EXCLUSIVE: Benji Lovitt talks Jerusalem ‘Renaissance’ with filmmaker Liz Nord

By Benji Lovitt, SDM

Last week, we wrote about the public art revival happening in Jerusalem, part of the cultural renaissance which has taken the city by storm.  To quote myself (which sounds tacky but, hey, anything goes in a blog), “in response to the city’s shift in recent years towards a more religious identity, the young and secular are coming out of the woodwork to return diversity and culture to the streets of Jerusalem.”

In addition to the well-publicized budget increase by Mayor Nir Barkat to infuse the city with more…well, cool stuff, it is clear that this movement is also bottom-up and grass-roots, coming from the citizens of Jerusalem.  So just how important is this  movement?  And why now?

I asked these questions to Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker Liz Nord of the currently-in-development “Battle for Jerusalem”.

In your opinion, what is the “battle for Jerusalem?”

“In contrast to the more common meaning of Jews vs. Palestinians, I am documenting the conflict between Jewish factions over the future direction of the city.  On one side, the ultra-Orthodox community.  On the other, the rest of the Jewish population, ranging from secular to Modern Orthodox.

The former’s numbers are increasing and in turn, they are both trying and succeeding in imposing their values on others which threatens Israeli democracy. The people I’m filming are trying to make the city livable for all populations.

This trend is growing throughout the country; if solutions can be found here, they can be found throughout Israel.”

How is this battle playing out?

“In the midst of these tensions and economic challenges, a new wave of artists and activists have decided that arts and culture are one way to fight this battle as a tool for revitalizing the city, preserving its character, and helping young people feel they have a place to express themselves.  Arts and culture are a major part in keeping the city open, pluralistic, accessible, and desirable to young people.  It’s more than that though.  This same crowd is trying to win tax breaks for young people and help in job creation.”

Is it accurate to say that Jerusalem is going thru a renaissance?



What are some examples this summer?

“Street parties….new gallery openings…the Jerusalem Season of Culture….taking advantage of what this great city has to offer which sometimes means simply not trying to be Tel Aviv.  What is more Yerushalmi (of Jerusalem) than Shuk Machaneh Yehuda (the open air market)?  The shuk’s weekly and colorful Balabasta festival is a must-see:  traditional market stalls interspersed with live art creation, rooftops taken over by bands, dance lessons in the streets, and more.”

Because of their status as the two biggest cities or the two hearts of Israel, Jerusalem is always being compared to Tel Aviv.  What do you have to say to people who say Jerusalem is a holy city but not a fun city?

“Having spent time over the last two years filming young people who are working on all kinds of innovative projects to help the city thrive, I can’t believe how cool the city is and how many events there are that are just as vibrant as anything in New York.  Jerusalem doesn’t want to be Tel Aviv; it has its own vibe.  The bars are more low-key and down to earth where you can see a mix of all kinds of people:  religious, punks, hipster art students, etc.”

Whether you’re reading this from within the Old City walls or on the other side of the world, you’re likely to find something you’ve never seen before during your next stroll through the city.  May all future battles be as fun and invigorating as this one.