Jerusalem Journal: A whole new world

Even features of the natural world are different after making aliya.

acanthus syriacus 88 (photo credit: )
acanthus syriacus 88
(photo credit: )
It's another stage in the process of aliya, and I have been both disturbed and delighted. Birds, flowers, trees and stars - those I once knew in many different guises are now supplanted by the unfamiliar. The inspiration for the stony foliage that surmounts neoclassical columns in the UK now stands proudly with glorious glossy leaves outside my kitchen window. Soon this Acanthus syriacus will present its white flowers with heavy hooded purple bracts. The rose, that quintessential, emblematic flower of England, confronts me with blooms throughout Jerusalem winters... but reminds me of the summer flowering of tea and hybrid roses that I tended and nursed through black spot and aphid infestations in the colder climes of the UK. Pelargoniums (widely misnamed as geraniums) brighten my garden every day of the year with brash scarlet and garish pink. No carefully preserved, flowerless cuttings hidden in a shed to protect them from winter perils here. Impatient sulfurous yellow flowers are already brightening many a bush; autumn and winter have scarcely receded and already spring bursts upon us. Jerusalem spurge colors the ground with spots of yellow star-like blooms, but there are no winter aconites or nodding snowdrops. The regularly changed plant display of the Botanical Gardens at the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus has facilitated my introduction to the flowers of the season. This is the way that I just recently had a chance encounter with the Persian fritillary - a single stemmed plant with many delicate pale-yellow, bell-like flowers. A relative, I guess, of a cousin which nodded single purple flowers in meadows by the river in Oxford. Today the sun shone with penetrating heat on the proliferation of flowers, newly burst from bud. I am confused. Has winter ended and spring begun? I am thankful for a warm winter sun, but... What is it that disturbs? It is in part the unfamiliarity, the cascades of unknown species that greet me as I walk through the streets of Jerusalem? Flashes of yellow that catch my eye would have been happy to be called forsythia in England... closer inspection tells me that what I have seen along the roads demands a different name. Even the tree that calls itself oak here (quercus in Latin, alon in Hebrew) has barely a passing resemblance to the mighty oaks of England, which survived decimation by the builders of the great fleets which made Britannia rule the waves. But, I'm learning to make new friends; plants that were before only found in greenhouses form a natural part of the exotic landscape in which I now live, like olive, citrus and date. Some are native, others imports. Growing near my garden is the bottlebrush, with its brilliant red flowers transplanted from Australia, like the ubiquitous eucalyptus which was introduced to help drain the swamps. I'm especially thrilled by the bottlebrush, remembering so clearly a small picture card, one of a series that was given out with packs of tea when I was a child. Birds as well as plants must be relearned. Bulbul replaces thrush and blackbird; blue tits do not come to the bird-feeder but small, deep blue-black Palestinian sunbirds with metallic sheen dart and hover between the trees, rejoicing in the appearance of bright, warm sunshine. Once a willow warbler settled briefly in our Jerusalem garden; I knew him well. Tonight I spotted, high above the Jerusalem rooftops, a swirl of swift with their forked tails returning from winter migration in Africa. Old friends indeed. The Oxford Swift Research Project has studied the bird for almost 60 years, perhaps the longest single bird study in the world. And there in the city of dreaming spires, far from their sub-Saharan winter retreats, swift have made their homes deep within the tower of the University Museum of Natural History, always returning to the same nest each year with the same partner. (Go to from about mid-May and watch live video of the families of birds as a new generation is born). I watch them dive through the air, collecting insects that have risen above the city on the warmth of today's thermals. Suddenly I'm distracted. Close to me, among the trees, I hear a harsh squawk and see a sudden dash of green: parakeets. These birds are recent immigrants to Jerusalem, caged escapees that have established colonies on side streets near Emek Refaim. Fascinated and thrilled by the new, I am nevertheless disconcerted by so much that feels strange. Even the seasons confront me with new patterns of a solar cycle that had once been an intrinsic part of my annual biorhthym. It is a slow and complicated process. Aliya doesn't take a day or a year; I suspect that it takes longer than a lifetime, but I am aware that I'm melting into my new environment at a deeper level. The plants that border the paths I tread, the snatches of birdsong I hear above the throb of Jerusalem traffic, the points of light in the night sky, slowly they are becoming part of me, part of my new consciousness. The days pass and I am less disturbed and more delighted.