Recently my husband and I went to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) for four days. Foreign tourists don't come much to Yerushalayim nowadays and the hotels are offering discount rates to the daring Israeli souls who still travel from their safer home towns to the capital. Hotels which were once exorbitantly and notoriously expensive are now within reach of the average consumer. So, we went to our capital city for a four-day research and prayer marathon and stayed in a hotel which a year ago would be beyond our wildest dreams of being able to afford. Being two of only a handful of guests we were treated with great gratitude for being there, despite the fact that we arrived with baggage and not with luggage. The buffet breakfasts served each morning were very lavish and generous, especially since we didn't have to share them with more than one or two other parties.
The Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim has been completely refurbished. It is now a bustling weather-controlled, three-story mall filled with clothing stores, music stores, novelty shops and restaurants of every kind. Fast-moving escalators transported us rapidly from the information desks to the level where most of the eateries are located. Swift, modern, sleek, sophisticated - nothing like the old Central Bus Station I remembered. The baggage claim service has been discontinued, but this is the only sign that anything might be 'amiss' in the area. Lovely young people, most of them native Israelis, sit at the tables of the eateries chattering and laughing. Business is fast, tables hard to come by.
On the way to our hotel room we passed the pizza restaurant where the horrendous blast occurred just a few short weeks ago. The restaurant has been reconstructed and looks just as it did before the blast and is open for business. Most of the tables were taken. Now that's guts.
Asking people for directions in Yerushalayim, as in many other places in Israel, is an open invitation for any and all passersby who hear the questions to stop and begin giving (often conflicting) directions. In any event, a simple question often serves as the basis for numerous new acquaintances. As the old joke has it: "Why don't Israelis make love in the street?" "Because everyone passing by would stop to give advice."
Yerushalayim is the natural place in Israel to go to do research. Though there most certainly are universities and research centers in other cities and towns in Israel, and fine ones at that, no city in Israel is so blessed with a plethora of distinguished learning centers of all kinds as our capital. I spent most of my time at Heikhal HaSefer (The Shrine of the Book) at the Israel Museum and at the Jewish National Library on the Hebrew University campus (researching the Dead Sea Scrolls). The Jewish National Library is the central repository of Jewish scholarship. Here Jews of every age and every persuasion sit together - quietly. If outside the hallowed walls of the university our various religious interpretations and political factionalism divides us, here we are united by our eternal common denominator, the Jewish obsession with scholarship. It is a must-visit for any scholar of any Jewish topic.
My husband opted to spend most of his time at prayer in the Holy City. He went to the Great Synagogue three times a day as prescribed by Jewish Law and was in his glory. The Great Synagogue, the largest and arguably most beautiful synagogue in Yerushalayim, is a short walk from the hotel where we stayed. There he personally met one of Israel's most beloved Jews. There is a couple who live in Jerusalem who are originally from Japan. They chose to link their destinies with that of the Jewish people, came to Israel and converted to Orthodox Judaism. Here they learned Hebrew and here they make their new lives. They are both blind. My husband also went to the Western Wall of the Second Temple. The Western (or 'Wailing' Wall) is still the central place of Jewish pilgrimage. For me the Western Wall is not a place where I go for solace or to lament, I can do that anywhere at any time. I love the Western Wall because for me it symbolizes every annoying Jewish trait that has characterized my People for thousands of years. The beggars are still there (one of them is an unusually tall Nordic-looking guy who dresses up like what he imagines the High Priest looked like and sings while playing an lyre), the money changers and still there, the sellers of cheap souvenirs are still there, and of course the kooks who think they are the Messiah are still there - the Temple service is no longer performed there, but the Jewish People are, for better or worse, as we have always been. That is why I loved that damned blessed wall.
Not far from the Western Wall is the Shuk (the "flea" market", where nary a flea is to be bartered in). The stalls of the market are roughly divided into the "Jewish half" and the "Arab half". That division is rough indeed. In reality, Jews' and Arabs' stalls are often situated one next to the other, selling similar goods. Both make a living from tourists, Israeli and foreign, who come to Yerushalayaim and also from residents looking for a good deal on something one doesn't find in ordinary stores - a special present for someone perhaps, a rug for the winter or a nargilah and the dried fruits and spices which are smoked in the nargilah. The Jewish and Arab owners of the stalls make coffee for one another in the back of their stalls to get them through sun-up to sun-down work days. They share one another's economic good fortune, and bad. At the end of the "Arab" shuk is the casbah. Upon unknowingly stumbling into the casbah, in the heart of the Arab Quarter of Yerushalayim, many years ago I was initially afraid. Noting my trepidation, I was invited to sit and join the old-timers of Yerushalayim, Arab and Jewish alike, who sat and sit, to this day, in the small restaurants over cups of rich Turkish coffee and plates of hummus and olive oil with warm pitah bread, whiling the hours away playing backgammon.
One evening when my husband went out for evening prayers I turned on the television in our hotel room. There was a live broadcast on the site of an act of terrorism. It was eerie to see the very same sky in the background of the live TV broadcast and from my hotel window. "My husband, where is he?!!!" my head began to spin, my heart to pound. I went to the telephone and called room service. "Where", I asked, "was that shooting?." "Not in this area, Madame," was the polite and understanding answer I received from the Arab concierge. Looking out the window of the hotel I saw that the traffic, mostly workers returning from work, flowed as usual. As usual'Yerushalayim is determined to be known for its learning and cultural centers, its bistros and its magnificent views, its many houses of prayer - and yet to be a normal place to live in for its residents.
The skyline is so very beautiful in Yerushalayim. Dominating the view is the dome of the Al Aksa Mosque. The magnificence of the Mosque pays tribute to the loving devotion with which it was planned and so painstakingly built. I have gone up to the courtyard of the Al Aksa Mosque and seen the men performing the necessary ablutions all Moslem men must perform before entering a Mosque. I have spoken to those men and did not hide my appreciation for the beauty of Al Aksa from them. "But, why should it stand on the Temple Mount?" I ask myself every time I have seen it. It does not belong in Yerushalayim at all. So beautiful is the Al Aksa Mosque - so very imposing a structure it is.
The next morning I was to learn that the shooting on the bus was aimed at teen-age school girls on their way home from classes. I was also to learn that the Arab waiter in the dining room of the hotel was just as concerned about the influence of Western culture on his teen-age children as we are and having lived in Israel for so many generations, his family is no less 'Israeli' (whatever that means exactly) than we.
It is the young people in Jerusalem who most commanded by admiration and respect. Due to the fact that there are so many institutions of higher learning in Yerushalayim, most of the young people look like students, even if they're not. At the Hebrew University itself the young people sit in groups on the grass (weather permitting) and speak animatedly about the big and little things of which students speak. Couples hold hands and give one another a quick peck when they separate, each to his/her own course. They dress in jeans, but there is an air of easy self-respect about them. There is also an air of determination about them. They are determined to live as normal a life as circumstances will allow. Their determination to live is iron-willed, but not militant. Like the hardy plants which push their way through the cracks in the stones of the Western Wall, they live and grow and will continue to do so as long as the God of Israel gives them time to. In the evening the youngsters come to the reasonably priced eateries, which are still popular with that age group, and sit and laugh over a glass of wine or a cup of cappuccino. They are lovely. They, the young women as well as the young men, are Israeli's soldiers. It boggles the mind and wrenches the heart.
The real Yerushalayim, the Yerushalayim which only the Israelis know, is very unlike its media image. It is at once much more mundane and somehow much, much greater.