A Visit to Jerusalem, To See the Things That Are No Longer There
Showing my teenage daughter around the city, I realized that each generation remembers—and forgets—its own Jerusalem
I went to Jerusalem to show my oldest daughter things she wouldn’t see without me.
This past year was the first time that one of my children lived away from home for an extended time: My oldest daughter, who is 18, enrolled in a yearlong program at a progressive women’s yeshiva (study of Talmud included) at Nishmat in Jerusalem. Her classes were in Hebrew, and she shared her apartment not just with English-speaking American roommates but with Israeli and Ethiopian-Israeli students.
When I visited her over the winter, I was confident that I would still be a knowledgeable guide since I twice spent a year studying in Jerusalem, as a junior in college and then in my first year of marriage. But I hadn’t lived in the city in 23 years and hadn’t visited in seven and a half. As it turned out, my daughter was more adept at getting around Jerusalem than I was. Though I remembered basic directions and streets, the details were hazy. My smartphone-wielding teen, refusing to take cabs in a city with a well-developed bus system, could use an app to find out when the next buses were coming or find walking directions on a map. She took me to new places, like the First Station, a newly opened shopping and cultural center in the city’s old train station that now has outdoor space for performances and events. She showed me a shop that made the best smoothies and a great Friday morning outdoor art market. She knew how to buy tickets for the newly installed light rail and when to swipe them, a feat a bit complicated for a novice. She took me to classes with her favorite teachers and demonstrated proficiency at Hebrew. I was proud to have a chance to study with her.
But Jerusalem is a city of layers, and it is impossible to understand what one sees now without knowing what came before. Stones that appear ancient may not be, and the businesses that seem new and trendy may be of long-standing provenance. As we walked through the Rehavia neighborhood, where I lived in 1990-91, I was careful to show her a bit of local history she hadn’t perceived. The space now occupied by Café de Paris that juts out in a triangular shape abutted by two streets, Aza and Ben-Maimon, was previously Restobar, and before that, Café Moment. Before that, it was a sit-down pizza place where I remember eating on one of my last nights in the country that year and where I bumped into a high-school acquaintance who was in Jerusalem on State Department business. I pointed out the plaque on the side of the building for the 11 people killed here in a pigua, a terrorist attack, in March 2002. My daughter had walked by this spot many times, although her ability to notice her surroundings was no doubt compromised by her resolute focus on cellphone conversation. I wanted her to see the layers underneath what was currently here. I didn’t tell her that when her father and I visited Israel with her and her younger sister in the winter of 2001-2002, two months before this attack, our greatest fear was that we would go out to a café or restaurant and not come back—it was a fearful time to be here, when the second intifada was at its height. Then, parents would beg their children not to take a bus that might be blown up but to take a cab instead; now, my daughter was telling me not to take cabs and waste money.
Part of my trip involved writing some freelance stories, including profiles of a number of well-known and up-and-coming Israeli fiction writers, an interview with a Knesset member in her office, and a piece about a literary awards dinner at the King David Hotel. My daughter came along to the Knesset and the awards dinner. I showed her the Cinematheque movie theater that her father and I sought out often for its air-conditioning in the sweltering summer, and the Jerusalem Theater down the street from the apartment I rented. I bought tickets for the sound and light show at the Tower of David and told her to go to the multimedia art exhibit at the former Hansen Leper Hospital in Talbieh.
And there were things I could not show her.
The arch of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, bombed by the Jordanians in 1948 and still unreconstructed when I last lived in Jerusalem, had been a lovely open space in the middle of the Jewish Quarter and a reminder of the past. It has now been rebuilt in an architectural style of no particular interest and colonized by men who do not want women entering the premises at all, even when there are no prayers and no valid reason in Jewish law not to allow us in. (I walked into the synagogue premises even though there wasn’t much to see, just to defy their request not to. My daughter stood outside, refusing to disobey.) My favorite restaurant, in a beautiful stone house on Ussishkin Street, is now a private home. A bookstore I’d loved and written about in fiction, Stein Books on King George, has a new incarnation as a high-end clothing store. When I stood in front of what I thought had been the bookstore and asked a passerby if there used to be a bookstore at this location, he shrugged and responded, “dor holech ve’dor ba,” a generation passes and a generation comes along. The next half of this verse from Ecclesiastes is “and the world endures forever.”
The last dinner we ate together during my visit, we met a friend I have known since we were 10 at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. We chose a restaurant at 54 Emek Refaim, a meat-and-grill place, despite my daughter’s vegetarianism, because I refuse to leave the country without a good plate of mixed grill. When I returned home to Pittsburgh and cleaned out my wallet, I found a card from a prior trip to Israel from Café Hillel, the coffee shop closest to the apartment we’d rented. Its address was also 54 Emek Refaim. I hadn’t made the connection. Seven people were killed at Café Hillel in 2003; the ones I remember hearing about are an American-born father/daughter pair. The father, David Applebaum, was an emergency-room doctor who always came in to volunteer after a pigua, when more trauma physicians were needed. His daughter Nava was 20 and was to be married the next day. Her father was taking her out for a last conversation before her nuptials, as he had just gotten back after being out of the country—ironically, having been in a New York hospital teaching techniques for dealing with trauma attacks. Over the years, I have met people who knew them: Our dear friend’s niece had been a close friend of Nava’s, and another friend I met in Minnesota knew the family well.
I found it haunting that we had our last dinner of the trip in a space where a father and daughter had their last conversation and that I was totally unaware of what had transpired. Not that I would have not gone to the restaurant. “A generation goes and a generation comes, and the world endures forever.” Things must continue and life must be led.
But my sadness that my relationship with my daughter had changed—she isn’t dependent on me anymore in many significant ways—is mitigated by the realization that she is able to look with new eyes at what lies beyond her realm of American teen hang-out spots to a larger array of cultural possibilities in Jerusalem. I realized that I was privileged to be able to experience a bit of her world this year and to show her the world, or part of it, that I knew when I lived here. Even though she isn’t my little girl and has left home, I know I am fortunate to watch the new developments in her life and to show her things ordinarily unseen, even if it takes me a while to see them myself.
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I said I’d convert to placate my boyfriend. But his family would never disregard the fact that I was Korean.