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Only in Jerusalem
by Judy Lash Balint
October 17, 2004

As Israelis enter the fifth year of the war against the Jews, the strangest things have become normal. We hardly notice the young people wearing beige, short-sleeved jackets and ear pieces plugged into their heads who accost us at almost every city bus stop. "Good morning, rather warm isn't it?" they ask, sussing out those who don't quite fit. They ride at the front of every bus, closely eyeing every passenger who steps in front of them.

The locked gates that greet us at the entrance to almost every cafe don't even register any more. We've long ago grown used to the long wait at the entrance to every parking garage while security guards rummage through the trunks of our cars.

In essence, all these security inconveniences have been absorbed into our daily routines, and have not really affected our enjoyment of life. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, baby namings--all go on with more simcha and meaning than any place in the world.

Despite funding constraints, cultural events are burgeoning--Israelis are not staying home cowering behind the curtains.

Of course, the best attended concerts are the freebies, and a venerable tradition in Jerusalem is the free Sunday night concert series offered by the Mormons at the Jerusalem Campus of Brigham Young University. The campus sits on a magnificent piece of land on the Mount of Olives, just below the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University. In one of his most controversial acts, former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek gave the Mormons the priceless piece of real estate in 1980 in return for a $2 million donation to his Jerusalem Foundation.

The Mormons used the land to great effect, building a magnificent arched campus, filled with terraced rose gardens and dormitory space for 1700 students.

Due to a decree by the US State Department designating Jerusalem as a danger zone, no students have graced the halls of BYU's Jerusalem outpost for the past four years. A staff of American Mormons and local Arabs maintain the place, but one program they didn't cancel was the concerts. They foster goodwill amongst Israelis toward the Mormons, who have been accused of missionizing outside Israel.

Last week's concert was almost surreal. Against a backdrop of the Jerusalem skyline, with the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock front and center, The Master Quartet played a program of Russian music with a few Yiddish classics thrown in.

The Quartet, all Russian born, includes a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory and a veteran of the Red Army Ensemble. As they played their lively repertoire, police lights flashed outside the walls of the Old City and fireworks erupted periodically. It's the first week of Ramadan, and the fireworks and occasional gunfire mark the end of the all-day fast.

Back inside the beautifully appointed hall, the MC--a middle aged American Mormon politely asks people to shut off their cellphones. A beautiful vase of fresh flowers adorns the stage and tickets are quietly and efficiently distributed with none of the usual ruckus marking most Israeli affairs.

The audience of several hundred people is a cross-section of Jewish Jerusalem society. A few male heads sport knitted kipot; Russian may be heard in almost every row, with English a close second. Smartly dressed Israelis are among the regulars, and a few students have wandered down from nearby Hebrew University. We've all traveled to eastern Jerusalem to listen to a group of Russians play Russian, Yiddish and Dixie music.

Today in Israel, this too is normal.