The crisp winter chill penetrates my coat as I make my way through the city. Jerusalem is lively, with cafes full of animated Hebrew speakers and Birthright tourists swarming Ben Yehuda Street in giddy awe. I pass by my favorite restaurants, the waffle place, the store that always lets you use their bathroom, and the souvenir place that sells the flowy pants that rip the moment you return home. I recognize some of the Israelis that frequent downtown a little too much, and ignore the convincing salespeople who try to sell me more things that I don’t need.
For the past four months, I have called this city home. I was here in September, when the new year brought new hope and thousands of fellow gap year students watched in awe as Jerusalem turned from a city to visit into a city we never want to leave. I experienced October, when the stabbings instilled in us a sense of paranoia that can only be understood by those who live here, when Ben Yehuda was empty on a Thursday night and the stores closed as early as possible. I also experienced an October in which I saw Israel come together as a people in a way I’ve never seen before, continue to live as normally as possible, and condemn the deafening silence around the world as the stabbings continued. I saw a November that was trying to recover, with yeshiva boys handing out pizza to strangers and wishing them well despite ongoing attacks. I see a December that has regained a sense of normalcy, the magnificence of Hanukkah returning us to the understanding of how incredible it is to live in a place where chanukiot are lit up around the city and everyone wishes each other a Happy Hanukkah in the streets.
The past few months were a testing time. This was the first time in my life I was under any threat at all, when safety had any factor in choosing where I would go and how I would spend my time. But amidst the terror attacks, despite the terror attacks, as a result of the terror attacks, I developed a deep, ever-strengthening infatuation with this beautiful city. It quickly became a place where my history blended with my present and future, a place that I am still amazed to call home and truly miss when I journey outside of the city lines. My friends call me from America, concerned about my security and asking if I’m going to come home. I tell them that I am home.
Home is in the chaotic and aromatic Machane Yehuda market, where vendors sell everything from Jewish star necklaces to strange tea herbs. The alluring scent of freshly-baked rugelach and the loud, persuasive nature of its owner add to the boisterous noise of the bustling market. Friends run into friends within the crowded alleyways, happily hugging each other and holding up the crowd. I hear dozens of different languages as I push through the masses, most of which I don’t understand and maybe never will. I pass my regular cheese guy, and he gives me a smile and a small sample of pesto Gouda as I make my way into the store. Some vendors wear tzitzit and large kippot, others speak with thick Arabic accents. It’s loud, it’s obnoxious, it’s crowded, it’s Israel.
Home is the simple beauty of walking the hilly streets of Jerusalem and looking around. Street corners display signs depicting the history of the streets, buildings, and places around Jerusalem, keeping the past and significance of this incredible city alive in its modernity. Over there is my favorite pizza place, across the street is the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City that has a stunning view and fantastic Shabbat services. Down the street is Ben Yehuda, one of the first major streets of pre-Israel Jewish Jerusalem where my friends and I go to get five shekel coffee and meet up with friends. Around us, Hebrew is everywhere: on street signs, advertisements, storefronts, out of the mouths of little children who don’t understand how incredible it is to be speaking the revived language of our people. Restaurants display their kashrut license and begin closing as Shabbat trickles in, fulfilling the dream of the rabbis centuries ago. Five-year-old boys run down the street with big Jewish stars around their necks and Israeli soldiers in kippot smile at them as they pass by. It’s ancient, it’s new, it’s beautiful, it’s perfectly ordinary, it’s Israel.
Home is the little interactions. The Palestinian students in my ulpan class that teach me Arabic and like my Instagram posts. The Sephardic falafel shop worker who smiles and says “Uch Ashkenazi” when my friends order falafel without added spices. The street performers who are always entertaining and keep the streets of Jerusalem lively. The taxi driver who watches soccer games as he drives us and always asks if we’re from New York. The feeling of seeing a familiar face among the crowd, and reuniting thousands of miles away from home. The Orthodox women who hand out Shabbat candles at the bus station and wish us Shabbat Shalom. The tourist who asks for bacon on her cream cheese bagel in a kosher restaurant. The girl who bursts into tears as she walks out of school and sees her recently drafted brother in uniform waiting for her with a big smile and open arms. The accidental conversations that take place in grocery stores or on sidewalks that blossom into actual friendships. It’s small, it’s significant, it’s Israel.
Home wouldn’t be home without the Old City. Passing through one of its gates leads into a different world, a world of a different era. Here religion prevails, whether it be Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Each quarter of the Old City has a different character, celebrating the traditions of its religion and attracting pilgrims from the furthest corners of the Earth. The Jewish Quarter is crowded with dedicated yeshiva students who spend their time studying Jewish text and enhancing their religious practice. Stores sell tallitot, kippot, jewelry, candlesticks and other Judaica, special because they are being sold in the place where it all began.
On the way to the Western Wall, visitors give a little tzedakah to those in need and receive the customary red string bracelet. The Western Wall is full of people, praying, touching, listening, experiencing. A woman next to me bursts into loud sobs, grabbing onto the ancient stone and asking the heavens why life has to be both so beautiful and so hard. We touch the wall, close our eyes, and enter another realm, one in a higher spiritual level. For a moment, the outside world doesn’t matter, it’s just this moment, this experience, this life. As we retreat from the Wall, we walk backwards, never wanting to turn our backs on the only remainder of our ancient Temple. I leave feeling connected, to what I’m not really sure. It’s ancient, it’s religious, it’s kind, it’s Israel.
These past four months, I experienced a Jerusalem that doesn’t show up on the news. I saw the best and worst of this city, and being able to do so gave me a clearer understanding of how complex and mesmerizing this highly disputed area is. It’s not black and white, if anything, it’s the most mixed-together shade of gray I’ve ever seen. There’s kindness and fear, old and new, Arab and Jew, religious and secular, crazy drivers and crazy pedestrians weaving together into the fabric of the wonderfully unique city of Jerusalem.
As I wrapped up the semester, one of my teachers at the Conservative Yeshiva concluded our study there by asking us to reflect on our feelings about the past few months.
“Did you fall in love?” he asked. Did you wake up with love in your heart and a deep, inexplicable appreciation for your surroundings? Did you take it all in, did you let it change you? Do you feel different than you did four months ago?
I think the answer is overwhelmingly yes.