Dispatch One: Welcome to Israel

My flight from Cincinnati to London involved multiple cities and airplanes (it was a cheap ticket), but the trip was unprecedented in its smoothness. To my surprise, I and all my luggage arrived at Heathrow together and on time, leaving me unexpectedly with about 24 hours to visit a few friends, which was very nice indeed! And I definitely hope to see more friends on my way back through, when I should have some time to spend there (unlike this occasion).

However, as soon I arrived at the El Al check-in desk at Heathrow, I was mistaken for a terrorist. Or for someone dumb enough to be the unwitting pawn of a terrorist. I'm still not sure which. The questioning only took about 20 minutes. I think it stopped only because the more questions the agents asked me, the more confused they got by my responses. (My life story, my schedule, my various obligations, and my reasons for going to Israel on a journalism internship confuse even me, so this is understandable.) But the detailed searching of my luggage and my person lasted well into the evening. They omitted a cavity search, but I did have occasion to wish I had worn nicer underwear. I've flown El Al several times over the years, and they always single me out as a potential hazard. I don't know why. I think I look harmless.

Unfortunately, upon arrival, I met what may be the single meanest person in Israel. A sherut driver who (all the passengers agreed) bitterly hates his life. A sherut is a minibus that acts as a group taxi, and they leave the airport for Jerusalem quite regularly. (Based on what I've seen so far, they're also cleaner, safer, and less densely-packed here than their equivalents are in Africa.) I thought at first the sherut driver just hated me because I brought (I now realize) about 3 times as much luggage as I need here. But his screaming match with someone else grew so violent that, being an American, I naturally expected the dispute to end in a shooting (though I am happy to say that this was not the case).

Jerusalem, which is at a higher elevation than Tel Aviv and therefore cooler year round, is entering spring in early March. Things are green. It's chilly by night, warm by day--hot in the sun and cool in the shade. The sun is so strong that even at this time of year, I got sunburned while walking around in the morning. So I'm guessing that summer here will be an inferno.

With a combined population of 600,000-700,000, Jerusalem consists of the New City and the walled Old City--the most ancient (and most touristed) part, which dates back several thousand years and consists of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian Quarters. I spent a little time there many years ago, when traveling after college, and look forward to getting to know it better. But since I'm here for several months and will be working, I decided to spend my first few days here getting to know my way around the New City, i.e. the rest of central Jerusalem, which is where my flat and my workplace are.

The term "New" is amusing to me, since the New Jerusalem started being built in the mid-19th century (we in the New World consider that old). At the time, it was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Russians, Germans, English, Italians, and French all took an interest in the region, partly practical (it's the back door of the Suez Canal and it has been an overland route for invading armies for eons), partly emotional (everyone started digging here in search of archaeological proof that their religion was the religion). There was a long-established Jewish community here back then, but their numbers grew in the early 20th century as Zionism grew in popularity, advocating the return of the Jews to their Biblical homeland.

Obviously, there were Palestinians here in Ottoman Palestine, and one day they noticed that an awful lot of Jews had turned up lately, and so the party got started. There were also Ethiopian Coptic Christians, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Armenian refugees, Roman Catholics, Bedouins, dissolute pashas, Sephardic merchants, nuns of various orders... And everybody built stuff in the New City. So it's a real hodgepodge of visions, styles, nationalities, eras, and intentions. The only unifying feature is that everything in the New City must always be built of the same pale stone materials that characterize the Old City. Other than that, the place is an international smorgasborg covering two centuries of jostling, ambition, and competition.

Another thing that really strikes me about Jerusalem is that it's a city of nooks and crannies. Half the streets seem to be staircases or arch-covered alleys leading into hidden courtyards and twisting pathways that lead to more staircases. Yesterday, while walking down the Jaffa Road (a bustling, noisy, main traffic artery that was formerly the old pilgrimmage route from the port of Jaffa), I took a street that I thought was a shortcut to another major road... only to find myself winding through a maze of footpaths, courtyards, and stairs leading to the oldest synagogue in the New City, a Korean restaurant that's obviously not counting on curb appeal, a pub, and some kids playing in what appeared to be a mini-ampitheatre in the middle of a dozen old houses.

"Old" is another thing that strikes me. The tumultuous 20th century has taken its toll on home and street maintenance here. There are luxury developments going up and a number of gorgeously-maintained stately old buildings (the immaculate YMCA on King David Street is a lovely sort of British Old Empire Arabian Nights fantasy); but most of the city looks shabby and falling apart, like no one's had time or money to repair a crack for the past 100 years.

My walks through the New City have also taken me through the Mea Shearim, a Hassidic neighborhood  where, after a few blocks, you feel you're in a time warp, since all the men are wearing what look like knee breaches, frock coats, and top hats. Also side curls and prayer shawls. (They're going to be hot come summer.) The women's heads are all covered, and signs posted in such neighborhoods warn female passers-by to wear skirts and long sleeves (i.e. "modest dress"). This would bother me much more if I were a local taxpayer, since these signs appear in what are, as far as I can see, public thoroughfares; I'd feel obliged to ask these folks, in that case, to conceal their side curls when walking in my neighborhood. As a visitor, though, I quietly cooperated by pulling a long skirt over my trousers before I went there. (Since I also wore a baseball cap and an iPod, I did not blend in, alas.)

Despite my coloring (normally very fair, but sunburn-red this week), nobody stares at me or bothers me in the New City. I was immediately accosted by one "guide" after another after another the moment I set foot in the Old City this week (where tourism is the main business, and where business seems to be slow these days), and Jerusalem would be very trying to live and work in, indeed, if that were the case in the New City, too. But the population of Israel is so international that no one here pays any particular attention to me--and people constantly address me in Hebrew (which, unfortunately, I don't speak, read, or understand, apart from key words like, "please," "excuse me," "thank you," and "where?"). By and large, my impression of Israelis so far is that there are a lot of very kind people here, though many of them have an outwardly gruff manner. Except for the sherut driver, everyone I've met here has been very nice to me, and very patient about my inability to speak their language.

Laura Resnick
March 6, 2006