'Modah Ani lefanecha, melech chai vekayam, shehechzarta bi nishmasi bechemla raba emunosecha!'

'I give thanks before you, eternal King, who has restored by soul in the great compassion of your faithfulness!'

Good morning! I can tell by the soft rose light in the room that the sun has already lifted a little over the Jordanian escarpment. I stretch. I sigh. I smile. I wash.

The sunlight has already dressed the Jerusalem stone facing the building opposite- radiantly beautiful in the morning and attired in soft ochre, nacre and ivory. In many countries the buildings lie lazy on the land, trying and often succeeding in blending with the earth, becoming part of the scenery. In Israel the buildings stand to attention, emanating optimism and readiness to accomplish the day's challenges. A cypress tree rocks gently in the early breezes, a thousand dark lace fans glistening with dew and fresh gossamer. The cypresses stand to attention too like guards at their posts around the blocks. The city is alert, even a touch tense, but never utterly dismayed.

A strapping grey dove has just landed on the rail around the roof. Immediately he bows, launches into a long, meaningful paragraph of gurgles and coos and demonstrates his point by strutting and bobbing along the rail. Good morning, Jerusalem!

Follow the quick flight of the dove - he'll take you through my memories of nearly two decades in the Holy City.

It's cold and raining My overstuffed suitcase suddenly disgorges it's contents like a weak clam, sweaters and skirts spill onto the wet pavement while I turn pink and grab it all back. My embarassment gives me a little warmth in the chill winter. I'm a student, and I'm just in the process of moving into my first seminary in Giva'at Shaul. On the one side a confusion of buildings of many styles each vie for a look over the heads of the workshops of Rchov Najara. They all seem to want the best view of Jerusalem forest and the countryside below to the west, over the terraced Judean Hills.

Now I share a draughty apartment with - I'm not even sure now how many- other students, and the radio blasts the news at seven a.m. when I'm really barely conscious and wondering if the bathroom is available. I shiver in layers of sweaters in a cold diningroom, I have a hearty young appetite and my mind ponders the studies of the day. Rabbi Begun will make us laugh. Rebbetzin Henkin will make us think and all will be recorded in tiny script in my notebooks if my hand is not too cold to hold my pen steady.

The light is gold and silver over the Mount of Olives and I'm going down to the cotel to daven Shacharis. I'm working in a women's hostel in the Old City. I delight in every arch of freshly cut Jerusalem stone in the maze like passages, decorated with geraniums and eartherware pottery all around the Jewish quarter. There are a hundred secret courtyards, it would take many hours to really understand the course and destination of each stone passage stairway and the scent of the dust is constantly in my nostrils. I'm thinking about ordering cakes and making sure the hostel will be clean for Shabbos. Last week we didn't have quite enough blankets but thankfully a nearby hostel loaned us more. My mind races over many details- late night conversations with guests, tours in the Moslem quarter, guiding guests to Shabbos meals and committing new addresses and contacts to memory. We also have to clean the place for Pesach!

I am now attending another seminary in Bayit Vegan. The pace of my life has calmed a great deal, my responsibilities now have returned to my own learning as the weather has ripened into summer. The neighbourhood echoes my present lifestyle- residential, respectable, sedate. Each apartment building, attended by its own well kept garden, expresses a certain serious but elegant conservatism. Life is simple, disciplined, a steady regimen of davenning, learning and, of course, eating. I focus on growth in knowledge, growth in spirituality, in maturity, in wisdom through learning from teachers and dealing with relationships in the dorms. Each class is an experience, each teacher is a whole world and the focus is on that teacher for an hour, drawing thirstily anything possible that the face, the voice can impart.

A year or two later and I am a newly-wed in a tiny apartment in Geula. We delight in our sweet, homey little place with eccentric plumbing arrangements, and husband experiments with farfel and cholent, friends visit and talk for hours while I enjoy the latest tapes and kvetch about the nausea of pregnancy. We live on Malchei Israel, the 'downtown' of religious Jerusalem. From our tiny balcony I can watch the passersby on Shabbos, little boys in white crocheted yarmulkes kicking cans along the road, mothers in snoods and wigs pushing their new babies, thinking of Shabbos recipes and clothes sense. Men, walking, hands behind them, proud of their homes and families, their heads busy with the latest local politics, their businesses or their learning perhaps.

Behind the shopfronts of the main artery of Geula where the people parade rejoicing with torches and Torah scrolls and jangling chassidish music, there are tiny sidestreets with a confusion of outdoor stairways, cacti, stuccoed walls, pomegranate trees, corrugated iron, capers, cats, pigeons, children, alleys, delapidated doors, rusty bars, courtyards which appear around corners and lines of washing everywhere.

We have bought a key money apartment in Batei Natan in Meah Shearim. My toddler twins are making mischief in the bedroom and I'm painting the bars on the window while a semicircle of local girls, each with two demure braids, watch this strange woman perform this unlikely feat. I know they will touch the paint if I step inside. On the one side I hear the 'Shma Israel!' -many boys' voices bellow at once from the school in the imposing building of Toldos Aharon. Away to the other side is Batei Hungarin, Hungarische Hauser where neat, clean paved courtyards show dancing shadows of laundry lines- the fresh bright white clothes are already sorted on the lines, even according to the ages of the children within. A beautiful young girl with a long dark braid is standing in the shadows adding the laundry of her smaller siblings. She will probably be doing this for her own children within two years.

A couple of rather eccentric families on the outskirts have ducks and chickens and even one has goats in their yard. Local children collect and gaze through the fences till the residents shoo them away. These little oases of green are like zoos to the local children. At other times the girls play dodgeball or skip rope while the boys play tag for ever around the courtyards, or use the carts of the gemach like mini jungle gyms. Fences surround a garden of trees, almost like a prison but I know here the trees are being protected in order to ensure their survival.

My twins are ready for kindergarten and my new baby is growing beautifully. We are now in Har Nof on the western edge of Jerusalem. Our pleasant building is full of pleasant people and surrounded by a pleasant manicured garden but all this slips completely from my mind as I look out over Beit Zayit and a new sunset with fresh and changing blends of the most exquisite colours. I hear a donkey bray somewhere over on the opposite hill, over the dark expanse of Aleppo Pine. It is so wonderful to live next to a forest and breathe the oxygen its leaves have given us. A flock of bee-eaters glide to and fro over Beit Zayit before they settle down to roost, a wonderful little poem of malachite and luminous chestnut feather. Many afternoons we strolled into the forest with our sweet little ones, watching for new kinds of wildflowers, listening for woodpeckers or partridges or jays, sometimes catching glimpses of these birds as we breathed the fragrant heady resin of the trees. We'd bring them to the deepest park in the wood, knowing that we needed the place for soul refreshment even more than they.

Finally, we return to Neve Yaakov, our neighbourhood of eleven years in the northernmost reaches of the city. The dove has alighted again on his accustomed spot on the rail of the building across from us and is going through his performance again. Over to the east, across the wadi, I peer hard at the grey eroded stony hillside below the Arab town of A Ram. If your eyes are sharp and steady and patient enough you can spot a gazelle or two, stepping delicately along the contours of the hill. The dew has mostly dried on the cypress and the light on the wall now almost throbs in the eyes in its brilliance. How much has the sun climbed in my reverie!

It's time to get to work!

Copyright © 2002 Gila Atwood

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