JERUSALEM — Hello from Jerusalem! I am thrilled to write to you once again a “View From Jerusalem,” the original byline of my column (a continuation of my father’s View From Jerusalem from the 1970s and 1980s).
I’ve been charmed by my encounters with random strangers, vendors, soldiers, bus drivers and taxi drivers, too. On this trip, it seems everyone I am meeting and engaging with has been so consistently warmhearted, kind and helpful. And it wouldn’t be Israel if there weren’t a good dose of mirth, too.
Mostly though, I’m noticing what a difference four years in the life of a little country can make! I’ve missed a lot.
The last time I was in Israel was during the war of 2014, Operation Protective Edge. I came to visit the wounded IDF soldiers and to show solidarity and support for the residents of the South.
I was laser focused on the purpose of my visit, so even at the end of the war there were no beach days, Jerusalem meanderings, café tastings, book hunts or trips.
So it’s been a while since Israel the country and particularly Jerusalem, the sacred city, and I spent some time together.
It seemed everywhere I went on this quick short visit in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of one of my nephews, there were layers of renewal, both practical and aesthetic.
Before the trip even officially began, just pulling out of the airport and onto the new roads and highways was amazing. There were the new, beautiful, smooth, wide open roads, flanked by tall street lamps. What a pleasure and what a sight to behold!
And again, before my quick trip barely began, just getting money from the ATM yielded new crisp bills as I was greeted by new faces. I hadn’t known about it, so it was a surprise and I noticed it instantaneously.
The purple 50 shekel bill printed with the visage and inspiring words of Shai Agnon was gone, a real disappointment. But the new batch of banknotes only expanded on the theme of highlighting literary personalities. Not just that, but now women have been added to the literati of Hebrew language poets.
The 20 shekel bill is now of “Rachel The Poetess,” as she is known in Israel. In addition to her image is a brief quote from one of her famous poems, “Kinneret,” Sea of Galilee. “Oh, my Kinneret . . . ”
Leah Goldberg, an acclaimed poet, writer and children’s book author, graces the new 100 shekel bill. “Dira Lehaskir, An Apartment For Rent,” is such a famous Hebrew children’s book. Not only is her sophisticated poetry known and studied in university, but practically every child knows her work, whether they realize it’s from Leah Goldberg or not. The bill highlights her poem “White Days,” replete with an image of two graceful Judean Desert deer.
Shaul Tchernichovsky has replaced Agnon on the 50 shekel bill. And Natan Alterman is the face of the new, beautifully azure, 200 shekel bill (since 2014). These days in Israel, even dealing with the tangible aspect of financial matters seems elevated to a literary pursuit.
Meanwhile, “Machneyuda,” the Jerusalem market, the souk, has completely transformed itself into a hipster, boutique-y, upscale foodie heaven, replete with urban art, nightlife and an unbeatable local Middle Eastern culinary experience. Thankfully, the usual suspects, who are second and sometimes even third generation “basta,” kiosk stall owners, are still there.
The most delicious lemony rice-stuffed cabbage and “salatim” from Zidkiyahu, the plumpest medjool dates, the Etrog Man and his juice stall, including his famous Rambam-Maimonides Smoothie with promises for healing nirvana, a Middle Eastern treat of rows and rows of a halva bar made of sweetened sesame in all flavors, formed from on-the-spot freshly ground sesame paste, trays of cardamom scented and honey glossed baklava cut to diagonal geometric perfection, and the spice and tea leaf market with mounds of desert colors in all shades from red paprika cones to golden tumeric ones, and zataar-hyssop, sumac and silken saffron threads, too. I stocked up on my luisa and sage for long winter Friday Shabbat nights.
They’ve done an unbelievable job with the alleyways of the souk — food tours and tastings and upgraded bastot market stalls. I just worry that the souk has became so sheeshee, I hope there are still some cheap bastot that provide cheap produce, like it was always known for, so that the Jerusalem residents from the Jaffa Road neighborhoods, who are poorer, can actually buy produce there. After all, that’s what Machneyuda was originally there for.
When I was living nearby and Machneyuda was my market, where I shopped daily and weekly for Shabbat, I still remember when one day I spied an ATM. I was incensed! This was supposed to be an old-school Middle Eastern market for The People. What is this? An ATM?! How dare they?
Of course the following week, while shopping, I ran out of cash and marched over to the ATM murmuring gratitude for this new installation. Somehow my strongly felt conviction of the previous week melted away. Slowly, slowly I saw the market change under my eyes with little boutiques dotting its alleyways. I was still wistful for the more gritty market vibe, but I see now how they have transformed this space into something that transcends just a resource for fish, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, dried fruits and prepared Middle Eastern foods for Shabbat.
The people watching, the bustling and jostling — I even witnessed a hilarious prank by one of the vendors, the eclectic vibe, the shouts of vendors hawking their wares, the fragrances and the opportunity to get lost among the winding alleys of the market Old School — that it’s all still a part of the Machneyuda experience.
Waiting to catch a taxi at the corner of King George and Jaffa Road, the air suddenly fills with such a soulful and angelic rendition of the Israeli classic “Ad Machar, ‘Till Tomorrow.” I turn to see who it is, and standing in front of me, in tzitzit and kippah, I see a young guy, when someone suddenly whispers to me, “it’s Michael from Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of American Idol.
The magic of Mamilla is unchanged, yet each time I sit on the balcony of one of the cafes, the sunset deepening into the nighttime breeze of Jerusalem nights, the sillouhette of the Old City walls and the Tower of David take my breath away anew. It feels so peaceful, and, like time, it stretches into the beyond, into the faraway past of Jewish history, evidenced by the strong ancient stones.
Like the vertical strong walls, the sea seems to stretch into an eternity of a different kind. Take a ride outside of Jerusalem to nearby Tel Aviv and it’s a different world. Different vibe entirely. Surfers, sailboats and matkot courts on the warm sandy beach, dot this landscape. The glorious promenade along the beach that reaches all the way to the ancient port city of Jaffa — among my favorite spots in Israel — is simply spectacular. This trip I wasn’t able to walk all the way to Old Jaffa, but seeing the foamy waves and hearing the late night rustle of the Tel Aviv beach water, were relaxing enough.
For years I’ve been in search of a gem of a Hebrew children’s book that I adored as a child. Not only was I not successful in finding it, but whenever I described it, no one seemed to know what I was talking about. As recently as a half a year ago I again googled in search of it. Shabbat morning arrives and I settle down for a cup of coffee, opening the Israeli newspaper my brother, ever so thoughtfully always makes sure to purchase for me when I visit (and even brings along to America when he visits), only to read one of the main stories of this weekend edition: A reprinting of this old Hebrew book series, the one that has eluded me for years.
It was crazy. I was flabbergasted. Forget about the renewal of the roads, of the banknotes, of the souk, of the road to the Tel Aviv beaches. They are re-printing, or re-issuing, one of the Hebrew childhood books so close to my heart! (Then again, it’s about Holland. But still.)
I’ll tell you what hasn’t changed though, because some things never do. And that’s Jerusalem’s mojo. Jerusalem is still as enchanting as ever. Especially the prayers at dawn at the Kotel. It’s the perfect landing-in-Israel-jet-lag-afflicted activity to do when arriving in Jerusalem after the long airplane ride from America. You’re up anyway. And the magic and mystery of the prayers at dawn never get old. This time was extra special and meaningful to me, because I had the blessing of going to pray with my father and sharing the experience with him. [See “Blessed be the jet lag.”]
Unlike the daytime, when the Kotel is somewhat of a tourist site, the people at dawn are a community of early morning prayer risers, who fill the Kotel with a certain kind of a pure heart that truly is inspirational. Passing through security, some men were already audibly murmuring morning prayers, siddur in hand, as they handed their packs to the security guards for inspection.
There’s something about entering the Kotel in the dark of night, minyanim in the throes of prayer, and then when it’s all over exiting in the first morning light, truly a light shining off the Jerusalem stone with a halo that literally transforms the stones into a vision of Yeruhalayim shel Zahav, Golden Jerusalem. As my father said, “suddenly when the sun rose silence at the Kotel reigned” (due to the synchronicity of Shemoneh Esrei, the Silent Prayer coinciding with sunrise).
It was Friday morning, erev Shabbat, when we went. As I was leaving the women’s section, a very elderly, wrinkled, short lady with an aura of Old Jerusalem, greeted me, a heady fragrance of fresh mint engulfing her, hitting us with a sunrise erev Shabbat olfactory pleasure. A sack of branches and mini-myrtle was at her side, as she reached into the sack and handed us branches of each, encouraging us to make the blessing over them, and encouraging us to savor it for blessings after the Sabbath nightfall, following the recitation of Kiddush Friday night, when there is the custom of smelling these perfumed branches and spices to the blessing of borei isbei besamim.” Ah, the aroma!
The intervening four years of my absence from Jerusalem highlighted so much of the renewal that has transpired here. But also, some things really don’t ever change. Because Jerusalem still is Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold
I sign off to you, dear reader, once more, with a View From “Jerusalem of Gold.”
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