Dispatch Three:

Out and About



My cousins Dan and Lydia, who moved to Tel Aviv from New York last year, came to Jerusalem this week to take me out to dinner. We met for drinks at the famous and elegant King David Hotel, followed by an exquisite meal at "1868," a gourmet kosher restaurant. I think of "kosher restaurant" as "diner with fluorescent lighting," so the sophisticated food and elegant ambience was a delightful surprise for me.


However, as exceptional as the restaurant was, the real pleasure of the evening for me was in spending time with my cousins, in seeing two familiar faces after 3 weeks filled entirely with unfamiliar faces, places, and situations in a new country where I can't speak the language or read a single word. (Hebrew uses a different alphabet.) I also realized what a boon it is to have relatives here who are much more familiar with this country and its customs than I am.


On Saturday (Shabbat), the city of Jerusalem offers free walking tours, lasting about two hours, as a municipal service or perk, going to different sites with different guides each week. Outside of the Old City, most of Jerusalem is closed and quiet on Shabbat, so these walks are a nice opportunity to get more familiar with the city on a slow-traffic day. (Also good exercise, since Jerusalem is a hilly city.)


Several weeks ago, the walk was a fascinating tour of Yafo (Jaffa) Road, which was once the pilgrimage route all the way from the Mediterranean port of Jaffa/Yafo to Jerusalem.  (And if you're wondering why I'm spelling it two different ways, welcome to my world. Since Hebrew and Arabic both use different alphabets than we do, the Roman alphabet spelling of proper names, place names, and most words, when transcribing from Hebrew or Arabic, is varied and creative.)


Yafo Rd


Yafo Road is a main artery of the New City, and I frankly thought of it as a standard, forgettable thoroughfare when I arrived here. The walking tour, however, opened the fascinating and complex history of Yafo Road to me, from the jostling of the European powers for influence in the Holy Land during the 19th century, to the period of the British Mandate in the early 20th century, the rising tensions and violence during the Mandate, the war that followed Partition in 1948, and the changing face of this city in the eventful decades since then. Although the layers of history are self-evident in the Old City, the Shabbat tour of Yafo Road was what made me realize that every street in Jerusalem has stories to tell. So I decided to keep returning for more of these walking tours.


These tours are also a good place to meet other speakers of English. I've become friends with Hilary and Tim, an English couple over here for several years for professional reasons, whom I met on one of these walks.


However, since the Shabbat tours are a courtesy service, there's some variety in terms of the quality of the guides. Some are excellent! And some can definitely be skipped without missing much. I had made plans to meet Hilary and Tim for today's walk... but after 15-20 minutes, we decided to peel away and go pootle around on our own, since today's tour turned out to be one of the skippable ones.


This made the morning a nice opportunity for me to spend some time in the Old City, where I've scarcely been yet, due to my double workload of journalism-by-day and fiction-by-night.


We began by wandering through the streets of the Muslim Quarter, which is bustling on Saturdays (compared to the Jewish Quarter, where shops and cafes are closed on Shabbat  and things are very quiet, except for prayers and some children playing). The streets are very narrow and crowded; sometimes covered; and bordered on each side by tiny, ancient shops. In the most-touristed areas, the shops sell souvenirs: silk-and-mirrored cloths, dresses, scarves, and tapestries in rich colors; wood and mother-of-pearl chess sets; brass and silver vases and pots; jewelry; ceramics; postcards, guides, and maps; religious trinkets; and so on. Further along, you get into the streets where local Muslims do their marketing, and the shops are selling piles of ground spices, fresh produce, clothing for religious Muslim women, shoes, meat, sweets and pastries, bolts of cloth and material, as well as watches, cell phones, CDs, DVDs, and video games. There are repair shops, barber shops, tailors, bakers, and a dark, cavernous, quiet shop that sells tahina (sauce made from ground sesame, used in a lot of dishes here) made in a massive pot in a back room that looks like it hasn't changed much since Suleiman the Magnificent ruled Jerusalem centuries ago.


The vast majority of the people in this part of the city are Arabs, and most of the women are dressed traditionally (only some of the men) in long robes and head coverings. Neighborhoods mush together rather than flow into each other there, the Old City being a small and crowded town, so you see a minaret directly overhead and hear the Muslim call to prayer as you're standing the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—which we also did today. This is a fascinating church, but it was so crowded today that we didn't stay long. Apparently if I go back with my guidebook one morning in midweek, I can explore the place with far fewer people standing between me and the various shrines and altars.



Seemingly just round the corner from there, we also stopped off at the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. It's the large section (including the western section) of a wall built by Herod (around 20 BC) that surrounded the Second Temple, which was up on the Temple Mount.  The wall is a very holy site where Jews pray--and where they wail to mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews. The first temple--Solomon's Temple, from the 10th century BC--was destroyed by Babylonians in the 6th century BC. After the return from exile, Jews built the Second Temple in roughly the same place. It was destroyed by Romans in 70 AD. (Temples don't have a happy history here.)


Above the wall, you can see the Temple Mount. Very easily, in fact, because it's got the massive al-Aqsa mosque on it. In one of those awkward situations that characterize this place, the Temple Mount that's holy to Jews is also holy to Muslims.


The Dome of the Rock, the gorgeous golden dome that's probably the single most famous visual icon of Jerusalem, is up on the Temple Mount, too. It was built in 691 over a rock from which the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. This is also where the patriarch Abraham is said to have come close to sacrificing his son before Yahweh said, "Never mind, I was just testing you." (In fact, hearing the story of the binding of Isaac was instrumental in my rejecting religion at the age of six. I was revolted by any deity that would play games with a boy's life like that, and repelled by any father that would murder his own son just because God told him to. My Grandpa Cain, not quite sure how to deal with my rebellious and critical comments in the middle of St. Joseph's, promised me I could have all the jelly donuts I wanted after Mass if I'd just be quiet for the rest of the service.)


In the Christian quarter (which looks a lot like the Muslim Quarter, but with churches), we climbed the steps of what looks like a locked-up old church, pressed a buzzer... and were admitted to the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family. Built in the 19th century as a pilgrimage house and outpost of Austrian culture in the Holy Land, the hospice accurately describes itself as "an oasis of peace and relaxation" in the heart of the Old City. On the Via Dolorosa, enclosed behind high walls, it's sort of a Viennese colonial palace that has inexpensive hotel rooms, dormitory hostel rooms, a restaurant, a café with indoor and outdoor-patio seating, a chapel with regular services, a culture/entertainment room, and various ecumenical Christian services for travelers. An incredibly beautiful, peaceful, elegant building, with courtyard and gardens, it also offers spectacular close-up views of the Old City from the roof. A few floors down, you've got a bird's eye view of the Muslim market streets directly below. In the friendly, airy Viennese café, we replenished our strength with hot coffee and homemade apple strudel before pressing onward.




One of the more surprising sights of the day for me was Kfar David. This is a modern development of luxury flats just outside the walls of the Old City. We walked through it on our way up one of Jerusalem's many (many, many) hills to go back to Tim and Hilary's flat for lunch. (Because coffee and strudel can only fortify you for just so long.) Housing is expensive here, so a luxury flat in Jerusalem costs what it might cost you in London or New York. It's just that I haven't seen much luxury in Israel so far. My own neighborhood, Rehavia, though very respectable (and very safe) tends to look shabby, even rather broken down, and that's true of most places I've been so far, such as the neighborhoods I walk through on my way to work every day. (Maybe 60 years of war doesn't leave a lot of time and budget leftover for masonry?) So suddenly walking through a neighborhood that almost makes Beverly Hills look shabby was an unexpected finish to my sight-seeing today.


Kfar David


March 25, 2006