Middle Israel: At Teddy Kollek's fresh graveside

Grim conclusions from a unique friendship with the legendary mayor in his last years.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Having been assigned by an American glossy to profile Teddy Kollek - my first such assignment ever - I meandered through the Armenian Quarter's courtyards, labyrinths and stairwells until I landed in Bishop David Sahagian's study. There, releasing from under his black, pointed head-cover a sigh as deep as his community's 1,700 years in this capital of sanctity, splendor and strife, the chief Armenian cleric leaned toward me and whispered: "We knew Teddy well; he was attentive to our needs and we understood each other: Now we are concerned." Everyone, in fact, was concerned, for Teddy was approaching 80 and had said he would not run again for mayor, a statement he reiterated during the week in which I shadowed him, having no idea we would eventually become neighbors - and friends. People were concerned because they knew Teddy somehow managed to keep Jerusalem both intact and peaceful, ever arbitrating and reconciling Arab and Jew, secularists and haredim, rich and poor, focusing on dotting the city with cultural shrines and recreational outlets while drowning it in red tulips, pink geraniums, white roses and yellow daffodils. "I hoped it would make Jews, Arabs and Christians be nicer to each other," he told me, "and if that wouldn't work, then at least we'd have the flowers," he punch-lined with a good laugh, lighting a cigar and offering me one, too. By then, Teddy himself knew that things were not going right in his city, even regardless of his own twilight, as only several months earlier 17 Palestinians were killed in clashes with troops on Temple Mount, the first such bloodshed in post-'67 Jerusalem. The violence of those days forced him to shelve his traditional insight that what little Palestinian terror arrived in Jerusalem came from beyond it. "In the physical aspect, my accomplishments are clearer," he now said, gazing with his blue eyes through his office window into the Judean Desert horizon, across a table crowded with 10 teddy bears. Indeed, by the late 1980s Jerusalemites of all stripes were lamenting the passing of an era when the city's disjointed limbs still harmonized, at least seemingly. "We used to shoot pool in the Muslim Quarter and then topped it off with a good humous plate at Abu-Shukri's," the late Ornan Yekutieli, then deputy mayor, told me longingly as I told him it had only been a few years since I bought a carpet in Shuafat and strolled with a girlfriend from Mount Scopus to Rehavia through the Mount of Olives well after dark. "Ah," the two of us sighed like Bishop Sahagian and said almost simultaneously: "Those were the days." Being the pragmatist that he was, Teddy - like his mentor David Ben-Gurion - said consistently since '67 that Israel should have annexed east Jerusalem and relinquished the rest. In a 1988 article in Foreign Affairs, he introduced his "boroughs plan" for local Arab administration, saying: "Jerusalem is great enough for a few flags besides that of the State of Israel." It may or may not have been practical, but it was a vision, and part of a zeitgeist whereby Jerusalem rose above the conflict and its mayor towered as a world figure. Yet now Teddy was aging, and while this decade's terror was still distant, Jerusalemites knew that a golden era was drawing to a close, that the quarter of a century when their city was safe, open, vibrant, clean, colorful, winking, mischievous and full of surprises would soon end. In the Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market, I found 16th-generation Jerusalemite Meir Elbaz in his leather-goods store, and asked him what would happen after Teddy. "When they asked the Beatles what they thought about Bob Dylan, they said: 'We don't talk about God,'" he retorted as vendors along the aisle, like a Greek tragedy's chorus, nodded in agreement, as if to share then-Haaretz editor Hanoch Marmari's prophetic warning to me: "Teddy's heir should realize he is running perhaps the most unique and complicated city in the world - but I doubt he will." FIVE YEARS on I got the full load of the contrast between Teddy and what followed him, when Nurit and I found, by chance, a flat for rent at Rehov Rashba 6. "Come up and visit us," said Tamar Kollek as she saw us move into the ground floor of the faceless three-story building where she and Teddy had lived since the late 1950s. That evening we climbed curiously to the third floor with our five-month-old Shira and were treated to what once really was the Israeli idea of neighborliness. Tamar, a true lady, made coffee and served some cookies, Teddy inquired about Nurit's kibbutz (he immediately knew its location in the Negev) and, after asking where I worked, kvetched about The Jerusalem Post's turn at the time to the Right. And when we cautiously said that the baby might occasionally make herself heard late at night, they both said: "Nonsense, that's the most beautiful noise in the world." And they meant it. Even when he was mayor, Teddy never played that hollow political game of hugging babies and shaking hands. He had no need of such rituals. His contact with the people was real, frequent, direct and natural, whether in taking phone calls late at night from residents complaining about sewage, transportation or kindergartens, or in sticking his head out through his car window to scold a nearby driver who threw a cigarette butt on the ground, or in talking to parents in this or that neighborhood about the broken slide in the local playground, or in famously telling a serial complainer outside the Kiryat Hayovel supermarket to "kiss my ass." So if while in power Teddy had no hidden agendas in dealing with ordinary people, he certainly had none now; it simply came to him naturally to gently pat Shira on the cheek while telling me in his ever-practical mind-set, "I don't get it, all Shimon [Peres] had to do was bus several thousand more voters out to the ballot boxes." And it came naturally to Tamar to knock on our door after Aviad was born, hand us a present, smile and say: "This is for the baby, may you only know happiness." When we'd be done chatting in the corridor, I would watch Teddy slowly start his arduous climb up to the third floor, resting midway in the white, plastic chair that by then was permanently awaiting him there. Sometimes as I helped him climb a stair, I couldn't avoid the comparison between his slow progression up that staircase and the decades he spent masterfully roaming assorted corridors of power. Even now, he had that quest, and reflex, for solving problems. One Friday as we drove away from the city, we noticed we had left Shira's stroller on the sidewalk. We called the Kolleks to check whether they could perhaps see it from their balcony, so we'd get someone to pick it up. "It's OK," said Teddy, "it's already here." The Teddy era, I figured already then, was not only about political sanity, but also about decency and delivery. Never mind that this man built for all of us more than all of today's politicians ever will collectively; for himself he didn't even bother building an elevator all those years, though he could have done so easily. And I am witness both to the elevator's absence, and to the need he had for it - I helped him up the stairs. When I last visited him, already in his old-age home ("I don't know what's so golden about the golden age," he said, lighting a cigar and offering me one) in Kiryat Hayovel, I thought to myself as I drove past overflowing garbage bins: This public servant came to serve, and his successors came to loot. IT'S NOW a damp winter evening at Mount Herzl's Plot of the Nation's Leaders, where lean cedars and opaque pines are rustling gently, as if exchanging cordialities with the nearby Jerusalem Forest's quietly awakening owls. The throngs that gathered here last week for Teddy's funeral are gone, and the fresh grave is covered with no fewer than 14 wreaths of carnations, roses and daffodils laid, among others, by the Supreme Court president, the Jerusalem Foundation, the German Bundestag and the Vienna Municipality. On the lawn, facing the Rabins' graves, a group of some 50 female soldiers is listening to a guide's lecture about the slain prime minister, evidently unaware that it was he who made Teddy run that one last time, the one that was one too many. Back at Teddy's grave, four other soldiers huddle, speaking softly; it turns out they are staffers in the Personnel Officer's Course to which the platoon on the lawn belongs. "Who's grave is that?" asks a corporal in a green, IDF-issue winter jacket. "Teddy Kollek's," I say. "Who is that?" she asks intrigued. "The mayor," I answer, taken aback. "Of what city?" she continued, evidently determined to solve this riddle. "Jerusalem," I said bewildered. "Really?" she said, "How did he die?" "Never mind," I said, putting away my reporter's notebook and wiping a tear, "it's a long story." www.MiddleIsrael.com