Keeping Kosher in the New Jeru

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, June 23, 2009 was originally posted on June 29, 2009.

DAY 10:  “This is going to sound weird,” I started to say to the unknown uniformed girl next to me on the public Egged bus, “but do you mind if I take a photo of you, holding your gun, and your purse?  I just think it’s funny.”  Noa (that was her name) happily obliged.

When traveling around Israel, it is common — very common — to see youths in uniform, walking around everywhere with semi-automatic rifles strapped to their torsos.  Service in the Israeli army is compulsory to all kids out of high school, and all of them in uniform are required to carry their weapons to be on call in case of an emergency attack.  Girls don’t normally walk around with weapons unless they are stationed at a border, which is why it was such a novelty to sit next to one; Noa worked on the border with Egypt, but was on the bus on her way home for some time off.  Despite what I had thought, she did not work at the military base that was visible from the road out of Eilat, with missile launchers in plain sight pointed towards Egypt to ensure their “peace.”

GETTING ON THIS AFTERNOON BUS RIDE out of Eilat was a whole ordeal, and all on account of a little mishap I had that morning.  I had aimed to take the 10 a.m. bus to Jerusalem, so I woke up, had breakfast, and hopped in a cab to the bus station by 9:45.  In a frantic moment, I realized that my passport was not on me, but in my baggage, so I unlocked it, found it and relocked my bag.  Rushing to get a ticket for the 10 a.m. bus, I ran to the ticket counter, only to soon realize I had left my baggage lock keys in the taxi.  Fortunately, the 10 a.m. bus was sold out, giving me four hours to track down my keys.

“Which [taxi] company?” asked the nice old man at the Left Luggage counter.  “There are seven or eight taxi companies, plus many freelance drivers.  It’s a problem.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

“Did you get a receipt?”


He suggested that I check my baggage in, then go out and flag down taxis and ask them to radio the others to see if they had keys in their backseat.  So I did — only to be really confused because all the taxis looked the same, and the different company names were only marked by confusing Hebrew letters.  Only a handful of taxi drivers were helpful, so eventually I went to the Ministry of Tourism to get a list of all the cab companies in town.  Calling all of them on the list — Red Sea Taxis, Keshet Taxis, etc. — I turned up with nothing. 

I figured it wasn’t the end of the world if I just had a way to open the lock, so I went back to the bus station.  The nice old man at the Left Luggage counter simply picked the lock with a skeleton key he had.  Relieved, I went back to the beach, hung out with some watermelon and feta cheese, only to lose my luggage claim ticket in the process. 

(Thankfully I had a memorable face with everything that had transpired that morning.)

JERUSALEM.  THE NAME OF THE 3,000-YEAR OLD CITY alone conjures up images from ancient texts — the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran — for it is a city at the crossroads of religion.  Being a holy city for millions of faithful people of the three big monotheistic faiths, it is therefore a hotbed of religious political tension, especially in the long world history of “Holy Wars.”  But despite its multi-layered culture and history, the city of Jerusalem strives to maintain a harmonious albeit edgy co-existence for its residents.

After the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride, I found myself in Jerusalem’s busy central bus station where it was easy enough to get a cab — and easier-than-expected to get a cab who immediately offered to use the meter, since usually they turn it off and charge you whatever they want.  The nice cabbie drove through the more modern part of the bustling city of Jerusalem, passed the black hat-wearing Haredi Jews, the hijab-wearing Muslim women, the cross-wearing Christian pilgrims, and everything in between.  Life in the modern city was just like life anywhere else in most parts of the Western world, only with much more of a religiously-diverse fashion sense.  The modern city was also gearing up for the upcoming Gay Pride Parade, where Israeli and Palestinian gays would put boundaries aside and unite for their common gay cause — while relgious groups would naturally protest them on the sidelines.

The taxi brought me to the Jaffa Gate, the main gateway through the ramparts of the Old City, where my hotel was located.

“I can’t find it,” said Alex, the funny early-thirtysomething man at the desk of the friendly, Palestinian-run Imperial Hotel, just a twenty-second walk from the Jaffa Gate.  One of the oldest hotels in Jerusalem, it was just as Lonely Planet described, a place “Agatha Christie would have felt very at home... with hallways sporting various bits of junk and antiques, collected over 60 years of the hotel’s existence.”

“I called and made a reservation this morning,” I told him.  Alex scrambled through papers and the handwritten roster at the front desk, and couldn’t find my information.  He couldn’t find any record of my reservation, but assured me it would be fine; he wasn’t much up on keeping up with reservation matters anyway for he was just manning the desk while the owner was out for a bit. 

“I’m just the computer guy,” he told me.  With that said, we hit it off on talk of PHP, CGI, Flash and other nerdy web design and coding things.  “I make websites for all the hotels,” he told me.  “But it’s all templated, it’s easy.” 

“Shhh, don’t give away our secrets,” I joked with him.

Alex was also a great help in connecting me to the hotel’s two wi-fi points since I would use a single room in the old hotel as my homebase to travel and work during the remaining days of my trip to Israel (and the Palestinian Territories).  I had a simple room with high ceilings, a veranda to the alleyway below, my own bathroom and, unlike most of the other budget places in the area, hot water.  I dropped my bags off and head out to explore — and see a familiar face.

THE MAZE AND MYSTERY OF THE OLD CITY would come to me the next day; instead I went to see the New Jerusalem first by exiting the Jaffa Gate from where I’d just come from.  The New Jerusalem, or “New Jeru” as I will call it for short, is not to be confused with New Jersey as it is in hip-hop lingo.  In fact, ignore all that; no one really calls it the “New Jeru” in Israel.

“J’lem, as they call it,” said Lily, who I traced to Jerusalem through emails since our time in Tiberias.  She had an early morning flight back to New York the following day and had plans to just stay up all night instead of sleeping in a paid hostel bed for two hours.  I was happy to keep her awake as we caught up on our days apart.  She led me around the Zion Square area, at the intersection of Jaffa Road and the wildly popular Ben Yehuda Street, full of modern bars, cafes, restaurants, and the young crowd it appeals to, including the hippies who had recently organized a “Hugs-Around-Jerusalem” event. 

“Have you had Burgers Bar yet?” I asked my fellow Brooklynite.

“I was just going to ask you that.”

We found the nearest location of the wildy-popular Israeli fast food chain — Israel’s McDonald’s if you will — so popular it had recently made its way to Brooklyn, NY to serve the nostalgic Jews there.  Lily’s Jewish friends had raved about the place, and both of us were curious to the hype. 

“It’s kosher, so there’s no cheeseburgers,” Lily warned me.

“That’s fine.”

What Burgers Bar had in its lack of mixing meat and dairy was a delicious selection of fixings and sauces to complement the already tasty (and optionally spicy) homemade kosher beef patties.  They were served on humongous buns and served with Burgers Bar signature “circle fries” and, if you wanted, beer.  We ate, talked and commented on the young patrons nearby in plain summer clothes still sporting their Israeli army rifles in an attempt to look cool.  “Don’t they know it doesn’t look cool without the uniform?” Lily commented.

While the New Jeru sported many familiar chain places of the modern world — i.e. (kosher) Sbarro’s, The Coffee Bean, McDonald’s — and some local ones like the Starbucks-like Café Hillel, the Zion Square area also retained an old world charm with its cobblestone streets and pedestrian alleys around the centuries-old village buildings.  It was almost like a night in Rome or Paris with musicians on the street and vendor tables selling jewelry and hookahs if not for the constant bag searches every time you walked into an establishment.  Nevertheless, the cool, romantic vibe attracted walking lines of young 18-to-26-year-old Taglit Birthright tour groups, and their young, armed plain-clothed escorts.

“Did you hear what she said?” Lily said to me, overhearing a conversation.  “She told him, ‘I don’t want to be a homewrecker.’”

I glanced over and saw a teenage American girl flirting with a young teenage Israeli soldier.  He stopped and held her hand to assure her that whatever girlfriend he had was nothing and that she wouldn’t be wrecking a home.  Lily and I laughed; Sarit had told us that Taglit-Birthright trips were notorious for breaking the virginities of many Jappy American Jewish girls to their armed Israeli escorts. 

“Well I kept in touch with the guarrrrd… and he invited me to Shabbat dinnerrrr….” Lily tried her best at a Jappy Valley Girl impression of one such hook-up conversation in her dorm room in Haifa.

THERE WERE STILL HOURS before Lily’s 1:45 transport to Ben-Gurion airport, so we went out for drinks — having to alternate alcohol and coffee to maintain a state of awareness.  At a crowded strip of bars, near the popular Zolli’s Pub and The Gent, we were rapidly approached by touts offering us tables in their establishments with promises of free shots and unlimited hookah.  We caved and went to The Gent, only to be greeted by non-attentive “Israeli Service” (a phrase coined by Eric the American Dad); we sat there for a good thirty minutes, trying to flag down a waitress, only to not be given the time of day at all.  “Should we just go?”


Down a quiet alley, we ended up at Shanty, a low-key bar with friendlier service — so much they let me order an “ice caffé” when it wasn’t even on the menu.  The friendly Jewish waitress happily crushed ice for me in a blender and served me the cold coffee drink.  Plus, although never promised, she threw in some free shots.

We ended the night in the company of two other Brooklynites, Lily’s fellow classmates Meir and Melanie, who hated to be labeled “from Brooklyn.”  Meir, hailing from Massachusetts, and Melanie from Long Island (with a slight Long Island Jewish accent to boot), bickered as the young married couple they were, wearing a kippa and headdress of their religiously-observant lifestyle.  “So where are you from?” Melanie asked me.

“Well I grew up in Teaneck, but now I live in Williamsburg.”

“Have a thing for Jew towns, huh?” 

(I found it funny that in New York, everyone associates Williamsburg with hipsters, but outside it is associated with the Haredi Jewish community south of the Williamsburg Bridge.  A religious Jewish guy I met in Tiberius was shocked when I told him I was from Williamsburg with my lack of a black hat.)

Meir and Melanie, who were in Israel visiting family and had been with Lily for the past few days, took us to the Rimon Café (picture above), a popular place with kosher ways; the place was divided right down the middle with a dairy section and a meat section with separate menus.  “This place is an institution,” Melanie told us — so much of an iconic place in the Jewish community that it had been subject of a bombing a while back.

Because Melanie judged every café by its Hot Chocolate Cake, that’s what we ordered and shared in the dairy section, to go with our coffee drinks with milk.  It was the dessert of my real Last Supper in Israel with Lily, my new Catholic-and-possibly-Jewish-one-day friend that I’d fortunately met on my first full day in the country. 

“I’ll see you in New York,” I told her after our final hugs. 

“See you there.”  She went back to her hostel by Zion Square to get her bags while I walked back down to my place in the Old Jeru — not that anyone calls it that, but you know what I mean.

Next entry: To Slant or Not To Slant

Previous entry: Erik Trinidad And The Second To The Last Crusade

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
To Slant or Not To Slant

Previous entry:
Erik Trinidad And The Second To The Last Crusade


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