Jerusalem was never real to me. It was a name I came across in books of Bible stories as a child. If I’d ever tried to imagine it, it would have been like places in my books of fairy stories. I knew it was a city with crenellated walls, with domes and towers and minarets. In my mind, I saw it peopled with old men with long beards and flowing robes, and women with clay jugs precariously balanced on their heads.
If someone would have described a modern city with every kind of amenity and an educated, bustling population, I don’t think I would have believed it.
When I came to visit for the first time in 1970, I had to adjust my perception. I realized there was a West Jerusalem as well as the Old City, that I could stand on the corner of any street and hear many different languages spoken.
In the space of ten minutes I might see an old lady in the costume of some forgotten community; an American tourist with coiffed hair, wearing jeans, and with several cameras slung over her shoulder; a monk with shaven head and a long brown habit; a group of Israeli soldiers; housewives with their shopping bags; a haredi Jew with long payot, garbed in black and with tzitzit hanging outside his trousers.
I could eat in a restaurant or visit a cinema or do most of the things I did in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Yet Jerusalem didn’t speak to me in a special voice.
Aliyah was never my idea, and when the whole family came to settle a year later, I was in a deep depression. I understood we were doing it for our four children, but what about me? How would I ever understand this strange, convoluted language? How would I find anything to compensate for what I was leaving behind — a comfortable lifestyle, deep roots, family, friends, a profession? I was terrified.
Falling in love with a city is not so different from falling in love with a person. It is an emotion that grows slowly. You begin to notice what you had overlooked before.
There is the quality of light that begins with a pearly dawn. When the sun shines, the masses of grey stone are turned to gold. At twilight, the indigo shadows lengthen. The night sky is black velvet strewn with stars. Your senses become aware of an ancient perfume that wafts down from the Judean hills, compounded of sage, thyme and rosemary. You can hear the wind whispering in the pine trees, and echoes of a history that is filled with pain. You stroll through the Jerusalem Forest, where shy cyclamens in mauve and cream and wild violets nestle among the rocks.
When you walk in the Old City, your feet are treading the stones that King David danced on. A prayer at the Western Wall seems to ascend straight to heaven and you know you are in a very spiritual place, where blessings are invoked. When you say: “Ani Yerushalmi” (“I am a Jerusalemite”), you say it proudly because of all the feelings you are unable to express in words. Though parts of the city are shabby and down-at-heel, Jerusalem is beautiful in a way that you see not with your eyes but with your soul.
It took a few years before I became bonded to this city and its people. Now I have lived here for forty-two years, and even though I’ve seen much of the world, this is where I want to stay. Like all Jerusalemites, I feel uniquely privileged. Though we can contribute little during our brief sojourn here, we know that Jerusalem is eternal.