Lost in Jerusalem
By MATT GROSSAs a traveler, I am not a particularly choosy person. I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime. Wander on horseback into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan? Why not? Spend the night in a sketchy Burmese border town? Sure! Eat my way through Bridgeport, Conn.? Loved it. Once, I even spent four consecutive Sunday nights in Geneva — in midwinter — an ordeal to which no rational adventurer would willingly submit.
In fact, of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one — besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) — that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel.
This surprised friends and mildly annoyed my parents, who had visited quite happily. As a Jew, especially one who travels constantly, I was expected at least to have the Jewish state on my radar, if not to be planning a pilgrimage in the very near future. Tel Aviv, they’d say, has wonderful food!
But to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden. For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible, and the idea that I was supposed to feel some connection to my ostensible homeland seemed ridiculous. Give me Montenegro, Chiapas, Iran even. But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do.
Then, last fall, my friend Theodore Ross — author of the forthcoming book “Am I a Jew?” — suggested I see Jerusalem. And suddenly feeling life calling my bluff, I booked a flight. I’d spend six December days in the holiest place on the planet and, surrounded by the Old City’s 500-year-old stone walls and legions of Christians, Jews and Muslims, I would be the lone unbeliever, walking a tightrope between belonging and individualism, observing not necessarily my faith but the faithful.
The Old City itself, however, turned out to be, at least in terms of geography and architecture, exactly the kind of place where I feel comfortable. Within those 40-foot-high walls was the dense warren I’d expected, laid out with seemingly no sense of order — or perhaps an order I couldn’t yet perceive. Either way, it was a visceral pleasure to master its paths, to dart down the covered, crowded market streets, past the char-grilled lamb-kebab shop (name? “Kebab Shop,” said its chef) and then up the easily missed stairs off Habad Street to the empty roofs above the market itself, where the noise of commerce barely filtered through. I loved the feeling of worn stones slipping under my sneakers, and the astringent smell of herbs as I passed Palestinian women selling bundles of sage near Damascus Gate.
The boundary between the modern and the medieval was shaky here. Cybercafes were ensconced in cavelike nooks; market stalls sold plush rams, lions and donkeys (actually Donkey, from “Shrek”); Israeli soldiers lurked with their machine guns inside ancient fortified gates. And just as fluid — to me, if not to residents — were the lines between neighborhoods. I’d turn a corner and suddenly find myself in the new construction of the Jewish Quarter, where informational plaques spelled out the history of rebuilt synagogues. Another corner, and I’d wind up in the too-quiet Armenian Quarter, whose closed-off courtyards allegedly held networks of secret streets I’d never penetrate.
My own secret hideout became the Austrian Hospice, a huge, mid-19th-century guesthouse visited by everyone from Franz Joseph I to the musician Nick Cave and whose unassuming ground-floor walls you’d pass right by unless you knew it was there. My room, up on the second floor, was a comfortably large space with black-and-white checkerboard floors, simple wood furniture and highly functional Wi-Fi. From its windows I’d gaze out at church towers to the west and — almost close enough to touch — the golden Dome of the Rock, reflecting the raw sun at midday and the moon at midnight. Every time I turned my key in the hospice door and ascended from the street, I marveled at my luck: The place had been recommended by a German doctor, Christoph Geissler, whom I’d met in the shared taxi from Tel Aviv airport. (When I asked his specialty, he’d told me, grinning, “I am anesthetized!”)
The Old City did present one problem: I couldn’t get out of it. Not that I couldn’t find the way, but I kept getting distracted, and happily so. I’d come to this place to wander its winding streets without benefit of map or guidebook to let me know what was where, and every discovery of a world-famous landmark stopped me in my tracks. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher? Holy cow, it was right here, mere steps from the Kebab Shop, a vast, stern emblem of Christianity, with none of that Renaissance sentimentality that turns me off churches in Western Europe. A tumult of visitors swarmed through — Poles and Spaniards and Greeks and Ukrainians. They rubbed their scarves on the Stone of Unction where Jesus’ body was said to have been prepared for burial, and they lighted candles next to the sepulcher itself before immediately snuffing them out. Why? Tradition, they explained without elaborating.
Nearby lay the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, now my favorite church in the world. Built at the very end of the 19th century, it is impossibly elegant and spare, all pale gray stone arches, with almost no ornamentation aside from small, jagged, brightly colored stained-glass windows. Several times I returned to the church just to ogle its curves, and once to attend Sunday-morning services — in unfamiliar Arabic.
“All the languages are in God’s light,” said Rafiq, the old man who greeted me. Translation: Even if I didn’t understand the words, the meaning would filter through.
I don’t know what kind of exotic experience I expected, but when the prayers began, I was indeed transported — to the last place I’d attended Lutheran services: Decorah, Iowa. Apart from the linguistic differences, these two churches a world apart were strikingly similar: down-to-earth, ambling, devoid of theatrics. In Jerusalem the occasional flubs of the organ player, the reedy voice of the hymn-singing woman behind me and the squabbles of children in the pews were oddly comforting.
As often as I got sidetracked by things to see, I was also waylaid by human beings. Sometimes I’d just watch them, fascinated. The woman crying as she sang and prayed in Mandarin along the Via Dolorosa. The somber men carrying polished wooden crosses. The Orthodox Jews swaying at the Western Wall. The blond woman, a white scarf wrapped around her neck, who simply stopped on the street and turned her face to the sun, her eyes closed, her expression enraptured.
Some believers tried to explain themselves to me. Near the Austrian Hospice, two Muslims in long robes instructed me to ask God, not Jesus, for forgiveness.
“Beware of intermediaries!” they said.
Over in the Jewish Quarter, in the square surrounding the gorgeous domed Hurva Synagogue, I encountered Rabbi David Stern, a Californian transplant who wanted me to put on tefillin, the leather straps that some observant Jews wind around their arms during prayers. I’d done it once before, in Lithuania, and while it wasn’t for me, I told the rabbi I could be persuaded to try again.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked. “O.K., do you believe in a higher power? Because most people do.” Sorry, I said. Anyway, he explained, the tefillin creates a spiritual connection between mind and heart when you pray, and to do so in the land of my ancestors would be especially sacred. Still unpersuaded, I declined. We shook hands and I walked away, a little disappointed.
I could navigate the Old City half-drunk (more on this later), but it was becoming clear that I couldn’t find my way into the believers’ world.
Sometimes, I felt condemned to interact only with the lowest rungs of the tourism industry, the salesmen, touts, hucksters and guides — people like Joseph, a round man with bad teeth who approached me one day in the Jewish Quarter and offered, in the needling way of unlicensed tour guides everywhere, to show me the Ramban Synagogue, which I had, I said truthfully, just come from. Thinking me rude, he stormed off. I chased after him and explained, as politely as possible, that I hadn’t meant to blow him off. Joseph grumbled forgiveness, and we parted.
But a day or two later, I bumped into him again. We greeted each other with a great show of friendliness, chatted about nothing for a few minutes and then went our separate ways. When it happened the next day, too, he told me that in Jerusalem, when you encounter each other three times you buy the other person an ice cream, or he buys one for you. I was up for it — was I starting to like the guy? — but then he abruptly wandered off to look for clients.
Nebbishy, noodgy Joseph functioned as a human alarm clock, a reminder that I really needed to get out of the Old City and meet people who were neither tour guides nor fervent believers.
The transition from Old City to new was striking. Exiting through one of the 16th-century gates that still control access — touristy Jaffa Gate, busy Damascus Gate, historic Zion Gate, where Israeli soldiers entered in 1967 — I leapt forward into a distinctly modern world of crosswalks and traffic lights, 19th-century buildings and chunky apartment towers, green parks and municipal offices, falafel joints, cellphone stores and a brand-new light-rail system. Here secular society predominated, although many college types wore yarmulkes and otherwise fashion-forward girls were dressed in long skirts. Amid the frozen-yogurt parlors and focaccerias, under the bright sun, with Hebrew signage everywhere, Jerusalem could feel like a forgotten city in California populated entirely by Jews.
But as I wandered around I could sense that this image was, in many ways, a facade. I was not in California. The low beige buildings of Arab East Jerusalem covered the hills in the near distance, and on clear days I could see the sinuous, ominous wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Closer up, other differences became apparent. Sometimes only a block from Jaffa Street — one of the first neighborhoods built just outside the Old City in the 19th century, now a center of dining and night life — the streets suddenly turned Orthodox, with hardly an uncovered head in sight. One area, Mea Shearim, was festooned with signs warning visitors, in English and Hebrew, “Please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes.” My dark sweater, I was sure, was modest, but without a yarmulke, I felt like an interloper. What was I doing there anyway?
Nor were secular neighborhoods entirely angst-free. One Friday, I rode the light rail 20 minutes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, in the western hills of Jerusalem. I’d been to other Holocaust-related sites before — the Berlin memorial, the killing pits outside Vilnius — and had not been much affected. In the dark, twisty confines of this hellaciously detailed museum, however, I was utterly unnerved, terrified that I’d come across the identity card of a long-lost relative or the photo of someone I somehow recognized. When I finally emerged from the primary hall, it was a relief. There before me was a picture-perfect valley, a white-washed village clinging to the far slope. I stared at it a long time before I could move on. Mostly, though, my time in the new city, and especially around Jaffa Street, was devoted to one thing: eating well. (Partly because the Old City, always touristy, shut down after dark.) Some meals were simple, like falafel from Moshiko, bundled into a pita with approximately 20 or 30 other ingredients — cucumbers fresh and pickled, cabbage in its many guises, the whole cleaned and chopped contents of a backyard vegetable garden. Quite often, however, I was tempted toward more ambitious offerings. My very first night, following a tip from the manager of the boutique Harmony Hotel (just off Jaffa Street), I popped into Adom, a lively restaurant in the stone-arched basement of an 1895 building, and over a couple of glasses of Israeli cabernet, I had my mind blown by a platter of seared veal sweetbreads with artichokes, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower cream. It hit every mark: lush and crusty, vegetal and tart, smooth and filling.
On the Sabbath, when most restaurants close, I found Adom’s cozy neighbor, Barood, still open — and packed except for a single seat remaining at the bar. I bellied up, ordered the excellent Palestinian “upside-down” chicken-and-rice dish, and quizzed the bartender — Shelly, who was playing great American-songbook jazz on the stereo — about local bars. I’d been to a couple already, Shoshana and the Lion’s Den, but felt out of place among their crowds of Israeli college students and skullcapped kids from Los Angeles and Baltimore. Does Jerusalem, I asked, have an underground?
“The underground is mainstream,” Shelly said, meaning that Jerusalem was so small that the funkier alternatives were instantly visible. Then she drew me a map to all the worthy bars, including Uganda, where the D.J.’s were spinning old Iggy Pop and ’80s New Wave, and Sira, whose dark, rough-stone interior and soundtrack of Radiohead and Devendra Banhart evoked memories of similar spots in Berlin, Budapest and my home, Brooklyn.
Sira instantly became my favorite nighttime destination. I could (and did) sit there for hours talking to the bartender, Yonaton, fresh from five years in the military and ready for university, and to Michael, a photographer, tech expert and alleged cousin to Abe Vigoda, and to Hannah, a Canadian immigrant with whom I discussed our complex feelings about Judaism over enough Goldstar lagers that I don’t recall precisely what those feelings were.
In the city I never thought I’d visit, I had found a place I didn’t want to leave.
But leave I did, often well after 1 a.m., late enough that the Israeli guards in the Old City would interrogate and search me on my way back to the guesthouse. As an occasional experience, the security measures were fascinating, much more thorough and intelligent than the cursory T.S.A. sweeps I’m used to. I could also sense the tension they created, and again found myself amazed at what true believers will do, and submit to, in the name of their faith. All of this, alien to me, was their normal. But my life here — the daytime angst, the nighttime revelry — was normal, too. I hadn’t been alone in those bars.
My final morning in Jerusalem I woke uneasily, struggling to recover from another night of seared goose breast and good wine. I checked Facebook and noticed my friend Pauline had swung into Jerusalem from New York; we arranged to meet for lunch at Abu Taher, a market nook home to sublime, sweet hummus. Afterward, we wandered through the Old City, looking at this and that, before deciding to leave for the new city. And on our way out of the Jewish Quarter, who should we run into but — inevitably — Joseph.
He was ebullient. We greeted each other like old friends, then I introduced him to Pauline. As he shook her hand, he leaned in and said to her, “You’re a lucky woman!”
“Oh, I’m marri — ” she started to say.
“You’re a lucky woman!” he said again, then his voice dropped to a near-whisper. “This guy” — pointing at me — “is a mensch.”
For nearly a week I’d been struggling to feel what visitors to Jerusalem — Jews, Christians and Muslims — have felt for millennia, and I’d just about given up. It was an experience for other people, not for me. But, corny as it is, at Joseph’s words my heart melted. Here I was, being seen not as a Jew or as a non-Jew, an American or a tourist, but as a mensch: a good and honorable man.
And so we went our separate ways, Pauline to the new city’s market, me to the airport, Joseph to hunt for tourists — one of whom, I hoped, would be good enough to buy him an ice cream cone.
IF YOU GO
THE OLD CITY
It feels ridiculous to point out the sights in Jerusalem’s Old City: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount; heard of them? Still, certain bits of advice pertain. Security checkpoints are common, and also efficient. Lines for the Temple Mount are long, and opening hours limited for non-Muslims, so come early. Churches tend to be welcoming, though the priests and monks — Armenian, Greek, Russian, Catholic and so on — may be standoffish. Many sites are sex-segregated, or require modest dress. Tours of the Hurva Synagogue are well worth the 25-shekel (about $6.50 at 3.75 shekels to the dollar) fee. The Old City’s winding streets and mysterious stairways invite exploration and discovery. As a tourist, you should feel free to wander. This is not a dangerous place.
For atmosphere, spend nights here. I loved the Austrian Hospice (37 Via Dolorosa; 972-2-626-5800; austrianhospice.com; doubles from 57 euros, or $73 at $1.27 to the euro, per person); friends loved the Lutheran Guest House (St. Mark’s Road; 972-2-626-6888, luth-guesthouse-jerusalem.com; doubles from 39 euros). Lunches can be great, particularly at Abu Taher (16 Al-Lahamin Market; 972-2-627-7893). The Austrian Hospice also has a “kaffeehaus” that serves Viennese-style coffees and pastries. At night, all but the most touristy Old City restaurants shut; flee for the new city.
THE NEW CITY
The rest of Jerusalem is almost like any other metropolis. The light rail (6.40 shekels for a 90-minute ticket) goes from the northeast to Mount Herzl, a five-minute walk to Yad Vashem (HaZikaron, 972-2-644-3400; yadvashem.org; free entry). Taxis ply the streets and buses depart from the Central Bus Terminal and the Arab bus station, outside Damascus Gate.
The bustling Jaffa Street neighborhood, however, can easily be reached on foot from the Old City. My favorite restaurants, Adom (972-2-624-6242) and Barood (972-2-625-9081), are both located in Feingold House
(31 Jaffa Street). A minute or two away is Moshiko Falafel (5 Ben Yehuda Street; 972-50-535-6861), as are the bars Sira (4 Ben Sira Street; 972-2-623-4366) and Uganda (4 Aristobolus Street; 972-2-623-6087, uganda.co.il). The Harmony Hotel (6 Yoel Moshe Salomon Street; 972-2-621-9999; atlas.co.il; doubles from $183) is a tidy, beautiful, well-run boutique hotel with a big breakfast buffet and daily happy hours for guests.
Farther up Jaffa Street is the sprawling Jerusalem market, a place to buy endless varieties of feta, olives and dry spices. There are plenty of shawarma and falafel stalls, but for home-style Mediterranean-Jewish cuisine centered on kubeh (dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables) take a stool at the market lunch counter Ima (972-2-538-5668; imarestaurant.com).