I first visited the divided city of Jerusalem when I was 16 years old in January 1966. I traveled from South Africa with my maternal uncle and aunt and their two children. It was unheard of for a boy my age to travel overseas in those days. I nagged the daylights out of my parents to let me accompany Uncle Jack and Aunt Cynthia. I was obsessed with the idea of visiting Israel. For years I had been listening to Kol Zion’s nightly shortwave broadcasts in English from Jerusalem.
After spending the first week of our stay in Tel Aviv, we were booked into the President Hotel in Ahad Ha’am Street in Talbiyeh. The ruins of this hotel are still standing and whenever I drive by, I can see the windows of the single room that I occupied on one of the upper floors. Jerusalem then was quite a frightening place to be. There were regular sniper attacks from the Jordanian side. From my window I could see the Jordanian soldiers with their red keffiyehs standing guard behind the sandbags on top of Dormition Abbey overlooking no-man’s land.
Three years later, I returned to Jerusalem as a fully fledged Zionist and youth leader with the Bnei Akiva youth movement. I was one of two Bnei Akiva madrichim (youth leaders) sent on a six week leadership course. Jeff Broide and I were housed in the dormitory building of the Machon LeMadrichei Chutz LaAretz in Katamon. We arrived at night in December 1968, scarcely 18 months after the victory of the Six Day War. Jerusalem had undergone a total transformation. It was no longer divided, and the holy sites of the Old City were open and quite safe to visit. One of our close friends and fellow Bnei Akivnik, Ilanah Himelstein welcomed us. She was completing her year of studies at the Machon. After depositing our luggage in the Machon office, she and some friends offered to take us to the Kotel (Western Wall). It was close to midnight and despite the fact that we’d just flown on an eight hour flight from Johannesburg we were totally charged with energy and enthusiasm. We walked along a deserted and scarcely built up Emek Refaim Street. Crossing from the old no-man’s land, we walked up the rudimentary pathways that led to Jaffa Gate. The only way I can describe the feelings of those moments is by quoting a rather altered version of Psalm 126:
“A Song of Ascents. When God brought about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song.”
And so it was on that damp and chilly evening, we walked through the alleyways of the shuttered Arab shuk. We were gripped by an incredible sense of excitement and spiritual fervor. As we got closer to the alley leading to the Kotel, we started singing Avinu Malkenu. Ilanah signaled that we should prepare ourselves for the first sighting. We turned the corner. At that time, the Shuk was the only access route to the Western Wall. As we approached the narrow walkway, we saw a chink of bright golden light in the distance. Our pace quickened and Jeff and I broke into a run. The Kotel plaza did not exist then. Rubble and the cleared away remnants of the old houses that stood there, formed the entry space in front of the ancient edifice. It is difficult to describe the overwhelming sense of euphoria that I experienced at that moment. I remember resting my forehead on the cold damp stones as warm tears streamed down my cheeks.
My next sojourn in Jerusalem was three years later when I came back intending to complete my studies at the Hebrew University. I shared an apartment with two British roommates in Rechov Hatayasim in Kiryat Shmuel. I attended Ulpan Eztion in Baka and began a new life in the city with which I was now quite familiar. East Jerusalem and the Shuk were relatively safe and we young folk, men and women thought nothing of going to certain discotheques and clubs in the Arab part of the city on motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) where we danced the night away.
Sadly, I did not study at the Hebrew U and ended up leaving Israel, only to return a few years later soon after the Yom Kippur war. The world was in a mess and a great economic recession engulfed western economies across the globe. I had been living in London and decided to come back to Israel where I moved into a bachelor apartment in Alon Shvut, Gush Etzion. I found a job at a travel agency on Shlomzion HaMalka street. Commuting back and forth to Gush Etzion was not easy. The political climate had changed and the Palestinian towns and villages were turning into hotbeds of violence. The tunnels to the Gush had not yet been built and we had to run the nightly gauntlet through hostile villages like Daisha, where Israeli cars were regularly stoned. With poor career prospects and no viable future in Israel, I decided to return to Europe and the UK.
Fifteen years passed before my American wife and I returned to Jerusalem and invested in a small apartment on Ben Maimon Boulevard in Rehavia. The 60-square meter, one bedroom apartment became a stepping stone towards our eventual Aliyah. We would return to Israel for most of the Chagim and even in the summer through both the first and second Intifadas. On one visit, we were fortunate enough to meet our neighbors, Yachin and Yael Unna.
The Unnas took us under their wing. They refused to speak to us in anything but Hebrew and the relationship blossomed into the closest of friendships. The Unnas were native Jerusalemites and through them we began to learn more and more about this magical place. They had resided in the Jewish Quarter and Yael’s family had lived in the Old City close to the Muslim quarter for many generations. They took us on countless tiyulim (tours) and showed us sites new and old, places that we had no idea existed.
They introduced us to the flora and fauna of the city and I have wonderful memories of traipsing through the nearby forests and fields learning the Hebrew names of flowers and trees. They also recounted the tales of their childhood and young adulthood and introduced us to their Jerusalem friends and family. Yachin, who sadly passed away a few months ago, was a wonderful writer and raconteur. He came from German Jewish stock and grew up in Rehavia. When we eventually made aliyah in 2014, I persuaded him to come to the ulpan in Beit Ha’am where he delivered the most stunning presentation complete with images and stories of his childhood and his growing up years in this city. The highlight of our week was Shabbat afternoon when Yael and Yachin would read with us. We would read in English and in Hebrew, selecting pieces that we thought we would all enjoy. They introduced us to Shai Agnon and Chaim Sabato, both one time residents of Jerusalem. In the end we got hooked on Yachin’s book, a private publication which he wrote for his immediate family, children and grandchildren. His stories, anecdotes and vignettes about life in Jerusalem were extraordinary and worthy of its own literary prize.
Our connection with this city has deepened and flourished and after all our wanderings it has become our true home. Until Corona, my wife Annie volunteered at the Biblical Zoo, at the Aquarium and at the Israel Museum as a guide. She has made friends with English speakers as well as many Israelis who accept her as if she is one of them. She has immersed herself in the ancient history of Yerushalayim and often schleps me with her on archaeological and biblical tours of this city. We have benefited from the extraordinary array of concerts, lectures, exhibitions and performances that make this place one of those most cultured capital cities in the world. I too have volunteered as a business, English language and career coach at a number of local colleges and educational institutions, engaging with young Israelis from many different backgrounds. Faced with the pandemic and a medical setback this year, I have found my virtual weekly half-hour chats with these wonderful young people to be nothing short of inspirational and therapeutic.
I can never forget how, during the darkest days of my illness and the pandemic, these young people rallied round us, helping us with shopping and other chores.
We’ve also made wonderful new friends and reconnected with old ones, all of whom have supported us and been there for us.
Each morning as I take my walk on the Haas Promenade, a few minutes away from where we live, I always stop for a minute to breathe in the clear air and gaze out over the magnificent panorama of Ir Ha’kodesh (The Holy City) with its glinting spires, domes and monuments. On more than one occasion, I have stood there and recited the lines of King David’s beautiful Psalm, which resonated on May 10, 2021, when Israel celebrated Jerusalem Day:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”