I often stroll through Jerusalem's Zion Square, enjoying the fascinating mix of locals and tourists who window shop and linger at the ice-cream parlors. Last week, however, I stumbled into a Jewish version of Dante's Inferno - Jerusalem's Annual Gay Parade.
This colorful event, organized by the Jerusalem Open House, coaxed not only local homosexuals and lesbians, but also smatterings of everyone else who matters in this country, out of the woodwork.
Many of the gays, dressed in controversial costumes, glittered like stars. To a lively drumbeat, they flaunted hand-lettered Hebrew and English signs joyously proclaiming their proclivity. One read, "Oy Vay, I'm Gay," and, another, featuring a rainbow-hued Star of David, read "There Are Myriad Ways to Be Jewish." Rainbows, symbols of sexual diversity, adorned almost every marcher in some size or shape.
But here and there, single hues bloomed too, like the yellow flags of mysterious affiliation, bouquets of purple balloons symbolizing tolerance, and seas of orange and black.
To one side, a large group of yeshiva students, obviously nationalistic by the orange ribbons that streamed from their knapsacks, temporarily replaced their usual slogan, "Jews do not expel Jews [from Gaza]," with an equally heartfelt anti-gay "Leave our Holy Land!" Some, either to make their point or to catch all the action, even perched on the shoulders of their brethren. They had to look from afar, because a Special Police Unit forbade them access to the "defilers" of their Torah world - the gays - for fear of violence.
Haredi Orthodox adults - in black attire, side locks and holier-than-thou expressions - stood farther back, looking on curiously and in silence. On a balcony two floors above, a sign entreated believers to accept the late Lubavitcher Rebbe as Messiah. Higher still, a number of helicopters circled like angry buzzards, looking for trouble.
At the height of the parade, a gay beauty queen swept by in a resplendent wedding gown, someone waved a sign reading, "Transfer, not Transgender," and six children skipped by, incongruously sporting Burger King paper crowns.
Tourists stopped in their tracks, astounded, as a herd of yeshiva students galloped by, amassing more and more supporters as they headed toward heaven knows where. Beggars peddled red-stringed protection against the Evil Eye for a pittance. A group of haredi men chanted "Honor Holy Jerusalem," while their brothers spontaneously formed a dance circle, kicking up a storm and singing, "Blessed Be the Lord, We Love You."
Finally, with a fearful roar, an entourage of black-helmeted riot police plowed their motorcycles through the crowd, signaling the end of the parade.
Yet most of the bystanders remained in place, still arguing among themselves. An elderly woman poked an Orthodox man again and again, oblivious to his aversion at being touched by a female.
"Why," she demanded, "didn't you yell at those lesbians!?"
Matrons debated freedom of expression with yeshiva students, teens exchanged thoughts with people old enough to be their grandparents and staid-looking passersby defended the gay lifestyle to anyone who came near.
During Jerusalem's Gay Parade, the world turned topsy-turvy. Within minutes afterward, though, it righted itself again.
Gays, teens, elders, haredim, passersby, helicopter pilots, Special Forces, beggars, policemen, tourists, Jerusalemites and Gazan settlers - each returned to his or her own little world, as if nothing had ever happened.
Melody Amsel-Arieli is a writer living in Ma'ale Adumim, Israel.