A Letter From Jerusalem: Survival Strategies for Ordinary Living

When your hometown also happens to be a spiritual and political powder keg—a point of pilgrimage, as well as strife—it’s easy to find yourself struggling to maintain some emotional equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a privilege to live in Zion. Jerusalem is a beautiful city on innumerable levels.

And yet, sometimes, ordinary life can get intense. Besides being at the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jerusalemites also get worn down by the intracommunal tensions between traditional and nonobservant Jews on the one hand, and the ultra-Orthodox on the other.

And, as in any major city, prosaic worries also dominate day-to-day life: high taxes, choking traffic, dirty streets, deficient schools, and a dearth of public spaces—making it seem the veneer of civilization is running thin.

So my wife, Lisa, and I have come up with five strategies that help us maintain our perspective:

Shopping. We found a great place to do our grocery shopping. For visitors I recommend the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market downtown. I like it for its bustling and zesty ambiance, fresh produce, and low prices. Fishmongers and spice merchants compete with boutique fashion and ceramic shops, mom-and-pop Ethiopian eateries, gourmet cheese and wine shops, and even a London-style fish-and-chips shop.

When we need to do a “big shop” to stock up on household staples like cleaning supplies, paper towels, and tuna fish, we skip our favorite supermarket (too expensive) and Mahane Yehuda (inconvenient because of parking and congestion) and head to one of several big hurly-burly discount supermarkets in the industrial part of our southern Jerusalem neighborhood, usually Rami Levy discount supermarket.

Thursday nights, when what passes for the Israeli weekend begins, the big supermarkets tend to be jumping with pre-Sabbath shoppers. Fortunately, for ordinary grocery shopping, we discovered a small retrograde supermarket that caters to Israelis from English-speaking countries (called “Anglos” here), diplomats, and UN personnel. It is called Super Deal (28 Hebron Road, near the Old Train Station).

It’s not particularly fancy or nicely lit, and it doesn’t offer the variety of the bigger supermarkets. The bargains are few; and the prices, well let’s just say they’re not cheap. Still, Super Deal stocks many Anglo favorites not widely available in the country, like Aunt Jemima pancake mix, ground coffee, and Gatorade for the Americans; and Marmite, English tea, and shortbread biscuits for the Brits.(Did I mention that Lisa is London born?) If you spend more than 300 shekels (about $80) you get a free bottle of soda pop.

Last Thanksgiving it seemed as if Super Deal’s kosher butcher shop (which is professionally staffed by Palestinian-Arab butchers) supplied the entire expat community in Jerusalem with turkeys.

Thank goodness for Super Deal.

Shabbat. Israelis lead hectic lives. Since Friday is a school day and Sunday is the start of the new work week, Saturday is our only day to unwind. Those of us who are traditional and sanctify the Sabbath don’t work, travel, or even cook from Friday night at sunset until after dark Saturday. Saturday is a real “day of rest,” as the Sabbath is called.

Lisa and I often wonder how our fellow Israelis who don’t observe Shabbat stay sane. At our place, off go the Blackberries, Internet, and television—and unless some kind of crisis is afoot, we don’t take telephone calls or listen to the radio news. Instead, we spend quality time with family and friends.

On Friday night we try to get to synagogue services. We recently discovered a new congregation called Mizmor Le’David (Song of David) that welcomes the Sabbath with song and joyful prayer. After services we either host or are invited for a traditional Shabbat meal. The meal always begins with a song welcoming the Sabbath and the benediction over the wine. Sitting around the Shabbat table, whether on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon or both, gives us an opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with friends. It’s a way of putting life on hold. We always sing the grace after meals before leaving the table for conversation in the living room.

Thank goodness for Shabbat.

Walking. On Saturday mornings there is relatively little traffic in Jerusalem. Most businesses, restaurants, and shops are closed, as are schools. The city recently created a new urban trail along the old railroad track (this historic line once connected Beirut, Lebanon, to Cairo, Egypt). Nowadays it’s a bike path and pedestrian mall, making it a lovely place for a Shabbat walk.

Alternatively, we stroll along the Sherover-Haas Promenade, which offers panoramic views of Jerusalem, the Old City, and the Mount of Olives from the south. We never tire of this landscape. For weekday sanity, I usually hike up to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which sits astride Israel’s 1949 armistice lines (what people confusingly call the 1967 boundaries). From the lookout point you can see the outskirts of Bethlehem (now controlled by the Palestinian Authority). When the weather is good, I bicycle up to the kibbutz and take a quick swim in the pool.

Thank goodness that Jerusalem, though hilly, is a walking city.

Eating. Anyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good meal, and Jerusalem is blessed with excellent restaurants. Since we adhere to Jewish dietary traditions, the restaurants we frequent are kosher, serving either meat or dairy but not both.

I’m partial to a simple mom-and-pop place called Ima (Mom’s) at 189 Agrippas Street, not far from the Central Bus Station and the Mahane Yehuda market. Mom’s specializes in Israeli-Oriental-Kurdish-style home cooking. Nothing fancy, but I always feel revived after the Kubbeh soup of small pockets made of semolina dough stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts. Lisa and I would eat there several times a week after I finished my shift at The Jerusalem Post. During the dark days of the Second Intifada (September 2000 to around 2004), we were sometimes the only ones in the place. Now it’s best to make a reservation.

Our favorite special-occasion restau-rant is Angelica at 7 Shatz Street in the center of town. I’ve seen famous authors and politicians eat there. The food is usually very good. For dairy, we go to a small hole in the wall called Al Dente at 50 Ussishkin Street. The pasta is freshly made, the food almost always delicious. A few months back when the renovated Israel Museum (11 Ruppin Boulevard) reopened, we discovered the fancy European-style meat restaurant called Modern (overlooking the Valley of the Cross). We like going there on a Tuesday night when the museum is open late.

Thank goodness for good food.

Culture. As you may have guessed, we love the Israel Museum. For occasional visitors, there is a long list of must-sees, such as the Shrine of the Book that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and the enthralling 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem during the second Temple period.

I also never tire of experiencing the lovingly reconstructed synagogues in the museum, including the 18th-century sanctuary from Suriname (white sand floor); one from the 16th century called Kadavumbagam (“by the side of the landing place”) Synagogue from Cochin, India; and a 1735 synagogue from the market town of Horb in Southern Germany. I’m fond of the museum at night when you can see the nearby Knesset lit up.

We’ve finally gotten into the habit of going to the Cinematheque—the most civilized place in Jerusalem to see a film, not counting the Jerusalem Theater and Performing Arts Center near the Prime Minister’s Residence. The Cinematheque, situated near the Old City walls, is trendier. It’s a mecca for Jerusalem’s secular population and tends to offer a heavy fare of left-wing European films. Though it’s a bit too artsy for me, I’m not ashamed to confess that we’ve enjoyed live, high-definition simulcasts of some great Metropolitan Opera performances from New York.

Of course, there is a variety of lectures and classes in Jerusalem on any given evening. For instance, on Thursday evening the Menachem Begin Heritage Center offers a popular free lecture on the weekly Bible reading (in Hebrew) that has people lining up 20 minutes before the doors open. During the winter of 2012, Pardes, the Jewish creative learning institute, presented a series of lectures by the brilliant Bible scholar James L. Kugel.

When Lisa and I go abroad, we like to get a sense of what life is like for regular folks. What’s a grocery store like? How do people spend their free time? Where is a nice place to stroll?What cultural attractions appeal to locals? Where do locals eat?

If you feel the same way when you travel, make time to experience some of Jerusalem’s local flavor on your next visit. Ride our new light-rail train, stroll inside the new Hamashbir department store at Zion Square, visit a supermarket (it doesn’t have to be ours). A journey to Jerusalem should leave you fascinated and uplifted. Living here is exciting, though also a challenge. Jerusalem is a living, breathing city— just as it was in the days of the Bible.

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