30 Cheshvan 5759

(November 19, 1998) – Jerusalem

The overwhelming, destructive feeling of aloneness made the first part of the morning unbearable. It was all I could do to go down to breakfast.

Mood worsened by Reception’s calling frantically at 7:30 a.m. saying, “Your VISA card still isn’t being accepted.” I could see myself being unceremoniously ejected from the hotel with no place to go (the hotels are booked solid).

I decided that if that happened, I would check out and head north to Z’fat. My desperation became so great that I did not stop to consider how I would pay for a hotel in Z’fat if VISA would not honor the card anywhere in Israel. But I did not have to do anything that drastic.

The head cashier, Odeh Hallaf, at first did not understand what I meant by charging $500/day as needed. He said, “They would not approve it for any amount.” I explained that Dan’s office had talked to VISA people in the US (bless you, Johanna!) and that though they were wrong not to process the full amount (and I’m still mad), they said $500/day would be approved. Begrudgingly, Odeh tried – and was surprised when the charge was accepted.

Things improved from there. After breakfast, the phone rang (and I cringed, thinking it was Odeh with bad news). Instead, it was Rabbi Freedman’s wife from the Masorti shul! She invited me to Shabbat dinner next week, but I will already be in northern Israel. So I’m going over Sunday for coffee.

Funny, they live in the apartment building that blocks my view of the Masorti shul. She said, “Go to your window and wave, and I will do the same.” It took forever to find one another – but what fun!

I walked over to the JNF building to meet Cynthia, Dan’s friend. Tomorrow is supposed to be JNF Day. But Cynthia wasn’t in, and her colleague said she would be out all day tomorrow too. But she gave me Cynthia’s cell phone number. Just talked to her (writing this reminded me to call her) and she invited me to go along on a ceremonial shindig tomorrow. Yea!

After that, another very bad experience with cab drivers. This time, I got his license plate number and reported him to the concierge at the Sheraton. The little routine of refusing to turn on the meter has gotten old. Except this time, when I insisted on meter, it miraculously jumped from NIS 6.50 to NIS 35 two blocks up the street. I don’t understand why Jerusalem city council turns a blind eye to the fraud.

But I loved “overlook day” – getting above the city. I had perfect weather; my face is a little sunburned to prove it. And I am still enchanted by the flowers, flowers, everywhere. I walked from Mount Scopus to Mount of Olives. Dan had said that walk would give me a nice view of the city, a change of pace. He didn’t tell me that I would be walking in “East Jerusalem” – alone. This was the only time so far that I have felt at risk. Machne Yehuda felt safer.

Odd how the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods connect. Sitting from the safe haven of the United States, I had envisioned “Israel” and “Palestine” as two separate and distinct “countries” that would be easily distinguishable. I had thought of it in terms of the US and Canada, or the US and Mexico, where it’s clear that one country stops and another starts. Instead, it runs together like the Fort Worth-Dallas metroplex, where it’s hard to tell where the borders of one town or another begin. [2012 – this has changed since the construction of the fence, but the principle remains the same.]

This walk covered less than three miles. But I went from clean white buildings with azaleas and bougainvilleas in riotous bloom, through a stand of cypress trees, past Augusta Victoria Hospital (regional headquarters of the Nazi Party during the Third Reich), across the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line – and everything changed. Not just the street name (Martin Buber Street transformed to Rub’a-el-Adawiya), but everything. There were no signs announcing the “border” or 1949 line. But the signs were clear, nevertheless.

What a relief to reach the Newell Gardens, and then the Jewish Cemetery! I almost ran, I was so happy to find myself in a safe place again. Even a busload of American Baptists acting goofy and gosh-darn ecstatic over golly gee Moses being in Thuh Holy Land couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm about having made it through East Jerusalem in one piece.

I realized while writing these words hours later that I am beginning to decipher the at-first mysterious panorama out my window. I could see on the map that the view was the cemetery, but it finally makes sense.

After fending off more “Bazaar Men” – this time insisting on camel rides – I pulled out my map to figure out the most direct route from Mount of Olives to Haas Promenade. I decided to walk down Derech Jericho (Jericho Road). That decision exposed me to an overabundance of religious shrines and relics and other assorted places that screamed defiance at Jesus’ simple life. I found nothing appealing in that scene.

I walked a few blocks down Jericho Road, and my instincts kept whispering No. Re-checked my options on the map and decided to head back to the Old City.

Right before I reached the Dung Gate, there was a huge explosion – probably only a car backfiring or a sonic boom. Everyone reacted the same: Visible flinching followed by a hesitant listening for police sirens. When there were none,  life continued. – Once back inside the Jewish Quarter, I felt safe. Illogical, I know, but it is difficult to argue with one’s gut.

So far, the only working ATM I have found in all of Jerusalem has been in the Jewish Quarter. Withdrew maximum amount of cash so I wouldn’t have to come all the way back here tomorrow.

Spotted a falafel stand that reminded me of the one in Philadelphia. But as in the Israeli Museum, I could not get anyone to wait on me. I stood there for ten minutes as the two guys manning the stand waited on customer after customer, acting as if I were invisible. Israel may not be a good place for single women to travel alone.

I finally left in disgust, and walked up to Keshet on the square (Hurva square). The experience made me happy for the rudeness of the falafel stand guys. Their coffee was the best I’d had in Jerusalem so far – I savored every drop. The Keshet bills itself as a kosher dairy cafe, and the food was passable. But I would go back for the coffee.

And only five days after Shabbat, I met Moses! Well, actually I met Rabbi Aryeh Grayewsky at the Four Sephardic Synagogues. How wonderful to have someone in this city not only recognize me, but say, “I was hoping you would come.”

He told me fascinating, fascinating stories. He fought with the British Army in Italy in World War II; he’s a native of Jerusalem. He grew up in the Hurva Synagogue, was Bar Mitzvah’d there. With the Hurva still in ruins, it is hard to picture a thirteen-year-old boy becoming a man on its bimah. [2012 note – the Hurva was eventually rebuilt and reopened in 2010.]

I related my “Psalm 84” story to him – of the sparrows I’d seen nesting in the Hurva – and his face lit up. To meet someone who learned the Shema in that place, well, I will never see it the same. I find I am getting the Old City in my feet and in my heart. Maybe it will be mine before long.

Rabbi Grayewsky made me a cup of tea, and we talked until the place closed. I understood something only after we left, and it made me smile. He had asked if I wanted one or two teaspoons of sugar. I replied, “How big is the spoon?”

He laughed a deep, long belly laugh. “I knew I liked you from the minute I saw you. Now I like you even more!” Walking to the Jaffa Gate, I heard my question almost as Talmudic, though of course I had meant it only practically. Jerusalem will do that to you.

Shortly before closing time, he showed me the door to the place and asked if I could understand the mystical symbols engraved in it. I told him I could not, and he explained the Hebrew letters, but not the rest. He said I would understand it one day. A mystery!

I’m not sure why Rabbi Grayewsky believes I will understand the mystery of his door. I’m no kabbalist. I see no deep “spirituality” in myself. I operate best in a rational world of mathematics and linguistics and facts that can be dug. But he is the third person to assume this about me since I arrived in Jerusalem. Perhaps our insides reflect our surroundings, and here in Jerusalem we are not the same people we are in Philadelphia?

Room service tonight will be good. I can ruminate on the last five days, and wonder what the next five hold.

Rabbi Grayewsky died on October 18, 2009. In addition to his work at Four Sephardic Synagogues, and service as chazzan, he also mentored young Russian-Jewish immigrants in Israel. He had a big heart, with the capacity to see only the best in the people he met. His memory is for a blessing.

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