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

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 plus some small amount of money. I had no idea how much (or little) it was worth. It was a while before I learned to do exchange rates in my head. Eventually, I could translate any money into shekels and all I needed was a newspaper that showed current rates. This was not knowledge I’d ever needed before — or since.

I remember the taxi driver played the radio loudly and sang along in English. That was also the extent of his English. Except for the music, we drove in silence.

Damascus Gate recently repaired.

The apartment  in which we were to live had a living room, a hallway, a miniscule kitchenette, a very small bedroom, plus a tiny bath with a half-tub. No closets. In Israel, you buy closets and install them. Israeli closets are closets and dressers. Lacking any place to put our things, we used our traveling trunks as dressers.

There were a lot of things missing from that tiny apartment, and the most urgent item was food. The tiny refrigerator was empty. We had nothing to eat except a meal on the plane nor had we slept. We were exhausted and hungry. Hunger won. We had no car or any idea where to shop for food — or anything else. We wandered until we found a miniature grocery store. Culture shock struck immediately when I tried to buy milk. It was sold in plastic 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 – I forgot to bring scissors – and 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 ate something — and I have no idea what — and finally, slept. The next morning dawned into brilliant sunshine. “Let’s go see our city,” I said. We found the bus to Jerusalem, rode down Hebron road, and got off at Jaffa Gate. The walls rose up around us and I shivered. 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 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 will make you a special deal.”

Small open spaces housed spice markets that filled the air with the most exotic scents. Ginger, cinnamon, cumin and saffron. 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. Everyone was buying or selling something. 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, are a million stories. Put you ear against the stone and you will hear them whisper secrets. I fell in love with Jerusalem. No matter how difficult life became, the city lifted me. 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.

Categories: Israel, Jerusalem, Travel

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9 replies

  1. This is beautiful and poignant, Marilyn



  2. Of course, I have nowhere near the same feelings about J. as you have. But I do remember my sentiments, the interior shudder of excitement and awe when we went through the old lanes , and discovered the folded up prayers in the cracks of the Wall….
    I had the same experience with milk in a bag in England. Shocking isn’t it?! And also, it isn’t when one thinks of it.


    • I never think of selling liquids in bags. Also, their milk isn’t very good, or wasn’t back then. I think they have improved it considerably. All their OTHER dairy products were fine, but milk was thin. Maybe they were skimming off too much cream and not homogenizing it well.

      Jerusalem is a special and unique city along with (I suspect since I haven’t been able to visit them) some other really ancient Middle Eastern cities. Maybe it’s because so much happened there and it has been continuously occupied by someone for thousands of years. I’ve been to a lot of other cities including Svat (I forget the American version of its spelling, but it has a “ph” in the middle) (Sephat maybe?) — which is also an ancient walled city and while Svat is incredibly beautiful on top of Mt. Canaan, Jerusalem still wins. There’s so much going on in Jerusalem. I still dream about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is beautiful, Marilyn. Jerusalem is at the top of my bucket list. Although I have not lived in another country, part of this description reminds me of my visit to Egypt and some of my thoughts about Alexandria and Cairo. Here in the states we marvel at something 200 years old. And overseas the history is so….historical, haunting, telling, and miraculous. It settles in your soul and heart. Your last line is captivating.


    • It’s a wonderful place to visit. Best if you use local Israeli guides. They know places that American tours will never fine. Even better if you have friends who live there. One of the pleasures of living there was getting U.S. company, taking a few days off from work and traveling all over the country with them. It’s a small country. Three or four days to see everything from Eilat to Svat and the Hermon and the rest? Jerusalem. There are so many places that aren’t in standard tour books, too.

      Israeli guides have a huge amount of study before they can become guides AND they have to speak at least three language, not counting Hebrew or English. It’s harder to become a tour guide than a doctor but a lot more fun. The only person who didn’t the guides was my father, but he didn’t like anything. He was just that kinda guy.

      Owen, at ten or eleven, used to make a little pocket change doing tours of The Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. He loved that church. My favorite was the Church of the Manger in Bethlehem. Actually, I also loved Bethlehem and it is next door to Jerusalem (about five or six miles up a little bitty mountain) — not quite the long journey in the bible, unless (maybe) you’re traveling by very slowly donkey and happen to be very pregnant and it’s the middle of the winter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve always wanted to go there, as well as the surrounding Arab countries


        • I would have liked to go to other Arab countries, but it was either illegal or just far too dangerous. Pity because they were so nearby and there are lots of bridge.


      • Thank you so much for all the information! I’ve re-read it several times. Then finally figured out I need to just copy and paste into my notes lol. How awesome for Owen on his experience too. Wow. And definitely Bethlehem, and Church, is a must (not on a donkey).


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