There are many ways to get to Tmol Shilshom, but here's one way awash in serendipity. (Not to make you all crazy, I will tell you in advance that Tmol Shilshom -- which means "yesterday and the day before” in colloquial Hebrew – is a small café and bookstore in downtown Jerusalem.) Of course, to get there, you have to start out in Israel. Our method was to make aliyah and rent a “cottage" (a semi-detached house) at Mitsadim 33 in Maale Adumim, which many of you know by now is “A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim.” And if any of you don’t know, when you rent an unfurnished apartment in Israel, they take it literally, meaning you are renting bare walls. (OK, there are electric outlets and light sockets!) So a sensible way to begin is to take two buses to Talpiot, a commercial hub in the southern part of Jerusalem, where one would go to buy beds, furniture, and appliances. So we did that and spent oodles of money ordering beds and a stove with a self-cleaning oven. Then we took a bus back to the center of the city, and because in Israel you tend to start talking with any Anglo you run into (how you know that someone is a native English speaker is a whole other topic), we got into a conversation with Sid Slivko, who made aliyah from Werner Place in Teaneck ten year ago.
We got off the bus on King George St. and began walking down Jaffe Road to catch the bus back to Maale Adumim. Suddenly, Natania was veering off down Yoel Salomon St. in search of the Gur Aryeh bookstore she had located on her last trip -- where you could buy a used book, read it, and sell it back to the same store. So we followed her down the street, and on the way Barbara looked up and saw a sign – perhaps from Above -- pointing to Tmol Shilshom, a place she had heard about, around the corner. Now Frugal Fred's plans for dinner went no further than bread, cheese, and a salad on paper plates with plastic utensils back in our kitchen in Maale Adumim. But Barbara figured that we had just spent so much money anyway, that a little more for dinner wouldn't matter. (You can tell who has the MBA in our family!) Needless to say, we were soon headed through an alley and up a flight of stairs to a small restaurant which shared a security guard with another restaurant across the hall.
As we were eating our delicious meal (I had ordered a tri-colored fettuccine in a cheese and wine sauce with broiled slivers of salmon and roasted figs -- for about $10), I began to consider our surroundings. As I indicated above, this little café/restaurant with a tiny kitchen and a whimsical name was also a bookstore where writers (as famous as Amos Oz) give public readings of their work. My first thought was that this was the kind of place that would never exist outside of Israel. Then I realized that this was ridiculous: there are dozens or hundreds of such places in Galut where people gather to share their common love of food, libations, and literature. Just that none of them would happen to be kosher.
But what you have in many areas in Israel – Jerusalem being perhaps the best example -- is the creation of a “critical mass” of kosher consumers: residents, students, and tourists, so that a local equivalent of Starbucks would do more business with a kashrut certificate in six days than one without would do in seven (according to The Jerusalem Post.) And so, whether you go the Central bus station, a mall, or a street festival, all the eateries are kosher. I reckon that within a two block radius of where I was sitting there are more kosher restaurants than there are in Teaneck. Then I started playing with this idea: there are probably more kosher pizza parlors in Jerusalem than “Jerusalem” Pizzas elsewhere. There are probably more kosher restaurants in this one city than in all the cities “outside The Land” combined. And so you can have a Tmol Shimshol; you can have O’Connell’s, a kosher Irish pub (I’m on my way!); and because Israel is a place where dreams come true, you can have a Chez Gita, an English tea house run by a refugee from Wall Street who “needed a job.” (Or perhaps the job needed her.) Looking at the eclectic mixture of people sitting there on an equally mixed variety of tables and chairs, a few of the customers reading books – in several languages -- from off the shelves behind them, I had the sense that at least some of them were there because of the location, the ambience, and the good food, whether or not there was a kashrut certificate on the wall. Perhaps this is proof of one of my iron precepts of life, that quality is a precursor to holiness.
We left Tmol Shimshol and retraced our steps down the alley. When we had come, we had passed the Ohel Yitzchak synagogue. In the dark interior, we saw a lone man sleeping at a table in a corner. Now when we returned, the building was brilliantly lit, and we could see the splendor inside. According to the sign outside, Ohel Yitzhak was built in 1888 (probably making it the second oldest beit knesset outside The Old City, Nahalat Yaakov, standing on the opposite side of the alley, and now under renovation, being the oldest.) But that date is only part of the story. Yes, this version of Ohel Yitzhak was built in a then new area of Jerusalem in 1888, but I have a notion that the origin of this place must go back 500 years, when some men in Tunis, or Algiers, or Fez decided to build a house of prayer that would be small enough (serving maybe fifty families) and plain enough on the outside not to arouse the enmity of their Muslim rulers, but with such beauty inside to suggest their vision of The World To Come. Today, the elaborate candle holders in our Jerusalem Ohel Yitzhak have been refitted for electric lights, and there are fans hanging from the bimah. Perhaps the rugs are a little threadbare. But there is something therein that money cannot buy. It is as if on the first day of worship 119 years ago, someone came in with a bottle of 500 year old kavanah and opened it during morning prayers. This is beyond the ability of any building or expansion committee in Bergen County.
And the table in the corner? Now there was a rabbi sitting there at that same table, learning with a group of men, all of whom had probably spent the day at work.
Yesterday and the day before: there is a lot of that in Jerusalem and throughout our ancient homeland. But on this August evening this year in David’s capital, there were men learning anew the texts of our tradition, and around the corner, there were young couples enjoying each other’s company and partaking of a wonderful meal. Back in Maale Adumim, we are only one of fifteen new families that have made aliyah. So while there is yesterdays and myriads of days before that in The Land, there is also today, and we are here to partake.
I am thinking: how about a combination coffee house and house of study called “Achshav” dedicated to the consideration of how Jerusalem, Israel, and the Jewish people are “Now,” and what that all means? Until then, I hope to continue with these episodes until many of you are able to join us “A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim,” or thereabouts.