Ben Yehuda Street Jerusalem


I have gotten off the sherut monit early so that I can walk through nighttime Jerusalem for a while. I am standing at the top of Ben-Yehuda Street and 15 years fall away from me. I am 18 again and staring in awe at the people around me. I see Jews begging for money and I see Jews who look as though they have just stepped out of a Polish Shtetl. I see a one legged man on crutches hobble up and down the street asking for money. I hear a babble of languages; American accented English, Russian, French, Arabic and loud, boisterous Hebrew. I walk past souvenir shops, cafes and an ice cream parlour. I look at the Jerusalem stone and wonder how this city came into being and question my place in the world. I see my 18 year old self viewing this street with wonder in his eyes and then a sudden comprehension that almost everyone here is a Jew, just like me.

I stand there at the top of that street and allow the years to fall away, allow myself to feel the emotions and curiosity and fear that filled that 18 year old not boy, not yet man. The 33 year old me turns his collar up against the Winter chill and starts to walk. The same symphony of speech greets my ears now just as it did then as the babble of languages that can only be heard all together in this city wash over me. I hear snatches of conversations, some I can understand some I can’t. The man with one leg is gone and there seem to be a lot more kids all around me than I remember, in fact, there seems to be a veritable sea of life, hustling, bustling and enjoying the start of their weekend.

I see the same Stimatsky book shop that was here the first time I strolled through this street half my life ago, I see a lot of things that look the same. The restaurants have changed but the atmosphere hasn’t. I peek down the little side roads and see a mass of humanity sipping steaming hot coffee from seats outside a dozen tiny restaurants, I see loads of kids doing nothing outside an ice cream parlour, most definitely the very same ice cream parlour that the 18 year old me visited to buy vanilla, chocolate, mint milkshakes. I was sure I was the only one who had invented that blend. It seemed so important that everyone knew of my new discovery at the time, I raced around telling them all how good it tasted.

Moving a little further on I hit Zion Square, it has been revamped, the main change being that it looks very clean and has has a light rail track running next to it. The absence of a permanent police and border guard unit is also a striking change, it seems they have been replaced by a couple of taxis. There used to be a small kiosk on the East side of the square selling duty free cigarettes and just about everything else that other stands didn’t. They also used to exchange British cash for Israeli cash at a suspiciously good rate.I follow the light rail tracks and walk along this clean, clean, Jaffa street and lament the absence of the seedy bars and clubs I used to know that enthralled the 18 year old me. The places that were so dark you could barely see anything unless it was a neon sign and they seemed to be everywhere.

I think back to Gallianos, the pub in the Russian compound where I first learnt to drink and then drink some more. I poke my head into Mikes Place and find a clean, sanitised bar with a nice pool table. Everyone there is so nicely dressed and polite, there’s no chance of a fight breaking out at all and I wonder what happened to that beautiful shit hole that they used to have. The place where Joey the big, Canadian barman told me stories of his army service. That place of my year off that was filled with dark characters, the place where the fear of violence and the relief of never actually seeing any mixed with the alcohol to make every outing an adventure. I leave this new Mikes Place behind and carry on my journey down Rehov Memory.

The street’s well maintained now,coffee shop follows restaurant, follows delicatessen. I wonder what happened to the place where I used to buy a schnitzel in a baguette from a big fat Russian guy with Ginger hair after a long, drunken night out in one of the seedy bars that no longer exists. I walk down the nicely paved street and head through to the new shopping heaven Mamilla. I can’t even remember what the space was before it was this, but I have found myself walking through an open, pedestrianized palace of designer shops filled with high priced goods. Every building is made with a rock that looks like Jerusalem stone on steroids, polished grey chunks of perfectly cut, square stones have come together to create a haven for Jerusalem’s shoppers to the sweet sounds of a piano that I can’t see.

I walk on through this bustling shopping Mecca, making my way through the throngs of people all around me. There are Arabs and Jews and Christians here with their families, all worshipping side by side at the alter of commercialism. Perhaps there is hope for us yet. There is something curiously similar to Christmas lights strung up above me. I step into a bookshop that has a coffee shop attached and find an expansive English language section. There are so many books, written by so many people, I wonder how I can possibly compete against so many printed words, the thought depresses me a little, Coldplay are performing XandY over the shop’s speakers, it’s not helping my mood. I leave the place and walk back in the direction from which I had come stopping into the North Face shop on my way back. I scorn at the 550NIS price tag for a fleece top and leave, wondering who in Israel can afford to shop here. But apparently there is no shortage of people, they are all around me, fragments of their conversation rebound from my turned up collar.

I make my way back to the main road to the sound of the same piano that I think is being played on the roof of the Mamilla Hotel. I grab a cab and head for 34 Tchernikovski street where friends await with an unopened bottle of Glenmorangie and loads of stories to tell me of things that we did together over the years and the things that we did apart more recently.

I am back in Jerusalem and once again overwhelmed.