LIVING ABROAD – JERUSALEM – Marilyn Armstrong

Once upon a time, in another life, I had a home in Jerusalem, just down the road from Jaffa Gate.

When I remember Jerusalem, the edges are soft. “My” Jerusalem is gone, replaced by housing projects, shopping malls, and office parks.


When you move to Jerusalem, it is called “going up” to Jerusalem. Indeed, it is on top of a small mountain, but there’s more to it than the simple physical act of climbing. It’s an emotional event of rising into another place and a different world.


I didn’t know 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. A promenade has been built where ancient olives trees grew.

At the end of January 1978, 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.

When we arrived, exhausted and anxious at the 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. Somehow, we recognized each other. We were collected, processed and given official identity papers. A small amount of money. I had no idea how little it was worth. It was a while before I learned to do exchange rates in my head.

I remember that the taxi driver played the radio loud and sang along. The music was 1960s American rock and roll. The driver spoke no English. I spoke no Hebrew. Images tumbling one on top of another.

Israel-jerusalem-westernwall

The apartment in which we were to live had a living room, a hallway with a kitchenette, a small bedroom, and a tiny bath with a half-tub. No closets. You buy closets and install them. Israeli closets combine closets and dressers. Lacking any place to put our things, we used our trunks as dressers.We had nothing to eat.

The refrigerator was empty. Hunger was gnawing at us, but we had no car nor a clue where to shop. No other choice, so we ventured out. Found a grocery store. All the labels were in Hebrew. Bread was sold in whole, un-sliced loaves. Cheese was sold by metric weight. Mostly, 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. Milk was sold in plastic bags.Not cartons or bottles. Plastic 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 I 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?

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 around us. 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 never walked alone in Jerusalem. Generations of ghosts walked with you wherever you went.

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. Dresses blew gently in the soft wind, 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.”

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. Breathing in all the scents 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. It was vital and alive.

Everyone was buying or selling. Voices echoed off the stone. Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of stone, and in the springtime and summer, Jerusalem of flowers. 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 told stories. You could see the outlines where arches and windows had been but were now closed and see how the ground level had risen.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

That first day, we wandered. The city led us into herself. She twisted us around until we found ourselves atop a hill, looking down at the Temple Mount, the golden Dome of the Rock shining in the sun. The walls, the golden dome, the stones made my bones resonate.I fell in love with Jerusalem.

No matter how difficult my personal life became, the city lifted 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.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

27 thoughts on “LIVING ABROAD – JERUSALEM – Marilyn Armstrong”

    1. There is much good in the country. Politics is politics. It was already swinging rightward when I was there. The younger generations do not remember the wars or the ideals on which Israel was built just as the young people in this country understand nothing of who we were and why. When history is lost, the reasons for existence seems to get buried with it.

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    1. I did love it. But I loved the place I knew and I don’t know if I would love it as it is now. When I lived in Jerusalem, it was about 300,000 people and a few thousand more in outlying “suburbs.” Now, it’s about 3 million IN Jerusalem — which means every empty place has been built up. I don’t think the Bedouins drive their sheep and camels through downtown Jerusalem anymore.

      The world seems too crowded. Glad to be living in the country!

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        1. I didn’t want to find out. I know that probably sounds silly, but I wanted MY Jerusalem. Maybe it was a mistake, but that’s how I felt at the time. And the day after I got home was 9/11 — and everything changed.

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            1. It was pretty strange. I picked up a bug overseas, so I was home for a couple of weeks after I came back. (NOTE: It turns out that even if you used to LIVE there — don’t drink the water. Your immunity has probably disappeared.)

              But suddenly, I’m watching the two towers collapse. It was a very strange time … though probably not as strange as right now.

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    1. The world has done a lot of changing and it all feels so crowded now. I’m incredibly glad we live in the country. For all the conveniences of a city, the noise, dirt, and crowding would be most unwelcome. Aside from the mad barking of my dogs, this is a very quiet place. No airplanes zooming overhead, either. No airports out here. Also no buses, trains, or taxis.

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  1. wonderful memories..and you brought me back to my two visits to Jerusalem. The first was with an “educational” tour group…all Americans, all elderly..I was the youngest at 53. We spent a week in the city and I consistently turned down group tours to different areas just so I could wander the streets. I fell in love with the Arab quarter…the markets were incredible. I went back eight years later..this time completely on my own and no “tours’ involved, to spend two weeks wandering the city. I went on to Cairo afterwards and arrived the day before the “Arab Spring” uprising. Incredible adventures for this old lady.

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    1. The last time I was there was the end of August and beginning of September 2001 — for work. Two weeks in Tel Aviv. I was appalled at how much things had changed and how CROWDED it had become. I didn’t get to Jerusalem. No car and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see how much it had changed. I know it is MUCH bigger than it was and all those empty lots and olive groves are gone. It’s now all hotels and restaurants and other tourist spots … all the places where Owen played as a kid.

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  2. I was sent to Israel for about three weeks in the mid-80s for my job. I stayed at a kibbutz in the north part of the country. Flew into Tel Aviv, visited many places, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, drove and hiked around the Golan Heights, swam in the Dead Sea, etc. And yes, I also did my job while there. It was, overall, a fantastic trip. I’m not sure, though, with the way things are, that I’d go back now.

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    1. I’ve got citizenship there, so if things got really terrible here, I can grab Garry and they would literally send us there, find a place for us to live, and provide us with a life. it’s just that Garry would feel so terribly out of place. I’m counting on this country regaining its mind. Soon, please.

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  3. What a beautiful post- I felt like I was there with you. Wonderful images too. My aunt just returned- she is 92 and though she said much has changed, she visited placed filled with views of the Judean hills and flowers that spread on endlessly. She said even the air felt different.

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    1. I expect there are still fields in the Galilee full of wild poppies and tulips. And I’m sure the wild iris still grow on Mt. Gilboa. But the cities are crowded and suburbs are spreading and almost all the ancient olive groves are gone.

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