Family Matters: New Love in an Old City

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Family Matters: New Love in an Old City

Robert Hirschfield


Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg.

Who ever saw Jerusalem naked?/ Even archaeologists never did. —Yehuda Amichai

Other than in Israeli poet Amichai’s works—and in the story of King David—Jerusalem is seldom noted as a city of lovers. Writers are usually too busy recycling the bruised holiness of its stones, and the stones beneath its stones, to make room for its small histories of tenderness.

My main reason for visiting the city last fall was to write about the Israeli-American poet Linda Zisquit, whose work I admired and whose most recent book I had reviewed for The Jerusalem Report. Needing a room for a month, I had asked Zisquit to look around for me. She came up with a few names; I hardly expected her quest to reward me with romance.

I pictured the Jerusalem landlady as an elderly woman of rules. Being 72 myself, elderly carried no stigma, neither did it ignite amorous fantasies.

My “first and third landlady,” as Zisquit wryly referred to Sarah, was my first landlady in name only. I responded with a quick yes to her offer of a room. I got back a panicked e-mail saying, “I realize I just agreed to have a strange man around the house. Please tell me something about yourself. Also, I am kosher, which may or may not be a problem for you.”

I told her my mother was a devout daughter of Israel. I was, therefore, “indoctrinated in the ways of kosher.” I also told her I was, like herself, a retired social worker, a quiet man seeking a quiet place to stay.

I was unprepared for the heated volley of e-mails that followed. Landing daily on my computer screen were the sweet and jagged pieces of a stranger’s life (the way love, I realize, often begins in the 21st century): a bad early marriage, a good late one, a mother’s mental illness that merged companionably with my father’s mental illness, a life of spiritual searching. I have a strange devotion to the spiritual quests of others.
My suggestion that we exchange photos elicited from Sarah a warning: Our relationship was still in its chrysalis. Did that mean it could break beneath the combined weight of our wrinkles?

Photos were exchanged. I thought (to myself) she is too old. She thought (to herself) he is too homely. We spent a day or two batting down the coy dogs of romance that were already dropping dangerous plum-shaped words like “needs” and “sex.” Sarah was not, I decided, an apt landlady. I chose to do business with an elderly woman on Rehov Hamelitz in the German Colony. A child psychologist with an ongoing practice.
On the plane trip over. I took ill-advised refuge in Zisquit’s poem, “Porous,” which describes a torturous love relationship:

“Do we know already
before it’s begun—
we disappoint each other.”

I awoke my first morning to a hard Jerusalem rain and a spongy grayness that clung to the ribs of buses along Emek Refaim, the German Colony’s café-lined main drag.

Walking up Rehov Zvi Graetz under my umbrella—Sarah had given me detailed directions to her apartment building in Talbiyeh with little enthusiasm, as if I were delivering a package she did not really want—I felt desolate and stupid. There is nothing like climbing hills with street names that get lost in unnamed extensions to afflict the spirit.

The curly gray hair, the deep lines, I knew from her jpgs, but the humor that softened and moved those lines I did not know. Sarah introduced her little Shih Tzu, Molly, quiet as a cat, as her late husband’s “wife No. 1.” She made aliya from Toronto following his death six years ago. Israel had imbedded itself inside her despite a failed aliya attempt in the ’70s.

Late love in Jerusalem, like romantic love anywhere, results from a head-on collision between the concrete and the inexplicable.

There was the way she delighted in the mystery of the twin-brother dog walkers in her neighborhood who would always ask the same questions about her dog and herself, as if they had never met. And the way her smile would push past some sadness at the edge of things. A sadness that would hide if you came too close.

I would come to see her as a modern-day, existential daughter of Reb Nahman, though she herself felt closer to the mystical universalism of Rav Kook. Early one chilly morning, her arm warmly colonizing my arm, we headed to the Kotel, where she melded in with the Women of the Wall. I watched her from the men’s section behind the back wall.

She was not wearing the Women’s trademark kippa or talit. There was no black tefilin wrapped around her arm. No visible markings of prayer equality in defiance of patriarchy. She had on an ankle-length black skirt—“The dowdy Jerusalem look,” she laughed. “Do I have it?” She had it.
Sarah extended her arms wide, as if trying to gather in as much of the joyous shrapnel of devotion as she could. Lights with which to beat back the darkness.

Nights we would enjoy going to Tmol-Shilshom, a literary café so ingeniously tucked away in the city center that the first time we went we were topographically outwitted and arrived fatigued.

The owner and waitress made a big fuss over us. We got our second cider free. Sarah beamed.

“Everyone loves love,” she said. “Well,” I groused inwardly, “maybe.” Do twenty-somethings also get their second cider free?

The Israeli-American poet Shirley Kaufman described late love perfectly in her “Late Love Poem,” written in her eighties:

“I need your hands
to hold and shape me
smooth my rough edges
into something new.
I’d like to be soft bread
fresh from the oven
fragrant and warm
about to be nibbled.”

I thought of Kaufman whenever we passed Rehavia, pushing Sarah’s laundry cart on shopping expeditions to Mahane Yehuda.

Kaufman had it right about late love. It did marvelous things to your unwatered edges. Gone the drought of years. Gone, simultaneously, Israel’s drought of seven years. Sometimes, we would look at each other and laugh. “That is what is different about love at our age,” I would say to her. “You are able to laugh at things being at the end of things.”

We were like actors swept from the ether into an improbable drama. We took great joy in playing each other’s lovers.
Wandering alone down from Yemin Moshe, with its windmill that looked like it was left there by some Dutchman who found it too big to pack, I caught myself thinking that the stones of the Old City’s old wall had grown softer since my last visit. I knew of course it was my head that had grown softer. I had become infected with a wild tenderness that was the shadow side of reason. Something perhaps to be slotted in the deficit column of late love.

I wondered what Sarah would think. She was wise in the ways and consequences of soft and hard as any good emotional survivor. But I forgot to ask her.

Back in New York (I have been back and forth twice since we met), our relationship has had to adjust to orbiting in two different time zones, to crowding intimacy into Skype’s restrictive imaging. Over her shoulder is the door of her back room, her clothes closet where I keep my backpack. Tiny pieces of Jerusalem charged with the mystery of unnatural familiarity. Sarah smiles warmly at me, extends hands I am unable to touch.

“We have lived long enough to be involved in a virtual relationship,” I joke. “There should be a prayer we could say.” She laughs. She enjoys Skyping. “On Skype,” she says, “my wrinkles don’t show.”

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer whose works have appeared in the Forward, Tablet Magazine and The Jerusalem Report.

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