Amiable to the core

The warmth that emanates from a neighbor-friendly building can stave off any inclement Jerusalem weather.

A few weeks ago, the Jewish calendar exhorted us to shift our prayers from "Please continue the beach weather" to "My sweaters are calling me: Bring on the precipitation!" According to some cosmic digital clock, the skies began to drizzle with near-regularity and, almost overnight, feather comforters were pulled out of storage for a quick airing before getting tossed atop the chilly mattresses. I love Jerusalem in winter. There's a natural stoicism to this mostly stone city, and the crisp winter air makes its natural beauty even more alluring. Summer in Jerusalem is simply hot and dusty, but winter is the season when it becomes defiant: haughty, eternal, unyielding. My only winter regret is that my home does not feature a fireplace next to which I can sit and take refuge after a day of braving the buses, banks and foot traffic. Oh, what I wouldn't do for some burning logs just inches away from my stockinged feet on a cold Thursday night, the book on my lap unread because the music made by crackling embers is too hauntingly beautiful to ignore. During the winter, I spend more time inside my house than I do in the summer. The sun sets so late during the warm months that outdoor recreation sometimes feels downright obligatory. And in all honesty, is there a parent among us who hasn't said to a sullen child on an August afternoon, "Why don't you go outside on such a beautiful day? It is too lovely in the park for you to be sitting indoors!" When I am home in the summer, more often than not I can be found lazing on my balcony, feet soaking in a cracked toddler pool as I observe the ice cubes rapidly melt in my watery diet soda. Dinners are casual affairs that are eaten at a shabby Keter table, peppered with good-natured banter between ourselves and the neighbors who are also dining alfresco on the floors above and below us. "Ruchama, what are you baking? I'm gaining weight just from the smell of the chocolate!" "Your grandchildren must be over, Yehudit. I heard them roller skating at 6:30 in the morning. Tell them to do it again tomorrow because my alarm clock isn't working!" "Jackie, is Danny home? I accidentally locked my bedroom door again and can't find the spare key!" Before moving to town from Ramot just over a year ago, I anguished over the possibility of having problematic neighbors. I guess you might call me spoiled; my previous neighbors were so wonderful and unpretentious that I feared I could never repeat such relationships. After all, who has not heard horror stories about decades-long feuds over pipes, parking, dogs and patio extensions? Keeping in mind these concerns, you would think that I'd have researched the names on the mailboxes before signing the lease and forking over an unimaginable amount of money. Well, you'd be wrong. Not even one Google expedition into cyberspace. Only afterwards did I begin to quake. I needn't have worried. Unbeknown to me, I moved into Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and couldn't be happier. The people in my Kiryat Shmuel palace are not merely friendly; my building is such a hotbed of cornball neighborliness that if one doesn't undergo serious fluoride treatment before spending a weekend, he might walk away with a mouthful of cavities. There is something a little bungalow-colony about the way everyone greets each other in the parking lot. And even though my children pretend to snort/gag at the daily outpouring of warmth that is displayed in the garage on any given morning, I know that secretly they are proud when asked to help build succot or move unwieldy bureaus. And I don't think I am mistaken in the assumption that all of us have, by now, lost count of how many Shabbat or holiday meals we have pot-luck shared, bopping from floor to floor with covered casseroles or shlepping plastic chairs between apartments. During the 12-day period between Rosh Hashana and Succot, the entire building experienced communal disorientation. We had enthusiastically inter-invited one another but, due to logistical problems, kept redrawing the lists of who-eats-where-and-when. So what happened at the one meal that I had designated as family-alone time? We ended up adding (borrowing) 12 chairs to accommodate the confused neighbors, invited guests and a few unexpected strays from Sweden and Milan. The age range was from 14 to 93. It took three days to clean up and subsequently identify the owners of 11 different serving dishes, but the friendships that grew out of that meal are, in my estimation, indelible. We had so much fun, in fact, that the following Friday night I appeared at another neighbor's house with my four at-home children and two yeshiva guests in tow, only to be told that we were there on the wrong night. Trying not to appear nonplussed, I tried to behave as though I actually had food for seven people in a well-appointed succa. My neighbor saw through my bluff and insisted that she had more than enough and that we, in fact, were doing her a favor by gracing her table. "Oh, we need your liveliness! Just today Moish was saying, 'I'm disappointed that we don't have more guests.' Please! You'll be doing a great mitzva!" I like doing mitzvas for others, especially when my dinner menu consists of wine, halla and Corn Flakes. Well aware that borrowers can't be choosers, we are sincerely grateful for the package of napkins that one upstairs neighbor generously gave us to complete the partial place settings for a recent Friday night banquet. After all, who am I to say that electric-blue-and-red Spiderman napkins aren't attractive adornments to subtle-toned Limoges and Mikasa dinnerware? What am I, an ingrate? As Hanukka approaches, the respective apartment windows of our tiered building are sealed against the cold weather, and the whirring of the electric heating units regularly drown out the noise of city traffic. Nevertheless, it would take more than a cold front to cool the outpouring of friendship and concern that is present in every corner of my extended Jerusalem home. What I still cannot figure out is how the lovely people I now call neighbors and friends can swap and share books, cots, salad bowls, sage Torah advice and plumbing skills and yet never overstep the respectable bounds of privacy. It is a special quality that is, I believe, characteristic of people who are both elegant and loving.