24 May 2015
Raspy knocking plays distantly as I struggle to fall back asleep. The noises, the breathing, the nonsensical hallucinations I am convinced are reality, the raspy hook and knock persists as I weave out of deep unconsciousness; an unpleasant outside world making itself known. What is that sound? I forget where I am for a moment, and then come to my senses while passively trying to identify the noise.
Neighbors walking in the apartment above my bed? A machine, gas line, old pipes bringing fresh water from a well? A terrorist trying to get in?
I am convinced it is a man. The owner, maybe? But David said he would be in the Negev for a Shavuot festival. I wake from my bed and slip into gym shorts. Exiting the bedroom, the shadow of a figure with its moving arm convinces me this is Ilan, a tenant mate watching the apartment, as David is absent. I check the time on my phone: 02:25.
A dark-eyed man with the wild hair of Shimshon, I unlock the door in an awkward hurry and apologize while trying to introduce myself. He is a calm, kind man with a gentle handshake. Perhaps some friendship will come of this meeting.
Late in the afternoon, sometime past 13:00. Damn it.
Lethargic, still in bed, perhaps a little too exhausted from the walk through the Old City and comfortable in the cool underground, I see gray leaking through the window.
Could this be my first cloudy day in Israel? I peel away the petite curtain to find vibrantly blue, cloudless skies; the ancient white walls mute the colors as they enter the now conscious living space.
I look at myself in the reflection of the bookcase’s sliding glass partition and see empty brown eyes with the faint curl of a smile. Alone, yet alive. Alive in the city that will be the final legacy of my life, someday down a hopefully long span.
I check my Nokia to see if a girl I had been talking to for the lesser part of three months had responded to my message, I am here. I will be exploring. Let me know.
I had first begun talking to this person online, and a mutual romantic interest was building. She was a photographer with brown eyes and an orthodox braid, and immediately I was infatuated.
In the meanwhile we exchanged photographs, she sent me a photo of the Kotel with a companionless Dome of the Rock gleaming over it.
“This is the view from my place,” she would say. Are you kidding me?
She was a motivation, a voice on the other side, as a friend of mine had put it. But it was not long until I discovered that long distance takes its toll, and as the weeks went on, and after pledging that I would be in Jerusalem for Shavuot to meet her, I found I was not learning more about this person, but rather less and less.
I had received a black and white photograph from her one day. Heavily shadowed, with a high winter sun in the corner of the frame, stood the Montefiore Windmill from a queer angle that I had not seen it before. I imagined the photograph being taken from some vista below the mill in a maze of ancient city walls and homes.
“Just for you.”
“Montefiore’s windmill. I want to visit so badly!”
“I will take you there.”
Still no response from her. Was I contacting the right number?
I decided to visit the Citadel once I left my rental space, a youth hostel I was to be staying at in the heart of the Old City after I left David’s apartment.
Jerusalem is hot, and my clothes, washed by hand with hair shampoo and dried in the sun back on the base, were brittle and beginning to smell. It was the Friday before Shavuot, and I was about to experience my first Shabbat in a city that wholly observes it. And because of Shavuot, Jerusalem would be closed for business during the whole weekend.
I had to think of how I was to eat for those two days, as all grocers, restaurants and stores were to be closed.
Ilan is home as I come back from the Citadel.
You have Shabbat plans? I remember him asking me as we met in the Bohemian living space. He invited me for a dinner with his family, and expecting not to hear back from this girl, I accepted.
Close to sundown, Ilan and I walk to his SUV and drive south for Talpiot. Travelling on a highway just outside the Old City Walls, my eyes meet the Montefiore Windmill for the first time. Bottom-lit in a bright white, the mill stands on a hill overlooking a busy valley of streets and intersections across from the Old City; not where I had expected to find it, but I am awed nonetheless.
Apartments with a homage to Victorian luxury rise from the curving streets and stand at the height of the neighborhood’s many trees. Apartment living in Jerusalem is not too affluent, but far from poverty. It’s tasteful, ideal. I am inspired as I walk in, through a courtyard with a garden and an orange tree.
Spiral stairway leading upward to the residence of Ilan’s mother and father, I am welcomed by a French family.
Mother in a headscarf and father stout with glasses and strong arms, I greet everyone with Shabbat shalom as they proceed to speak to me in heavily accented Hebrew. I have to tell them I do not speak Hebrew yet and surprisingly, find it more difficult to communicate with them as many of them are bilingual with communicational English as a third leg. And I am pleased with this.
The apartment, with its dark cream-colored walls, tells a story. A bookcase in the corner, housing two wood-paneled stereo speakers, and a menagerie of aging leather books and light-leak damaged photographs, is distinctively Israeli. Lofty satin curtains weave their way around the apartment’s few living room windows. Aged harvest gold lighting warms the chic wall decor with memories telling of a quaint life interweaving army service, leisurely study, passion and many children.
L’ami de Ilan reads a card on the long table. An old wine bottle of iced water is passed around as I look upon the selection of salad, specially prepared chicken breast in a peculiar sauce, and a shortbread in homemade caramel. More bitter than sweet, perfect, I take caution not to over-indulge, aware of the stigma that Americans like to overeat.
I listen to the conversations around the table more than I speak. It is a happenstance supper, with a people I have never met, but feel an intangible, instant love. I talk with one of Ilan’s cousins, only sixteen, saying he wants to join Sayeret Matkal. Envy of my life, I would join Matkal only if I were a native Israeli, but Paratroopers is the only accessible elite brigade for an American.
I leave with handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and hugs. Enamored by Ilan’s blessing, I tell him how fortunate he is. He is a man atypical of the Israeli in my mind. His long hair and leftist appearance makes me think he is not completely religious, not a Zionist, critical of the army. Yet he wears a kippah, shared photographs of his Israeli subjects at the Shabbat dinner, and responds yes. I am very blessed to be here.
A contrastive glimpse into an Israel I never knew.
Travelling alone on the second day of Shavuot, miles from the Citadel, I approach the Knesset, map-less.
I find it, snap a few photos from unflattering angles, convince a persistent cab driver that I need no ride, and begin my walk back to the Old City. I walk through the Rehavia neighborhood, similar to Talpiot, in broad daylight. Jerusalem seems desolate on holidays.
I shouldn’t leave this place. I am prepared to settle here.
Parched, tired, sweating, I detour to a small park where Jerusalem’s vanished residents have all taken refuge. Behind the rows of trees and park benches, a windmill stands.
Silently I walk beneath it, spiteful, taking a photograph from the exact angle she had taken it months before.
Zeh mah she’aish, ah? That’s the way it is, ah?
I laugh to myself, laughing empty and proud; perhaps more proud than I am disappointed. I did it. I am a man of my word. I stand here on Shavuot.
And I suppose there is the lesson. Never expect too much out of one person, but always demand such a quality of effort from yourself; the quality you dream of in a companion.
My confidence gained is the reward, and I will need it.