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.
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.