In My Own Write: This year in Jerusalem

Two J'lem walks highlight the importance of being in Israel and in its capital.

May 4, 2010 20:24
Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem.

jlemvalleycross311. (photo credit: Marc Sellem)


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Two solo walks I took in my Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot-Arnona recently couldn’t have been more different, although my route was exactly the same both times.

The first was on the eve of Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, an hour before the televised ceremony at Mount Herzl. The landmarks – the trees, the little gardens, the corner makolet – were all familiar, but everything else felt particular to the day.

There was no one on the streets. While the peace was reminiscent of Shabbat, there was the stillness and weight of a fast day, and a palpable sadness hung in the air.

And yet the thought that pushed itself to the surface of my mind was a happy one: How right it feels to be living here in Israel; and how good that it should be in Jerusalem.

Next evening, after the Independence torches had been lit, I went out again. The same streets bustled with animated citizens getting ready to celebrate 62 years of the state.

And again came that satisfying feeling of being in the right place, at the right time.

To have been brought to Israel – dayenu. But to be in Jerusalem – this year, and not some mythical “next” – felt like the fulfillment of an ancient personal promise.

That feeling of rightness hasn’t faded in 27 years of living in the city. Not when its roads are, often and frustratingly, closed to accommodate this or that visiting dignitary, or this or that new bit of construction. Not when Jerusalem’s problems – and scandals – seem to loom larger by the day. Not even back in the years when every week seemed to bring another terror attack.

I MOVED to Jerusalem after 10 years of living on the coastal plain. During an intermediate period of toing and froing by sherut communal taxi, it always delighted me to hear the dispatcher in Tel Aviv send our driver off to Jerusalem with a shouted “Aleh!” (Ascend!); or “Red!” (Descend!), in the opposite direction. There was a nobility in the command.

My shift to the capital was accelerated by an irrational but growing sense that I ought to make the move while the going was good. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that one day, someone, somewhere, in a position of power might get up and proclaim: “From now on, only people of a certain caliber (I could never define it more precisely) will be allowed to reside in Jerusalem. All the rest of you – sorry!”

One day, I thought, I could find the gates to Jerusalem barred. Better to go through while they were still open.

DURING my first starry-eyed weeks as a resident of the city, back in the winter of 1982, I received a rude awakening. Walking out of my rented ground-floor Rehavia apartment into the yard, I saw the contents of a woman’s handbag strewn over the path and on the lawn. It had rained, and some documents were half-submerged in a puddle. My neighbors had been burgled during the night, and I was dumbfounded. Could this happen in Jerusalem? It seemed scarcely credible.

How supremely naive my shock of all those years ago now seems. Twenty-seven years on, the starry-eyedness has gone. A longtime homeowner, I have become quite used to the notion of Jerusalemites being robbed – on the private and public level.

In my own building, every flat with a balcony has been broken into, some twice. And there cannot be anyone who remains ignorant of the grievous bribery charges that have been brought against those elected to high municipal office, whom we hoped would serve us well.

The Holyland affair is only the tip of the corruption iceberg, we have been warned, darkly.

But let’s not dwell on that, or on violence and crime and cases of horrific child abuse uncovered in the capital; or, for that matter, on the ongoing tension between Jews and Arabs, or the shenanigans of Jerusalem’s extremist haredim. The media say plenty about these, and we know by now that the city “holy to three religions” is not immune to any and every kind of wrongdoing.

Let me tell you instead about the old man I met in a London hospital on a trip back to England.

I WAS visiting an uncle in Edgware General Hospital, and he introduced me to the patient in the next bed, a Catholic, as “my niece visiting from Jerusalem.”

The old man stared at me as if he couldn’t believe what he had heard.

“The real Jerusalem?” he asked, wonderingly.

“The real Jerusalem,” I answered.

“Have you seen the Valley of the Cross?” He fixed his eyes on me unblinkingly, so as not to miss any part of my answer.

Many times, I told him; adding that, in fact, I frequently passed along the road adjacent to the Monastery of the Cross.

He gazed at me as if I myself had walked out of the pages of his Bible, and I promised that the next time I was in the neighborhood of the Valley, I would think of him.

He lay back on his pillows, satisfied.

THIS old Englishman – like many much more sophisticated individuals worldwide – clearly knew little about modern Jerusalem with its top-level hospitals, institutions of learning, museums, theaters and malls. Perhaps he thought that camel trains plied the city’s thoroughfares. Perhaps he had a touch of Jerusalem Syndrome.

But what I took away from the encounter was his sense of wonder – wonder that people, today, were carrying on their lives in the 3,000-year-old city he knew only from his Bible.

It is this sense of wonder that is, to me, an integral and inseparable part of living in Jerusalem and loving it. It is what makes life here feel like a unique privilege, whatever may occur in the public domain.

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