Archives for the month of: October, 2015

This was the weekend to forget the knives, the differences, the guns that stick out of ordinary people’s pants pockets. Open House Jerusalem is a weekend of prying and poking into peoples’ houses, lives, and even into cemeteries. It was the weekend of Jerusalemites and brave visitors exploring and owning Jerusalem’s streets on foot with colourful Open House brochures at hand.

Open House is an international initiative which takes place across over twenty cities worldwide. Alon Bin Nun, an architect and the curator of Open House Jerusalem, explains that it’s about opening up the city to its treasures of architectural design. What we usually experience is the urban surface of a city, but who doesn’t want to peek into other peoples’ homes and tour their city’s public spaces from the inside.

For Jerusalem especially, Alon emphasises, it’s about opening doors free of charge, so that the city is accessible to everyone. Usually the event attracts 50,000 visitors, 70% come from outside of Jerusalem. This year alot less were expected due to the current security threat.

But this wasn’t going to stop me and many others from adventuring into a weekend of exploring over one hundred Open House destinations.

Mount Zion Hotel
My first stop was the Mount Zion Hotel. I was lucky enough to be invited to tour with a group of foreign design journalists from Europe. If I hadn’t been invited I never would have thought to go on my own. I had no idea that the hotel is a stately, historic building that used to be an eye hospital.

I stood on its Presidential suite’s balcony where CNN likes to film its Jerusalem broadcasts. It was that perfect time of day, dusk, where the light plays with day and night, so that time stands still, and you forget the past, present and future. Looking onto the walls of the Old City and the sand stone houses around it. All so different and yet uniform. All so contentious and yet at that moment I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place to be.

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Ticho House
The official opening event of Open House Jerusalem took place at the newly renovated Ticho House. It was a magical evening under softly lit olive trees, with live music and waiters waltzing through with trays laden with lovely little salad bowls, pargiot on butternut puree, hefty beef burgers, and an odd hors d’oeuvre of sashimi, which tasted like ginger jelly. But I wasn’t there for the food, I promise. I was there to be encouraged to face the challenges of daily life in Jerusalem. ‘Live as normal,’ Mayor Nir Barkat reminded us, despite the terror.

The exciting bit came next. Not dessert, parve dessert is never that captivating. But the tour of the Ticho house and museum. We had a lovely, knowledgable guide who walked us through the house passionately explaining the ins and outs of this one time residence of Dr Avraham Albert Ticho and his wife, the talented, well known artist, Anna Ticho.

Dr Ticho was a well regarded ophthalmologist and I had a particular interest in visiting his house because decades ago he treated my grandmother, who had a glass eye. One of the interesting facts I learnt on the tour was that Dr Ticho was knifed in the back during the 1929 Arab riots. He was badly injured, but survived. It’s not reassuring to consider that not much has changed in Jerusalem.

Anna Ticho’s story as an artist was beautifully told in a brilliant documentary which repeats itself on two parallel screens with images that interact. It brings Anna Ticho to life as a vivacious, passionate artist who dances on screen as if she was still alive and painting in her home.

The main emphasis of the tour was the house’s architecture. Our guide explained to us that any changes in the renovation to the original house were purposefully created with a modern look, so that the original house could be clearly seen. I kept looking for signs of the old house: they had one wall with the Ticho’s dark wooden bookcases and books, as well as the Doctor’s chanukiah collection which he was renowned for. I would have liked to see more of the Ticho’s domestic presence in the house.

What the architects had preserved well was the magnificent wooden staircase which gleamed in the middle of the building. It led upstairs to the most beautiful, fresco ceilings that the Tichos’ weren’t aware of in their time. Here will be the Ticho restaurant, which I hope opens soon. One of the reasons Anna Ticho left the house to the people of Israel was so that they could enjoy Apple Strudel and coffee, an idyllic escape from the every day hubbub of Jerusalem living.

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The City of David
The Jerusalem we see, according to Alon and many others, is the tip of the iceberg. There are worlds underneath the roads we drive on, the shops we shop in and the parking lots we park at. Literally. The City of David tour I did on Friday opened up this underground, archaeological world. An entire parking plot had been excavated. They found ruins, which included an entire intact mosaic Roman floor, Hellenist period remains, a treasure of gold coins, as well as a central water drainage tunnel from the Second Temple period. We ventured down into the narrow, musty, underground shaft where we could see the foundation stones of the Western Wall. It left me thinking that every Jerusalem parking lot needs to be dug up.

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The Greek Colony
Open House Jerusalem is a whole new experience on Shabbat. It’s a communal day where a kaleidoscope of people visit venues in their neighbourhood. I popped into the Open House locations  around the German and Greek Colonies where I live. I discovered a quaint house that I often pass, on 3 Rachel Emeinu street, that was once a Greek doctor’s, it’s now maintained by the Greek community. I also entered The Greek Community centre, which is ten steps from our apartment. There I met the Greek carer, Alex, who lives on the property and proudly spoke about the long Greek history in Jerusalem, which hailed from the days of Alexander the Great.

The Templar Cemetery
One of the events I was especially looking forward to was a tour of the Templar Cemetery on Emek Refaim. I’ve walked by it a thousand times and have always wanted to go in. I discovered that it wasn’t just a Templar cemetery but it’s also an international cemetery with many empty spots.

The best place for a good story is a cemetery. The story began with our guide, a messianic Jew who grew up speaking Yiddish in Bnei Brak. I was captivated by the story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s daughter Dola, who is buried in the same grave as her Christian husband, Max Whittman. Another inspiring story was about the German Reverend who helped Jews escape Germany on illegal boats to Israel, one of them being the infamous Exodus. Stories upon stories buried in a graveyard opposite one of my favourite cafe’s in Jerusalem. Coffee is never going to taste the same there again.

I could go on about the places I canvassed at Open House Jerusalem. Anyone who has participated has their stories. From meeting their spouse (two marriages have taken place thanks to Open House Jerusalem), learning something astounding about the city they love, to feeling a sense of togetherness in a city which is perceived and reported upon as a seat of frenzied conflict and strife. What Open House exhibits is a city of peace, the true meaning and prayer of Jerusalem.

Can I ignore the news? Can I pretend that all that matters is my little domestic bubble? Battling to get kids to school on time, with the added walk because we want to watch their backs. Taking hours to settle kids at night because anxiety levels have risen with recent events. Anxiety hangs in the Jerusalem air, as heavy as a humid, Tel Aviv night.

I needed a good escape, so my husband and I did just that. We booked a babysitter and made our way through the dark streets of Rechavia to a quaint, Italian restaurant, Al Dente. Our friends introduced us to this small, recluse restaurant gem. It’s not the kind of place you happen to pass. You have to find it. This suited us just fine. We weren’t looking to sit in a busy, public place. No tonight we were forgetting our troubles. We were going to ignore the fact that we were walking around looking over our shoulders like the other brave souls who walked the streets. We were going to forget all news and sorrow over a hearty bowl of pasta.

Usually we would have to book for Al Dente, but we knew that tonight we didn’t. With the current situation you could walk into any Jerusalem restaurant and get a table. That evening the restaurant was three quarters full, which was more than we expected. I guess we weren’t the only ones escaping into the comfort of creamy Alfredo sauce. We chose our table by the door, not too close to the front windows, and busied ourselves over the English menu. Most restaurants in Israel have English menus. I like to practice my Hebrew on a Hebrew menu, but then we often end up with surprising results. Tonight was a risk free night.

Our waitress that evening was more than helpful, explaining their different glasses of Israeli wine, something we are slowly getting the hang of. My husband ordered the merlot which was excellent. The food was a bit harder to choose. So many choices. We knew their fish was excellent. Sea bream in particular. We also knew we were definitely having a pasta and wanted a salad, and for sure dessert. There’s a lot to weigh up when you order a meal. How hungry you are? Do you want dessert? I’ve learnt that Israeli salads are massive, and should always be shared. These were important decisions to make, they could literally make or break an evening.

At Al Dente, I should have known I didn’t need to worry too much. The seasoned seared tuna salad we ordered was big enough for four people. It came with a generous portion of perfectly red, seared tuna on top of a mountain of green salad. It was delicious, but almost too healthy for me. I couldn’t wait for our main dish which we were sharing. The Proiarbo. A sauce of spinach, cashew cream and pine nuts with our choice of pasta, home made fettucinne. There is nothing better than home made pasta cooked al dente. And we literally licked the plate clean. The waitress didn’t have to ask us if we enjoyed our meal. Guiltily we surrendered our forks with the clean plate.

Proiarbo Fettuccine Pasta

And for a moment we sat back enjoying the pleasant ambiance of this quaint little hide away. The simple tables. The walls which display their latest artist exhibit – colourful photos from South America. which look so idealic and fun. I can understand why so many Israelis trek there searching for peace. But not too much thinking on our night out.

It was time for dessert, and I was thrilled that the Pear and Almond Cream Tart was available. The other times we had come it was sold out. It had to be good. A lovely tower of vanilla ice cream on a hot pear and almond tart on their signature blue and green clay dishes. My husband thought it was brilliant, and happily polished it off with his full fat cappuccino (Al Dente does not keep low fat milk. A restaurant after my own heart). I just as happily helped polish off the said dessert, but it wasn’t my favourite with its mix of hot and cold. I think I’m learning that I’m a chocolate person through and through. Nana tea was my choice aperitif drink. I love the fresh mint leaves even though it can be awkward as I end up swallowing them hole. There has to be a secret nana tea trick that I’m yet to learn.

We left that evening falling in love with Jerusalem all over again. It’s hard not to after such a fun, good meal. Even though it was still dark, even though we still looked over our shoulders on the way to the car. Jerusalem has its gems, and they’re there to be enjoyed come what may. Perhaps everyone can forget their differences, grievances and fears, over a steaming bowl of Al Dente pasta. We certainly did.

Al Dente – 50 Menachem Ussishkin St, Jerusalem. Phone – 02-625-1479, http://www.al-dente.co.il

The cafes of Jerusalem have fallen silent. The last clanging metal sounds of dismantling sukkahs have ceased. Sukkot is over and there is fear in people’s eyes as they stand waiting for their buses, as they walk in the streets. Those who brave the coffee shops at night aren’t smiling except for one couple who sit together, so much in love that they’re excused for living as if no one else exists. The joy of Sukkot has long disappeared with the beautiful pop up sukkahs that transformed the landscape of Jerusalem.

We all knew we were blessed this summer, despite the oppressive heat and the swirling dust storms. There was no war. The coffee shops were full with alive chatter and a joie de vivre that defied the streets of Paris for sheer fullness of life. A relatively peaceful summer in Israel, what is there not to enjoy?

Summer is over we now walk the streets looking over our shoulder. (They stab you in the back.) We walk our children to school not wanting them to walk alone. We don’t want to tell them the news of repeated terror attacks throughout Israel. We don’t want them to be scared.

The mayor of Jerusalem has told everyone to arm themselves with guns. We see them sticking out of jean pockets. The city has turned into a Wild West rodeo.

All I can think about is how sukkot began with such hope and peace. We went to Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing at the Kotel. Replaying the ingathering of the Jews. A colourful multitude of Jews on foot, walking together to the Temple. Together is the key word here. There were Jews from all over the world. Brash, loud American tourists, Jews from Ranaana who had recently made Aliyah from South Africa, Yemenite Jews with picnic baskets, families with toddlers, one toddler had a piece of paper with her name and number handwritten pinned to her back, Ethiopian families picnicking, young Moroccan couples in tight jeans and minis. What could have been a zoo of unruly people, was a pilgrimage of worshippers. There was utter decorum where I had feared a stampede of jostling people.

When the priests began their blessing it felt like a swirling, magical moment which touched our core. ‘May God bless you and protect you. May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you. May God turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.’ It was a blessing for all of Israel, not just us who stood before them. We all felt it.

In front of me there were two wizened, old, sephardic women, covered in colourful scarves. They had their wrinkly, careworn hands on each others heads, like two smiling school girls, blessing each other.

Our strength is when we are together, blessing each other.

It is cold now in Jerusalem. I am feeling it in my bones. There is so much joy and happiness in our hearts that have been blown out by winds of terror. Tourism is down, all the tourists have run away, a friend who runs a tourist company tells me despondently.

‘What will be?’ My friend, a mother of five, asks me repeatedly. I’m also asking. We are all asking as we live day by day. Scared to open the news. Shaking every time we hear a siren. Praying for protection and blessing and peace for the people of Israel in the land of Israel.