Owning a piece of Jerusalem: A thrill that never leaves - opinion

Jerusalem isn't as overtly beautiful as Venice, as magical as Paris, as dignified as London, as overwhelming as New York or as exotic as Hong Kong. It's like a modest woman who doesn't flaunt herself

 An aerial view of Jerusalem taken ahead of Jerusalem Day in 2023. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An aerial view of Jerusalem taken ahead of Jerusalem Day in 2023.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

I had lived in Jerusalem for more than 20 years when we bought our very own apartment. For a number of reasons, we had always rented. Although I liked the streets and suburbs that were our temporary home, a rented flat never feels like a part of you. Each street, each suburb, each alley has its own charm; each tuft of grass, each flower its own beauty; each time of day its own magic. But until you own your dwelling, you are like a spectator, not an integral part of it.

Israel’s beloved poet Yehuda Amichai poses the question: “Whoever saw Jerusalem naked?” He claims that even archaeologists never did because she always puts on new houses instead of the worn and torn and broken. One is always aware of what was here before as you walk the city’s streets:

“Capitols and broken pieces of columns scattered like chessmen in a game that was interrupted in anger...”

In 30 centuries of recorded history, layer upon layer of past eras have been uncovered from the structures of successive rulers. Some have been given new life, like the Old City’s Cardo, which was the Roman and Byzantine commercial thoroughfare. Today you can still stroll along it, purchase items in its stores as your feet tread upon history.

But my Jerusalem is of today, flavored with yesterday. I arise in the early dawn and stand on the balcony before the city is awake. It is truly mine at that hour – not just my small piece of real estate but the whole city. I live in Beit Hakerem, the House of the Vine, a suburb of low stone houses, old gardens, sighing pine trees. Through a tracery of branches, I can see the skyline for many miles in all directions. Although I can’t quite see them, I can sense the domes and turrets and minarets of the Old City.

A general view of the Old City and Walls of Jerusalem taken with a drone on March 22, 2020. (credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)
A general view of the Old City and Walls of Jerusalem taken with a drone on March 22, 2020. (credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)

What it's like owning a piece of Jerusalem

Once I rented a tiny studio apartment on a rooftop on Jaffa Road. You had to climb 89 steps (no elevator!) but when you did, the reward was breathtaking. You felt you could see forever, especially on a clear day  –like the lyrics of the song. There was even a roof garden ... an archway of greenery, red poppies growing out of the cracks, pots of herbs and geraniums planted by my Moroccan landlady Sa’adia; and a rock rose in an old tub. It was paradise for a writer.  It was there that I composed my first poems – prose just wasn’t adequate for the dawns of scarlet and gold, the evenings of silver and indigo under a million stars.

You fall in love with Jerusalem slowly. It is different from other famous cities – not as overtly beautiful as Venice, as magical as Paris, as staid and dignified as London, as overwhelming as New York nor as exotic as Hong Kong. It is like a modest woman who does not flaunt herself to the casual passerby. Only after you have made a commitment to her does she slowly uncover her secrets. Little by little you discover quiet alleys that meander at random; bustling markets filled with the color and spicy smells of the Middle East; walled courtyards softened with a glimpse of ivy. It is so old, yet also a modern metropolis, melding holy sites with the bustle of the city – a place of prayers and commerce, spiritual experiences and the stuff of everyday living. Its beauty is often hidden and unexpected, such as walking through the Jerusalem Forest and suddenly finding cyclamens and wild violets peeping shyly from the rocky crevices.

Everyone who says “Ani Yerushalmi”  – I am a Jerusalemite – is declaring more than their address. They are expressing their pride at living in the city that has always been the focus of Jewish longing, as epitomized in the Passover Haggadah, when Jews all over the world proclaim “Next year in Jerusalem” with hope in their voices, even if they live in opulent homes in affluent cities.

My home in Australia was double the size, richly carpeted and furnished, but I thought of it as a house, a possession. My home today has no garden, as it’s upstairs, but I have filled the four balconies with flowers, greenery and herbs in pots. Some of its furnishings came from flea markets but I love them, especially the desk in my study (when I can find it under the piles of “work in progress”). Early morning, the sun fills my living room; in the afternoon, it moves to the balcony off my kitchen, where my late husband and I often dined. I have views of a star-filled sky at night from windows facing each direction. 

Owning a modest piece of Jerusalem is an ongoing thrill that never leaves me; and, like all who live in this spiritual city, I will continue to feel privileged to the end of my days.  ■

Dvora Waysman is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah, and her personal favorite Esther  – a Jerusalem Love Story has recently been republished in Israel by Chaim Mazo (chaim.mazo@gmail.com) after being out of print for many years. It is available from the publisher, Amazon, or directly from the author: dwaysman@gmail.com.