Jerusalem — city of extremes, memories and the eternal hope for peace

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If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. — Psalm 137

We used to recite this rather extreme psalm as members of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth movement, in Edmonton. In the 50s and 60s there were 5,000 Jews living in that city of 300,000.

Some of my friends made Aliyah, literally “the state of going up,” to live in Israel. That was my dream when I was 18 in 1967, just two months after the Six Day War when I travelled to Jerusalem to spend a year on a Young Judaea leadership program entitled Institute for Leaders from Abroad.

After one month I left to live with my then boyfriend, Benny Landa, and attended the Hebrew University. I was not ready for either type of education — the romantic or the academic — far away from home. But as teens, we sometimes make odd choices and disregard the repercussions.

At the end of the year, the (IDF) Israeli army marched through Wadi Joz, a neighbourhood outside the Old City, in a show of military might that also sent a message to the conquered Arab population of Jerusalem.

At the time we were living in the house of Capt. Younes Abdullah in Wadi Joz, on the top floor, and renting rooms to students from abroad, many whose living quarters had been blown up because they had rented rooms in the houses of the El Fatah. And blowing up El Fatah homes was punishment for theiralleged continuing acts of rebellion against the expanded Israel.

You can see where this is going. What we desired for Israel over 50 years ago — living in peace with its neighbours— is yet to be. My trip this September to Israel was a family visit, mainly to Haifa, but I did spent a week in that famed City of Gold observing and feeling the changes in the intervening 50 years.

Jerusalem is a city of extremes. You feel it in every face you meet.

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I forgot to mention my leftist leanings. When I recited: “If I forget thee…..” it was my right hand that I placed on my heart, but at the time, I didn’t realize the poetic irony. I am left-handed and left leaning in my politics and hopes for Israel.

I was told more than once by Israeli relatives that I have no right to an opinion on Israeli politics because I don’t live there. But I continue to hope for a more harmonious Israel.

When you get on a bus in Jerusalem chances are you will see two or three people with uncovered heads. Most of the covered ones are religious Jews of all stripes. You might think it’s only the Muslim Arabs who cover up, but in fact, they seem less covered than many religious Jews.

Walking around the downtown triangle of Ben Yehuda, King George, and Jaffa Rd. which leads to one of the gates of the Old City, Jaffa Gate, you see a variety of religious Jews but how is it different from 1967?

For one thing you see more extreme outfits such as those of Lev Tahor, the infamous sect of child abusers who once lived in Ste. Agathe and then escaped for other climes. These women are coveredin black and so are their little girls. The boys get away with looking like Chassidic boys, but at least they can breathe.

Many other black outfits adorn the religious women: suits, long dresses, and little girls wear long dresses and thick stockings. Need I remind you that it was hot in Jerusalem in September? Why do all fundamentalists think it’s okay for boys to dress more freely than girls?

The latest vogue seems to be women in colourful turbans that encircle their heads. Are the men wearing long, long sideburns and colourful skullcaps related to them?

A look at Jerusalem dwellers tells you a lot about the influence of the religious right on the government. And let’s keep in mind that these are ever-growing communities and that their children do not normally serve in the army. Yet they are tolerated and accepted and seem to have taken over Jerusalem. What we can say is that Jerusalemites wear their beliefs — literally.

I stayed with my cousins, Shani and Moti Ben David, in Gilo, a half hour ride by bus to the centre of Jerusalem. It is in the “territories” taken in 1967 but Israelis do not like this term and do not use it to describe their neighbourhoods and communities. For them, this is an integral part of Israel.

Shani works part time as a secretary/translator in the Math Dept. at the Hebrew University and Moti is a semi-retired electrician. Shani is also a member of a liturgical choir in downtown Jerusalem. When they were a young couple, one of the few places where they could afford to buy an apartment was in Gilo. Now they say they will never leave. Like many Israelis, Shani and Moti are traditional, celebrating Shabbat and the holidays with family, and very devoted to their grandchildren.

One day, I walked down Jaffa Road to the Old City and entered through Jaffa gate. I was told by my cousin Aliza in Haifa to forget about going to the Old City, that it was dangerous and my Jerusalem cousins confirmed this but stopped short of telling me not to go. But I am no longer 22 and living with Aliza and Uri in Haifa so I went.

But not through Damascus Gate which is said to be off limits because of stabbings. How many and when I didn’t ask. It’s the gate to the Arab section or Muslim section as it is called and I felt sad that I couldn’t spend time there as I had last time eight years ago. I feel equally at home in the Moslem quarter and in the Christian quarter. I didn’t visit the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall this time. It was a long walk for me and I don’t like the idea of forced separation of men and women praying at the Wall.

I did make my way to the Christian quarter, a quieter area, and chatted up the shopkeepers, many of them my age, about their lives, their children, and their memories of the years following the Six Day War.

They were very friendly, invited me for tea or coffee and not at all aggressive or aggrieved when I didn’t buy in their shops. In fact, one took me to a shop quite far away thinking I would like the T-shirts there. Maybe the shop was his cousin’s.

Walking alone in the Old City was physically difficult, with my weak knees, especially with the narrow streets full of pushcarts and people almost pushing to get through so I was relieved that I knew about the peace and quiet of the Christian Quarter.

I didn’t get a chance to have lunch at my favourite Arabic restaurant deep in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. But I did try my favourite restaurant on Jaffa St. in downtown Jerusalem, Coffee Bean. It’s named after a coffee chain in the US but offers many more options such as huge salads, which Israel is known for and of course, my favourite, the Israeli breakfast, which I had for lunch.

Many of the places we used to frequent in 1967 are gone, sadly. I used to love the food when I first arrived and tasted my first falafel, hummus, tehina and the European food such as latkes, and other dairy dishes I knew from home.

The above-ground metro, called the “light rail” is a joy to ride if you’re given a seat, which doesn’t happen often. It runs all the way from the Shuk, (market) through the Bus Station and down Jaffa Rd. to the Old City. It’s 3 shekels ($1.25) a ride for seniors but you have to buy tickets and you can miss your train while figuring out how to buy tickets.

Getting to and from Jerusalem is easy. From the Jerusalem rail station next to the bus station, hop on a train that takes you to Ben Gurion Airport and from there switch to a regular train, going to Tel Aviv and north to Haifa and beyond.

Of course, there are countless events and sights not mentioned in this rather one-sided article but then I’m not writing as a tourist but someone who lived in Jerusalem 50 years ago and has returned many times to re-live old times. I wish I could be more hopeful about a future Jerusalem.

Perhaps it’s important to mention that there are areas of the city such as Abu Tor where my aunt lives, where Jews and Arabs live in relative harmony. Perhaps you know of others. I’m interested in hearing your views about the city. Share them with me at barbarasmoser@gmail.com

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