It’s the summer of 1995. I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, from the southern development town where I spent my first two years post-aliya. I’m still walking around with a mindless grin on my face. What, real people can live here?
Yes, it turns out that even on an Israeli university librarian’s salary, it can be done. If, as an unmarried thirty year old, you’re willing to live with multiple flatmates and rickety wicker furniture in the pre-gentrified Katamonim — it can be done.
Reveling in my privilege, I decide one Shabbat afternoon to walk up to the Armon HaNetziv Promenade. I will enjoy the breathtaking view — one of the perks of living in this expensive, difficult, but inspiring city.
The Promenade is plenty crowded on this lovely summer Shabbat. Lots of families picnicking. Clusters of religious singles singing zemirot together, really pouring their hearts and souls into it, sending their solitary longings heavenward in chorus. I could have been in one of those clusters, but decided to come to the Promenade today with a book for companionship.
Yet before I’ve made it very far along the Promenade I find I have another, uninvited, companion. A man is following me. Wherever I stop, he stops. Even when I sit down on the grass a short distance away from a picnicking family or a group of singles, he sits down next to me, telling me what he’d like to do to me.
(His Hebrew is fluent, but strongly accented. I will skip the ethnic profiling.)
I could importune one of the picnicking families or choral clusters for assistance. But while I’m frightened and disgusted, I also feel a kind of clinical curiosity. How long can a skuzzball harrass a woman in a crowded public place before being scared off?
Quite a long time, it turns out.
At some point, I sit down on a bench. He sits down beside me. If his oratory was impressive before, it’s really quite something now that physical repose is allowing him to pour his heart and soul into it. As for me, I’m speechless.
His eloquence goes on and on, building to a climax. I stare straight ahead of me, jaws working. A frisbee lands near my foot, is retrieved by a smiling teenager. A father grabs a straying toddler by the back strap of his overall. Pasta salads are passed around in Tupperware containers.
Just when it seems that my companion has outdone himself, having issued his most evocative verbalization yet, I turn to him and spray his face with the mouthful of saliva I’ve been collecting.
He scurries off to the public restroom, turning repeatedly to shake his fists and hurl invective at me. The surprise shower hasn’t rendered him any less articulate.
Once he’s inside the men’s room, I hot-tail it out of there. They say you shouldn’t run on Shabbat, but this is pikuach nefesh. I run all the way home, back to my shikkun walk-up on the very edge of the Katamonim, where there’s just enough funk to make my life interesting, but not too much.
Where I feel safe at any hour of the day.
I pant my story to my flatmates. Was “You go girl!” part of the lexicon back then? If not, then they would have said the mid-’90s equivalent.
It amazes me that something like this could have occurred in broad daylight. What would happen to a woman who dared to walk the Promenade at night? Oh, but she wouldn’t.
* * *
It’s now spring, 1998. I’m still single, still living with multiple flatmates in the same Katamonim shikkun. Yet a lot has happened in the past few years. A prime minister has been assassinated. Buses have been blown up. There have been elections. On a personal level, I’ve “done” the bitza — the Jerusalem singles swamp — and am about ready to leave. A brief but memorable engagement to a Russian clarinetist down south has made me homesick for the Negev, and I’m thinking of moving back there — single or no.
In the meantime, I have a second date with a guy that a coworker set me up with. There he is, one arm outstretched with the hand on the doorframe, a pose that conveys restrained energy without detracting from an overall air of politeness. That plaid shirt looks like it made it not only across the ocean, but across several decades and fashion cycles. Now they would call it “lumbersexual,” then it was just “retro.”
“Where to?” he asks.
“The Tayelet,” I find myself saying. I’ve avoided the Armon HaNetziv Promenade since my little Shabbat contretemps a few years back. Why now? Why him?
He escorts me to his car. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve been inside a private vehicle in the nearly six years I’ve been in Israel. Used to the lurchings of buses along the circuitous routes in which Egged specializes, I’m amazed at how quickly we reach the Promenade.
We get out of the car, walk up to the low wall, lean over it. It is warm for March. It’s dark and the place is nearly deserted. We have the lights of the city below us, and the stars up above, for companions.
We chat, and take in the view. I tell my date about the spitting incident, which cracks him up.
Eventually we fall into a comfortable silence. As I gaze at the stars. I’m reminded suddenly of my former flame, the Russian musician, who was into astrology, and of a silly employee bonding event to which I and my coworkers had been dragged a few weeks earlier — breakfast at a hotel, followed by a lecture on astrology.
I start telling my date about the lecture. He wordlessly communicates his opinion of astrology — an opinion I share — but listens attentively nonetheless.
Among other things, the lecturer had offered an analysis of the Israeli political scene. Why hadn’t Peres worked out? Why did Bibi seem to manage against all odds? Apparently it was all in the stars.
My date is unimpressed. “Yeah, Bibi’s hanging on because of his zodiac sign,” he chuckles.
Suddenly, I need to know. But I can’t ask.
I turn toward him. “The lecturer said air signs have a better chance of making it as prime minister,” I breathlessly intone, watching his face.
“What’s an air sign?”
“Aquarius, Gemini and Libra,” I answer, grinning mindlessly. I know what’s coming.
“Well, glad to hear I could be Prime Minister,” he says.
We make our way back to the car. He opens the door for me. Before I get in I thank him for bringing me to the Tayelet.
“I don’t even come here during the day, let alone at night. It’s nice to have protection.”
He glances at me, then looks away.
“Maybe I’m the one who needs protection. Or at least, a handkerchief.”
(Reader, I married him.)
* * *
As someone who reflexively looks for the urbanist angle on things, I was going to conclude this essay with a disquisition on border vacuums. The Armon HaNetziv Promenade falls into that category — a monumentally-designed, beautifully landscaped but basically dead area that is unsafe to be in most hours, most days of the week, and that doesn’t always feel entirely safe even at its times of most intensive use.
I was going to write about how the beautiful, friendly neighborhood of Armon HaNetziv is unfairly cut off from the rest of the city by this border vacuum, making a relatively close-in area seem needlessly remote. I was going to write about the plans to create a hotel compound across from the Tayelet, and my fear that the outcome will be yet another monumental bore.
I was going to write about how a city’s women — all city residents, really — deserve city places that are lively and full of eyes on the street, where they can walk day or night without fear.
I was going to write about how effective planning and design promote everyday safety and everyday happiness, which do not trump counter-terrorism but should be the default — even before the bollards are installed.
But sometimes, you simply have to honor a place, your memories of it, and its role in your life.