IS JERUSALEM ALL CHANGE and discombobulation and madmen? I went to see Yehuda Amichai, who observes a higher calling than politics; he makes poems out of Jerusalem’s stone, a profession best described in his own lines:
All the generations before me donated me, bit by bit, so that I’d be erected all at once
here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer. . . .
He writes often of places like Damascus Gate and of the tourists who throng that portal. In fact, he had a new poem titled “Tourists” in his pocket when we set off for a walk to Mahane Yehuda, the marvelous old Jewish market that occupies several blocks off Jaffa Road.
Yehuda Amichai looks like his poetry, as Byron looked like his. He is deceptively humble, short and round and rhymed chin to elbow to knee. His mobile face beams with sadness or frowns with joy.
I asked him how it was possible to live and write in Jerusalem without falling into the abyss of political agonizing.
“I am a working poet,” he shrugged. “I am attached to no institution. I must make poems for my bread.”
And, I soon discovered, for his cheese and lettuce and candy and beef, for before long we were within the mobbed confines of the market, streets and lanes lined with hundreds of shops, stalls, carts, stands, and counters selling foot-wide heads of lettuce, two-pound radishes, whole barrels of olives, great wheels of cheese, blocks of rich chocolate, heaps of cashew nuts and pistachios, stacks of still warm bread, baskets of apples, apricots, tangerines, and oranges, shoes, cigarettes, and taped American music, and, of course, hummus.
I was reminded of his new poem:
. . . you see that arch from the Roman period?
It’s not important:But next to it . . . there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.
For those who prefer the Roman arch, Jerusalem has a wonderful new one on display, just beneath and to the north of Damascus Gate, the most impressive of the 11 (4 closed) that pierce the Old City walls. It was uncovered during construction of a new amphitheatered entrance to the old gate.
Yitzhak Yaacovy was admiring the ancient arch when I met him there. He is the municipal officer responsible for East Jerusalem, and to him has fallen the task of continuing the public works that began in 1967: replacing the antiquated sewer system of the Old City with a new one, putting in electricity, replacing the forest of ugly television antennas that defaced the low skyline with cable, and repaving the lanes and streets.
“It is a tedious and boring job,” Yitzhak said as we made our way toward an Arab coffeehouse. “We work hole by hole, street by street, and plan to have water and electricity in every shop and house. We have completed the Jewish and Christian Quarters and are working on the Arab section.”
The city has yielded up treasures during the renewal—great paving stones from the time of Christ found during sewer construction along the Via Dolorosa and now incorporated into the living street.
“Why put them in a museum?” Mayor Teddy Kollek later asked me. “This should be a living city; there is a certain feeling to walking on 2,000-year-old stones.”
The only mayor that Jerusalem has had since reunification is a stocky man now nearing 72 but with undiminished energy (page 510). Often called the only world statesman who operates out of a mayor’s office, Teddy is credited with an evenhanded approach to problems that would drive other men to an extreme—and denounced by those for whom he has not kept his promises.
His comfortable but modest office in West Jerusalem, near New Gate, is a small gallery of old prints, lithographs, and watercolors of Jerusalem.
“We must do many things quietly,” Teddy told me. “Everything works as long as it is not publicized. The Arabs are apprehensive. If they cooperate, they do so at great risk from Arab terrorists. One lawyer was willing to run for office in the city, but he was told he would have to drive around in an armored car for the rest of his life.”
In the elections of 1978, Teddy won in a landslide that included 9,000 Arab votes—twice the number cast in 1973, but still less than 20 percent of eligible Arab voters.
“Jerusalem must maintain its traditional mosaic,” he told me. “I’d like to see Arabs treated here the way we would like to see Jews treated in the Soviet Union, or anywhere else.”
He is praised for accomplishing some important negatives—cutting a planned hotel by several floors and keeping the Hilton tower in far West Jerusalem. Six of seven tall buildings on drawing boards disappeared.
Teddy’s international reputation comes in part from his ability to raise significant sums of money from Jews around the world to improve the amenities of life in Jerusalem. His instrument is the Jerusalem Foundation.
Since its inception in New York in 1966, the tax-exempt (in the U. S., Britain, and Canada) foundation has poured 80 million dollars into more than 400 city programs, ranging from reconstruction of the earliest Jewish housing outside the walls to presentation of Arab plays in the Old City.
The Jerusalem Foundation is also helping archaeology come ever closer to finding the palace of that renowned first king of biblical Judah and Israel, David. They are looking along the flank of Mount Ophel, which runs southeast from the city wall and overlooks the Kidron Valley and the Gihon (“gushing”) Spring.