Thursday, January 25, 2007

City on a hill II

I recently went down from hilly Haifa to Hutzot Hamifratz, a gigantic new American-style shopping mall on the coastal plain a few miles away. While walking outside a huge Office Depot store I had the feeling that I was not in Israel anymore. I've all but stopped noticing the difference between Hebrew and English, and in every other way Hutzot Hamifratz basically resembles Los Angeles.

I realized that one of the things which attracts me to Israel is the terrain. In most places where people live in America, you go five or ten miles in any direction, and things look exactly like where you came from. The same shopping malls, the same subdivisions, the same roads, the same chains of gas stations and restaurants. The same people too, it must be admitted, no matter how deep is your high school's rivalry with next high school down. In my opinion, this uniformity affects how Americans feel about their communities. Where everything is interchangeable, you can never truly feel at home.

Most of Israel is different. This is partly attributable to the greater density and variety in urban areas (similar to Europe), and to the unique historical/religious significance of almost every location. But I think an equally important factor is topography. Jerusalem, Haifa, and many smaller Israeli cities are built in mountainous areas. Every neighborhood is on a particular hill or in a well-known valley. From any place in the city, you can look up, down, or around, and see almost any other place in the city; walk a few blocks, and from your new angle everything will look different. The terrain and thus the design of every neighborhood (and often every street corner) are unique. There is never a sense of suburban interchangeability. Wherever you go, you are aware of and feel connected to your surroundings. I've only lived in Israel for three or so years up to this point, yet nowhere else in the world do I feel as rooted as I do here.

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