In 1961 the road up to Jerusalem – long, winding through the Judean hills – was wide enough for one vehicle in each direction.
At Motza, a stretch of 300 meters allowed for a single vehicle only. Two men, each equipped with a whistle and two flags, red and green, stood at the top and the bottom playing traffic policemen.
Hard to believe, looking at today’s roads and lighting. The Latrun segment came after 1967.
Jerusalem’s population was 300,000.
The mixture of people was different – fewer Ethiopians, Russians or recognizable overseas students. Sidewalks were less crowded. Traffic less dense.
There were far fewer private cars; Egged buses were more frequent; almost everyone smoked. Women coming from Mahaneh Yehuda carried live chickens, sometimes on their heads. The market was less sophisticated; vendors were the same “characters” we still see, probably their grandsons. Shopping malls were 20 years in the future.
The only supermarket was the Supersol on Agron Street. There were dozens of little groceries around town, usually run by a little old Jewish man with a pencil behind his left ear handing you each item, saying “Vos noch?” (Yiddish for “what else?”). We called our local store the “Vos Nocherie.” Packaging was primitive if at all. We had none of the food shortages of the austerity period, but selection was still poor.
We didn’t eat out, there were only four restaurants in Jerusalem. Palmahi on Shammai Street served Mizrahi food; Tarablus Jerusalem Restaurant on Jaffa Rd, where you bought tickets for your food. Dessert was called “pudding,” the choice was patriotically blue or white; both tasted like paste. Hess’s on Ben Sira Street served Viennese style flanken beef. The waiter wore an ancient soup-stained tuxedo, and joined in your conversations. There was a tiny Mizrahi restaurant in Geula run by a guy called Cohen who would only serve you if he liked you. If not, there wasn’t a table.
Cabinet meetings took place there in the early days, the Knesset was still in the Frumkin building on King George Avenue. Ben Yehuda Street. was open to traffic.
The Israel Museum was not yet built, its contents scattered in some old buildings near Mamilla, blocked off from Jordanian Jerusalem by a 25-meter high wall; there were small garages and workshops on our side and a similar wall alongside City Hall. Teddy Kollek was not yet mayor.
Hotels? The King David, Eden, President, and the Kings. The old Holyland Hotel was out in the country. There were fewer tourists. Herzog Street (continuation of Gaza Road) was open fields.
Palmah Street ended at No. 18. Whole areas didn’t yet exist: Gilo, Ramot, Ramat Eshkol, large areas of Bayit Vagan, Talpiot – even the Wolfson Complex.
There were cinemas, but they were very primitive. Sound was often drowned out by the rattle of cola bottles rolling down the aisles. Smoking was permitted. The old Edison Cinema in Geula was still open. Occasionally they had concerts. Isaac Stern played there in 1951. In 1964 Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn gave a show. They were both slightly drunk. Nureyev came down after one of his great leaps, and clouds of dust came up from the floorboards. The theater has long since burned down.
Before TV there was more visiting, house to house. No one called in advance; you arrived, even at nine or ten o’clock at night. You didn’t ask for a phone number, you asked if they had a telephone, and if they did, everyone in their building used it. It had a “pushke” next to it. You had to wait five years for one, if you had no “protektzia.”
I was lucky, as a doctor I didn’t have to wait.
No one had any money. The common phrase was ‘Why is there so much month left at the end of the money?” But there was a deeper sense of belonging, and possessions were not that important.
We had a greater feeling of togetherness.
We were younger.
When we first arrived we had many Shabbat invitations from old-timers, people we never knew. They felt a responsibility to the few new immigrants to Jerusalem, including seemingly crazy people like us, who came out of pure Zionist idealism. A doctor from New Zealand? We had invitations from Zvi and Mrs. Schwarz (Ruth Dayan’s parents), Mordechai Eliash, the first Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ze’ev Vilnai, the famous tour guide, Dr. Yosef and Mrs.
Burg; we met Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, the president’s father.
That’s how it was.
Communication was between people, not machines. No faxes, emails, cell phones, copying machines. Carbon paper, blue or black was de rigueur. Income tax was paid in the basement of the Central Post Office. A little old Jew with a white beard took your check and wrote a receipt on a slip of paper called a “tlush” which he tore out after licking his fingers.
There was no air conditioning. Shops and offices closed from two till four in the afternoon. If you didn’t have central heating you used a kerosene stove, buying supplies from an old man with an old horse who came round once a week and sold a week’s supply from a tank on the back of his truck.
The old clothes man shouted “alte zachen” (old articles). The Arabs said “alte zacheen.” Without an oven, women cooked on a gas ring or over the kerosene stove using what was called a wonderpot for baking.
My fondest memory of Jerusalem then is Erev Shabbat. The city became quieter.
Some called it the Shechina (holy spirit) descending, others said it was the absence of low-pitched rumble from the buses. Even before the sun went down people stopped scurrying, they walked slowly. Occasionally a car would drive past at high speed: someone wanted to get to his parents before sundown.
Before the Great Synagogue was built, a Shabbat minyan gathered in an ante- chamber with stained-glass windows in Heichal Shlomo. As the sun went slowly down, its gold rays reflected from buildings nearby gave the room a magical, ethereal look, at which time we sang the 14th-century piyyut “Yedid Nefesh,” a sweet Sephardi song of worship in a minor key. It touched the soul.
As we left Heichal Shlomo my late wife Ruth, normally undemonstrative, took my hand and said, “That makes it all worthwhile.” This as we walked along King George Avenue, past a concrete wall opposite our rented apartment, erected to protect us from Jordanian bullets.
The 1960s, another world. The writer made aliya from New Zealand in 1961, is a retired physician and is working on a book of anecdotes about some of his most compelling cases and patients.