I first arrived in Jerusalem in 1990 at the age of 13, like a young child awakening from an afternoon nap. We were confused, disoriented, misunderstood and excited to play. When I tried to register my citizenship at the Ministry of the Interior in the midst of the huge Russian Aliyah, the government workers asked me why I was here. Straight out: why are you here? Go back to Canada.
But our excitement quickly faded and was turned into fear and trepidation when a few months later I vividly remember the last time we were able to go out at night as we rode home on the bus and went to bed only to be awakened by the regular nighttime sirens alerting us to the beginning of war. The Gulf war happened before there was social media and the only information we were able to receive was from the radio which we had stationed in our sealed room and from the two television stations that were broadcast to the masses and which closed down their broadcast at 1:00 AM.
Sometimes our relatives from Canada would call us to update us on what was happening only a short distance from where we were situated because they knew more than we did at any given moment. And Tel Aviv residents moved over to Jerusalem during this time as a way to escape the terror of the missiles. Yes it’s true: Jerusalem was once the Tel Aviv retreat.
How far has Jerusalem developed?
Well, back then Jerusalem was a religious city with no activity past midnight. There was no concept of customer service in Jerusalem, it wasn’t even worth discussing. If you went into the one clothing store in the downtown area that sold women’s skirts and tried something on, you were forced to buy it because you took up the store keepers time. He would yell at you and chase you away if you didn’t.
The city center consisted of an ice cream shop and the Underground club with a few small bars that had no drinking age requirement. The last bus of the night was driven by bus drivers who would often times decide not to stop for their passengers, young kids out for a night on the town. So many of us reminisce and tell the stories of us running for the bus and then resolving ourselves to walk the long walk home when the bus driver didn’t open the doors for us.
Katamon was not a fancy neighborhood of American and French culture. It was the hood. The few American families who lived there all knew each other and still do to this day. We were warriors fighting the battle of the Aliyah together. I was a prisoner of circumstance and of the Zionistic ideals that my parents had forced upon me as an unwilling minor.
And when the bombings started in Jerusalem, my mother wouldn’t let us take public transportation anymore. She drove us every morning to our respective programs and schools so that we wouldn’t be on the buses during the busy times when they were being blown to smithereens. And with all of that, as soon as I could leave back to Canada I did. After my high school years and my national service at Yad Vashem I left and returned to my beloved Canada.
And then ten years later I came back to Jerusalem with 4 kids and my 5th was born here.
People ask me what it was that brought me back to Jerusalem? Why did I return?
Jerusalem pulled me in like going back to visit the home of my youth. The smells of the bakery, the pizza shop, the memories of large crowds praying together at the Kotel during the most intense times of need and uncertainty. The streets of Jerusalem are familiar to me, unlike to strangers, where they twist and turn and lead visitors into a wonderland adventure of two parallel lines that eventually meet.
I come to Jerusalem to nurture my soul and to find the peace that no other place in the world can offer me. When I travel I still find that I dream of returning and when I am here I feel at home. The bakery and pizza store on Palmach, the Shteebelach, Emek Refaim, Gan Hapamon, San Simeon Park, The Tower of David Museum, Jaffa gate, the shuk, the walk down to the Western Wall, the cafes along Yafo, my bank and the boutique stores I love to shop in, the faces I know and who know me.
I am soon turning 40 and I feel like Jerusalem has this 10-year head start on me. But just like with the Y2K moment, a birthday is only a mere milestone that comes and goes. Because it’s not about this one day or any one specific moment. What makes this day special is the traction and development that has lead Jerusalem to be the place it is today. It is a wonderful place, a home filled to overflowing with culture, history, peoples and a place we all call home.
Happy 50th Birthday Jerusalem. Don’t worry, you don’t look a day over 4000.