Jerusalem, city of contradictions

May, 2014, 7:00 AM, Amman airport.
I am returning to Jerusalem from a celebratory conference that began with so much promise. Two Israeli doctors developed a solar battery hearing aid and contributed it to the Jordanians who suffer high incidence of infant deafness, the result of common tribal in-marriage. If treated before age 3, there is hope for normal speech and a normal life. Heretofore, the families of deaf children routinely tossed hearing aids when the battery ran out, sadly long before three years. There are homes for the deaf all over Jordan.

At the concluding session, we ask if recipients will know it is a gift from Israel. “Not possible.” Plans for a public reception in Amman to announce the project are shared. “Will the publicity acknowledge that the hearing aids are a product of Israel?” “No, it would spoil matters.” I suppress the impulse to walk out.
At the airport, I look up at the sky, bluest of blues, reminding me of Jerusalem,1961, as I awoke each morning to feed my infant son. I have not seen such a sky in many years. What is worse, as our plane approaches Israel 45 minutes later, I see the map of Israel laid out perfectly in the sky – in the shape of a thick pollution cloud. I reach Jerusalem at 9 and the city is gray. At 10:15, the sun breaks through, but the sky is not blue as in Amman; it is blue-gray. suddenly, I realize that I have been looking at the sky through a pollution cloud for a long, long time.
I fell in love with Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah (heavenly Jerusalem) as a young girl growing up in a religious Zionist home. Pre ‘48, shlichim from Palestine would stay at our house in Seattle, Washington – a great honor. A precious black velvet painting of the Kotel hung on the hallway wall. At birkat hamazon after every family meal, we recited aloud the blessing to rebuild Jerusalem. Who would imagine…

I fell in love with Yerushalayim Shel Mata (earthly Jerusalem) after ‘48, as a teenager singing Zionist songs in the Shomer Hadati (later, Bnei Akiva). At 16, I devoured Leon Uris’ “Exodus” in one sitting. At 19, I came as a student to the Jewish Agency’s Institute for Teachers from the Diaspora, then housed in the Palatin Hotel on Agrippas. We were lucky to have the extraordinary Nechama Leibowitz as our Torah teacher. Long before feminism, a word she eschewed, she raised my sights about women’s in-depth rabbinic learning.
On a tiyul to the Judean Hills, our our guide, Zev Vilnai, divided our group of 29 teachers-in- training. “You,” he said, pointing to my group, “are standing with young David, and you,” pointing to our other half, “will stand on that hill with Goliath.” An electric shock went through me, the visceral sensation of connecting to Jewish history. Jerusalem, Ir Daveed; I got it. The continuous interweaving of Jewish past and present informed the rest of that year –and the rest of my life.

I loved visiting my father’s family in Batei Ungarin (a neighborhood in Meah Shearim). They lived in a tiny apartment on the second floor reached via the inner courtyard balcony. The took up residence there in 1929, escaping the riots in Hevron, only to find tragedy in Jerusalem when their beautiful, pregnant daughter-in-law was knifed to death by someone who disappeared to the other side through the Mandelbaum gate. My great uncle Avraham was a staunch Zionist who secretly slipped out of Meah Shearim to vote on election day. Though we were worlds apart style-wise, they were welcoming, embracing early haredim.

I returned to Jerusalem in 1961, on my husband’s Fulbright. It was a magical year, spent wandering Jerusalem neighborhoods, reading history in street signs, listening to friendly people volunteer advice on how to raise my little son in the stroller. My husband Yitz and I promise each other to return on Aliyah within two years, a promise repeated shamelessly every two years.

One afternoon, I leave my handbag -keys, money and passport- on a concrete ledge at the busiest bus stop on Ben Yehuda. After four hours I remember and rush back, with little hope. But hundreds of passersby later, there it sits, untouched. My mind takes me to words of my Nechama. She had long wondered: “Why was it necessary to state three times in Megillat Esther, ‘And they [Persia’s Jews victoriously defending themselves] did not put their hand in[on] the spoils’?” In 1948, she finally understood: “To acknowledge the nobility of their restraint. When the Israelis took control of Baka, a government edict went out that no one could enter the hastily abandoned Arab homes or take possessions. And no one did.” Writing these words now, my mind takes me to the noble Danes. When Danish Jews who survived the Shoah returned to their homes two years later, their dining tables were set exactly as they had left.

One day in Meah Shearim, I stand riveted, watching a young mother buy a pretzel at a kiosk and bend down to feed her small son, kipah tied with ribbon under his chin. She holds out the pretzel in front of him.
“Baruch,” she begins to instruct him in the blessing. “Babu”, he responds. “Ata.” “Ta,”… With her last word, “Mezonot” and his response, “Mo” she gives him a hug and puts the pretzel into his hand. As he happily munches, my eyes well up, something about holiness and the covenant between generations.

We return in the summer of ’69, now with 5 children in tow. With the exuberant reunification of Jerusalem still fresh, we visit ancient sites and new neighborhoods. We did not give a moment’s thought as to who had lived in these beautiful homes or villages, who had planted these trees and gardens; they were the enemy and that was that!

We return again in ’74, a sad year in Israel’s history, following the Yom Kippur War and its heavy loss of life. We serve as parents in locus for our gentle nephew, a lone soldier who had arrived just in time for the war and was still serving in Lebanon. Every Friday we waited, not knowing whether he would make it home for Shabbat. When he did, he would eat, daven and sleep off the exhaustion of the week and then return to base on Sunday morning with clean uniforms. He could not speak of what he saw and experienced. The year was a defining one for our family as we absorb the national psyche after war. Yet our children thrive in school, on the block, and in the language of our people.

Even their incredulous refrain of, “You mean we’re going to walk there???” ceased after two weeks. What freedom they had! One night I set out at 12:15am for Evelena de Rothschild school to meet Deborah, 10, returning from a class tiyul. The bus had arrived early. Under a distant lamppost, I spot Deborah’s blond hair and thin frame walking by herself along Ussishkin Street. I was the only parent of 60 who showed up. In New York, Deborah would not be allowed to walk up our street to the mailbox after dark.
And I had freedom too. With the children in school, I spend mornings at the Givat Ram campus, writing a book. No guard booths, no searches, not even a student identity card required. I knew someone who shelved the books who vouched for me. Card catalogs in wooden boxes, the whole world of Jewish scholarship in them, were available for perusal, simply upon request.

Erev Shavuot, ’75. I realize I had forgotten the boys’ re-soled shoes and rush to the shoemaker at noon. He’s pulled down his tin gate. “Please, please, their Shabbat shoes,” I appeal to him. Up goes the gate as he recites, “And if your brother falls, you must lift him up.” [Lev: 25:35] A shoemaker with a Jewish soul/sole.

Thereafter, we visit Israel every year, for conferences, for semachot, for our children’s gap years, and then two and three visits a year as they make Aliyah one by one and produce grandchildren. In 2002, we come to bury a child. Now, Har Hamenuchot cemetery would be visited more regularly than the Kotel.

As our personal commitment to Jerusalem deepens, so does our awareness of its political complexities.
In 1989, I exit the new Rejwan building in town and see an Arab construction worker make an obscene gesture and glare at me. I had lived in my bubble of obsequious waiters and Old City shuk salesmen and was not aware of the pending intifada. I resolve to work on dialogue when I return to New York. Yet I also worry that this worker may have stuffed Rejwan’s core plumbing to vent his rage. He knows he’ll be long gone when an unsuspecting buyer has to deal with sewage on the eighth floor. Peaceful coexistence, a pipe dream?

In 1991, We come for the brit of our grandson Eran held in a venue that overlooks the Old City. Eran is the descendent of generations of rabbis, also of Levites on my side and Priests on my husband’s. Sitting there, I wonder: is this the first Jerusalem brit in our family since the destruction of the Temple? I don’t live in here yet, but a feeling of “we’re back” sweeps over me, along with the joy of entering a new soul into the covenant.
1993, before the famous handshake. I walk through Baka with women from my Jewish Palestinian dialogue group, four years of talking in new York and now a visit here. The Jerusalem stone homes’ are gorgeous, stately. Four Palestinian women, arms linked, walk behind me, talking softly. For the first time I wonder: did any of these homes belong to their families? How do I handle that? That they followed the anti-Semitic mufti, joined the enemy, attacked first is not the whole answer. No wonder they hate us so much, dialogue or not. Was our four years of polite conversation about two states artificial, or even a dupe? Perhaps. Like everything else about Jerusalem, the answer will never be a simple one.

1997. I am walking alone late at night in the rapidly gentrifying German Colony and hear quick footsteps behind me. I feel relief when I see that he is black, sub Saharan black, my brother..

1997. A taxi is taking me to my daughter’s apartment on Joshua Ben Nun Street to babysit. After a few minutes, I note the unfamiliar route and say to the driver, “Wrong way, I think.” He claps his head and says, “Oy, hitbalbalti. I thought you said Caleb Ben Yefuneh.” He turns off his meter and takes me to the street named after Caleb’s biblical partner.

In 2009 JPPPI holds its conference at the Mount Zion hotel, carved into the hillside, with majestic views of old and new Jerusalem. JPPPI’s chairman mentions that Ben-Gurion had commissioned “Exodus“ and was turned down by several great writers before Uris accepted the task. Brilliant move: Ben-Gurion understood the need to enlist popular culture to gain acceptance.

At 4:am I am awakened through double glazed windows by the muezzin’s persistent call. Would any other democracy tolerate this nightly loudspeaker assault? We need fifty new ‘Exodus’ novels. Meanwhile, I learn at breakfast the next morning that chef Moti’s mother, who had lived nearby since birth, just moved from this city of peace to Tel Aviv, in search of uninterrupted sleep.

May, 2014, Yitz and I arrive early for the Women of the Wall service. We become separated almost immediately as a horde of men in black and white rush towards the entrance gates, probably chasing a rumor about a contraband Sefer Torah coming through the Women’s’ Gate. Two stout haredi women are also caught in the center of the plaza and we huddle together, heads bent, as the men rush around us. Alone, each of us would have been pushed to the ground. Later I dramatically tell Yitz that they saved my life.

The tefilla (prayer) is beautiful with sweet voices and pure prayers despite hecklers trying to drown them out. Afterwards, police and soldiers — who have been brilliant in keeping the lid on everything– escort us to our waiting bus. Along the way, two haredi men recognize my tall husband as among the supportive men on the other side of the mechitza, and one screams at him, “you Nazi, you.” We sit on the bus waiting to pull out when a boulder strikes the metal bus frame. The boom rattles me but the women respond by softly singing “azi vezimrat yah, vayehi li yeshua.” Jerusalem, holiest city in the world, where one Jew can call another ‘Nazi’ and where women who pray respond to assault with words of Moses crossing the Red Sea.

2017. I’ve spent 48 hours at Shaare Zedek, microcosm of messianic times. Excellent caring doctors and nurses, maintenance staff, patients, relatives, children — all in a place free of religious, racial and color biases. My left-wing friends should walk these and Hadassah’s halls and rethink their “apartheid” criticisms.
Never mind. I know that facts won’t change their minds. But then again, on my visit to Terem Romema infirmary, I am served early one Friday morning by three gracious men — receptionist Ahmed, Doctor Fahid, and radiologist Abdul. I must learn to qualify my criticisms and refer to “some Palestinians,” “some Israeli Arabs,” and even “some leftists.”

2017: I walk to Palmach St. to buy sourdough onion bread at Angel’s, baked Mondays and Thursdays, easy for a Jew to remember. The Palmach — it was only by miracles and a hairsbreadth that israel came into being altogether — and now Jerusalem is unified. Sirens wail in the distance. I and stop in my tracks. Like other Jerusalemites, I strain to hear whether it is one ambulance or several. One. I bless God and continue on my way.
2017: Once again, I am grousing about the pollution, blue-gray skies on a good day.. My friend Naomi,who moved from Manhattan to Yemin Moshe chastises me: “I’m surprised this bothers you so much. This is the greatest place to be. Look what we have accomplished here, what we have given to the world, solar hearing aids and autonomous driving. With the pollution comes all the advancement, so you can envy their blue skies but remember what we’ve achieved. And the pollution, we’ll fix that too.”

(A shorter version of this piece was posted on the website of The Jewish Week (”, on May 18th, and an excerpt will appear in: My Jerusalem, The Eternal City, an upcoming anthology by Gefen Publishing House.)

Blu Greenberg

Posted by Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is is an American writer specializing in modern Judaism and women's issues. Her most noted books are On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (1981), and Black Bread: Poems, After the Holocaust (1994).

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