Listen to this article
Excuse me, are you Jewish?” The man, wearing the black garb of the ultra-Orthodox, was bobbing his head in prayer over a book, but looked up to ask this.
It was Saturday, and I was wandering down a deserted street in west Jerusalem. When I said no, he persisted. “You’re sure you are not Jewish? Your mother is not Jewish?” I said no, I was pretty sure Mom was not Jewish.
“Can you help turn on some lights for us then?” he said, showing me into a nearby synagogue, where I obligingly flicked on some switches.
My brief turn as Shabbos goy came during the second month of my posting in Jerusalem, where I moved in January 2013 for the FT.
I am originally from the US (Connecticut), but have worked my whole career outside the US, and have lived in Vienna, Brussels, Warsaw, Johannesburg and London. When I first moved to Jerusalem, I lived in temporary housing on Bethlehem Road – yes, it really runs toward Christ’s birthplace in the West Bank, though you must detour to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint in the separation wall.
The move did not go entirely smoothly: the ship bearing our household goods from London hit a sandbar near Alexandria, delaying the container’s arrival by three weeks.
The passage of our two cats into Zion was slowed by Israeli bureaucracy at Ben Gurion airport; I had to pay customs duty on the air freight – despite my protests that they were worthless, except possibly to a glue factory – and sign a form saying they had not transited Yemen or Sudan.
Before I visited Jerusalem for the first time with my partner, Germán, we imagined a grand city on the scale of Rome or Istanbul, the navel of the world. In fact, if you strip away the myths, religious spin, and political baggage, Jerusalem is a provincial, dusty, pretty-in-places, boring-in-others Middle Eastern city on a windy plateau.
Jerusalem offers endless material for the journalist or history buff, uninterrupted sunshine eight months a year, and cheap and delicious year-round produce. Pomegranates are cheap enough that we squeeze them to make juice for breakfast. The UN people here give Israel the sly nickname “Club Med”, though this underestimates the downsides of life here.
We found a flat in a former Arab merchant’s mansion in Musrara, a neighbourhood just on the Israeli side of the Green Line, the demarcation between Israel’s 1948 borders and the Palestinian territories it conquered from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day war. Jewish Israelis call border neighbourhoods like ours “on the seam” – the tectonic line where the Arab east and Jewish west meet and mingle, though uneasily.
Up the hill is Jerusalem’s city hall; Palestinians trudge up our street to renew their drivers’ licences there. Down the hill is Damascus Gate, the Ottoman-era stone portal to the Old City’s Muslim quarter, where we descend to buy our fruit and veg from the market stalls.
When Israel’s recent war against Hamas ended in a ceasefire in August, Palestinians shot off fireworks in celebration there; I was bashing out a news story for the FT. I went out on our balcony to verify this, and put a line in my piece.
Our neighbourhood straddles a third invisible line too: the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim begins a few blocks away. There is a children’s playground below our house, where kids swing, play and shout on Shabbat, wearing starchy clothes: black trousers and skullcaps for boys; prim dresses for the little girls. The playground is also a trysting spot for Palestinian teenagers from the Old City, which has few public spaces where young people can meet away from prying eyes.
Jerusalem is the sixth foreign city Germán and I have lived in together; for us, home is what we carry with us or put on the walls. When the container arrived, we unpacked the dining table, a prized possession that has accompanied us around the world. We painted the salon the same soothing shade of sky blue we had in Johannesburg, another sunny, exotic place that, when we first moved there felt like the end of the earth.
The stew of cultures and religions in Jerusalem is fascinating and disorienting. The call to prayer wafts up to our house from the east’s many mosques five times a day. On Sundays, church bells sound at Notre Dame, a Vatican-owned complex one block away, which has a wine bar on the roof. On Friday evening, the traditional shofar (horn), amplified, marks the start of Shabbat.
The Middle Eastern work week runs Sunday to Thursday, but my stories are in demand from colleagues in London on Fridays, too. Like most of my journalist colleagues, I end up working six-day weeks; during busy times like the Gaza war, seven. At times, the Jerusalem beat feels like an extended military assignment; you are never really off-duty.
After six years in huge, overscheduled London, where engagements are planned months in advance and navigating the Tube to another neighbourhood can feel like foreign travel, we find social life here informal and pleasingly spontaneous. Jerusalem, with less than 1m people, is so small that on any extended walk through town we will run into someone we know.
We have a circle of journalists, diplomats, and local Israeli and Palestinian friends. The diplomats and UN people work Monday to Friday, so one needs to plan around this. Guest lists must be drawn up carefully; some friends have irreconcilably conflicting views.
We spent Christmas here last year – just another work day in Israel, and that much more fun for it. We joined a queue of Arab Christians in the Old City for a small tree, dispensed for free by the Jewish National Fund as a conservation measure to prevent people from cutting down evergreens in Jerusalem’s forests.
The denizens of the Holy Land, Israelis and Palestinians, drive us crazy sometimes. There is a zero-sum quality to public interactions here; blame this, if you will, on history or the current conflict. The drivers are the worst we have ever seen. If you are generous to another motorist, it marks you as a freier (sucker), Israeli friends have explained to me; wave one through who is waiting to join the main road and the four behind him will cut in front of you too. None will thank you for letting them through.
Flying rocks are another hazard. My FT rental car has a dent in the boot from a stone thrown by a Palestinian teenager in the West Bank city of Hebron, where I was covering a story and took an inadvisable route out of town. On the border between our neighbourhood and Mea Shearim, Orthodox children sometimes gather on a traffic island on Shabbat – when they consider driving an affront to the Lord – to pelt stones at passing cars. Ours has not been hit but friends’ have.
The rewards of Jerusalem outweigh any unpleasantness, though. The religious spectacles are predictably stunning: At Ramadan, Damascus Gate and the Old City are strewn with fairy lights. On Orthodox Christian holidays, Palestinian scouts march through the Old City with bagpipes, a legacy from the British Mandate. On Holy Week last year, I watched as American Christians goaded a blood-spattered man dressed as Christ down the Via Dolorosa, in Bible Belt accents: “C’mon Jesus! C’mon Jesus!” On Purim – the Jewish Halloween, when it is a mitzvah (good deed) to drink, the strait-laced Orthodox get plastered, and this can be amusing to see.
The quiet of Shabbat, when the city grinds to a halt, is a wonderful blessing, even for non-Jewish residents like us. When the relentless sun sinks, in late afternoon, the Mount of Olives – which we can see from our balcony – turns incandescent in refracted light and the Old City’s stone walls glow yellow and pink. Only a churl would think this was anywhere other than God’s country – the centre of the world.
What you can buy for . . .
$300,000 A two- or three-bedroom apartment in East Talpiot
$1m A four-bedroom apartment in the German Colony, Baka
$2m A penthouse in the cramped but trendy market quarter of Nachlaot
Reed’s verdict . . .
● Mild, sunny climate
● English is widely spoken
● Delicious, abundant fruit and vegetables
● Housing and other living costs are expensive
● Communal and regional tensions are high
● Isolated from its neighbours, claustrophobic at times
● At the Austrian Hospice, in the Muslim Quarter, you can drink kaffee melange and view the Old City from the roof
● West Jerusalem shuts on Friday for Shabbat, but there are free-flowing drinks at the train station, or at Christian Arab restaurants in the east: Azzahra, or the Tent Restaurant in Beit Sahour
● Some of Jerusalem’s best food can be found at hole-in-the-wall restaurants at the Mahane Yehuda market. Go on a Thursday evening or Friday at noon
Photographs: Eyal Warshavsky