Monday, October 21, 2013

My First Six Impressions of Jerusalem

1. Just as Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, North of the Yarra vs. South of the Yarra in Melbourne, East Coast vs. West Coast in the U.S.A., and Red States vs. Blue States on Election Day there, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.

I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the woman from whom I was renting my apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.

Even if the guy at reception hadn't mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV's Ben Yehuda Street ("Everybody stays there," he sniffed, after guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem's, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene. He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I can do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.

His sales pitch didn't include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star "economy studio" which, frankly, could have used the build-up more than the city it's in.

2. Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays, the old saying goes (or maybe it's the other way around). But even if you didn't see the cities in action, doing what they do best, you'd have no trouble telling them apart. On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn't be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel's tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain's and Brazil's, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a proper urban experience. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Barcelona and Rio.

If I prefer Tel Aviv ever so slightly, despite my obsession with cities that offer mountain views, it's only because it's warmer there. Still, even after less than 24 hours in Jerusalem, I think I'd be more than happy lingering indefinitely in either one.

Guys to the left, ladies to the right.
3. Apparently, women in Jerusalem are more comfortable with public displays of holiness than men are. The latter get more than twice as much prayer space along the Western Wall, but considering the number of praying people on the men's side vs. the number on the women's side, a switch might be in order. At first, I tried to enter the women's domain, because I wasn't paying attention, and I just assumed that the side with the line was where I needed to be. I've done that before when going to the restroom, and I don't need to tell you where I almost ended up!

4. Maybe the ladies in Jerusalem are making up for childhoods spent largely out of sight. During my first afternoon walking through the old city, I saw multiple groups of boys under the age of 10 who were playing and hanging out with their friends as well as solo ones who were helping adults mind the stores. But I saw very few girls under military age who weren't tourists anywhere in the old city, which made me wonder where they were all hidden away.

5. Want to get your money for nothing in Jerusalem's old city? Don't approach tourists at the various gates or at key spots asking, "What are you looking for?" (I got that one so many times during my first afternoon in the old city, I thought I was on Grindr!), and put away the red string.

Pick a spot slightly removed from one of the major attractions, and greet a random passerby with an even more random question ("Did you enjoy the Jewish Quarter?", for instance, right outside the Moslem Quarter). Don't ask if they need any help because that will give away your agenda as quickly as pouncing on them at one of the entrances to the Western Wall. Once you've gotten their attention, offer a little information about yourself, then ask something about them. Keep the small talk going, and once they've let down their guard, apologetically make a small request: "Do you have any shekel that you can spare?"

Only the coldest-hearted tourist will be able to turn down the friendly local they've just spent several minutes talking to. I certainly wasn't going to deny the older gentleman who tried this ploy on me. He was rewarded with 10 shekel (roughly $2.80) for his efforts. But as Roger Daltrey once sang on the 1971 classic by The Who, I won't get fooled again.

6. If you can judge a city by the coincidences it offers, then I was completely sold on Jerusalem by the end of my first night here. While exploring the areas that the Hillel 11 receptionist recommended, I came across a walkway off Agrippas in the Mahane Yehuda district that reminded me of those covered outdoor food courts in Bangkok and took a stool at the bar with a kitchen set up along the walkway, Bangkok-style.

That's when I noticed the joint's business card. Where had I seen that card before? Oh my God! It was the 6th of May -- only the 5th of May, the sister bar and, as everyone there was quick to tell me, the original version of my favorite place in Tel Aviv. The 6th of May bartender had told me all about it, but I had forgotten that I wanted to try to find it. Now, in one of those magic-moment twists, here I was.

Rani, the cute 20-year-old waiter with near-flawless English and perfect teeth who spent his night off drinking with me, raving about Jerusalem (repeating the Hillel 11 receptionist's point about all of its distinctive barrios), and introducing me to his friends (most of whom were also there on their night off) was even more impressed by my twist of fate than I was was. (Incidentally, Rani scored major cool cred by incorrectly guessing my age as 32. His response when I told him that I'm as old as Jennifer Aniston: "What? You're not 50!" Sorry, Jen!)

Despite another adorable bartender peddling free booze, 5th of May was as different from 6th of May as the cities they're in are from each other. If I liked 5th of May even better than my first love, it was because of the alternative crowd (ridiculously friendly and huge for a Sunday night) and the music, an engaging mix of '90s house, '80s new wave, Pixies, Janis Joplin, Jamiroquai, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, and assorted weird shit (like the coolest remix of Barbara Mason's 1965 classic "Yes, I'm Ready") from the personal playlists of 5th of May's various employees, none of whom had a clue what the names of any of the songs were. I haven't procured a single souvenir since I stepped foot into Israel, but I'm not leaving Jerusalem without that soundtrack.

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