My junior year abroad

At the age of 60, Edith Pearlman undertakes her own version of Junior Year Abroad -- in a classroom called Jerusalem.

Published August 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Sometimes Nehama got annoyed at me. Fire flashed from her slate-colored eyes. My tenses were mangled, my spelling corrupt and my penmanship! -- a disgrace to civilization.

Most of the time, though, during our twice-a-week Hebrew tutorials, Nehama exercised a quiet vigilance: the very attribute you might expect from a woman who emigrated from Berlin to Palestine as a girl, lived under the British Mandate, endured the Second World War, hailed the Partition and suffered through five further wars. At 78, retired from the classroom, she still worked privately in her apartment up the hill from the Jerusalem Theater.

And I? A jeune fille of 60, I lived in an apartment down the hill from the theater. I was taking a Junior Year Abroad. People were disconcerted by the airy claim. You've left your husband at home? (This question was accusatory if asked by a man, wistful if by a woman.) He's minding the shop, I'd answer. You're writing a new book? I'm writing letters only. Then you're conducting an inner voyage -- you're in Israel to get to know yourself!

I let them think that. But they were wrong: Or, to be as precise as Nehama would wish, they were right only in a general sense. We all -- wherever we are -- make daily voyages of self-discovery. I had come here to get to know not myself, but Jerusalem.

I was learning the city by tramping its streets. The map was my syllabus. The local tradespeople were my sociology text -- immigrants and their offspring who had been pouring into the country since its beginning. I bought fruit from a Moroccan with a corrugated face and the manners of a correct Parisian. I bought pickles from an energetic Hungarian. A Romanian sold me bread. I got milk and newspapers from the nearby macolet, the store that sells everything. Its youthful proprietor had come from Russia a decade ago. This young man also supplied me with wine, a bottle every other day. To polish off a bottle of wine in 48 hours is not to have an uncontrollable habit; still, after a few months, I became defensive. "I want you to know," I said while paying for a Tuesday-Wednesday fix, "that I buy a lot of wine because I have a lot of company." He looked at me intently. "I'm so glad," he said, with Chekhovian economy.

I was dispatching the wine myself, as we both knew. I never had a lot of company, and in the beginning I didn't have any at all. I was always out, widening my research. Wearing my customary pants and shirt, I wandered through the humble Katoman neighborhood. Respectfully donning a dress, I glided into the courtyards of God-fearing Mea Sharim. Back in drag, I lounged in humus stalls on the crumbling Jaffa Road. I entered every shop, exchanged a sentence or two with every shopkeeper -- scholars who sold religious books and scrap ironware dealers and importers of Italian tiles.

When I wasn't poking my nose into other people's businesses or disturbing the dust of ancient alleys, I sat in gardens, eating figs out of a paper bag. I chose quasi-public gardens -- the grounds of the Leper Hospital, for instance -- and small private ones, their gates forgetfully ajar, like the fragrant forecourt of the Pontifical Institute.

I rode the buses. With determination learned from Israelis, I joined the bus queue even after threats, even after Incidents. Scores of routes wind through the city. I'd board a bus on a whim and get off if I glimpsed an arbor, or a curve of pale stairs, or if my seat-mate happened to mention some unpublicized place -- archives open only every other Thursday, say. In this haphazard manner I managed to visit almost every section of Jerusalem. Ramot Polin, where pentagon-walled apartments create a peculiar beehive effect -- "We love it here," a kerchiefed woman assured me. Gilo, stiff with neo-Oriental arches. East Jerusalem: unroofed houses and backyard chickens. I took one bus to a convent selling wine and bread; I took another to a mall selling T-shirts and towels. In a cafe in a suburb I listened to Louis Armstrong on a jukebox. At the University on Mount Scopus I joined authentic Junior-Year-Abroads at the library. When I tried to withdraw materials, I was asked who I thought I was. But I was grudgingly allowed to read library books in the library, if that suited me.

Meeting people was a snap. Women alone -- particularly women of a certain age -- arouse interest and invite protection. (Women in pairs, by contrast, seem unapproachable.) Some people became friends. Some I encountered only once, but unforgettably. In the Arab quarter of the Old City, a shopkeeper showed me slippers that I ended up not buying. He then invited me to have tea. I said no, thanks. He said: When you don't buy my slippers, you are expressing a preference, but when you refuse my tea you are insulting me. I drank his tea and took in his lesson in civility. And in the Armenian quarter one languid afternoon, the cook of a tiny restaurant told me of the rich insular life of Armenians in Jerusalem. He revealed nothing about his own life, leaving me free to invent several unauthorized biographies.

And loneliness too became a friend: a slightly down-in-the-mouth visitor to be pampered with Brie and a detective novel and a refreshing shower of tears.

I telephoned someone whose name I'd been given. She asked me to a party. There I met the eager young organizer of a volunteer program in an Arab school just outside of the city. "Join us!" And so, most Wednesdays found me in the playground of that underequipped school, getting to know the children and several brisk female teachers and one harsh male, who indicated he'd rather be anywhere but here; did I have connections in New York?

A leftist introduced me to her ardent friends; I marched in demonstrations, learning political science on the hoof. One evening, waiting for a concert to begin, I fell into conversation with a retired diplomat who gave me an impromptu lecture on the importance of water to the Middle East -- more important, he told me, his blue eyes looking through me as if I were water, than democracy, than autonomy, than human rights! Then, remembering his diplomatic manners, he invited me to a party, where I met ... and so it went, until, every so often, in order to return hospitality, I had to buy two bottles of wine at the macolet.

It is a Friday afternoon in late spring. I have joined the weekly procession of Franciscan monks along the Via Dolorosa, stopping at each Station of the Cross. We stop also at the intersection of the Via Dolorosa and El Wad Street; we must make way for the crowd of worshippers rushing pell-mell from prayers at the mosque. For a moment I am in the thick of battle, Christianity warring with the Infidel. Then the Muslims -- who are only going home for dinner -- pass through the square, and the Franciscans advance to the next Station.

I break away and leave the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. In modern West Jerusalem, shops are closing; buses are completing their last runs; people are carrying flowers; a gabardined gentleman with a cellular phone tucked under his earlock is enjoying the final cigarette of the week. The city is closing upon itself. Tomorrow there will be no buses and no entertainment. Shutters of stores will be down. I resent the Orthodox stranglehold on city life; but at the same time I welcome the sweet melancholy that descends every Sabbath.

Meanwhile it is still Friday. I take my usual detour to a leafy cul-de-sac off the Street of the Prophets, where, a plaque says, the poet Rachel once made her home. I'd heard Rachel's name before this year abroad, though I had not read her work; but I had not even heard of Boris Shatz, Benjamin of Tudela, David Elroi. Now I walk on streets that bear the names of these men. I can recite their histories because I searched them out in the library I'm allowed to read in. Benjamin of Tudela was a Spaniard who visited Jerusalem in the 12th century. David Elroi rebelled against the caliph. Boris Shatz founded the Bezalel Arts Academy.

And Rachel? She came to Palestine in 1909, at 19, the age of many college juniors; and she died at 41 of tuberculosis. In her poems she is "alone in a vast land." She too has become a kind of friend.

"Your grammar is slightly less muddled," praised Nehama at our last meeting. Her eyes seemed more like velvet than slate.

"I'll miss you," I said, meaning Nehama; meaning Rachel; meaning shopkeepers, monks, gardeners; neighbors, bus-riders, children; Talmudists, secularists, fanatics. They made up a spirited, enlightening faculty. And they didn't spring a single quiz.

By Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman is a writer living in Brookline, Mass.

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