Remembering Teddy, Heart And Soul of Jerusalem

A founding father and jet-setter, a kibbutznik and a bon vivant, a secular man in an Orthodox city, a Labor Party loyalist in a Likud stronghold, a dove among hawks, a cosmopolitan in the land of the shtetl, and a Zionist who tried to nudge Arab and Jew into peaceful co-existence—the Teddy Kollek I knew was all of that and more.

He cajoled and exhorted, charmed and coaxed and used his amazing energy and unending enthusiasm to bring beauty and serenity to a city sacred to three of the world’s major religions. He metaphorically wrapped his arms around Jerusalem and protected it until the larger forces of extremism, both Arab and Orthodox Jew, started pulling it to pieces.

Teddy was a warm bear of a man with smiling eyes that I once saw fill with instant fury when I dared to suggest that “internationalization” was considered a possible solution to the problems of his city. For Jerusalem was his city. “To the Jews here, I’m a bastard,” he used to say. “To the Arabs, I’m a Zionist bastard.”

Teddy Kollek was in office for almost three decades, while six different Israeli prime ministers came and went. In 1965, the city was still barely more than a village when Teddy began to preside over its reunification and set out to restore its archeological treasures, to modernize its infrastructure and to bring a flourishing cultural life to the ancient metropolis.

He prowled the city on foot or drove himself around in a minuscule car that barely contained his bulk. In the summer of 1967, just after the war, he took me with him, a hair-raising experience—if he weren’t the mayor, he surely would’ve had his license lifted. Teddy would stop suddenly if something caught his eye. No one hesitated to walk right up to him to report a pothole or a dog fouling the walkway; he would pull his pen and notebook out of his breast pocket and write down the complaint. But in the long run, Teddy felt that his most important achievements were in making Jerusalem green, and in enforcing a rule that all the city’s buildings be faced in Jerusalem stone—the local limestone that gives the city its golden glow.

He created parks and squares and stopping places for tour buses and cars from which the people of Jerusalem could take in the sweep of the city. “Over there, you can see the Dead Sea, the desert, the hills of Moab, the old villages locked in time, the modern city, the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus, Mount Zion, the Old City—you see there the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, Herod’s Tomb.” He was taking stock of his city from the Walter and Ellen Haas promenade during another of my visits. “The special flag here is a pair of jeans,” he quipped, explaining that the donors were from the Levi family. The Levi family was just one of the many wealthy friends he called upon to support the Jerusalem Foundation, which he established during his first year as mayor, to undertake projects in his city. In addition to restoring Jerusalem’s ancient gates, the Western Wall, the Citadel and the stone path leading to the Stations of the Cross, he attended to the small details as well, like burying television antennas so they wouldn’t mar the historic landscape.

Each year, Teddy celebrated Christmas three times, once with his Roman Catholic constituents, once with his Greek Orthodox constituents, and once with the Armenian Orthodox. On any given day throughout the year, he would attend four breakfast meetings, three luncheons and several dinners—a schedule that played havoc with his waistline and left him little time for sleep. He became known for his catnaps. When an assistant once twitted him for sleeping at a public function, he replied, “You know, I wasn’t even tired, but I knew that was what was expected of me.”

During the Nazi occupation of Europe, he personally rescued Jews and raised funds to finance their escape. He was again the master fund-raiser when the fledging Israeli state needed planes and assorted weapons of war. As mayor, he worked impatiently to find ways to match a potential donor’s interest to a project. Of all those projects, the Israel Museum was his most personal: His goal, to create a world-class collection. To some in the struggling state, a museum seemed a luxury; to Teddy, it was an absolute necessity. He used his legendary powers of persuasion to extract contributions from around the world. It was a bitter personal disappointment, for example, when Mollie Parnis, the New York dress designer, allowed a treasured Matisse that he had his eye on to go to auction instead of to Israel, where he felt it belonged.

Mordechai Gur, the paratroop commander who led Israeli troops in the capture of the Old City in 1967, said of Teddy: “He was born for that job.” But as Teddy himself was fond of saying, he was also brought up for it. When he first immigrated to Israel, he lived on a kibbutz with Arab neighbors. Of growing up in Vienna, where his father was a director of the Rothschild bank, he recalled: “I lived in a Catholic city. There was a Catholic monastery next-door. I was not afraid of a church, as others might be who had come from a shtetl …. My father took me to museums every weekend. I went to opera, theater; I lived in a city that in 1919 had the first elections, and the election posters were in German, of course, and also Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Croat. It was a cosmopolitan city. I came from a multiracial society.”

But he knew that he could not re-create Vienna in Jerusalem, not with Orthodox Jews trying to impose their own laws on the entire city, and not with Arabs who refused to vote because the mayor was doing far more for the Jewish residents than he was for them. For a while it almost seemed possible that, under Teddy, the cultural mosaic would become a way of life—until October 1990, when the fragile truce was broken on the Temple Mount, an area sacred to Muslims and Jews. Nineteen Palestinians were killed by Israeli policemen in a clash that Mayor Kollek called “the most unfortunate thing that happened in the 22 years since the city was united.” That tragic incident, which Teddy felt as a personal affront, along with the intifada, all but ended the hope that this magical city could one day become (as a popular Israeli song would have it) “Jerusalem the Golden.”

Teddy Kollek was defeated for a seventh term as mayor. By 1993, the growing militancy of the Arabs and the rising population of ultra-religious Jews made Jerusalem a far less hospitable place for a liberal like Teddy. He lost to the Likud candidate, Ehud Olmert, now the Israeli prime minister, who eulogized him at his burial in a place of honor reserved for the giants of the Israeli state, on Mount Herzl overlooking the beloved city to which he had dedicated his heart and soul. “Jerusalem without Teddy,” Saul Bellow wrote, “is as inconceivable as Israel itself without Jerusalem.”