Sunday, May 13, 2012

Letter from Jerusalem -- Survival Strategies for Ordinary Living


When your hometown happens to also be a spiritual and political powder keg – a point of pilgrimage as well as strife – it's easy to find yourself struggling to maintain some emotional equilibrium. Don't get me wrong, it's a privilege to live in Zion. Jerusalem is a beautiful city on innumerable levels.

And yet, sometimes, plain ordinary life can get, well, intense. Besides being at the epicenter of the Arab-Israel conflict, what also wear down Jerusalemites like me are the intra-communal tensions – between Jewish people of different religious persuasions, traditional and non-observant Jews on the one hand against the ultra-Orthodox on the other.

And it's not only the big issues that can be wearying. Like any major city, prosaic worries dominate day-to-day life: high taxes, choking traffic, dirty streets, deficient schools and a dearth of public spaces – making it seem that the veneer of civilization is running thin.

So my wife Lisa and I have come up with five strategies that help us maintain our perspective.

Shopping – We found a great place to do our grocery shopping. For visitors I recommend shopping at the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in downtown. I like it for its bustling and zesty ambiance, fresh produce and low prices. Fishmongers and spice merchants now compete with boutique fashion and ceramic shops, mom-and-pop Ethiopian eateries, gourmet cheese and wine shops and even a London-style fish and chips shop.
When we need to do a "big shop" to stock-up on household staples (cleaning supplies, paper towels and tuna fish) we skip our favorite – more about that later – supermarket (too expensive) and Mahane Yehuda (inconvenient because of parking and congestion) and head to one of several big hurly-burly discount supermarkets in the industrial part of our southern Jerusalem neighborhood usually Rami Levy discount supermarket.

Some Israelis treat shopping (and driving) like a competitive sport. Like the time we waited in line behind a man with just three items in his shopping cart, only to see him joined by his wife pushing an overloaded wagon just as he got to the checkout clerk. He had been "holding" her spot on line. Thursday nights – when what passes for the Israeli weekend begins – the big supermarkets tend to be jumping with pre-Sabbath shoppers.

Fortunately, for ordinary grocery shopping we discovered a small retrograde supermarket that caters to Israelis from English-speaking countries (called "Anglos" here), diplomats and UN-personnel. It is called SuperDeal (28 Hebron Road, near the Old Train Station).

It's not particularly fancy or nicely lit up and it doesn't offer the variety of the bigger supermarkets. The bargains are few and the prices, well let's just say they’re not cheap. Still, SuperDeal stocks many Anglo favorites not widely available in the country like Aunt Jemima pancake mix, ground coffee and Gatorade for the Americans; and Marmite, English tea and shortbread biscuits for the Brits. (Did I mention that Lisa is London born?) And when the lines at SuperDeal get long, the management pulls out all stops to speed things up; opening up more lanes and putting on more packers. If you spend over 300 shekels (about $80) you get a free bottle of soda pop.

Last Thanksgiving it seemed as if Super Deal's kosher butcher shop (which is professionally staffed by Palestinian Arab butchers) seemed to be supplying the entire ex-pat community in Jerusalem with turkeys.
Thank goodness for Super Deal.

Shabbat – Israelis lead hectic lives. What with Fridays being a school day and Sunday the start of the new work week – that leaves only Saturday to unwind. For those of us who are traditional and sanctify the Sabbath, that means no work, travel or even cooking from Friday night at sunset until after dark Saturday. A real "day of rest" as the Sabbath is called.

Yet Lisa and I often wonder how our fellow Israelis who don't observe Shabbat stay sane. At our place, off go the Blackberry, the Internet and television – and unless there is some kind of crisis afoot, we don't take phone calls or listen to the radio news. What we do instead is spend quality time with family and friends.
On Friday night we try to get to synagogue services. Lately we discovered a new congregation called Mizmar Le'David (Song of David) that welcomes the Sabbath Bride with song and joyful prayer. After services we either host or are invited for a traditional Shabbat meal. The meal always begins with a song welcoming the Sabbath bride and the benediction over wine. Lisa's a great cook (always experimenting with a new recipe) so if we're hosting guests can count on the food being delicious and ample. Sitting around the Shabbat table – whether on Friday evening or Saturday afternoon or both – gives us an opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with friends (usually from the neighborhood). It's a way of putting life on pause. We always sing Grace After Meals before leaving the table for conversation in the living room.
Thank goodness for Shabbat.

Walking – On Saturday mornings there is comparatively little traffic in Jerusalem. Most businesses, restaurants and shops are closed as are schools. The City recently created a new urban trail along the old railroad track (this historic line once connected Beirut to Cairo via Palestine). Nowadays it's a bike path and pedestrian mall making it a lovely place for a Shabbat walk.

Alternatively, we stroll along the Sherover - Haas Promenade which offers panoramic views of Jerusalem, the Old City and the Mount of Olives from the south. We just never tire of this outlook. For weekday sanity, I usually hike up to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel which sits astride Israel's 1949 Armistice Lines (what people confusingly call the 1967 boundaries). From the lookout point you can see the outskirts of Bethlehem (now controlled by the Palestinian Authority). When the weather is good, I bicycle up to the kibbutz and then have a quick swim in the pool.

Thank goodness that Jerusalem, though hilly, is a walking city.

Eating – Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good meal and Jerusalem is blessed with excellent restaurants. Since we adhere to Jewish dietary traditions the restaurants we frequent are either kosher "meat" or "dairy."

I'm partial to a simple mom and pop place called Ima (Mom's) at 189 Agrippas Street not far from the Central Bus Station and the Mahane Yehuda market which specializes in Israeli-Oriental-Kurdish style home cooking. Nothing fancy but I always feel revived after the Kubbeh soup of small pockets made of semolina dough stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts. Lisa and I would eat there a couple times a week after I finished my shift at the Jerusalem Post. Back during the dark days of the Second Intifada we were sometimes the only ones in the place. Now, it's best to make a reservation.

Our favorite special occasion restaurant is Angelica at 7 Shatz Street in the center of town. I've seen famous authors and politicians eat there. The food is usually very good -- I tend to order Entrecote steak or lamb-- and service is typically good. For "dairy" we take our chances at a small hole in the wall called Al Dente at 50 Ussishkin Street. The pasta is freshly made, the food almost always delicious, but the service can be painfully inept. A few months back when the renovated Israel Museum (11 Rupin Street) reopened we discovered their fancy European-style meat restaurant, called Modern (overlooking the Valley of the Cross). We like going there on a Tuesday night when the museum is also open late. The food is first-rate and the service is well-meaning.

Thank goodness for good food.

Culture – As you may have guessed we love the Israel Museum. For occasional visitors there is a long list of must-sees such as the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the enthralling 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.
Lisa and I tend to go for the temporary exhibits. My recent favorite was Christian Marclay's mesmerizing The Clock which we saw twice. If it comes to your town be sure to see it. I also never tire of experiencing the lovingly reconstructed synagogues in the museum including the 18th-century sanctuary from Suriname (white sand floor); one from the 16th century called Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the landing place”) Synagogue from Cochin, India; and a 1735 synagogue from the market town of Horb in Southern Germany. I'm fond of the museum at night when you can see the nearby Knesset all lit up.

We've finally gotten into the habit of going to the Cinematheque – the most civilized place in Jerusalem to see a film not counting the Jerusalem Theater and Performing Arts Center near the Prime Minister's Residence. The Cinematheque, situated near the Old City walls, is trendier. It's a Mecca for Jerusalem's secular population and tends to offer a heavy fare of left-wing European films and it's a bit too artsy for me though I'm not ashamed to confess that we've enjoyed live HD simulcasts of some great Metropolitan Opera performances from New York.

Of course there are a variety of lectures and classes in Jerusalem on any given evening. For instance, on Thursday evening the Menachem Begin Heritage Center offers a popular free lecture on the weekly Bible reading (in Hebrew) that has people lining up 20 minutes before the doors open. During winter 2012, Pardes, the Jewish creative learning institute, presented a series of lectures by the brilliant Bible scholar James L. Kugel.

When Lisa and I go abroad we like to get a sense of what life is like for regular folks. What's a grocery store like? How do they spend their down time? Where is a nice place to stroll? What cultural attractions appeal to locals? Where do locals eat?

If you feel the same way when you travel, make time to experience some of Jerusalem's local flavor on your next visit. Ride our new light-rail train; stroll inside the new Hamoshbir department store at Zion Square; visit a supermarket – it doesn't have to be ours. A journey to Jerusalem should leave you fascinated and uplifted. Living here is that too though also a challenge. It's a living breathing city warts and all – just as it was in the days of the Bible.


-- Published in "Israel My Glory" magazine

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