The first time I drove up highway one, ascending to Jerusalem, I was 15.
I was trying to quell on the edge of my seat kind of anticipation.
Waiting, like someone who had read about a lover for years, to finally clap eyes on him.
The flags on the flagpoles swayed lazily but I stubbornly saw it as a beautiful rotative movement.
I was delusional, euphoric, insane.
I was infected.
If you saw me you’d think I was crazy and a little pathetic.
I think I was.
That can happen to a person when they see IT after so long loving it from afar without truly understanding how to love at all.
I was reminded of one of my favourite gemaric excerpts recently. In Rabbi Sack’s video celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, he talks about the moment when the sages saw a fox walk over the destroyed Holy of Holies. They lamented over the tragedy of such a holy place being so defiled.
Rabbi Akiva, contrarily, smiled.
He said he knew of two biblical prophecies. One of Jerusalem’s destruction, and the other of Jerusalem’s rehabilitation, when the old and the young would sit peacefully in its gates.
“Surely,” Rabbi Akiva said, “if the prophecy of destruction has come to pass, the prophecy of its rebuilding will occur too.”
Hope. That’s what it was and what remains buried deep beneath the hills.
Hope, and eternal love.
Even though I don’t walk around with a sense of wonder anymore, my chest lifts with relief when I’m twisting up the hill on highway one.
Magical may be far fetched, but there is a supernatural quality, an easiness and earthiness and timelessness in the air of this city.
Maybe it’s the hills, the slow, incongruous rise of streets.
Especially that of Rechov Betzalel, with each of its tributaries trailing off into the eclectic routes of Nachlaot, colourful and laid back and unbothered by modernity or convention.
Here’s a small square with a bench, an old building with a plaque, a wall covered in graphics and spray paint. Here’s the smell of weed and hummus and fried sesame.
Here’s a cat pouncing to the sound of a way too fervent chassid.
Here’s a seedy porch party.
Unsurprisingly, English, Spanish, French and Hindi overpower Hebrew.
Ussishkin Street trails into Rechavia, where the romanticism of Nachlaot becomes neater and wealthier. I don’t have many memories there.
When my brother lived here he spent most of his years in Ma’alot Dafna and Ramat Eshkol.
I used to take the #2 bus through Mattersdorf and the like to get to him. I’d pass neighbourhood after neighbourhood of charedim and chassidim.
I never go to Geula or Mattersdorf or Ma’alot Dafna now.
But I still see the Belz shul from highway one, mimicking the Beit Hamikdash.
I’ve only been there once.
I still remember how the balcony wrapped around the whole building like a Spanish mezzanine. It was spacious. The mechitzah was a wood checked frame, not as offensive as in some other places. At least I could see the massive sea of streimels and the choir thronging near the Rebbe.
Lechah Dodi took an hour.
I remember thinking it was beautiful in its own way. Sad, in how it formed vowels and letters of an old decimated era, and clung to the sounds of a long forgotten tradition.
I’ve never revisited that world, and in a city where the four major divisions of Israeli society manage to to remain separated, it’s easy to keep away.
There’s this guy who sells plasticware on Rechov Yafo, near the tachanat harekevet at Machaneh Yehudah.
He’s old school sefardi.
I’ve only gone to him twice and a year has gone by between each visit.
He still greeted me with a , “Mah nishamh motek? Zeh hayah harbeh man sh’at hayit poh.” How are you sweetie? It’s been a while since you’ve been here.
I’m sure he didn’t know who I was.
Then again, he could have. Unlike the vendors at the shuk who try to woo you constantly with empty compliments, I could well see this guy having an elephant’s memory for faces.
And that little magical twinge somewhere from fifteen year old me resurfaced and recalled to me that even though my life is a mess (and it’s a constant mess), I’m at home here. So very much at home.
The shuk has had a makeover.
It’s a hipster foodies dream, a tourist hub and centre of the new nightlife.
Nitro coffee, cold brew, specialised foods, like croissants patisseries, Jachnun bars, gluten free crepes, and American meat joints are all on offer. Not mention the place with the non kosher styled kosher street food and the vegan froyo stand.
Where else can you get massive bourekas with the filling of your choice for only 20 shekels?
And its old charm lingers, with its veins of fruit and veggie stalls and the fish quarter and the meat quarter too.
Old women in mismatched shawls still come at 7:00 PM, when everything is closing to get the cheapest egg, guiding their carts like tanks through the meddling throngs.
Baklava still tempts and old lackadaisical men in white knit kippahs sit under pictures of Begin as they disinterestedly watch their fruit. Savoury and sweet spices still waft through the cloistered space and that guy at the last stall near the open air walkway still yells the best stuff. “Best mishmesh in town. Best mishmesh. Jews, I’m telling you don’t miss out.”
Yes, it’s clogged with tourists now.
Someone will be trying to collect money from you.
But fifty year old Ahmed at your favourite veggie stall always makes you feel better with his patience, and that hole in the wall near the entrance is still your favourite place to get a cup of rimon seeds.
Again there’s that magic.
Your favourite place in the old city irrespective of the Kotel, is that orange tree in the courtyard near an educational centre.
Have you ever walked down Misgave Ladakh, or sat atop a roof and listened to the sounds of three faiths and four personalities making music?
In one corner is a houkkah, another is a mezuzah, fallen and in need of repair, leaning on a line of Armenian balatot.
It’s an old and beautiful thing.
It wisely tells you there is no better magic than this.
Birchat Hachamah is a blessing for the sun. On the sun. It happens every 28 years.
My year of seminary happened to be that year.
It was the first time I had walked through the Arab shuk.
At 3:00 am.
It was deserted, except for the stream of people walking towards the plaza. And sets of magavnikim every few steps.
Thousands upon thousands turned up to watch the sunrise.
I don’t remember feeling bad about the possibility of waking up the sleeping Arab vendors, even though I should have.
The second time I had walked through was after following a maslul during the light festival.
Everyone was awake this time. Everyone was participating.
Unlike the brachah, this moment invited and included all of Jerusalem’s people.
It had been a night where all residents of the city were awake and following the glow of man made magic.
There’s this little look out, a balcony of sorts that you can only get to after wending through some small staircases above Aish Hatorah.
My friend and I stood there once, a perfect full frontal view of the Kotel ahead of us, and leaned on the railing as we talked about life.
I think it was Shabbat, minchah time and yes, we were a cliche.
But even though we talked about the difficulties, everything felt right.
I used to love Yemin Moshe.
Who could resist the richness of the history behind the windmill and the first Jewish community funded and built outside the city walls?
Or those cobbled streets with pathways only connected by sporadic miniature stair cases?
Or those romantic orange tinged stone houses with green doors like something out of Tuscan landscape?
But then I had a bad date in the park nearby and I hate going there now.
I’m avoiding it until the magic is restored.
In Katamon and Emek Rephaim, there is this one sloping footpath.
Not that the newly rebuilt pedestrian walkway that used to be a train track isn’t cool.
The mesillah is perfect. Its outdoor gyms and benches mean that a shabbat walk can consist of a charedi couple, datlashim, modo groups of young people and a muslim couple jogging.
Your favourite scenes are the people walking dogs and that chic who shows up with her personal trainer, looking badass in her hijab and sportswear.
It’s the one peaceful road connecting Katamonim to Beit Tzafafa.
But the German colony is still prettier, with its old Arab villas and its three story mansions.
Every two steps and you see a consulate.
My dream house is there.
Old. Bucolic. Wood and stone. A weathered basketball net is nestled in a blackened tree. The facade looks like it is something out of the 19th century.
Someone lives there. Hey, if your name is Bloch, give me a shout.
I think your home is magical.
My favourite second hand book store is on Yavetz.
It’s through a narrow gate, up a staircase, above a beauty salon.
It’s got a mirpeset surrounded by grates, and is covered in books and magazines.
It feels like a peaceful nugget tucked away in downtown Jerusalem.
I go in feeling stressed, breathe a little, calm down.
I walk out into the chaos feeling a little better, and more able to withstand the spell.
On fake Lag Ba’omer a bunch of museums were free.
I’ve always wanted to go to the Underground Prisoner’s Museum.
It’s close to the Police Station and Kikar Safra and the Russian Compound.
It was as if pre state Israel still lived and breathed.
The building was one story.
Stucco on the inside.
Cells were large Middle Eastern rooms, with matts and tools of the era on display.
The rooms dedicated to the Alei Garom were covered in pictures and wreaths.
The Gallows were dark, faintly lit, real and horrifying.
The woven mats were dirt encrusted. The signs were painted in outdated type. The names of the dead and imprisoned of the Zionist underground were fresh. Nothing looked touched but everything looked staged.
I always wondered what it would have been like, back then in the forties, the State about to be born.
I thank God I don’t actually know.
I doubt I would have survived.
I doubt it was magical.
No one thinks Shmuel Barcuh is a special street. It connects Agripas to Shazar and other main roads.
But the guy at the makolet near the watermelon and mangal store (no joke, this is what the store sells) once helped me go through my wallet, which was heaving with agurot, to find the exact change I needed for a bottle of water.
One time in the Old City, making my way towards the Jewish Quarter, I encountered a little flooding going down Ararat Street.
Someone’s sponga had gone wrong.
A tall willowy girl, with romanesque curls, dressed in a maxi patterned dress and chultza basis, was stuck peering down that very slipper slope of street, alongside me.
Two guys ran out of the makolet, one clearly the owner another clearly involved in the renegade sponga.
“Sorry, girls,” he had said.
Tall, in his early thirties, a definite gym rat.
He eyed the girl next to me.
“I can carry you over.”
There was no chance in hell he was going to offer the same to me.
Willowy girl batted him off with a “No, no. Unnecessary.”
He tried to insist.
She turned to me, determined. “We can go another way. Let’s find another way.”
Something internal and triumphant made me smile. So there was a sisterhood. There was a “We.”
“B’yachad.” I agreed.
We turned right and walked a while until we found another main path heading towards the Cardo.
She laughed at the man’s attempt to carry her over the water.
I cringed a little. She was clearly eighteen and confident and strong.
After a few minutes she asked me where my accent was from.
Sadly, I thought about how much effort I put into not being found out and it generally being impossible for me to fly under the radar.
If they didn’t guess America, that was a good start.
I kept denying it until she admitted her parents were olim and she could definitely tell I had an accent.
She said it was cool, wished me luck, said it was nice to meet me and we parted right in front of the burger place.
I’ve had wine at the Israel Museum, and watched amateur plays at AACI in Talpiyot, walked down Azza street passed midnight and picnicked in Gan Sacher. I’ve gotten lost in French Hill and smelt the heavenly odour of thousands of freshly baked loaves from a rooftop on Rechov Najara.
I’ve heard Reuvi Rivlin deliver a speech at the Kotel.
I’ve been stopped by Asian tourists and asked how to pronounce machane yehudah.
I’ve been proposed to by a complete stranger (I think you have a nice aura about you. Would you marry me?).
I’ve benched lulav at a chabad stand and heard Megillah in the streets of nachlaot.
Despite the infuriating traffic or the odd business hours or the aggressive old ladies with shopping carts and the tustusim and the na nachers and the security checks and the way soldiers get harsher the closer you get to the eastern side or the city’s sanitation going on strike…
I think now, I know what love is.
It’s everyday magic.