The weather in Israel this time of year is always unpredictable and changing. For many years, I walked the same route down the steep Gershon Agron Street that was once very quiet on Shabbos morning. I walked in the pouring rain as well as under hot, sunny skies. As the years unfolded, however, it seemed that although it was Shabbos, the vehicular traffic on the thoroughfare increased from year to year.
Chanukah in Israel consists of eight days during which it seems there is a meteorological tug-of-war taking place. As most Jewish holidays are either “early” or “late,” on that score we can say that this year it is kind of early, though over the years it has even been earlier than the Chanukah we are currently celebrating. Chanukah, as the readers know, is the holiday that changed for me forever 29 years ago when my father passed away on the sixth day of the otherwise spirited and joyous yom tov.
I am compelled to explore this theme at this time of year. What can I say and how do I explain it? This is what is on my mind and this is what I am thinking about, and I suppose that writing these words and knowing you’re reading them helps me make my way through my forever redefined Chanukah.
Over most of the last three decades, Chanukah was punctuated by and even identified with that walk on Shabbos morning down (and later back up) Agron Street. That means, of course, in case you are wondering, that as a prelude to this walk we had to have been staying around the Rechavia area of Jerusalem.
At first it was what was called the Jerusalem Plaza, now the Leonardo Plaza. Later, when the family would be with us, it was often in an apartment, on Azza or sometimes Jabotinsky Street. As those who frequent the area know, Jabotinsky is an even steeper and more challenging incline than Agron.
The last few years though I was spared the Agron walk once the Waldorf-Astoria opened for business. That does not mean that we did not walk up or down that street; we did. We had to traverse this main stretch to get up to King George Street, visit friends, and so on.
My father passed away in 1989 — by today’s standard that was virtually ancient times. From that point in time, I’d make that trek at this period on our calendar annually. For many years, at the site where the pristine Waldorf currently sits, there was an assemblage of old buildings, typical pre-state, and even dilapidated edifices that looked like they had been empty for a long time. As the years went by, construction crews appeared and began chipping away at the inside of these buildings, trying, it seemed, to somehow preserve the valuable or maybe just nostalgic exterior while slowly but surely turning the inside into a world-class landmark, a structure that would one day in the future win international awards as a leading global Jerusalem hotel.
So year after a year, sometimes twice a year, I walked down Agron to daven either at the Kotel or somewhere in the Old City. As I recall now, for years — I don’t know how many, but let’s say about ten — as I walked by this site I thought to myself “What is the plan for this place?” and “At this pace they are never going to finish,” and other thoughts along those lines.
Years before the Waldorf project commenced, I would have to walk along another massive construction site that seemed to me was never going to be completed. That is now the hub of the city, the outdoor Mamilla Mall. I’m sure, though I do not recall specifically, that the two projects certainly overlapped for a time, and, frankly, that busy little corner of Jerusalem was one enormous construction site on which I was certain work would continue for many years, perhaps even decades.
Strolling on Agron Street is a different experience depending on which side of the street you are walking on. One side has this sprawling parkland where groups gather and people picnic sometimes when the weather suits. Then as you get to the top of the incline there are a few stores, a juice place, an art gallery, and a very busy SuperSol supermarket.
On the other side, beginning up near King George Street, is the flagship synagogue of the Conservative movement in Israel. I’ve perused their schedule posted on the outside wall of the shul with daily and Shabbos minyan times, but I really have not witnessed a significant number of people clamoring to attend the shul on a level with the others in the neighborhood. No, I’m not passing judgment; I’m just saying that it has been a lot of years and that is the way it is.
After the Fuchsberg Center, there is a monastery I have never seen open to any traffic, people or otherwise, moving in or out. Then there are a few set-back apartments that look relatively new, followed by the big, imposing, and somewhat problematic American Consulate structure that dominates the long sloping block.
For decades now, we have been walking past the building that is carefully guarded by an array of burly, no-nonsense security personnel wearing tan slacks and dark-blue windbreakers in all weather, so I assume they are wearing zipped-up jackets regardless of the heat outside because they are armed.
Sometimes we make eye contact with them and say hello, but it is rare that we are acknowledged in return. Perhaps that is the protocol. They are doing their job, and their presence keeps the area safe, that’s for sure. The problem they pose is not one you can readily discern from the outside.
You see, this American consulate is one of only two in the world that functions independently of the U.S. Embassy in the country and is not answerable — as of yet anyway — to the U.S. ambassador, David Friedman. The other such arrangement is in Taiwan.
In the case of the consulate in Jerusalem, the independence, so to speak, is a declaration of the fact that the status of Jerusalem is still unsettled according to the U.S. State Department. The consulate, though it is present in the part of Jerusalem that will always be a part of Israel even if, G-d forbid, the city was one day divided, exists primarily to serve the Palestinian and non-Israeli population of the city. There’s no question that though it is a longstanding policy, it is still unbalanced and plainly discriminatory. Let’s hope it changes soon. Anyway, next time you walk by that is something to think about.
These days, there’s an assortment of crown jewels in Jerusalem, and the Mamilla Mall is certainly one of them. The finely appointed mall has stores that are busy until midnight some nights, and in a week like this, as we celebrate Chanukah, the Mamilla stretch is one big party into the wee hours of the morning. Last year, after the dancing and singing to celebrate the chag, it was reported in the news the next morning that present among the throngs of people was a delegation from Bahrain, a Muslim country with no diplomatic relations with Israel. It was obviously a hint to a possible peaceful future and much more.
The weather in Jerusalem this week calls for mostly sunny skies but the possibility of some seasonal rains as well. Daytime temperatures will be in the mid-50s and in the 40s at night — a little cool but nothing unusual. I think if I was there this Chanukah, I’d probably need a sweater and a light jacket in order to stay warm on that walk up Rechov Gershon Agron.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.