As dusk was falling over Jerusalem, I clicked my phone for one last shot of its savanna wildlife.
My workday brought me to some pretty interesting places, including an abbey near Beit Shemesh where the nuns wear white Obi Wan Kenobi hoods, keep silent for years and fall to the church's floor in ecstasy during prayer. It ended at Jerusalem's "Biblical Zoo" where animals are only kept if they are mentioned in scripture (they're pretty sure the panda is in there somewhere).
Seeing that such was the case, I decided to head downtown and visit my friend Gilli Stern. From Gilli's window no Jerusalem Giraffes are visible, but you can see the Kingdom of Jordan: mountains the color of dolce de leche rising beyond the Old City's ramparts. Smoking on the balcony, Gilli reminisced about sneaking onto those ramparts one night in July. The idea was yours truly's and we were joined by Theo, Erika, Magen and Morane.
"Ever since we did that, I've come to thinking about how little I know of the Old City," he said. "I actually started asking people to walk me down their 'Jerusalem trails'."
This was a request. Most native Jewish Jerusalemites, myself included, have a strange relationship with the urban miracle beyond the walls. Ever since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, we mostly avoid it fearing "danger" or simply skip it, thinking it irrelevant to our lives (it's not, especially on the human rights level, since our tax money funds a lot of discrimination in East Jerusalem, and our votes sanction it).
The change occurs when a teacher arrives to open our eyes and ears and lips and nostrils and fingers to all that's there. In my case this teacher was my cousin Karen, born in Paris and thus free of Zion's little paranoias. Twelve years ago she simply assumed I knew of some Ethiopian monks living on the roof on the holy sepulchre church, among sacred trees that they are not allowed to touch. Never have I heard of such stuff, and you can't beat that kind of tease to the curiosity, I headed in.
Gilli was now putting together an entire faculty of such teachers, and I was recruited to give tonight's lesson. I picked Damascus Gate as our port of entry, Ja'far's knafe bakery as station #1 and Cafe Central, down Al-Wad St. as a place in which to wash down with tea and coffee the excess sugar consumed at station #1.
Big mistake, there was a lot of sugar in that coffee. There was sugar in the atmosphere too: in the calm of the card games and the hospitality of the owner. We head into Palestinian hangouts anticipating spice - a brawl, perhaps, involving us getting murdered, of course. We end up sitting leisurely trying to get a ring of Nergila smoke to form a halo around some guy's head, for the photo's sake.
Our love of halos, as well as a few German friends Gilli made at the pub, led us to station #3: The Austrian Hospice. This hospice isn't a place to die in, but a hotel for pilgrims, owned by the Catholic church (and hence decorated with many a halo). It's a chunk of Europe located in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, and when I say Europe, I mean that I once waltzed all night there to a string band, at a New Years' ball.
No ball tonight, but the friends were there, showing us their artwork on the computer, drinking Taibe beer and shooting the scheisse.
Leaving the hospice late, we found ourselves on very quiet streets. The Old City empties at night. We took the hint, skipped on the monuments, mausoleums, secret cycterns, wailing walls (yes, there's more than one), holy trees etc., headed for Jewish West Jerusalem and started looking for sufganiot, the jelly filled donuts that are a staple Jewish winter food. All bakeries have run out of them already, except one at the Machne Yehuda market. We ended up sitting on an empty stall of the market, mixing the knafe in our stomachs with some Yiddishkeit, for good measure.
Ach, Yiddishkeit. Where else does it mix so naturally with zebras, Johann Strauss, rose water and ecstatic vipasanuns? You tell us.