Bellow, To Jerusalem and back

Security measures are strict on flights to Israel, the bags are searched, the men are frisked, and the women have an electronic hoop passed over them, fore and aft. Then hand luggage is opened. No one is very patient. …

Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, Secker & Warburg, London, 1976.

Reading a memoir written by someone as incredibly able to conjure up images as Saul Bellow is always striking. But it is much, much more striking if the memoir is about a city where you have spent a significant amount of time, also as a visitor, albeit in quite different moments of time. And (I think) it is even much, much more striking if that city happens to be none less than Jerusalem.

… before I left Chicago, the art critic Harold Rosenberg said to me, “Going to Jerusalem? And wondering whether people will talk freely? You’ve got to be kidding, they’ll talk your head off.” (…) In flight, if the door of your plane comes open you are sucked into space. Here in Jerusalem, when you shut your apartment door behind you you fall into a gale of conversation—exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat and prophecy. …

Bellow spent six months in Jerusalem in the fall and winter of 1976. During those momentous months he meets many people, among them politicians (Yitzhak Rabin who was then the prime minister, Teddy Kollek who was then the mayor – and who officially invited Bellow, as we learn at some point during the memoir, some others – although not Golda Meir), writers (young – back then – A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz at some point but also several less-well-known poets) and many other intellectuals, journalists (Jewish and Arab), family members (Russian immigrants), people like his masseur, the Armenian Patriarch. He even goes for dinner with mathematicians and meets Ilya Rips – Bellow’s wife at the time was the Romanian mathematician Alexandra Bellow and she was visiting the Math Institute at Hebrew U while he was on his official visit to people in the city.

… We are invited to dinner by some of Alexandra’s friends—like her, teaching mathematics at the Hebrew University. Pleasant people. … The conversation, as usual, quickly becomes serious. You do not hear much small talk in Jerusalem. Inflation, high taxes, the austerity program make moonlighting necessary. … Alexandra has noticed how busy mathematical colleagues have become. They have to do more teaching; they have less time for research.

After dinner two more guests arrive, Dr. and Mrs. Eliahu Rips. Rips comes from Riga. When the Russians went into Czechoslovakia, Rips, a mathematics student, set himself on fire in protest. The flames were beaten out and Rips was sent to an insane asylum. While there, without books, he solved a famous problem in algebra. When he was released, he emigrated and reached Israel not long before the Yom Kippur War. Since he had no army training, he went to a gas station and offered to work for nothing, feeling that he must make a contribution to Israel’s defense. So for some months he pumped gas, unpaid. He is now teaching at the Hebrew University. He has become not only Orthodox but very devout. Four days a week he studies the Talmud in a yeshiva. …

All this is interspersed with walks in the Old City, with meetings with people in West and East Jerusalem, with living in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in front of the Old City, visiting kibbutzim or even a settlement (Kiryat Arba!) near Hebron.

… Later in the day my friend Professor Joseph Ben-David takes me to the swelling Souk, the public market. On Fridays it closes early. We watch the last-minute pre-Sabbath rush. Perishables are cheap as zero-hour approaches. …

… On my way home, feeling the vodka I’ve drunk with Silk and Schimmel, I pass through the tourists’ lines. But I’ve just had a holiday with two poets (…) The transforming additive: the gift of poetry. You think yourself full of truth when you’ve had a few drinks. I am thinking that some of the politicians I meet are admirable, intelligent men of strong character. But in them the marvelous additive is lacking. It is perhaps astonishing that they aren’t demented by the butcher problems, by the insensate pressure of crisis.

Slowly, Bellow weaves in a very personal perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, allowing many opposing voices to sift through, capturing the pain and harshness of differing viewpoints (the Israeli parents whose son was recently killed, the fields of ’67 and ’73, strewn with corpses, the existential threat to Israel, the memory and fear  –  all of that very real back then and real now, but also the Palestinian girl who proudly stands in front of well-intentioned Jews and tells them she simply doesn’t want them there).

In other hands this sort of memoir could easily become cartoonish, or with viewpoints too narrow or voices confined to the author’s opinions. The author’s opinions are there, to be sure, but they are so cleverly woven into the Jerusalem tapestry of opinions, plans, harsh stories, that a sort of collective call, of collective worry for the city becomes the voice of Jerusalem.

In the end this makes the reading more difficult. The first encounters, peppered by the presence of luminaries such as Isaac Stern, invited roughly at the same time, slowly become heavier. And here is where the memoir becomes a sort of living in Jerusalem testimony: the ever-increasing heaviness of living there, as if gravity was constantly increasing, as if leaving Jerusalem – forgetting its problems, leaving it behind scenes – became impossible after a while.

The memoir formally follows that path. The sadness of leaving such a city is there, very well depicted, but also the sense of relief I am sure many of us have experienced when going back to “normal cities” (London, Chicago, Bogotá) after time spent in Jerusalem. The fact that it takes him a long time to leave the memoir and it goes on and on after having returned to Chicago via London: the conversations with friends, with other politicians, in those two cities but also in a subsequent visit to Stanford, all of them give the impression of lingering Jerusalem, even as far away as California. The appearance of ever differing, ever shifting positions, some of them quite hawkish, some dovish, some more somber about Israel’s future (in 1976), some more positive…


When you visit the Old City of Jerusalem in search of some specific place you might have visited but whose exact location you don’t quite remember, or a place you saw described in some book or a friend mentioned, finding it can be next to impossible. Which alley? Which little door? Was it in the upper passage or in the lower one? Yes, I do remember it was after the shop where olive lamps – wait, the shop with the guy who offered tea but then haggled crazily? No, the one where the guy switched to Spanish and said he has a Ph.D. in history but is just selling sweets. You almost never can find what you look for yet you always emerge with a sense of having been to a magic (dangerous) place.

Of course, this also happens to Bellow:

… Schimmel and Silk are looking for the weavers’ alley. What they find instead is a big stone stable, once part of a princely establishment. The carved ornaments, all blackened, go back to the fourteenth century, so we are told by two friendly young Arabs who are tinkering with machinery here. Oh, yes, the stable is still used, but the donkeys and mules are out for the day. Dennis Silk sensitively interrogates the young men. They speak Hebrew well enough to give information. The information is for me, of course. (…)

We never do find the looms. Perhaps the weavers have taken a holiday. We buy round sesame buns and…


… Kahn insists on showing me some ancient baths at the lower end of the Old City and we ask our way through endless lanes, where kids ride donkeys, kick rubber balls, scream, fall from wagons (…) Kahn asks again for his Turkish baths. A candy seller, cutting up one of his large flat sticky cakes, a kind of honeyed millstone, appears indignant. His business is to sell cakes, not to give directions. We get into an arcade where a money changer in a turtleneck tells us to retrace our steps and turn left. He offers to pay me two pounds to the dollar over the official rate. (…) We make our way out of the arcade and inquire of a stout, unshaven storekeeper in Arab headdress and busted shoes who deals in chipped green glassware. He lights up at our question. Yes, of course, he knows.

After conversation (and coffee, and mentioning Chicago where the shopowner’s son studies medicine and the “friendship” with Bellow when he hears he comes from that city), he leads Kahn and Bellow to the baths and…

… I find myself to my joy in an ancient beautiful hot sour-smelling chamber. Divans made up with clouts and old sheets are ranged against the walls for the relaxing clients (…)
“This is not the place I had in mind. The one I wanted to show you is much older,” says Kahn. But I rejoice greatly in this one and ask for nothing better. (…) “I suppose we must give up on the still older bath,” says Kahn. He compensates himself by telling me about Max Nordau.

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Boris Zilber, during a long walk, at the Gate of Lions. 2016.
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Old City…
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The “new” city
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Tel Aviv – winter – beach

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Sauna / Turkish baths

onlyfornow:

The Turkish baths in Docklands are an interesting counterpart to the gym; the more it is the same, the more different it is.

Both are men only environments populated by people who are friendly but do not know each other and do not want to know each other; living only in the moment and in the experience of the moment, with no questions asked, and yet sharing in that experience and having the camaraderie arising simply from that. Both are simply about the body and the self, including the naked or near naked body.

The gym (my gym, anyway) is full of very beautiful people; perfect physical specimens, muscular, smooth (or, if hairy, perfectly groomed), sweet smelling, sharp dressing, flat stomached, big armed, and tanned.  The Turkish bath, on the other hand, was full of very old, fat, coarse, out of condition men.

But they seem to have, if anything, more self confidence and sense of beingbien dans sa peau than the gymrats.

Picture reblogged from ctatum:  “Marsden Hartley, Finnish-Yankee Sauna, 1939.”

Sauna / Turkish baths