Real Israel: Jerusalem of old

History, religion, indefinable spirit are so a part of Jerusalem, the city could no more survive without them than its residents could without oxygen.

Talitha Kumi monument 521 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
Talitha Kumi monument 521
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
Deep into the wintry Jerusalem nights I have been reading Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness. It is a remarkable novel/autobiography set in the city during the fateful period surrounding the birth of the modern state of Israel. History, religion and an indefinable spirit are so much part of this city, that Jerusalem could no more survive without them than its residents could live without oxygen. We can – and do – argue over these components, but take them away and the city would die.
But, no pressure! Most of us just spend our lives here worrying about the same things that concern people everywhere: The holy exists on one, higher, plane, while we try to negotiate the transport system, vagaries of the weather and cost of living in a very down-to-earth manner.
I’m not sure if it is reading the book – a poignant memoir delving into the life and suicide of his mother, among other things – or perhaps the 30th anniversary of my own arrival in the city, or maybe it is simply what seems like a campaign to portray life in Jerusalem in the deepest shades of black, but I have been struck by nostalgia.
I arrived as a young student, freshly demobbed but repeatedly recalled for IDF reserve duty during my first couple years of studies, which coincided with the First Lebanon War (or Operation Peace to Galilee, as it was still known in 1982). Strangely, despite having grown up in a London suburb, I was awe-struck upon arrival in the capital from a then-small northern town. (I was, I confess, even more out of place during fleeting trips to Tel Aviv, a seaside city that compensates for its lack of ancient history and spirituality with a superiority complex and talent for trendsetting.) The phrase “to go up to Jerusalem” – “la’alot l’yerushalayim” – used to come naturally. The road from the coast was long and winding and the rusty remains of ambushed convoys from the War of Independence still line the sides, a reminder never to take our freedom for granted. Like an ancient pilgrim, you could not but help raise your eyes to the hills as you entered.
Early on in the book, Oz describes a family trip to use a phone.
The call had been planned by letter weeks in advance, and parents and young son prepared for it as though it were a cross between a military campaign and a night out. Nervous and extraordinarily cautious about getting the timing just right, the family presented itself at the pharmacy to use one of the few phones out of the capital (numbers were three digits at the time) – only to find they had nothing to say to the Tel Aviv relatives at the other end of the line.
It made me smile and probably seems comic to the younger reader, members of the iPhone, iPad, I-everything generation. Yet, it also made me remember how I took a job at the university because it allowed me to receive incoming phone calls.
Phones were still so rare when I arrived in Jerusalem that rental apartments that had a line were able to charge more. I once watched my neighbor, the assistant spokesman for the Communications Ministry, speaking to the minister at home by public phone, using “asimonim,” the tokens with a hole in them. So much for protektsia! The lack of phones greatly influenced social life in those days, which tended to be more spontaneous.
Many young Jerusalemites trying to plan a date used the free ads in the local Hebrew papers, most of which ended with the then-catchphrase: “Meet me by the Talitha Kumi” followed by a time and date. The Talitha Kumi monument, all that remains of the girls’ orphanage built in 1868, outside the Mashbir department store (the only department store) was the popular pick-up point.
English-speaking visitors and students on one-year programs had their own method of meeting up – the bulletin board at Richie’s Pizza on King George Avenue.
Anglos knew that if they hung out there long enough they would probably meet the person they were looking for – and if not, they could stick a note on the board and somehow contact would be made, face to face in the pre-Facebook era.
Downtown consisted of King George Avenue, Jaffa Road and Ben-Yehuda Street (whose conversion to a pedestrian mall in 1983 revolutionized the area). Pre- Malha Mall, that’s where people went to shop and socialize. It was a time when the light rail did not exist in our wildest dreams. (Now it features in some of my worst nightmares.) When I moved to Jerusalem, one of the best pieces of advice I received was “If you need to go somewhere and don’t know how to get there, take the No. 9 bus. If it doesn’t go there, it will take you somewhere where you can change buses.” It was a long route (although there was not much traffic yet: Many families, let alone the student population, did not own cars in the early 1980s.) Directions were, and remain, infuriating to the uninitiated.
Israelis delight in giving instructions like “go to the old City Hall building.” Jerusalemites, in particular, can drive strangers around the bend (over and over again) with directions like: “Turn left at the old Shaare Zedek building.” The building in question hasn’t housed the hospital of that name since 1979, and has been home to the Israel Broadcasting Authority for more than a decade, but by Jerusalem’s standards, that’s not very long. The first skyscraper hotel is still known to old-timers as the Hilton. The Central Bus Station, too, has been known by different names. While the “old Central Bus Station,” was being demolished and completely reconstructed, the (new) bus station temporarily operated from a place still often referred to as “the old Foreign Ministry,” which has been replaced by a residential neighborhood. When it reopened, I heard people refer to it as “the new-old Central Bus Station.”
“The old Knesset building” is also known as “the old Tourism Ministry building” and, more accurately, Beit Frumin (Frumin House). You’ll find it, if you ask the right person, on King George Avenue, where it now houses the Rabbinic Courts.
Our social lives in the early 1980s, when we somehow managed to meet up, mainly varied between deep conversations (not Internet chats), and the movies.
Each cinema (and there were several) had its own character. The Smadar (now Lev Smadar) in the German Colony always had its own old-world charm, which still gives it a special atmosphere today, although it is typically threatened by real estate interests. There were the Ron, the Eden, the Edison (the site of clashes between secular and ultra-Orthodox over Shabbat screenings) and the Mitchell, among others. Part of the movie-going experience at the Kfir, in the Clal building, which was considered the most comfortable cinema of its day, was the usher who would greet the audience before the start of the film and ask them to refrain from smoking.
There were other simple pleasures, too. “Bim bam bom, tiras ham!” This is the call for hot corn on the cob that punctuates the children’s book by Miriam Roth which is still a staple in Hebrew literature. But it was not just a story. Just as I recognize places and even characters from Oz’s book, the vendor who used to sell corn from his cart across from Beit Elisheva in Katamon was very real.
Memories such as these might sound corny, but at least they left a pleasant taste.