Tag Archives: Jerusalem

tools of the trade

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I was a young man when I first began writing professionally. It was what I expected to do… what I’d set as my personal goal. I had been so grateful for the advice and friendship I had received from writers in my childhood and youth, that I felt a personal debt to them, and in this way I hoped to repay them. I wrote long pages in blue-black ink from a fountain pen on white linen bond paper. That same pen is still in one of my drawers. The act of writing was as gratifying to me as the possibility of conveying thoughts to paper. I could smell the ink. I enjoyed watching the trail of blue-black ink slowly drying on the page as I continued to write. I had a number of different pens, and numerous nibs which enabled me to write in different styles as well as different languages. I preferred a fine line, but used wide nibs as well… sometimes to emphasize something in the text, I used italics as well. To me, good writing meant no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and the ability to organize my thoughts in such a way that they would be readily understood by the reader. This was so important to me because if I (or my editor) found a mistake, I would usually rewrite the page. Which took some time. Such work was drudgery.

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My first typewriter was a present from an aunt. I was greatly moved by her gesture. It seemed such a personal and appropriate gift. And strangely enough, I received another three typewriters through my life, from very close friends. But as much as I enjoyed typing, I felt most comfortable and most natural writing by hand with pen on paper. Though I felt no need to study journalism or creative writing, I did take a typing course so as to learn to put my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. Typewriters could only write in one font, which meant that I needed separate machines for Hebrew and Latin letters.

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The machines stayed with me for decades, and became part of my physical presence in this world from my point of view. In a way, they were more an extension of my body than the pens I used, maybe because I typed blind. The Royal portable traveled with me across the world on ship and in airplanes. I used to feel a sense of intimacy in my relations to tools. But since the start of the digital age, tools come and go. The life expectancy of a computer is so short that I haven’t really gotten attached to any of them. Software programs change and become more complicated. I would discover that I didn’t have enough RAM, and by the time I moved on to a new computer I was glad to get rid of the old.

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Language too, is an intimate tool. A tool of the mind by which we communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings. And that too is changing. When I was young, our ancient language was sacred. Educated people went to great pains to conform exactly to the rules of grammar. The language we heard on the radio was elegant. When a word was added to our vocabulary, it’s addition was decided by The Academy of the Hebrew Language, and though we laughed sometimes at the new inventions, they were necessary for scientific and technological subjects that hadn’t existed when our language first flowered. But then slang appeared in the army, and folks were amused by these new additions and used them. Foreign words were included in our speech as well, and slightly changed to correspond to our rules of grammar. Slowly, gradually, the slang increased, and nowadays when conversing with the young, I have to ask the meaning when hearing an unfamiliar phrase. It makes me feel less grounded.

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The pictures on the store front windows, were found on Jaffa Str., here in Jerusalem. They represent visual illustrations of Jerusalem slang and expressions unique to our town. The artists involved in this project wished to decorate the city with local expressions.

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old as the hills 2

for readers with time to spare
this is fiction

My first impression of the new place was emptiness and quiet. The landscape seemed to continue on and on to the horizon. There was the big house and a barn. But mostly, what I could see of this world… new to me… was heaven and earth. Aside from the two structures, and a few sentinel and shade trees, everything that wasn’t in the heavens was found close to the ground. The few people that I met spoke little, with little intonation in a language that was so far unintelligible. The landlady took us to our quarters, We were shown what to do by example. The first familiar voice I heard was the crow of a rooster, It was reassuring, recognizable sound.

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Time seemed to move slower than ever before. the newspaper which I saw passed from one person to another, was foreign too. Very likely, even if I could read it, there’d be nothing there that’d interest me. My bible and prayer book had been pulled out from between the shirts and the socks in my suitcase, and were now on a little table next to my bed. but I hadn’t brought pages to write on, and I longed for some connection to my parents. The one phone in the house, hardly ever used, held no promise for me. In those days, international calls were a rarity and expensive. Such things were beyond me. The radio too, which was turned on for about an hour, or an hour and a half in the evening, seemed like a special luxury, and it occurred to me that the classical music we listened to, in chairs arranged around the radio, might have been especially for my benefit. For I was asked more than once if this was the music I liked. Music was a word that I knew.

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As the days passed, the shock of landing in an unknown environment receded leaving the door open to curiosity. I began to notice that there were sounds, mostly subtle and of lower intensity, but sounds all the same, which seemed to be interwoven with the landscape. Daytime sounds and the sounds of night. A bird that sang at the approach of sundown. People here seemed to get up with the rising sun, and went to their beds not long after night had fallen. Little by little I began to realize that my first impressions had been incorrect. The quiet that at first had overwhelmed me was merely the absence of sounds I was used to. My eyes began to register distances as my feet mapped the territory from the house to the farm and from there to the fields. By way of my feet, through socks and shoes, I sensed the land. My nose and ears became sensitive to this new reality. The hair follicles on my head could recognize a gentle breeze when it came. washing face and hands was less a ritual and seemed a necessity. Some of the vile smells which at first I had tried not to smell (that was impossible) became pleasant after a while.

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In my parents’ home, my earliest associations had not been defined. Home was a medley of familiar voices and smells; routines that I expected without ever thinking about them. The warmth and good cheer of mother. I thought she knew everything, and I trusted her implicitly. Singsong voices wrapped around me like a comfort blanket. Home was familiar and protective though I often discovered new objects or signs that bore meanings, were there for me to learn. There were orders, requests, and instructions from parents to children, usually in a matter of fact voice without emotion. Punishments were so rare that I can remember only one example. But it was quite easy to read the faces of mother and father, and a message of disapproval or disappointment even if unspoken, was punishment enough. The word that could best express my relationship to parents and teachers was awe. A person who could be completely trusted was usually described as a person having awe of heaven.

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Our sages used to say, turn your home into a meeting place for the wise. This advice had been so thoroughly absorbed by the adults I knew that it never needed mentioning. As much as human beings were an integral part of our home, so were books. They could be scrolls, or pages sewn and bound together. There were holy books and there were kosher books. These were the scrolls on parchment. And there were secular books too.

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There was often a book or two on the dining table, and occasionally a group of books, some of them opened to a particular page, if someone had searched for an explanation or information regarding some obscure subject. On all the doorways of our home, except for the toilet, there was a little box made of wood, attached to the frame of the door. I had once seen this box opened. Maybe it had been opened especially for my edification. Inside was a tiny scroll. And on the scroll there was writing, black square letters on white parchment, crying out to all of Israel that god was one, and he was all encompassing. This was followed by a few paragraphs from the bible regarding how one should or could relate to that.

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This tiny scroll looked much the same as the torah scrolls which were read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays and twice on Saturdays, except for the fact that the torah scrolls had two poles and the tiny scroll was rolled into a cylinder without any pole at all. There were scrolls without poles, with just one pole, and with two poles, depending on how much parchment there was to read or study from. They were all called books. In my new home I found only one book, obviously a bible though I couldn’t read the writing. It was kept on the same shelf that carried numerous ceramic figures.

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Later, a teacher once told me, ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’. I wonder if I knew that then, or if it was a natural reaction to an environment completely new, but soon I was learning from the bushes and the trees, and from the vegetables whose leaves were still anonymous. How thrilling it was to discover that there were carrots, radishes and onions growing under those leaves, and a little scary to observe the tomato bugs trying to get to that fruit before we were able to enjoy them at the table. I learned to fold leaves or rub them to intensify their smell; to check the taste of leaves; to smell the barks of trees… to hold dirt in my hand. Dirt, which had always been an unwelcome intruder in my parents’ home, and whisked right out… had joined the assembly of characters who now occupied my new world.

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The language of the locals was my biggest challenge. No one talked to me, so when I heard others talking my mind would stop and stand at attention. I would try not to think at all. I would let the words enter my head like waves at the sea shore, reverberating sometimes back and forth till they were replaced by others. I would watch the faces of the speakers, discerning expressions that accompanied the sounds. It was difficult at first to know when one word ended and another began. The faces were more expressive than the sounds. Occasionally there were familiar sounds. Now and then there was a word that I thought I recognized. And then there were more. I was in no rush to speak. I knew I was different enough without spilling broken and twisted words in front of everyone.

all photos here from the Makor Baruch neighborhood
in Jerusalem

old as the hills 1

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this is a work of fiction, no flash intended; any similarity to persons living or dead must surely be coincidental

“I was about your age”, said the old man, looking at me as if he was searching for something in my face, “and we were suffering through the previous war then… my parents worried whether we could make it through. We’d seen sights in the streets…” he paused. I knew he was thinking maybe it was best I didn’t hear what he’d seen in the streets at that time. He was still looking at me with that big question in his face, but I figured I might have to wait a long time till I figured out the question. Maybe he was wondering if I’d cry when he finally got around to telling me what he had to say. I knew it wasn’t about the sights he’d seen in the last big war, because he never talked about such things… and I knew that no matter what he said, I wasn’t going to cry… because it was hard for him to bear, and we didn’t have too many of these heart to heart talks. They usually came when there was bad news in the offing. I’d tried now and then to initiate a conversation with him. But I really didn’t know the things that interested him. So I just did my best to hold up my side of the conversation. The contact… the communication was precious. This time, he wasn’t telling me something that I was supposed to have known before he even started talking. No, this was about getting a piece of news. And my part of the interchange was just waiting for it to get out there; the less I said, the easier it would be for whatever it was to get out.

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We were heading towards another war. That I knew. He said he didn’t think it’d have to be as bad as the previous one… though you never can tell. Still, there might not be much food around for a while. And food is very important when you’re growing. Children, he explained… didn’t see any of them around… have all kinds of needs. They make noise, even without realizing it. I couldn’t help wondering about that. I knew children made noise. But it seemed to me that they were aware of it. Didn’t say anything myself. Because I knew that such facts had been assembled to let me know what was coming… this wasn’t about sharing mutual experiences.

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It turned out that we children… me and my sister, and the next door neighbor’s boy and a few other kids were going to be sent far away, though it wasn’t really that far… to a farm, where there’d be all kinds of animals, and nice people who weren’t like us at all, and chores that we could do, to help out on the farm. Maybe there were children there too, that we could get to know and play with once we learned their language, and it was a lot easier to learn a new language when you were a kid. We’d have plenty to eat, and lots of new things to learn. We’d see where food comes from.

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Now, here was a new idea… my first thought was I knew where food came from; from the market, from the green grocer, from the bakery… but his words told me that I didn’t. It sounded interesting. For the first time since he’d taken me aside to ‘talk’ I realized that the news might be seen as an opportunity. I didn’t like the idea of going far away… nor all the rest of the things that had been mentioned… terrible things to be seen in the streets, or nice people that spoke a different language… it didn’t seem like I’d want to go far away, even to see animals. I’d seen my share of animals. But none of them had been quite as intelligent as my cat, and he was always here with me. mmmm… I wondered if my cat could join us on this trip. But I had a feeling I knew the answer to that one. No. All the same, it would be interesting finding out where food came from… before it got to market.

book fair blues

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This week was the first time I ever went to the book fair and came away without buying a single book. There are some annual experiences that engender a sense of permanence. But going to the book fair these days is a bit like Grandpa’s birthday. There is always the thought that it may be the last. Here in Jerusalem we have a strong attachment to books, so it took me a while to realize that something was amiss. The signs were there. The crowds seemed thinner lately. And this year there seemed to be less young adults. Children and old folks are still interested.

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With the average book costing around 70 shekels normally, there were some fantastic deals offered; 4 books for a hundred shekels. 3 books for a 100. There was one published who offered 1 + 1; you buy a book, and you get another as a present. Now this should be a very tempting opportunity. But it means that if you want to take advantage of the 4 book deal, you have to find 4 books produced by the same publisher that you would like to read.

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This was no small challenge for me. I’ve been reading book reviews of new books for the last three weeks so I’d be prepared for the fair, and even so, I didn’t have a list of books I wanted to find. In the old days, I didn’t have to make a list. Yes, I had a better memory then, but what was more important, if I saw a book I hadn’t read, on a subject that interested me, I would buy without hesitation and read with glee. But there’ve been some changes since then.

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Sometimes the name of the book has been changed without thought for the innocent. For instance, that old classic, ‘I Went To China’ is now called, ‘A Drop in the Bucket’ and bears the subtitle, ‘how a Jewish Intellectual tried to tickle the armpit of a sleeping giant’, with a beautiful cover showing an abstract photoshopped collage of far eastern headwear. The cookbooks that were once so popular are no longer in the central display. It turns out that any food you want to prepare can be found instantly on the internet with alternate recipes for gluten free diets or kosher as you wish.

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But that isn’t the only problem. I’ve always enjoyed a good novel, but nowadays novels start with the hero lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak or to move his arms and legs, with a series of pipes and electric cables attached to some life-saving device, and though no one can guess that he has more presence of mind than a turnip, he can hear what his visitors are saying. And so he listens to them discussing the challenge of finding available parking as near as possible to the hospital. And then, just when you’re hoping that some mischievous grandchild will pull the plug, the narrative begins pulling you back and forth along a zigzag route of flashbacks and forwards that leave you dizzy by the time you want to go to the kitchen and get a snack. It is hopeless trying to figure out how the plot will be resolved or who the villain or the hero is, because there are no heroes nor are there villains. It turns out that they all suffered from unhappy childhoods and have since vacillated between ADHD and the acdc gender disposition.

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If you, like me, have a fondness for history, there are a number of new volumes on the display table each year. These fall into two major categories:
1) the historiographic, which critically examines flotsam after the deluge in order to synthesize the particulars into a narrative that will uphold the agenda of the day; or
2) demythification, in which the author will tell the story exactly as it would have happened if we were living in an alternative reality in which the Nazis won in Europe, and the Indians in America, after which Marxist literature became viral, coming out of Rio de Janeiro. The two Americas unite, and live happily ever after in an ideal egalitarian state that provides people who have low self-esteem with life-long compensation because love is what matters.

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And I have to mention that the very nicest people in our town are managing the book stalls, and you’re acquainted with about 30% of those over 40. Not to speak of the real live authors scattered among the book sellers to personally sign their works for the reading public. Think about it, what a terribly anti-social disgrace it would be, to come to the book fair and not buy a book… or four.

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To make the experience all the more enticing, this exhibition takes place right at the edge of the old train station, which has become an entertainment compound featuring bars and eateries, a small railroad museum, a series of stalls selling handicrafts, and stands selling popcorn and cotton candy for the children and the nostalgic. So I visited a few book stalls, talked to a few people, tried to find four books, three books even two books that I really wanted to read and didn’t have in my own library. There was one book that I thought might be interesting, but it seemed such a provocation to buy a book at full price when they were offering all these deals that I preferred to wait till my next visit at the local bookstore.

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Noga and I did our best to retreat unobserved from the book fair to Restaurant Row. where we managed to get outdoor seating at the Asian Eatery. That’s right, the old Chinese restaurant I loved has gone out of business, and I don’t eat sushi because I worry that the raw fish might come back to life and swim away from my plate. The Asian Eatery offers selected highlights from any country east of Israel, and actually, we had a tasty dinner to conclude our adventure.

so-called peaceful demonstration

This week all of Israel rejoiced at the opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. Though Jerusalem has been our capital for 3000 years, the nations of the world have found some pleasure in ignoring that. And the fact that since the establishment of the modern state of Israel, this city has been the nation’s capital. I heard that in a few countries, some folks were so outraged that they got out on the street to demonstrate against the US for moving its embassy to our city. I hope those were peaceful demonstrations.

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In 1948, after the UN approved a partition plan for the area that had been previously known as Palestine, four Arab nations invaded us, declaring that they were going to push us into the sea. It wasn’t the first time. There had been murderous attacks against us by Arab Moslems for 100 years. I can’t begin to tell you how surprised these Arabs were when they realized that we, bookish and spoiled Jews, were fighting back. And they were unable to complete their project. They celebrate a day of mourning when we celebrate Independence day. Nakba means catastrophe, and they consider the independence of Israel the catastrophe rather than remembering that they themselves caused the disaster by making war on us when we were ready and willing to share with them, accept the UN partition, and live together in peace. Since then, there have been wars with Israel’s neighbors every few years. This is very painful for us, because we are a peace loving people. We are also a compassionate people. We would rather be doing all kinds of other things than making war. But when people openly say that they are working to exterminate you, it makes you cautious.

After the war we provided the Arabs living in our country with citizenship and all the freedoms that we enjoy. The Israeli Arabs enjoy a standard of living far higher than the average for the middle east, and freedom of speech that it is incomparable with any other country in this area of the world. In fact, we have Arab members of parliament who regularly denounce us and lie about us to our faces.

The so-called occupied territories were not taken from any other nation. They were included in the Balfour Declaration published by the British Government in support of the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The Pals embraced the four countries that invaded us, and were appropriated by Jordan after the ’48 war. In 1967 we once again were promised by our Arab neighbors that they were going to destroy us and push us into the sea, and after one of our ports was blockaded, we moved first, and hit them in the nose. That war is known as the 6 day war.

In 2005, our prime minister, Ariel Sharon, decided to try an experiment for peace. He ousted 10,000 Jewish families from the Gaza strip, so that the Arabs could live in peace without Jews to bother them. They received farms and hot houses, and all kinds of modern facilities which they could use to build their own little county. A few short years later, the radical Islamic terrorists of Chamas received more votes in an election than the PLO, and started replacing public officials and clerks by dropping them out of 8 story windows.

The PLO had not taken any pains to develop the land that they had received. They had destroyed almost everything. But they did build luxury homes for the rich. They had a few night clubs and a marina. Then when the Chamas took charge, the whole society went on war footing. The children went to terrorist summer camps, and I actually saw the videos of children with war paint on their faces, and toy rifles in their hands practicing jumping through rings of fire so that they would know how to invade Jewish cities, and kill Jews. Then we had a few wars. I don’t know their names in English. I might have even forgotten a few names in Hebrew. I wouldn’t say that we won. But I can assure you that they didn’t either. The Chamas spent all of it’s resources to make weapons. They are making tunnels to cross the border and attack Jewish villages. They used one of those tunnels to attack a group of soldiers, and kidnapped one of them which they took back to Gaza. After bombarding us with rockets for quite some time, we developed a system which intercepts missiles and rockets. After a series of failures in making war against us, but some success in murder and mayhem, they devised a new plan.

This project is called peaceful civilian demonstrations. Just like in Europe which refuses to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Pals of Gaza refuse to accept Israel as a state at all. They want the return of Palestine. They explained to their poor starving people that Israelis don’t shoot at women and children, so they need a lot of women and children in the demonstrations. And cleverly they salted the demonstrations with a relatively small number of blood hungry murderers and vandals. These hoodlums flew kites over the border fence; with attached incendiary devices, which burned the fields of the farmers on the other side of the border. They stormed the Pal side of the border crossing, destroying everything in it, even though this is a life line for them by which Israel sends 100s of trucks bearing food and equipment for them every day. They even destroyed the pipes which bring them natural gas for cooking and heating. And you can learn from this that the blockade that they complain about all the time is not a complete blockade. We don’t want them to suffer. We just don’t want them to import any more weapons. Still the Chamas appropriates the money and goods sent by donor countries, and invests it all in their fight. They are militants. When they started tearing down the border fence (after burning tires to make a lot of smoke so that we wouldn’t see what they were doing), we started shooting.

I just read that we have a new weapon. It was put into use for the first time on Nakba day, the day after the 60 fatalities at the border fence. This is a stink bomb which is dropped by a UAV on a riotous crowd. Let’s hope it works.

home and garden

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the garden behind my home

In the past, I’ve taken you along with me on many a walk, here in Jerusalem. Sometimes in my own neighborhood, and now and then, in other neighborhoods I love. Once, a long time past, I published a series on a number of different communities here. Yet often, after photographing a neighborhood, I feel a sense of frustration. I have such a love for this city… for almost every quarter and every street. Each time I go to the town center, I feel an emotional uplift… and have the same feeling when I am out of town and return to my beloved city. Usually, I would return in my own car, and as I went up the mountain, especially after Ein Chemed, I’d feel this swelling in my chest… of happiness, to be back home, and excitement in anticipation of seeing the city again.

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the perimeter of the block – ‘the gardens of Katamon’

Taking a portrait of a person, one discovers many faces. In Hebrew, the word for face is usually used in its plural form. But it is possible to take a single portrait, and to capture that person that we or his or her acquaintances know. I have done that many times, but when coming to photograph this city, or a part of it… I always have the feeling that I have left out more than I have captured. There is so much here. Recently I got to know a blog which regularly publishes a photo with the title ‘1000 words’. I asked the blogger where the words were, and she told me that she’d heard a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that sometimes that is true. But I have often thought that words, or a painting, have a great advantage over photography. The artist is free to produce those delicate variations that don’t make it into the photo.

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As some of you may remember, I moved to a new home about four years ago. It’s a very nice home, in a pleasant residential neighborhood. I have a neighborhood park right behind my home, so it serves almost as a personal garden. I’ve published some photos of it and the immediate surroundings, in a number of posts since I moved. I couldn’t ask for more. But today I want to introduce you to a small building project in the middle of the city, that is sort of hidden away, not far from the German Colony, which is one of the up beat neighborhoods these days. It is called ‘the gardens of Katamon’.

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It is built on a square piece of land with three and four story houses sitting in line at the perimeter of the block. Their faces towards the center, which is a landscaped park with trees, flower bushes and grass. It’s a fine place to visit, which I do occasionally. And I’m sure it’s a great place to live. I’ve visited that project since it was built, about 20 years ago, and always thought it must be one of the best places to live in the whole city. I get a sense of completeness when walking there. I imagine that the people who live there must surely live happy lives, even though I don’t know anyone personally who lives in one of those homes.

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Even so, it wouldn’t be the right place for me. We all have our personal tastes and particular demands when looking for a home. Some people like the excitement of the center of town. Others want a grocery store just a few steps from home. Lots of people like to live close to work, or close to where their friends live. There are people in our city who would only consider living in a neighborhood where most of the people have the same religious or cultural inclination as they do. Only the luckiest among us are able to find a home in the neighborhood we want, available at an affordable price, and fulfilling all of our demands including the way it looks. But most of us here are very happy to be living in this city that we love.

 

Most of these pictures are from an album of the place found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shimonz/albums/72157696040847104
Those of you who would like to revisit the post in which I shared the environment of my new home are welcome to find it here: https://thehumanpicture.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/in-the-vicinity/

a Jewish lion

You remember that picture of the modest mermaid that I’ve already posted here twice over the years? There are certain examples of graffiti, signs in stores etc’, that I treasure… for me, they are examples of the Jerusalem spirit even though they are sometimes so marginal that most people don’t even notice. And they are more precious to me, if I get the impression that they’re not going to last long… like the two-dimensional sculptures I once found on the roof of a school. Those sculptures did disappear quickly… they were probably just an exercise… but I enjoyed the work.

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The concrete or plaster lions are lasting much longer than I expected them to. Someone had the idea to cast a lot of lions, and then let different artists paint them as they pleased for decoration. The lion of Judah has been the mascot of Jerusalem for more than a thousand years, and he is found on every manhole cover in town, as well as park benches and other city properties. But these plaster lions were neither traditional nor did they resemble the animal in nature. The city moved them around a bit after a few were posted in town… and then they were moved again… and recently a number of them seem to have found their niches in stations of the light train. I particularly like this lion because he’s wearing glasses… even though he’s the king of the jungle. As a boy I had to wear glasses, and there are quite a few young scholars in our town with the same handicap.