Category: Jerusalem

Storm Damage

I find personal blogging quite difficult sometimes. It’s as if I want to create space between me and a prospective reader. Opinions are OK – they can belong to anyone, but personal comment opens a window to the outside world and it’s not surprising if people peer inside sometimes. They might see things.

The last three days have seen the worst snowstorm in Israel in living memory. Even in faraway Cairo, they had snow for the first time in 112 years. The first great, ominous flakes began falling Wednesday night and by Thursday, a pretty if slightly inconvenient blanket decorated the gardens  of Jerusalem and made locomotion difficult. By mid-afternoon Thursday and into Friday, it stopped being funny. A huge dump, in places, more than a metre deep had brought down powerlines and caused the worst arboreal damage since the Jordanian bombardment of 1948, also cut off large areas of population. Tramlines disappeared under a flat, white landscape and an eerie quiet, even more funereal than the usual Shabbat calm, descended. People moved like ghosts, disappearing into swirling mist. The ubiquitous cats were nowhere to be seen. A few Orthodox, satin coats flapping in the wind, starkly reminiscent of flaky black and white images of the Warsaw ghetto, plodded determinedly, their hats protected with plastic elasticated covers, their beards dusted white.
Of all the paradigm shifts this place affords, I found myself confronted with yet one more. Jews do deprivation better than most and can still call up what must surely be a collective memory and a survivalist mentality that is unrivalled elsewhere. It manifests as a Stoicism so crusted with collective disappointment that a few flakes of snow simply causes it to surface. Unlike the plucky grin-and-bear it Cockneys in the Blitz, these people are hard-wired for the possibility of disaster and it takes relatively little to cause it to emerge and the odd stone thrower masquerading as a benign snowballer raises nothing more than a ripple.
Miraculously, there have been relatively few fatalities, four  so far. When the road to Tel Aviv was closed since so many cars had been abandoned on it, a call went out for four-wheel drives to help stranded motorists. This was met with sufficient response so people were ferried out of danger. The mayor put out a call to those having power to host someone for Shabbat who had none – close to 20,000 were left in the cold and dark and some still are.

Closer to home, the school, also my home, is housed in the old English Mission hospital, whose foundation stone was laid in 1895. Most of the original buildings of solid Samarian limestone worn smooth by the passing of time are still functional. It is all the additional workmanship, cheap and jerry-built, which has suffered. A few days ago,  a colleague’s roof collapsed over lunch, sending metre squared tiles crashing, mingling with puddles formed by leakages. My own large fanlight fitment looked as if it were in tears as the water trickled ominously around it, pooling in ever-widening circles on the floor, ultimately shorting the main circuit breaker. My TV picture fragmented and was lost as snow accumulated on the satellite dish. A fibre-optic cable in the garden, stretched dangerously by a fallen branch, looked as if an enthusiastically obese tightrope walker forgot to step off it.
Reconstruction is part of the survivalists’ genetics here. We shall be up and functioning soon despite the heaviness of the air and the occasional stench of hatred. The patient has had major surgery, but she will not need to convalesce for long.








Pillar to Post

I haven’t climbed a tree since I was about ten, I suppose. The thought of attempting to do so now is, I have to say, not altogether tempting. Particularly a broad-leafed, sturdily mature sycamore which might require a bit of determination to haul one’s carcase to a sufficiently favourable vantage point.  All this, of course, is because I sometimes imagine myself to be a kind of professional Zacchaeus. Not in the vertically challenged sense, of course, but in the sense of one who tends these days to keep a dignified distance from hullabaloo and crowdly hilarity. Which, I suppose, brings me nicely to what I want to say. If the Son of God had shouted up at me, peeping down like a wood-nymph, and invited himself round for a spot of lunch, I think my first response might have been to direct Him to the nearest Marriott where He might find adequate and nutritious refreshment.

Because He certainly would not have found it chez moi at the moment.

Let me explain. A fortnight ago, I fetched up on the shores of the Land like a somewhat bedraggled Crusader with considerable baggage excess and was directed to present myself at a Hostel. I am not altogether familiar with such establishments but at close to one in the morning, I’d’ve shared a stable with a cow. Upon entering the premises, I looked around. There seemed to be an abundance of young persons, clearly intent on festivity, but – no bellhop, sadly. I checked in. My room was on the third floor and it appeared that one was expected to drag whatever one was burdened with oneself. I looked around my room, rather hoping for access to room service and cable TV, but both were conspicuous by their absence. The word ‘hostel’, then, appeared to evoke a passing resemblance to ‘hotel’, minus the ‘s’, for service. English hostelries are characterised by merry laughter, horse-brasses over the bar and tweedy locals drinking pints of warm, foaming ale from pewter tankards, served by buxom young women, thus I had clearly been misled. Instead, there was an empty glass on the first floor bar with a paper label on it saying ‘Jesus would have tipped’.
At this point, I should make it clear that the mournful little blue donkey, my alter ego, was completely vindicated by his new surroundings and it took him a day or two to adjust. Just as I began to feel, if not exactly at home, a bit less like a refugee, I was tossed out on my ear because the place was full and I had to find alternative accommodation while my new apartment which had been closely negotiated over a period of several days was being ‘finished off’.
Some days passed. I received a call informing me that all was ready. Leaping into a taxi and tipping the driver extravagantly, I fetched up at my brand spanking new apartment, an exuberant and optimistic tortoise carrying all his worldly goods on his back, expecting to find all the comforts of home packaged tastefully in a sixth floor penthouse. There was a fridge, a single bed, a rickety chair and an alarmingly asymmetric gap under the front door. The elevator didn’t work and the electrical wiring was experimental to the point of  presenting a clear and present danger of summary electrocution. A vast expanse of wooden flooring and not much else met my appalled and outraged gaze. In short, the workmen had not so much failed to finish off, they hadn’t quite got around to starting. Quite a number of people of varying degrees of seniority came, commiserated and went and after a short period of weeping and gnashing of teeth I am cautiously hopeful that the place might actually be habitable in the foreseeable future. Currently, there is a sort of space where the cooker thingy is supposed to go and inviting people round for dinner would seem not to be on my immediate agenda, consequently if the Son of God had invited himself round, he’d’ve had to be OK with a cheese sandwich and a glass of water.

Coming Out

This is a strange time. Having followed its politics and listened to its heartbeat with the long stethoscope of distance, it is a different and otherworldly experience to be back. I have a job again, which means I rise regularly to a soothingly melodic alarm, the poetry of the city in my ears like a half-remembered song, resonating gently at the back of my mind.

The city is full. Full of contrast, opinion and the suppressed violence of abundant dialectic, the pulse of which is almost palpable, like an adrenalin-fuelled artery, close to the surface. The haredim move uneasily, weak-eyed with study, hurrying past the goyim, the less religious, the reformed and the seculars, as if to touch would be to contaminate, their slight variations in clothing proclaiming their rabbinical allegiances. Young, bright-eyed, confident people laugh and sometimes dance in the streets to the music of whomever is playing there, drink arak and grapefruit juice in the bars, curly black-haired girls shriek at the tram stops. The Old City, eternally patient, throws open her ancient doors to the world, her marbled streets once rough now worn smooth, polished and slippery with pilgrims’ sandals, as they follow crosses down the Via Dolorosa. Queues still form at dusk to enter the tiny sanctuary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, guarded by unsmiling, black-cowled Orthodox monks. Tiny, ragged bookshops, exchange and new, are full of welcome and freedom to browse. I buy rather fewer hard copy books these days – the encroachment of technology allows me to buy whatever I need online and read it on an iPad, slim and luminous. Yet, the smell of old books – everything from leather bound volumes on Jewish thought in Hebrew to dog-eared copies of ten-year-old Stephen King novels reminds me of school libraries and the fustiness of long-abandoned rooms. A book caught my eye. It is not often that one chances upon a masterpiece, peeping shyly out between the poetry and travel sections. Not since Brigid Brophy’s “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept” have I been so moved.
This is no Tolstoy, great with pages. Thin with hungry prose, “Yosl Rakover Talks To God” begins with this, found inscribed on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, where some Jews remained hidden for the whole of the war.

I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Truly, this is a city of cursed believers, of poets, artists, thinkers and dreamers, pregnant with optimism, rage and fragile hope.


There is no place like it in the world.