This is the second in what I plan to be a series of reminiscences of the year I spent as a student in Israel 40 years ago. I hope these posts will be interesting to those whose connection with Israel is more recent and will be nostalgic for those who lived in Israel or visited around that time.
When I began to plan for my year in Israel, I thought a great deal about what it would feel like to live in Jerusalem. The prospect of living in “the holy city” excited me but it also intimidated me more than a bit as I considered what it would be like to be immersed in this spiritual environment.
In fact, there were many aspects of daily life in Jerusalem which were unlike what they would be anywhere in the world. Riding on a bus and suddenly and unexpectedly seeing the walls of the Old City, discovering a significant historical site in the midst of a residential neighborhood, seeing the appearance of awe on the face of tourists who had recently arrived in the city, all of these and so many more were constant reminders of the fact that Jerusalem is like no other city in the world.
I’m sure I’ll write more about some of those experiences but one of the most surprisingly meaningful memories of that year for me is remembering the neighborhood I lived in and what daily life was like in “the holy city”.
I lived in the dormitory of Neve Schechter, the center of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem. The school was located on a street called Neve Granot which was right behind the Israel Museum, across the ridge from the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University and bordering the area called the “Valley of the Cross” (named for the 11th century monastery which still stands in the valley).
It was a quiet neighborhood and one which I grew to love. It was at the top of a hill and to get to the small neighborhood shopping area, one walked down a series of stairways down to Herzog Street. At the bottom of the hill there were a number of stores which made daily life interesting.
One was the local branch of Bank Hapoalim, where I had deposited my money. When I needed some money, I spoke with one of the bankers and he would take my handwritten “bank book” and subtract the money I was withdrawing. Of course, he had to check that the balance in the book was correct so first he would look at the daily computer print out sheets of how much every depositor had in the bank. He would look through them and then show me one entire page of the print out to ask me if this was, in fact, my name. Of course, while he was showing it to me, he was also showing me how much everyone else in the neighborhood whose name started with the letter D had in the bank. But, I guess that’s where the great expression that I learned very quickly comes in. “Kulanu Yehudim”, he would say: “We’re all Jews” which translates into; “it’s no big deal, it’s family.”
Then, a couple of doors down from the bank was the local “makolet”. A makolet is a small grocery store with all of the essentials for an Israeli diet: snack foods, fruit juices and every type of salad you could imagine. I would go there to purchase some hummus, “Turkish salad” (which was a spicy tomato based sauce- oh for the days I could eat it 😉 and my favorite grapefruit drink.
I bought that grapefruit drink several bottles at a time and would shlep the empties back to the makolet to get my deposit back. After a few weeks, I realized something strange. It seemed that no matter how many bottles I brought back and no matter how much inflation had devalued the lira (and later the shekel, the change in currency happened that year), the young boy who took my bottles would always say; “Sheva v’hetzi”, seven and a half. I could never figure out how it could always be sheva v’hetzi no matter how many bottles I brought back so I decided to try something.
One day, I gave him my bottles but kept one hidden. Of course, he said: “sheva v’hetzi” and then I said: “oh shachahti” (I forgot) and handed him the extra bottle. He looked perplexed for a moment and then began to count with his fingers and said: “oh achshav zeh sheva v’hetzi”, NOW it’s 7 and a half. He smiled a sly grin and all I could think was: “kulanu Yehudim”
Late in our year, there was a construction project going on across the street from the makolet. It turned out to be a “superpharm”, the chain of Walgreen’s like drug stores cropping up all over the country. It was followed by the appearance of signs for a “supersal”, part of the supermarket chain. I don’t recall if it was finished before I left the neighborhood to return to the States but I’ve always wondered what happened to the makolet. I assume people still shopped there to support the family that ran it but it was just a sign of the change.
One other aspect of the neighborhood comes to mind. I mentioned radio in my last posting. TV in Israel at the time consisted of only one station to watch (this was well before cable). So, there wasn’t much variety. But, I had the good fortune to have classmates and close friends who lived the next hill over towards the east. For some reason, they were able to receive TV from Jordan in addition to Israel TV which provided some American shows which were not available on Israel TV and also the “News at 10”, the English language news program
It is being, perhaps a bit charitable to call it “English”. Most of the time, it was understandable but sometimes the English was absolutely indecipherable and provided some comic relief.
The whole point of this piece is that one of the most enjoyable aspects of my year in Israel was just wandering around a neighborhood. I loved walking in Rechavia and the German Colony and of course, the Old City but I also loved to just walk around my little neighborhood. It was a simpler time and one which I remember with so many good, sweet memories.