As you might have gathered if you read The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara has figured big indeed, over the last 4 ½ years of my life in Israel.
Musrara has a crazy, eclectic energy which makes the place hard to describe, and hard to forget. When I lived there, I thought that maybe this was because it was a place where so many extremes met: on the edge of Meah Shearim, on the edge of the Russian compound and Yaffo St, on the edge of the Old City, on the edge of East Jerusalem.
“On the edge” sums up so much of how I felt for a lot of the time I was living there. Like “on the edge of a nervous breakdown” (repeatedly); “on the edge” of giving up, a million times already. “On the edge” of something amazing, stupendous, amazing that always seemed to be retreating off another step into the distance the more I chased after it.
I had a real love / hate relationship with Musrara, and I still do.
In terms of sheer drama and street entertainment, it was unparalleled. Cops were constantly being called, neighbors were yelling their lungs out every two minutes, the renegade ‘Nachmans’ were always in the middle of mischief. Every time I turned around, there’d be another 9 year old trying to learn how to vape.
And let’s not talk about all the stabbings and people getting run over in the neighborhood which makes for interesting copy (hey, that’s what sells newspapers!) – but not for great living.
So, when Annette Gendler, a writer friend of mine, gave me a copy of a book called “House of Windows”, which was a collection of essays written about Musrara, I approached it cautiously. Musrara is so colorful, so intense, was it really possible to capture some of that energy accurately in plain old black-and-white?
The book is written by Adina Hoffman, an American writer who moved into Musrara a good 25 years before I hit the neighborhood in 2015. Some of the props and costumes have changed, but so much of what she describes was so familiar, I had the weird experience of looking in on my life through someone else’s window.
Like, some of the barmy locals trying to illegally chain-saw one of the old big trees in the communal space, and only stopping when the cops were called.
Something similar was still happening in my day, except now, the trees were being chopped down by the Arab gardeners hired by the locals to turn the communal space into a concrete temple, replete with its own idolatrous idol.
But her descriptions of popping into the local corner shop for some friendly human interaction after a full day spent alone, tapping away at the keyboard, was something I could so relate to. I could also really relate to Hoffman’s descriptions of feeling alien, and yet so completely connected to all these strange people in Musrara, although like I said, a lot of the props and costumes had changed.
Most of the surly Moroccans she described have either moved out of the neighborhood, got frum, in various ways, or have cashed-in on Musrara’s sky-rocketing house prices and become almost ‘respectable’.
But I was still shocked to learn that Musrara was home to Israel’s infamous ‘Black Panthers’; and that the first street I lived on there had a reputation amongst the locals for being cursed, as so many people had committed suicide on it.
That explained a lot.
The four months I spent in that house were indisputably the most miserable of my life. If living on that street made people feel as bad as I felt, I can only say it’s amazing there weren’t more people putting in for monster prescriptions of sleeping pills at the local pharmacy.
But what shone through the pages is that Musrara has always been somewhere that’s somehow larger than life – both for the good, and for the bad.
Since my failed house purchase (which now that I’ve read this book, I can see is just another ‘typical Musrara’ story), I’ve been living in a much quieter, much more ‘normal’ part of town. In Baka, most of the neighbors keep a polite distance from each other. The police are rarely called. The juvenile delinquents go about the business of trying to set fire to things, and trying to learn how to smoke, in a much quieter, more covert way.
The streets of Baka are way cleaner, much quieter, and (especially now they paved over the communal garden) greener.
And mostly, I like it.
But every now and then, I think about Musrara, that place of high windows, Moroccan mafia and Breslov chassidim, that village on the edge and simultaneously in the middle of everything.