The reality of it is, I don’t have a home.
I was born in Jerusalem, in July 1967, part of a generation that never knew the city as anything but united. East Jerusalem was a matter of geography for us, like talking about the Eastside in New York City; or Northern London for that matter. We went there on Friday nights, when nothing else was open – and at the age of 17 you just didn’t want to stay at home with your parents. We went to the open coffee shops at Nablus Gate to eat the sweetest watermelon on summer nights; or drink boiling-hot sahleb in the cold winter. We shopped at the market in Jaffa gate; wore a kafia as a fashion – rather than political – statement; and walked up to the Mount of Olives to take photos in what must be the most beautiful spot in the Middle East, at least.
We went to the synagogue a few times a year; looked as an after-thought at the hassidic men walking the streets; did the annual walk to the Western Wall on Yom Kippur because it was tradition and it was elevating; and we didn’t give much care to where our parents immigrated from a generation before us.
We grew up oblivious. Oblivious to the history, to the possibilities, to the threats. In retrospect, the whole city was in a state of innocence. Perhaps the entire country. Jews lived alongside Arabs; secular among religious; Ashkenazi mixing with Sepharadi; civil servants and university professors with blue collar workers and simpletons. In a single apartment building, in my apartment building, you had them all, and then some. And for a while there, it seemed to work. It seemed to defy all odds. And we were kids. We really didn’t know there was any other option.
I absolutely loved Jerusalem. When my parents moved me to London for a couple of years, due to my father’s work, I cried my eyes out, and I missed my hometown and my friends incessantly. And when we came back, I couldn’t imagine leaving the city ever again. I did, though: during my army service; and shortly after, when I moved to New York. But I always knew it was a temporary exile. I always knew I’d return home eventually.
In 1992, at the age of 25, I wrote a magazine feature about my generation — the post-war children of Jerusalem. I collected a group of folks from my age group, and we talked about Jerusalem, how it had changed, yet still remained our beloved hometown. And I asked them, each and every one, if they planned to stay in the city, if they saw their future there. Given that Jerusalem has always faced large numbers of emigration by its natives, it was surprising to discover that the majority was unequivocal about staying in Jerusalem. And I was among that majority.
Twenty years later, pretty much none of those who participated in that feature lives in Jerusalem.
The city changed rapidly. It became poorer, more volatile, very much divided. I’m a secular Jewish woman. There are too many places in the city where these three facts alone can be life-threatening. Since legendary mayor Teddy Kollek retired, in 1993, the famous “status quo” — that fragile balance that allowed such diverse populations to coexist — has all but eroded. East Jerusalem scares the heck out of me just slightly less than Me’ah She’arim. And forget about making a career in my chosen field of work. The options there are extremely limiting.
I moved around. Lived in NYC for a while, spent a few years in Italy, then in England, and now in Tel Aviv. In every respect, I remain in exile. Tel Aviv is just as great and just as foreign to me as NYC or Milan or London have been.
A few weeks ago, for the first time in nearly two decades, I visited my childhood neighborhood. I was struck by how smaller it actually was, compared to the visions in my memory. Where I remembered tall buildings, stood seven-story-high blocks. What were once vast grass meadows for us kids to play in actually turned out to be small blotches of greenery to divide the blocks.
I wasn’t wrong about one memory: my neighborhood was alive with children. Kids were running around playing hide and seek; others were playing soccer; while more still rode bicycles in the parking lot area. On a sunny afternoon, in 2012, there were no children to be seen. There was no joy. There was no vitality.
The reality of it is that at some point in time my home ceased to exist. Jerusalem existed for thousands of years before me, and will remain standing thousands more after I’ve gone. But that place I visited a fortnight ago is not my home town; it’s only a painful reminder of something that once was, and never will be.