by Cantor Jessica F. Epstein
Eli Wiesel wrote, “One doesn’t go to Jerusalem, one returns to it.” In my case this was certainly true as I had lived there for year from 1994-5, and only been back briefly for a week in 2004. This was my time to return.
Everyone who had been there recently told me how much the city had changed, but in many ways it hadn’t changed at all. Yes, there was a new fancy mall and a Ritz-Carlton. Yes, the old derelict train station was turned into a performance space with cafes and artisan’s stalls. But these are minor changes in a city that has weathered war, destruction and rebuilding over millennia. The light rail on Jaffa, the hip bars at the previously grungy shuk (although I still spotted cockroaches the size of small mice there, please eat at your own risk), and the proliferation of clothing stores and nail salons all spoke to a city on the rise economically. But if you go into the neighborhoods, the same apartments are there, the same grocery stores, the same laundry. The quiet streets of Talbiah and Rechavia change little over the decades. Flowers still pour from balconies; children’s laughter is heard in the neighborhood gan (nursery). The fruit seller is still in the same spot. I stayed in a small AirBnB one bedroom cottage with kitchenette in a hidden garden near the Jerusalem Theater. It was a bit spartan, but suited my needs and the location could not be beat nor could the price. Anyone interested can email me for the details. My host, Matty, was very professional and helpful, and I think an AirBnB or other rental really gives you a sense of how Israelis live, and puts you close to neighborhoods with few tourists clamoring about.
As I did in 1994, I came to the city as a student. This trip was an opportunity to study conversational Hebrew at my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with a pilot program called, “Ivrit B’yachad,” Hebrew Together. A five-day ulpan (intensive study only in Hebrew) was envisioned for those needing a refresher. The new provost, Dr. Andrea Weiss, basically created the program that she needed for herself to improve her skills. Emails went out this past winter and I leapt at the chance to study while the girls were at camp. With Rabbi Kulwin’s generosity in underwriting the program expenses, I was one of twenty-five rabbis, cantors and educator alumni who attended this pilot ulpan
You will happy to know I was not in the lowest citah (class)! I was in Citah Bet — squarely between Aleph (the lowest) and Gimel (the highest). Already I was feeling pretty good. Our mornings were spent in tefillah led by Israeli rabbinic students from 8:00-8:30 AM or 9:00 AM, followed by two sessions of classes. My first class was with a wonderful teacher who was there twenty-five years ago as well, the beloved grammarian Dr. Yosi Leshem. Dr. Leshem has literally written the book on Hebrew grammar. He is a calm and thorough teacher and the lessons were completely in Hebrew. We learned day by day exactly how shoreshim (roots of three Hebrew letters) can become nouns. Additionally, we did grammatical work in the Tanach our last two days which was a lot of fun. After this challenging work, we had a lighter class where we learned slang, reviewed how to order in a restaurant, and did more streetwise Hebrew with Rifki Rosner — who was a charming and energetic teacher and an important designer of the program.
Our very first day was a field trip to the shuk with the instructions to buy lunch and only speak Hebrew! We were actually given buttons in Hebrew saying, “Speak to me in Hebrew!” These were a big hit with the guys at the spice shop. Israelis are very pleased to have you learn their language actually — and if you make a few mistakes they easily forgive you. Each team bought foods for a picnic lunch we later made at a courtyard in Nachlaot, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem. It really is worth a tour of the area if you have a chance. That evening we had a dance program, and we were all fairly exhausted by the end of the day. Other afternoons we had lectures in Hebrew on a variety of topics by HUC-JIR faculty including Dr. Michael Marmur who teaches Philosophy and Theology, and often an evening activity as well.
The days flew by and the camaraderie was wonderful. New friendships were made and old one rekindled. I felt my level of proficiency return and rusty words unspoken for decades came back to me unbidden.
Walking back to my neighborhood on the same streets I walked twenty-five years before, a similar heavy backpack on my back and a wide-brimmed hat on my head, it was hard not to think of how much the city has stayed the same and how much I have changed. Half a lifetime ago I was beginning to learn how to be a cantor. Three children, three houses, many rabbis and synagogues later, time spins out from you telescopically. You remember who you were and wonder who you might have been had you made other choices.
The golden stones of Jerusalem are touchstones. We return and return and return to them over a lifetime if we are lucky.