Sunday, December 08, 2002

Kiddie Court

The tour guides at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem have been hard at work creating a new self-guided tour specifically geared for children. On the third day of Hanukah last week, we got to go for a specially-arranged test run.

The Supreme Court is a remarkable institution, housed in perhaps an even more remarkable building. The tour provides insight into both these elements. The building’s design mixes old and new, light and shade, interior and exterior spaces to create a flowing metaphor which contrasts justice and compassion. The metaphors begin as soon as you enter.

At the top of a long staircase, there is a two-story high window wide enough for two-dozen spectators that looks out on the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem with its narrow winding streets and picturesque red-roofed houses.

The printed guide explains in easy-to-understand kids’ language that this was designed on purpose to create a feeling that we are both inside and outside at the same time. Symbolically, this is meant to remind us that legal decisions made inside the court influence the lives of the people outside. It is impossible to be “cut off” from the world at large when you must pass this enormous picture window every day upon entering.

Just to the right of the window is an imposing wall made out of Jerusalem stone.

“It looks like the Kotel!” cried out our 4-year-old Aviv.

He was right on target. The stones have been put together, one on top of each other without mortar, as with the Western Wall in the Old City. A gutter runs along the bottom of the wall and in it, set down about a foot, lays a mirror, creating the impression that the wall extends deep below. The wall also protrudes slightly outside the picture window, further emphasizing the inside/outside metaphor.

Directly opposite the mock-Kotel are two starkly modern walls, one fashioned as a straight line, the other shaped as a semi-circle. This begins a motif that is repeated throughout the building. The straight line is meant to represent “law,” as it says in Psalms 119:13 “You are righteous…and your laws are straight.” The circles represent “justice” to show how a judge takes the law and flexibly interprets it, as it says in Psalms 23:3 “He leads me in circles of justice…”

The use of biblical quotations to shape the conception of the building is a large part of what makes this Supreme Court so fascinating and so unlike any other court building in the world. It is a uniquely Israeli creation.

If it is possible to feel Jewish pride about a government building, this is it.

Rising from the center of the Supreme Court is a large pyramid. Again lines and circles - three concrete slabs rise towards the heavens with circular windows carved into each side to allow natural light to filter in. From the outside, it looks like a little bird pecking its way out of a large and exceedingly misshapen egg. Inside, it frames the court’s main library.

The highlight of any tour to the Supreme Court – for kids and adults alike – is the courts themselves. Visitors enter an imposing space dominated by another long wall of Jerusalem stone, this time with five “gateways” carved into it. The reference is to the judges who used to sit at the gates of the city: “You will appoint judges and officers in all your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

And yet, each gateway functions as a kind of time portal: as soon as you step inside, you are immediately thrust into a thoroughly modern courtroom complete with microphones and computers.

Keeping with the casual nature of Israeli society, visitors are allowed to just step in and observe, even while court is in session. We sat quietly in the back while a black-robed attorney argued animatedly in defense of an entirely too impassive prisoner. Maybe it was the armed guards who sat on either side of him in the locked prison box.

The tour ends with a visit to the Courtyard of the Arches, a colonnaded outdoor plaza reminiscent of Jerusalem in Roman times with a pool in the center designed with (you guessed it) a circle and a line. The stone for this courtyard was mined from the Mitzpe Ramon area since the “Law” (The Ten Commandments) was originally given in the desert.

And one final biblical citation: the water in the pool is kept clean and clear to reflect the sky as it says in Psalms 85:12 “Truth will spring up from the earth and justice will be reflected from the heavens.”

Whether you’re in town for a visit or you’re a local with some unexpected free time, this new self-guided tour makes it easy to visit for the whole family. The tour is currently in English but will be translated into Hebrew shortly.

For a virtual tour, check out these sites, which include aerial photos and blueprints:

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