Mrs. Munzer, my 5th grade Hebrew school teacher, was an amazing woman – slight of build, raven-haired, and forever unable to have children – courtesy of Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments at Auschwitz. She spoke English with a heavy Romanian accent. As a teenager, she had led a group of children out of the death camps on a life march across half of Europe, where they were finally able to board a dilapidated, half-sinking boat that miraculously made it to Atlit beaches south of Haifa.
I’ll never forget her stories of how she was imprisoned in the women’s block of Auschwitz. On her first day there, she was fed like a farm animal. Her captors brought a bowl of peeled potato skins to feed the entire women’s block. I can visualize the shock spreading across her face when she became aware that somehow, she was going to live on almost nothing if she was going to survive.
We always gave Mrs. Munzer trouble in Hebrew school, which was the custom for young, assimilated Jews who were basically angry at being forced to give up playing with their gentile friends to come and learn a bunch of things that made no sense in real life.
Once, she gave us an assignment: to play out a dialogue that was written in our Learning Hebrew workbooks. We tried to disrupt the class, but to no avail – Mrs. Munzer insisted, and she was hard to turn down. She wanted us to be able to read and even understand actual phrases in Hebrew, although almost none of us had any experience with languages other than English, the language that everyone we knew and cared about spoke exclusively. So somehow she managed to prevent the Hebrew school room from being a three-ring circus, and when we were there, we actually tried to read her workbook.
I remember the cover, partially torn because none of us took any care of class materials. It had one of those 1960’s abstract drawings of a city street, lined with apartment blocks that ran up and both sides of the road, snakes of telephone and electric cables strung out like thin hammocks between the buildings.
These booklets were the equivalent of the legendary “Dick and Jane” series for children learning to read English. They contained simple dialogues that we reviewed over and over until our sharp young minds had absorbed the words, phrases and sentences like sponges soaking up spilled water from the kitchen table.
To this very day, when I hear the phrase “Rechov Yaffo” (Jaffa Street), my mind plays fill-in-the-blanks, and out pops a short but complete sentence, spoken when Chaim asks Rivka where she lives:
“Rechov Yaffo, Mispar Shtayim – VeAtah?”
Jaffa Street, Number 2 – and you?
Last week, as I rode my Taiwanese bicycle in downtown Jerusalem. For those who have not been there recently, the whole flavor of the place has changed as a result of the new light train that quietly slips its way through the city. In a battle for primacy over cars and buses, the trains have won. Several arteries downtown are now bus- and auto-rein. This makes for a slower-paced, more tourist-oriented feel to the whole area, which is a welcome change from the high-speed pressure-cooker that existed beforehand.
As I was leisurely coasting downhill along the new pavement put in place to serve pedestrians boarding the sleek new train cars, I looked up and saw a sign:
My mind kicked automatically into ancient Hebrew school mode, and I whispered quietly:
“Rechov Yaffo, Mispar Shtayim – VeAtah?”
In a moment of flippant inspiration, I vowed then and there to track down Jaffa Street Number 2, in memory of my dear teacher Mrs. Munzer. She would have been thrilled to learn that I had come to make my home in Jerusalem, and would have been especially pleased that I was actually riding down Jaffa Street in search of an address from our beloved Hebrew workbook.
Jaffa Road is arguably one of the more ancient and famous thoroughfares in the world. Up until the 19th century, it remained exactly as it had existed for millennia – a small, dirty, dusty and heavily traveled path that connected the two Holy Land cities of Jerusalem and Jaffa.
The Bible relates that the Prophet Jonah (of swallowing whale fame) fled to the Mediterranean ocean-side port city of Jaffa to escape the overwhelming presence of God and the heavy trip He was laying on him. If Jonah was coming from the Jerusalem area, which is indirectly implied in the narrative, then it is almost certain that he travelled on Jaffa Road.
Today, the road goes from Old Jaffa, through modern city of Tel Aviv, south-eastward across the plain and into the Judean Hills, where it makes its way into downtown Jerusalem and right up to – strangely enough – the original Jaffa Gate. It just so happens that to this day, both old Jaffa and Jerusalem sport roads called Jaffa, which were built over the original inter-city path.
As I cycled down Jaffa Street in Jerusalem in the direction of the Jaffa Gate of the old city, I stopped and asked a storekeeper where building number 2 was. He looked at me, shrugged, and motioned with is hand for me to continue downhill towards the Old City, the direction I was traveling in the first place.
When I saw the Jaffa Gate itself, looming in the distance, I stopped at a construction site. There, workers were building an expansive, grand structure that I assumed was a hotel – kind of like those little red plastic pieces we used when we played Monopoly. I asked one of the men, sweating in the hot sun as he welded together a piece of a large stainless steel air-conditioning duct – which hotel it was going to be?
“Hotel?” he answered in heavily Arabic-accented Hebrew. “This is no hotel – this is a private home.”
I let my eyes range across the building, from north to south. This was no house. It was going to be a palace. “Whoever is building this must be pretty well to do,” I said matter-of-factly. Certainly they are more confident in Jerusalem’s future than the media would like them to be.
The Arab worker put down his tools and walked closer to me. “Look,” he said, “I personally don’t care how much money a person has. Rich or poor – they’ve got to have their health. Do you know how much the mattress I sleep on at home cost me?” He puts his hands behind his head, nods backward, and rolls his eyes skyward. “I paid 2,500 shekels for my mattress, because I want to sleep well at night. THAT’S what’s important to me.”
I then popped the question: “Where is number 2 Jaffa Street?”
He thought for a moment and said: “See Jaffa Gate down there? Go ask them. There is no building with that number around here.”
It was after a few more minutes of this run-around that I realized that I wasn’t going to find Number two Jaffa Street, no matter how hard I looked. So I turned my bike around and headed back where I had come from, the New City up the hill. I was lucky to find the next best thing, the first building up from Jaffa Gate:
I comforted myself by saying that the city planner had actually written ‘Number 2’, but a droplet of perspiration from the scorching Middle Eastern sun had rolled down onto the page and smudged the ink, with the result that one of Jerusalem’s most important thoroughfares now started at number ‘22’.
Turns out that Number 22 Jaffa Street is no ordinary building. Directly facing what is called Tsahal (IDF) Square, it received copious amounts of shelling with automatic weapons, large and small during the Six Day War in 1967. When the area was restored a few years ago as part of the construction project of the New Jerusalem City Hall, the pockmarks, some shallow and some deeper due to higher caliber bullets, were left for posterity:
Unfortunately, bullets and bombs have an integral part in the history of City of Peace.
Of course, I could be way off base. Is it possible that my Hebrew workbook was talking about Rechov Yaffo, Mispar Shtayim – on the Tel Aviv portion of the Old Jaffa Road a main drag in Israel’s city that never sleeps?
Next time I make it to the Holy City of Tel Aviv, I’ll have a look around.