The changing face of Jerusalem

Reflections on the capital and the changes it underwent over the years.

At the Western Wall during the Six Day War, Israeli soldiers hold two Arabs for questioning (photo credit: BAMAHANE/IDF WEEKLY JUNE 12 1967 ISSUE)
At the Western Wall during the Six Day War, Israeli soldiers hold two Arabs for questioning
(photo credit: BAMAHANE/IDF WEEKLY JUNE 12 1967 ISSUE)
The first time I came to Jerusalem in the mid- 1960s, the city was still divided. There was a corrugated iron fence at the end of Jaffa Road just beyond the building that served as the Jerusalem town hall from 1930 to 1993. The main post office was there, inaugurated in 1938, and while it no longer houses only a post office, it remains as one of four stately buildings in the area constructed during the period of the British Mandate.
The area where the Mamilla Mall stands and leads to the Jaffa Gate was no-man’s-land, and the Mandelbaum Gate – a hop, skip and jump from Mea She’arim – was a checkpoint for people crossing into or out of Jordan.
The overwhelming majority of residential and commercial buildings were not more than four stories high, and the general ambiance was that of a small provincial town.
The original Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, which had been evacuated during the War of Independence following an attack on a Hadassah medical convoy in which 79 doctors and nurses were killed, was still inaccessible, and the Givat Ram campus was too small, so departments of the university were scattered around Jerusalem, with some of them functioning in the Terra Sancta building in Rehavia.
Shopping malls as we know them today did not exist, and anyone wanting to buy a fashionable outfit for a special occasion usually went to Tel Aviv. Going shopping to Tel Aviv was a daylong expedition. People who had relatives and friends there often stayed overnight, because the journey by bus took two and a half hours – and the train journey took even longer.
As neither the buses nor the trains were air conditioned, a summer journey was a nightmare, not only because of the general discomfort of an overheated vehicle, but because most Israelis – at least those living in Jerusalem – had not yet discovered deodorants.
Relatives coming from abroad were asked to bring toilet paper, because what was available in Jerusalem was more like sand paper.
If one did shop in Jerusalem, it was in some ways a much more comfortable experience than it is today, when baby strollers were smaller and easily collapsible.
Today it is almost impossible to browse in a store before deciding on a purchase, because so much of the floor space is taken up with the new ultra-modern baby carriages. It would be interesting to know how much business is lost due to baby carriages blocking access to shelves and clothes racks.
It’s even worse in the bus when baby carriages and shopping carts make it difficult for other passengers to move through the aisle, let alone stand comfortably when there are no seats available. In a previous less fashionable, less affluent era, there were very few fathers wheeling baby strollers, and mothers taking the devices into buses would fold them and put them under the seat, cradling their infants on their laps.
Illegal parking of cars on pavements, which today hampers pedestrians all over Jerusalem, was virtually unknown – because there were so few cars. A car was not the only luxury; so was a telephone. Unless one’s neighbor had a phone, one had to resort to a public telephone and use a telephone token known as an asimon. There were actually quite a lot of public phones, but they ate up the asimonim quickly; anyone who didn’t have a large quantity of tokens to feed into the phone was frustrated when a call came to an abrupt end.
The second time I came to Jerusalem was soon after the Six Day War. A friend took me to the Old City and the Western Wall. The rubble in what is today the plaza had not yet been removed, and getting close to the Wall was a treacherous undertaking.
The experience was an emotional let-down. There was nothing to convey a spirit of holiness. The area was smelly; the remains of chaos were visible. There was really nothing attractive as far as the eye could see.
“This is what all the fuss is about!” I said to my friend, who was not exactly shocked by my reaction. Apparently I wasn’t the first to make a remark of this kind.
Since then the Wall has been hijacked, and contrary to any marketing done for the city, does not belong to all the Jewish People – only to those who agree to gender segregation.
The third time I came to Jerusalem was for an international conference of Jewish journalists, which happened to coincide with the 28th Zionist Congress that was also held in Jerusalem. Members of the Black Panther movement, calling for social justice for immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries, demonstrated outside the Congress meeting and were beaten by police. Having witnessed the beating, I was in a state of total shock and outrage. Jews beating Jews? In Israel? In Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people? I couldn’t comprehend it. Golda Meir, who was then prime minister, famously said that the Black Panthers were not nice people.
The conference of Jewish journalists included a number of Yiddish writers who were addressed by Meir. As my Yiddish is reasonably fluent, I went along to that meeting and discovered that her gift for oratory was even better in Yiddish than in English. She spoke about the Holocaust, saying that it was a fallacy to say that six million Jews were murdered. It was the six million, plus any children they would have had and their children’s children up to infinity. She asked us to think about what all these unborn people could have given to the world if their ancestors had not been murdered. Having lost many relatives on both sides of my family, I could certainly identify with that, but at the same time I kept thinking about the Black Panthers, and what they and their progeny could contribute to the world if the opportunities that they sought were not being denied.
Some of the founders of the Black Panthers, most notably Charlie Biton and Sa’adia Marciano, who grew up in Musrara, became Knesset members.
The fourth time I came to Jerusalem, it was to stay.
The Beit Giora Absorption Center in Kiryat Hayovel was largely populated by English speakers from the US, Canada, Britain and Australia, and also immigrants from Russia. Somehow, we all managed to get along with each other, and those of us who stayed in Israel didn’t do too badly. Today, Beit Giora functions as a home away from home for lone soldiers.
Mayor Teddy Kollek’s construction boom was already under way, and although he has been called the latter day Herod, the more recent building boom under Nir Barkat has been of a far more intensive and widespread nature, with high-rise towers reaching ever further into the sky and blocking out the horizon.
There are more hotels than ever before, more museums and public parks – although compared to Tel Aviv there is still an acute shortage of public toilets, and the pavements are a disgrace with cracks and potholes almost everywhere.
What I miss most are the inner-city restaurants and cafes. There used to be a wonderful, spacious European- style cake shop on Jaffa Road between Harav Kook and Straus streets, which had a huge choice of scrumptious cakes, as well as a good dairy menu. Where Steimatzky’s is located in King George Avenue, there used to be a delightful garden café. For people who were not particular about kashrut, Fink’s Bar was a must, as was the more elegant Chez Simon. Tarabulus, near the corner of Jaffa and Straus, was a poor man’s kosher paradise with an endless supply of fresh bread and a menu for 12 lirot, equivalent at the time to around $2.75, for which diners were fed soup, a large helping of pot roast followed by Jello or stewed fruit.
Slightly more expensive across the road, but a favorite with people who liked East European cuisine was Fefferberg’s, with an extensive menu of fabled Jewish delicacies including goose or chicken schmaltz to spread on the bread. The joke was that all the kitchen staff, including the chef, were Arabs.