There once was a neighborhood in Jerusalem that was scheduled for gentrification. It was called Mamilla. As it is to this day. But the gentrification has transformed the old neighborhood and made it into a sophisticated tourist destination, packed with shoppers, cafes, upscale restaurants and a five star hotel.
I can think of no truly abandoned neighborhoods in Israel. I can think of plenty within a short drive of my New Jersey home.
A few miles away is the Orange Memorial Hospital. I pass it often and it never fails to engage me. The Emergency Room sign still stands. But unlucky is he who goes to Orange Memorial for an emergency. Unless he chooses to be treated by pigeons or other vermin.
The hospital was built in 1906 and it incorporated an already existing school of nursing. The surrounding neighborhood was a growing bastion of the New Jersey upper middle class, with plenty of nearby mansions owned by prosperous Manhattanites who ventured across the Hudson River for leisurely summers in the country.. The community needed a hospital. And so it was.
Gradually the neighborhood changed. The upscale residents moved on, mostly north and west. They were replaced by poor and working class people. People who depended on Orange Memorial for work and health care.
Orange Memorial thrived for many decades. It reached its 100th birthday in a complex that had grown to eight buildings and was supported by nearby physicians’ offices and pharmacies and parking lots. Its hallowed stories of defying death are known to many. As are its stories of welcoming life. Life and death and everything in between are in the hollowed halls of Orange Memorial. It was a good neighbor.
And then it was abandoned. It now stands with open windows on a desolate piece of land, all buildings intact, without heart, hearth, or soul. The surrounding neighborhood had changed. The locals were now poor city dwellers. . One day the hospital locked its doors, but, strangely, not its windows. It is horrifying to imagine what lies inside today, more than a decade after those windows were left open to elements alive and otherwise.
Yes, it has been scheduled for urban renewal. But the wheels of urban renewal seem to be moving very slowly. They are many years behind schedule. And the hospital remains a blight in a busy area of the City of Orange. Its emergency room closed forever.
I’ve been to plenty of places in Europe, especially Jewish Eastern Europe, where I’ve seen blight, particularly old synagogues and cemeteries. The most haunting was in a small village in Transylvania, Romania. Our research had pinpointed a synagogue on the map and indeed a recognizable building stood exactly on the designated spot. The building was hollow inside, as was my soul. We stood outside (there was no inside) for a long time and observed the present occupants. Cousins of the pigeons at Orange Memorial no doubt. The shul was a font of activity. All non human. This was what had become of our people and their institutions. It was so easy to imagine the building when it was still alive; to hear the t’fillot and see the congregants in their Shabbat finery. Not today world. Not today.
But one doesn’t have to go to Eastern Europe to witness desecrated Jewish shuls or cemeteries. There are plenty of them in New Jersey. Yes! My zayda lies in a grave in North Arlington, New Jersey, twenty minutes from our suburban condo with its grassy knolls and wooded vistas. Where Zayda lies, graves are sinking into the ground. All maintenance has stopped. Perpetual care is an oxymoron. Snakes, rabbits and pigeons romp and play in the hallowed ground.
This would never happen in Israel! Absolutely never.
The world has many places that shame us. How blessed we are that Israel has none. We treat our ancient ruins with overwhelming respect.
They are our history. Our contemporary ruins are so transient that they essentially don’t exist. We have tear-downs which are promptly replaced by newer and better and more inviting than before new construction. The cranes are everywhere.
Proud to call myself an Israeli!