Two worn-down train bumpers are bolted onto a rusty frame, the last stop on the old Jerusalem-bound train that, until recently, had lain dormant for decades, accumulating rubbish and weeds. Prior to its discontinuation in 1974, pilgrims, British soldiers, and other travelers boarded the historic line that once linked empires with the Holy City.
Today, the Train Park Trail has been rededicated, and it is booming. Clay planks looking like wood sit perpendicularly on the rusty tracks, which snakes by my Baqa neighborhood, flirts with the German Colony, straddles Katamon, slices thru Beit Safafa, and ultimately leads one a bit past Teddy Stadium. Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Russian and other languages buzz along the tracks by the walkers, runners, bicyclists, and dog lovers that mingle — cutting across class, religion, and ethnicity.
Jerusalem, though one of the more diverse cities in the world, is also one of the most segregated. And yet, this trail and its First Station cafes, music and dance venues, and even its ice cream, seem to draw from the area’s many neighborhoods.
We were fortunate to move to Baqa just before the trail came to life. We arrived from Newton, Mass., via Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert. One of the great joys of living on kibbutz is the accessibility of nearly everything by bicycle or on foot, from the synagogue to wonderful hikes.
In Jerusalem, our immediate life, community, and basic services are all packed into about the same space as Ketura, where we also had no car. The train tracks are the spine we walk on between the coffee shops, pharmacy,
restaurants, and grocery stores that make up the two main thoroughfares of Emek Refaim and Derech Beit Lechem that hug Baqa to the east and west. From here, our children walk to their schools and freely pick up munchies from Haim, the makolet (convenience store) owner, who keeps a running tab. All the major grocery stores deliver and our doctor is around the corner in a refurbished building that belongs to the Orthodox Ethiopian Church.
The mushrooming of coffee shops is a sign of the vitality of the area, each often packed with people socializing and eating, but also arranging business deals, envisioning nonprofit work, and hatching and writing books. Friday mornings, my wife and I run errands and top them off with a weekly breakfast with some friends at Itzik’s, a hole-in-the-wall coffee place up the street with excellent shakshuka (poached eggs) and coffee, a heksher (kosher certification) offered by a social justice group rather than the official rabbinut, and a steady stream of Anglo friends and acquaintances. This weekly ritual allows us to informally catch up on the life of our community while receiving a decent number of hugs and kisses.
Living in such a neighborhood is rich but also deceptive; we are an island in the storm of Israel and the Middle East. And yet we appreciate this island where we can debate the latest headlines amid the security of a soy latte, and where we can live a liberal Jewish life among our neighbors who nurture and challenge us. In this neighborhood, we can regenerate precisely for those times when we venture outside to other less friendly neighborhoods (such as Mea Shearim, which posts dress codes for visitors), or to the Kotel or Knesset (places of dissension), or to the security fence, a stark reminder to some that they still cannot travel beyond their own neighborhoods.