JERUSALEM — Hello from Jerusalem! I am thrilled to take up the original dateline of my column, a continuation of my father’s View From Jerusalem from the 1970s and 1980s.
The last time I was in Israel was during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. I came to visit wounded IDF soldiers and show solidarity with residents of the South. There were no beach days, Jerusalem meanderings, café tastings, book hunts or side trips. It’s been a while since I spent time with Israel, the country and particularly Jerusalem, the sacred city.
Just pulling out of the airport and onto the new highways was amazing. Getting money from the ATM yielded bills bearing new faces — the purple 50-shekel bill with the face and words of Shai Agnon was gone, but the new batch of banknotes continued to highlight literary personalities. And now women have been added.
The 20-shekel bill features “Rachel The Poetess,” as she is known in Israel, with a brief quote from one of her famous poems, 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 a famous children’s book. Not only is her sophisticated poetry known and studied in university, but every child knows her work. 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 beautiful 200. These days in Israel, even cash seems elevated to a literary pursuit.
Meanwhile, the souk Machane Yehuda has transformed 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, second- and sometimes even third-generation kiosk 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, rows and rows of fresh halva in all flavors, trays of glossed baklava cut to geometric perfection, and the spice and tea leaf market with mounds of desert colors, red paprika to golden turmeric.
They’ve done an unbelievable job with the alleyways of the souk — food tours and tastings and upgraded bastot. I just hope there are still stalls that provide cheap produce, so that poorer Jerusalem residents can actually shop there. After all, that’s what Machane Yehuda was originally there for.
When I was living nearby and Machane Yehuda was my market, the first time I spied an ATM I was incensed. This was supposed to be an old-school Middle Eastern market for The People. How dare they! Of course, the following week, I ran out of cash, and somehow my conviction melted away.
Slowly, slowly, I saw the market change, little boutiques dotting its alleyways. I was still wistful for the grittiness, but now this space transcends its role as a resource for fish and cucumbers. The people-watching, the shouts of vendors hawking their wares, the fragrances, the opportunity to get lost among the winding alleys—it’s all still a part of the Machane Yehuda experience.
Waiting to catch a taxi at the corner of King George and Jaffa Road, the air suddenly fills with a soulful rendition of the Israeli classic Ad Machar, “Until Tomorrow.” I turn to see who it is, and I see a young guy in tzitzit and kippah. Someone whispers, “It’s Michael from Kochav Nolad,” Israel’s version of American Idol.
The magic of Mamilla is unchanged, yet each time I sit on a café balcony, the sunset deepening into night, the silhouette of the Old City walls take my breath away anew. It feels so peaceful, and, like time, it stretches into the faraway past of Jewish history.
Like the walls, the sea seems to stretch into an eternity of a different kind. Nearby Tel Aviv is a different world. Surfers, sailboats and matkot courts dot this landscape, the glorious promenade along the beach reaching all the way to the ancient port of Jaffa. This trip I wasn’t able to walk all the way there but seeing and hearing the late-night waves was 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 unsuccessful, but no one seemed to recognize my description. Shabbat morning, I settled down for a cup of coffee and opened the newspaper to read one of the main stories of the 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 magic, still enchanting as ever. Especially dawn prayers at the Kotel. It’s the perfect jet lag activity after the long flight 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 share the experience with him.
Unlike the daytime, when the Kotel is something of a tourist site, the people at dawn are a community, who fill the Kotel with a purity that truly is inspirational. Passing through security, some men were already audibly murmuring morning prayers, siddurim 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, and then exiting into the morning when it’s all over, light shining off the Jerusalem stone with a halo that transforms them into a vision of Yeruhalayim shel Zahav. As my father said, “Suddenly, when the sun rose, silence at the Kotel reigned,” due to the synchronicity of Shemone Esrei coinciding with sunrise.
It was Friday morning, Erev Shabbat, when we went. As I left the women’s section, an elderly, wrinkled woman with the aura of Old Jerusalem, greeted me, a heady fragrance of fresh mint engulfing her. A sack of branches and myrtle was at her side, and she reached into the sack and handed them to us to make the blessing, encouraging us to savor it for after the Sabbath nightfall, following the recitation of Friday night Kiddush, when there is the custom of smelling these perfumed branches and spices to the blessing of borei isvei besamim.
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. Because Jerusalem still is Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold.
Once more, dear reader, I sign off to you with a View From Jerusalem.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News