In Jerusalem, Even the Snow Is Holy

I have only three reasons to wax nostalgic for Jerusalem: three magical days in 1992, when my children and I were trapped in frost.

Until a week ago, eight years after I left Jerusalem − a city with which I have been conducting a love-hate relationship for the past 40 years − whenever the weather forecast called for snow at elevations of 800 meters or higher, my heart was immediately flooded with longing and a sense of missed opportunity. I missed the sudden quiet that descends when the white flakes start to flutter from the sky; the sight of the treetops being capped in white; seeing my children in heavy coats, wool hats and rubber boots running wild in the snow. I longed for the smiles of the Jerusalemites, for whom a day of snow was a holiday; for envious friends to call from Tel Aviv and announce their intention to pay a visit with the kids. I missed the feeling of local pride, because only we in Jerusalem had snow like this (okay, the residents of Safed do too, but who’s interested in Safed?).

Only we in Jerusalem protect one another in times of distress. The minute it started to snow, the secret housewife within me would arise and go forth: the scent of challah baking in the oven would fill the house, blending with the aroma of goulash stewing on the gas burner, together with bolognese for the spaghetti and the aroma of hot chocolate (from real chocolate and marshmallows) that I would make for the kids once an hour.

The first time in my life I saw snow was in Jerusalem, in my first year at university. Wearing a duffel coat (me) and a leather jacket (him), we went for a long walk in the Valley of the Cross and then to the Old City. There I bought a coat of untreated sheepskin that gave off a smell of sinya − ground meat topped with tehina − that made me hungry every time I put it on.

Snow in Jerusalem is unique; it resembles no other snow on the planet. Everywhere else it’s profane snow; in Jerusalem even the snow is holy. I remember well the snowfall of 1992. As usual, it started with a fit of family jubilation. The kids went out to frolic in the snow, I started to cook. In the evening, when our forces returned home safely, while we were still drinking our hot chocolate opposite the picture window, we saw the huge tree in the garden collapse onto the electricity cable and darkness fell upon the face of the neighborhood. Electric heaters went out and within an hour the apartment was bitterly cold – cold of an intensity that overcame even the all-clear siren my father sounded over the phone, consisting mostly of the utterance, “You call this snow? At our place in Bavropa [i.e., Europe, i.e., Hungary and afterward Czechoslovakia], the river would freeze over and you could walk on it. What do I mean walk? You could ride in a cart with horses, even.”

But the electric heaters were the least of it. A power failure also meant the fall of Nintendo, the computer, the TV and all the mother-substitutes my children were used to resorting to.

We spent three days like that, one mother, lacking her partner, who was stuck in Tel Aviv, and three children, one aged 10 and the twins aged 6, huddled beneath a mountain of down blankets on my bed in a room lit by Shabbat and Hanukkah candles and also a few aromatic candles in all kinds of shapes and vanilla and cinnamon scents (it creates a lovely aroma − just ask Sara Netanyahu).

In the absence of other entertainment options, the kids asked their mom to tell them stories about her childhood − which, according to one of the twins, dated back to a time before the invention of electricity, whereas according to his updated brother, “electricity was already invented, but not the telephone.”

“Happy stories,” emphasized the eldest, who was well-acquainted with suffering, driving the point home with the help of a few educational punches. Punches are one way to get warm. So, for three days and nights, I became a domestic Scheherazade, devising and weaving for my children a childhood as marvelous as it was fake, baking them their mother’s life – like Yehuda Amichai’s mother with hot, sweet cookies.

After three days, the children moved to their father’s place − he had a kerosene heater − and I went by bus, on whose roof slabs of ice had formed, to visit my ailing parents. But I still remember those three days I spent with my children as the happiest in our life as a family, and many’s the time since then that I longed for another power failure that would force my children to divert their screen time to me.

It’s snowing in Berlin, too. “Too bad I’m missing the snow,” one of my kids said to me from there, “here it’s just plain snow.” My daughter-in-law, who is about to give birth, wrote me that she feels a sense of missing something. I wrote her about Miri’s daughter, who at that time had been trapped in her home in Givat Ye’arim, outside Jerusalem, for three days without electricity, hot water or any possibility of leaving the house with her 10-month-old baby so she could get to her mother’s place and get warm. All the appeals of her mother, who is my friend, to the caregiving authorities, to at least rescue her daughter, her partner and their baby, fell on deaf ears, getting only the imbecilic response, “It happens in Europe, too.”

Then, on Sunday morning this week I heard Orly and Guy, who have a television program devoted to social affairs, passionately defending their thesis that everything was hunky-dory; no one screwed up. “It’s a once-in-a-century event,” they said, rejecting outright the intelligent and solid arguments of MK Nachman Shai (Labor) and former infrastructure minister Joseph Paritzky that this was a failure of the Electric Company, the Water Company, the Home Front Command, and constitutes overwhelming proof that Israel is not prepared for any form of disaster, be it natural or be it war.

Furthermore, they added, rightly, the same thing could happen in another year, because the world’s weather is changing wildly.

“You look like a warm Moroccan but sound like a north Tel Aviv Polish-type,” a Jerusalem taxi driver profiled me with unusual sensitivity the day before the storm erupted, after I refused to let him pick up more fares, a practice known in Jerusalem as “way-taking.”

“It’s obvious you’re not from Jerusalem. You’re a cold woman. The Jerusalemites are nicer than the Tel Aviv types,” he pronounced. “The Jerusalemites are just long-suffering,” I shot back, and still didn’t know the scale of the suffering they would be facing in the days that followed. The snowfall last week buried all my longings for Jerusalem under it. I’m afraid that months after all trace of them disappears, they might resurface in July-August. But I will never miss the Jerusalem taxi drivers. That would take a tsunami.