Once upon a time, in another life, I had a home in Jerusalem, just down the road from Jaffa Gate.
Nowadays, when I remember Jerusalem, the edges are soft. My Jerusalem is gone. Time brought housing projects, shopping malls, office parks. I don’t want that Jerusalem.
I didn’t know, when I first went up to Jerusalem, that I was arriving at the end of an era. Those would be the last years the Bedouins would cross their sheep through the middle of town, stopping traffic on King George Street on their way to the greener grass on the other side of the mountain.
Those would be the final years during which you could stand on the edge of the wadi by an ancient olive grove to see the great golden Dome of the Rock glowing in the first light of dawn. Now, the wadi is filled with condos. There’s a promenade where ancient olives trees grew. They cut down thousand-year-old groves of olive trees to build a promenade so tourists would not get sand in their shoes.
At the end of January 1979, my son and I arrived at Lod airport. Neither of us had ever been to Israel. Owen knew absolutely nothing of the place. I had read a great deal about it … history, legends, guidebooks and novels. We had no friends or family in the country, nor were we familiar with the language or customs. Despite this, we would make it our home and both of us would grow to love it.
My mother said she thought me very brave to leap into the unknown. I enjoyed the role of intrepid heroine. But I was not brave, just hungry for adventure and yearning for culture shock.
I was running toward a new beginning, a different reality I could not find by staying in where I’d always been. I went up to Yerushalayim shel zahav.
When we arrived, exhausted and anxious at Ben Gurion airport, I scanned the faces in the crowd, wondering who would be there to take charge of us and get us to our destination. Remarkably, someone was there, and somehow, we recognized one another. We were collected, processed and given official identity papers. I had never carried official identity papers before. Americans didn’t need them in those more innocent days.
In the United States, a driver’s license and maybe a credit card was enough to tell the world who you were. In Israel, I would carry official identity papers wherever I went. Now, it’s not so different here. Funny how the world catches up with you.
Before leaving the airport reception area – almost as an afterthought – I was handed some Israeli money, the value of which I did not know. Then they plunked our belongings into a taxi and off we went, up the winding road to Jerusalem. By then, we hadn’t slept in many long hours and everything seemed surreal.
I remember that the taxi driver played the radio loud and sang along. The music was 1960s American rock and roll. The driver and I could not talk. He spoke no English; I spoke no Hebrew. I tried to get a sense of the place, but tired and jet-lagged, it was just images tumbling one on top of another. I saw much and understood nothing.
We were dumped at an absorption center, a kind of way station for immigrants where you live for free, learn Hebrew, and try to get used to your new world. I don’t know any other country that gives immigrants so much, but it was for all that, a chilly reception.
The apartment had a living room, a hallway with a kitchenette, a small bedroom, and a miniscule bathroom with a mini bathtub. There were no closets. Israeli homes do not have closets. If you have stuff you want to put away, you buy closets and put them where you want them. Israeli closets combine the functions of closets and dressers, necessitated by the smaller size of Israeli homes.
Lacking any other place to put things, we used the trunks in which we had brought our belongings as dressers and stuffed everything else into corners.
There were other things missing from the tiny apartment. The first missing item we noticed was food. The tiny refrigerator was empty. It was obvious that before I knew which way was up, we were going to have to confront the issue of food. Hunger was gnawing at us. We had no car and not a clue where we might buy food.
We had brought some basic pots and pans, dishes and cutlery with us. Fortunate, because none of these were supplied. Naked light bulbs hung from wires in the ceiling. At least there was light.
Finding food became urgent, so we ventured out and found the tiny grocery store around the corner. All the labels were in Hebrew, which of course I couldn’t read. As far as I could tell, there was no prepared food and I didn’t recognize much of what I saw. Bread was sold in whole, un-sliced loaves. Cheese was sold by metric weight. For the most part, I recognized the fruits and vegetables, but even some of those were unfamiliar.
Culture shock really struck when I tried to buy milk. Finding milk required asking everyone until I found someone who spoke English. He then led me to the dairy case. This was unsettling since I’d thought that a dairy case is a dairy case and would be easy enough to recognize.
Over-tired, I felt actually faint when I saw that all the milk was sold in plastic bags. Bags. Not cartons. Not bottles. Bags. What in the world was I going to do with a bag of milk? Finally, I bought a pitcher. After tearing the bag open with my teeth – not having thought to bring a pair of scissors with me – I carefully poured the milk into it.
It turned out that there are special containers to hold milk bags and you just snip off a corner and pour the milk directly from the bag. Who knew? Without a guide, I would never have figured it out. This was not something that an American would intuitively grasp.
Owen and I were officially home. We finally slept. The next morning dawned into brilliant sunshine.
“Let’s go see our city,” I said and we found the bus to Jerusalem, rode down Hebron road, and got off at Jaffa Gate.
The walls rose up tall around us and I shivered with excitement (I suspect that Owen, lacking my expectations, was merely stunned into silence). This was what had brought me to Jerusalem. Thousands of years of ghosts floated through those narrow streets. You couldn’t walk alone in the Old City. If the city were deserted by all that breathed except for you, you would still have had the ghosts of generations to accompany you. Their presence was palpable.
Donkeys, so heavily laden that they looked as if they would collapse under their loads, plied the stone streets, cruelly prodded by small brown boys armed with sticks and shrill voices. Vendors called from their stalls, garments brightly ornamented with intricate needlework. Everything rustled in a light breeze. Stall owners stood in the lanes accosting passersby.
“Come in, come in,” they called. “I make you a special deal.”
A powerful sense of the heavy stone buildings dominated everything. The shops were mere portholes in the great mass of rock. Gray stone, black stone, stone veined in green, and pink Jerusalem stone was everywhere, underfoot, overhead, all around.
Small open spaces housed spice markets that filled the air with the most exotic smells, the scent of ginger mixed with cinnamon, cumin and saffron. Just breathing was a joy. As the day moved on, more and more people arrived, filling the shuk until it seethed with activity and noise. Everywhere, people were haggling over prices, making deals, grabbing up bargains, filling their bags. The shuk was vital and alive.
It’s gone now. Politics and war have killed the marketplace in the Old City, a marketplace that had survived for thousands of years.
The air was ripe with the smell of spices mixed with the odor of donkey droppings and human sweat. Everyone was buying or selling something. Voices were loud, pitched and echoed off the stone walls and walkways.
Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of stone, and in the springtime and summer, Jerusalem of flowers.
Old City streets go every which way with no apparent logic or reason. Tiny alleys appear, then angle off, going up, down, curling around and ending at a staircase, a wall, a cistern, or back where they began. You can wander without really worrying that you’ll get lost. Chances are good that you will find yourself, sooner or later, back exactly where you began
The Old City is tiny. Sometimes though, if you roam without fear, you will find yourself in a place you never knew existed, a hidden and strange place filled with mystery and wonder.
All around you, embedded in the walls, is the architectural history of the city.
“Yerushalmis change their minds a lot,” I was told. The walls tell stories. You could see the outlines where arches and windows had been but were now closed and see how the ground level had risen. One day, I looked down and realized that I was on the original Roman road where the armies of Rome had marched, where Jesus, the Apostles, Akiva and Herod had walked. Those who shaped our world, spiritual and secular had been on this road, to conquer, battle, kill, uplift, love, hate, die.
The Old City is overcrowded, packed densely with both the living and ghosts of the dead. I have walked the top of the walls of the Old City, climbed the battlements. You can’t do that anymore, of course, because in the new regime it’s considered too dangerous and everything is roped off, closed to the public.
In those days you could go inside the walls and up the narrow, crumbling stairs to the top, walk the perimeter and imagine how it was when the Babylonians and the Romans laid siege.
I later these streets with Jeff, Owen’s dad. He sensed those ghosts too. We looked out over the desert, saw the remnants of the war engines with which the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem. The place from which they had laid siege was also the place where, in very ancient days, babies and young children were sacrificed to the god Moloch.
This same place is now used to hold outdoor concerts during Jerusalem’s long summer evenings. This little valley sits just below the walls of the Old City and is very beautiful and has excellent natural acoustics. The Old City walls are always lit at night with spotlights, giving concert-goers an unparalleled view of the old city walls.
That wadi is forever cold, even on warm summer evenings. A chill breeze constantly blows in that valley. Perhaps the winds that blow there are full of the ghosts of the sacrificed babies and maybe the souls of soldiers who fought and died to conquer or defend Jerusalem.
That valley is not a happy place. The dead rest uneasily there. Despite its beauty and natural acoustic qualities, I think it’s is a poor venue for concerts.
Owen and I, on that first day, wandered through areas that today are so dangerous that no one goes there unless heavily armed. On that day, the city led us into herself. She twisted us around here and there. Over time, both of us would fall in love with particular places in Jerusalem and make them our own.
Somehow, we found ourselves at the top of a hill, looking down at the great stones that form the footing of the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall. On top, we saw for the first time the golden Dome of the Rock. It matters not that Dome of the Rock is a mosque. To me, it stands as a shining monument to God on His most holy place. There is a reason why humans keep fighting for this miniscule piece of land.
It was as if the walls and the golden dome and the stones made my bones resonate. At that instant I fell in love. No matter how difficult my life would later become, the city would lift me up. Jerusalem sang to me, called to me, made love to me, and now, so many years later, in my dreams, I am still in love with her.