Jerusalem, City of Cold

Last week’s sweltering weather provoked memories of my less-than-illustrious banking career and an impromptu pajama party.

Ever since my parents died and my kids grew up, I haven’t had any reason to visit Haifa, or the National Museum of Science in the old Technion building in the city’s Hadar Hacarmel quarter. Scientifically speaking, I find this rather regrettable. For it was there I learned for the first time how a faucet actually works.

But via the Internet ‏(And just how does that work? What, you really expect me to tell you?‏), I saw that the museum currently has an exhibit on inventions that changed the world. When I examined the list, however, I found that some of what I consider to be the most significant inventions did not make the cut.

Like the fork, for example. A billion and something Chinese will have to forgive me, but in my book this is a glaring oversight. And as a former frequent visitor to Sinai, among other places, I can’t say enough good things about the invention of the toilet. I also have a hard time imagining life without tweezers, and still remember those tough days of yore when luggage didn’t yet have wheels.

Is it possible to conceive of modern life before the invention of the tampon? And contact lenses? Dental implants? Makeup-removal pads? The dishwasher is an invention that even poses a challenge to my atheism, but the most important invention of all has to be the air conditioner, and its adjunct: the air-conditioner technician who shows up on the same summer day you call him and doesn’t rip you off.

But wait, people my age will say, when we were kids in humid Haifa or Hadera or Tel Aviv, in the eastern parts of the coastal plain or the foothills, and even in the Jordan Valley − none of our houses had any air-conditioning. At most there was a single fan, always stuck right in front of the adult who felt the hottest. In other words, it was in the master bedroom. And we survived, didn’t we? Sure we did. We were at the beach from morning until night. That wasn’t bad, was it?

Well, if you ask me, it was awful. So much so that during the summer vacation between ninth and 10th grade, my friend Mala – who was a year older than me – and I asked our “well-connected” fathers to arrange summer jobs for us in a bank. Because banks were air conditioned, or so we’d heard.

Our fathers, who viewed us as lazy bums whose days were spent sprawling on the beach in order to attain a mahogany skin tone, aided by much consumption of lettuce and carrots ‏(carrots were said to lend the suntan just the right orange-y shade‏), hastened to fulfill our request, and so we ended up at the Savings & Loan in Neve Sha’anan, the only bank in Haifa that didn’t have air conditioning. It did have a bank manager who was a serial groper ‏(or what these days is simply known as sexual harasser‏) and customers who asked for money; since we knew most of them and couldn’t be bothered to check their accounts or write down how much we were giving them, they always got what they asked for.

The checks we were supposed to bring to the bank’s main branch in Hadar Hacarmel during our lunch break were usually thrown in the trash. That way, instead of wasting time on bus rides, we had time to make ourselves a lettuce salad with lemon, and to whip up some egg whites with sugar-free sweetener. And when the weekend came, we got our young pinched behinds out of there as fast as we could, to the everlasting sorrow of the groper who hadn’t yet started to catch on to the damage we were doing to his bank’s ledgers.

This was the start of the rather bleak relationships I have had ever since with scary figures from the banking world. Even if the air conditioner is set at a chilly 16 degrees Celsius, as soon as I set foot in a bank I start to perspire from fear.
On one of the stickier days a week or so ago, when the air conditioner in the living room started to develop a death rattle, I followed poet Shaul Tchernichovsky’s advice ‏(from his poem “Nocturno,” written in the days before the air conditioner was invented‏) and abandoned the city and ascended the mountain.

Although I had specific reasons for going to Jerusalem right then − the chance to watch a selection of movies from the Jerusalem Film Festival at the Cinematheque along with the festival staff, which happens to include my son, as well as work ‏(I was asked to give a talk at an organic farm somewhere on the outskirts of the city‏) − the decision to spend three days there really derived purely from climate-related considerations.

And I actually did find, upon arriving in town, and after getting fed up spending seven minutes trying to use the light rail automatic-ticketing machines ‏(the first three of which were out of order, as usual, while the fourth was being manned by a mathematically-challenged conductor‏), that I could just walk from the central bus station to the wonderful Cafe Kadosh on Shlomzion Hamalka without a drop of sweat appearing on my forehead.

To hear Jerusalemites tell it, it had been an unusually hot summer day. But when we came out of the theater, a cool breeze was blowing.

“Just look at the view, the most beautiful view in the world,” I said to Ruthie, as I started declaiming the Tchernichovsky poem just as my grandmother used to do, insisting she was in love with his poetry.

“Ahh,” sighed Ruthie, who’d just returned from a long visit in New York, where she grew up, enjoying the first drag of a cigarette. “How nice to be able to smoke in the street without anyone hassling you about it. When I’m walking down the street in New York, even people I don’t know feel they have to comment on my smoking, but that’s not a problem for you anymore anyhow. And besides, may I remind you, that if you’d stayed here you’d still be saying, the way you did before you moved away, that you were tired of all this ancient glory. And that Haifa is a place to be born and Jerusalem is a place to die, but Tel Aviv is a place to live.

And that you don’t choose a city because of its climate, and some of the world’s most beautiful cities have unbearable weather, right? But you’ve got to admit: Jerusalem in the summer is just brilliant, and even when it’s really hot in the daytime, at least there’s relief in the evening.”

Ruthie, who since her return has been living in the prettiest place in town, not far from some more of the prettiest places, has gained a new appreciation for the beauty of Jerusalem. This transpired after a setback in her personal life temporarily caused her to take up residence in a semi-rural community somewhere in the Jerusalem hills, amid the kind of quiet that strikes fear into the heart of someone who was born and raised next to Central Park and still has the delivery numbers of some of Manhattan’s top restaurants on her speed dial.

After that “pastoral” interlude, where the view was mostly taken up by the neighbors’ barbecue, Jerusalem – where she has lived most of her adult life – seems to her a glorious place. I must admit that, in summer at least, I feel the same way.

The next night, Ruthie was busy writing her newspaper article, and I started and finished Nora Ephron’s “I Remember Nothing.” We sat in Ruthie’s living room – whose balcony affords a most lovely view of treetops and church spires – sipped iced coffee and wine, and watched episode after episode of “Nurse Jackie.” This is an excellent series, mainly because it is so unpredictable and makes the viewer feel uncontrollable affection for Jackie, marvelously played by Edie Falco.

Jackie is a hospital nurse who is married with two daughters, addicted to painkillers and having an affair with the hospital pharmacist, from whom she can get the drugs she craves. She also steals drugs from patients, lies to her lover, her husband, her children and to everyone around her, basically. So we watched season one, then chatted some more and drank some more. And then we watched a few more episodes from season two and, by the time we finished, it was morning.

At dawn’s first light it hit us that, even though we hadn’t braided each other’s hair or put on nail polish, without meaning to we’d just had ourselves a pajama party. Just like the ones we used to have back when we were young and didn’t yet know each other.

Many years ago, when we didn’t know how sorry we’d be about pursuing certain dreams, and it never occurred to us that the day would come when, looking back, we would miss that time of dreams and hopes and heartbreaks big and small, and especially the kind of friendship that is only possible between two unattached women. And how lucky − we said to each other now − that the kids are grown up and neither of us has a man watching our every move and telling us what’s okay to say and what’s not, and what we’re always doing wrong. And maybe we ought to stop searching for a new mate, we mused, because with our luck, that dream, too, might yet come true.