-2006 due to security concerns during the Second Intifada, but the concerts continued as usual.
Neither of us had been to the BYU campus before; however, I remembered seeing it from the Tower of David, so, in my mental map of Jerusalem, it was adjacent to the eastern walls of the Old City. Easily walkable. We thus headed off confidently down Yafo Street. A half hour later, though, upon reaching the eastern walls of the Old CIty, we realized we had made a slight miscalculation. We could indeed see the BYU campus, but it appeared to be as far away again as we had already walked, and there was no evident direct path there; our map was not terribly helpful, and our best bet appeared to be a somewhat meandering road that would take us down and across a valley and up Mount Scopus on the other side. With a shrug, we set off downhill.
Upon reaching the bottom, we were greeted by a sign informing us that we were entering the neighborhood of A-Tur. A-Tur (or At-Tur, Arabic for “the Mount,” referring to the Mount of Olives, on which part of the neighborhood is located) was a familiar name to me, largely through newspaper reporting of recent unrest in East Jerusalem. I did not know this at the time, but the previous day, April 25, had seen two separate confrontations in the neighborhood between Palestinian residents and Israeli police, one of which led to the death of a Palestinian teenager. Three days later, police violently dispersed a protest against the closure of the neighborhood’s main road, an action taken in response to the events of the 25th.
On the evening of the 26th, though, the neighborhood, at least the portion we walked through, was calm. It was a warm day; kids were playing outside, adults were chatting on sidewalks and porches, and, perhaps as a result of recent events or perhaps because the neighborhood does not get much foot traffic from outsiders, our passage attracted a number of stares.
Children were especially interested in us. Coming up on a street corner, we were spotted by a boy who appeared to be about 10. He beckoned to his friends down a side street, and soon we were surrounded by a small group of boys walking along with us. One of them tossed a soccer ball at my friend. Another did a practice karate kick in his direction. A third came up to me and said, “You. Are. Fat.” before the group dispersed.
Later, about halfway up the other side of the valley, we came upon what looked like it might be a path through some green space and up to the BYU campus. In mild danger of being late for the concert, we did not want to take a wrong turn, so my friend approached a little girl who was playing nearby.
“Hello. Do you speak English?” he asked.
She shook her head.
He pointed toward the BYU campus looming above us. “How do we get there? Can we take this path?” he asked, gesturing.
She smiled and shook her head again, pointing her finger straight up.
We understood. “Todah rabah,” my friend said, and we continued up the street.
“What’s ‘thank you’ in Arabic?” I asked him, suddenly embarrassed to have lived in Jerusalem for almost eight months without learning this.
“Ah, of course,” he said, and he called back to the girl, “Shukran!” I don’t know if she heard him.
We made it to the concert on time, and we were rewarded for our efforts immediately. The wall behind the stage of the auditorium is made of glass and, upon entering the room, we were treated to a breathtaking view through the building’s iconic arches of the sun setting over the Old City, the Dome of the Rock glistening in the last light of the day. It was a wonderful backdrop to the music, which was beautifully played by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert opened with a Strauss Prelude and continued with Mozart’s String Quintet in C minor, whose first movement is among my favorite of his works. The best was saved for last, though: Strauss’s sublime Metamorphosen, arranged for string septet. It is a fascinating and complicated piece, written to mourn the destruction of Germany at the end of World War II, and, on this night, in a Mormon university overlooking the city of Jerusalem, during a particularly quiet passage, the seven musicians on stage were joined by an eighth, playing a part not notated in Strauss’s score, as the sounds of the local muezzin reciting the call to prayer filtered into the concert hall.