Letter From Jerusalem 12.14.2019

December 14, 2019

View From My Hotel Room (Photo Credit: Arthur S. Friedson)

Greetings from Jerusalem where I am wrapping up a whirlwind visit of just six days. Shabbat is ending and Jerusalem is still very quiet. There are very few cars on the road, and even the pedestrian traffic is light, limited to a few tourists scurrying by and small groups of two or three making their way from shul in every possible direction since there are synagogues tucked into every imaginable corner.

I’m writing from my hotel, one of the new “boutique” hotels that have cropped up absolutely everywhere as developers take advantage of a loophole in zoning laws and the huge surge of tourists who flood the city all year long now that the most recent intifada is becoming a distant memory. I lived here in those dark days, back in the early aughts, when taking a bus or going to a coffee shop was an act of defiance; a statement that we would not be denied the use of public space. Now those things are mindless choices, as they should be.

Jerusalem remains very magical and special. My first day here is a good example. I was up early due to jet lag. As soon as I got out of bed, I flipped the switch on the hot water heater so I could take a hot shower when I finished my first cup of coffee. In general, Israelis are far more conscious of energy use and water conservation than Americans. Private homes and smaller residential buildings all have solar water heaters on their rooftops as well as electric hot water heaters that are used only when necessary. Often, they are programmed to turn on and off at set hours so they’re not wasting electricity when they are not needed. The cost of electricity, gasoline, and water are kept high to encourage responsible use, and even apartment renters pay those costs directly to their appropriate utilities so they stay conscious of their usage. The supermarkets now charge for bags, and like in Chicago, you see significantly fewer people using one-time bags and way fewer bags blowing across streets, flapping against fences, or hanging from trees or overhead wires.

But back to my day. I showered and dressed, and since it was still too early to visit my mom, I walked over to the Machne Yehuda Market -the souk- to stock the refrigerator in my little hotel apartment. Fresh hummus, the 5% cottage cheese I love (all of the dairy sold here is labeled with its fat content the way milk is sold in the U.S.), some cheese, some salami, my favorite halva (marble) that only tastes like that here, and fresh pitas hot from the oven. And yes, I’ll confess, there was no way I could pass up the chocolate rugalach at Angel’s Bakery on the way back.

Chores completed, I was ready to go to my favorite breakfast spot in Jerusalem, my mother’s kitchen table. Nearing 98, she’s a little unsteady on her feet and a little frail. But she’s every bit the woman I have known and loved for the past 65 years, and the chance to spend time with her is the driving motivation for my trip.

I walked over to her apartment and rapped on her door in the shave-and-a-haircut cadence we have used for as long as I can remember. The sounds echoed in the small foyer. Actually, everything echoes here since the floors are almost always stone. There’s nothing to absorb sound in most Israeli rooms, and most Israelis create a whole lot of sound, so it’s loud indoors.

The apartment already smelled of sautéing onions as my mother was on her feet preparing my breakfast favorite, a LEO, or lox, eggs and onions. On the side was her famous chopped herring, which itself is worth a diversion.

My mother’s signature dish, chopped herring, takes a huge effort to create. It starts with her shuffling the 8 or 10 blocks to the souk, where she finds her preferred herring vendor from among the dozens of stalls in the crowded market. There she buys four whole herrings from one of his barrels, puts them in her little wagon, and walks home exhausted and satisfied. The herrings soak in water she changes frequently for a few days to make them milder and to cut down on the salt content. When they’re ready, she cuts off the heads and the tails, cleans them, skins them, then starts the arduous and painstaking task of filleting them. Bones don’t jump out of pickled fish the way they do from cooked fish. It’s a difficult job for anyone, made significantly more difficult when your sight and the agility of your fingers are not what they once were. But she will not be deterred, and she will not accept help with this from her wildly underutilized caregiver…a visit from her sonny boy would not be a visit without serving him lovingly made chopped herring as an appetizer or a side.

After a good breakfast, we swapped stories about my two daughters, their husbands (one each) and children (two each) in America, and my two siblings, seven nieces and nephews, and eighteen grand-nieces and grand-nephews who live here. Next, I set off for the other crucial item on my Jerusalem to-do list, a visit to the Western Wall. It’s only two kilometers on foot from my mother’s apartment in downtown Jerusalem, but the journey is instructive.

Of course, I could have walked, but I chose to cut the walk in half by taking the light rail system. I jumped on the train that goes down the center of Jaffa Road and took it two short stops to the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City. The Damascus Gate is in East Jerusalem, across an invisible line where Jewish Jerusalem in suspended and Arab Jerusalem begins.

Let’s use this point in my short trip to illustrate life in Jerusalem. When you’re downtown, in stores, at the mall, in the park, and most definitely in the hospitals and clinics, Arabs and Jews coexist seamlessly. They may not interact directly, but they politely and innocuously share the public space. There’s no place in Jewish Jerusalem where Arabs and Jews alike can’t walk, shop or eat safely.

It sounds crazy, but it’s not all that different from the segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. The difference is that while there is some minor integration in Chicago neighborhoods, there is none here. When the day is done, or when the school bell rings, the Palestinians are in their neighborhoods and the Jews are in theirs.

This lack of integration is clearly an impediment to peace. In America, anti-gay sentiments largely collapsed when straight people discovered they were interacting with gay people all the time, and lo and behold, they had more in common than they would have assumed. The lack of integration here, self-imposed on both sides, hampers the humanization of each other that would come from personal interaction.

I got off the light rail about a block from the Damascus Gate. I walked past the large parking lot filled with the busses and minivans that ferry Palestinians back-and-forth between their neighborhoods and villages, and entered the Old City. I worked my way down into the Old City through Arab markets and shops, and about half-way to the Western Wall, I crossed the Via Dolorosa right at the Fifth Station of the Cross. I continued on to the Western Wall, and as my prayers ascended, they passed the Temple Mount above me, also known as Haram al-Sharif, just as holy to Moslems as it is to Jews. Standing in this clear physical intersection of our faiths, it becomes so obvious that we are cousins. Sadly, no fight is as bitter, contentious, lasting or stupid as a family feud.

Thank God for the continuing standoff with the Palestinians, because without it, Israelis would be tearing each other apart. There hasn’t been very much of a functioning government in over a year, while there are increasingly contentious divides over growing income inequality, soaring housing costs, housing shortages, increasing wait times for non-emergency healthcare, overcrowded hospitals, religious deferments for the ultra-Orthodox, religious control of civic institutions like marriage and public transportation on Shabbat, and social inequality for families of North African descent. In the face of all of this, the government is hopelessly deadlocked and a guy everyone pretty much agrees is corrupt and despotic has proved harder to get rid of than anyone would have guessed.

All that said, I think there are more working cranes in little Jerusalem than there are in Chicago, the highways have been dramatically improved, the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is finally about to begin service, the buses run on time, there’s plenty of water and it’s safe to drink, all of Jerusalem glows pink at sunset, and my mom is still making chopped herring. It’s really good to be here.