The Greek cruise ship Queen Anna Maria served as the Mayflower for many Americans making aliyah to Israel in the early 1970s. After a week-long crossing of the Atlantic and making port calls in Lisbon and Athens, the ship delivered its ambitious, idealistic passengers at the docks of their new homeland.
My first home in Israel was a third floor apartment on Bar Yochai Street in Jerusalem's Katamon Tet neighborhood. From inside the tiny, spartanly furnished rooms I could hear the calls of the watermelon merchant, “Avatiach!” as his horse-drawn wagon made its way down the street with huge, tantalizing melons. Children from the tenement buildings ran alongside to the parking lot, where a few shoppers approached, eager to taste the merchant's fresh produce.
Life at a Merkaz Klita
Little did my family realize, before moving to Israel in the spring of 1972, that the Katamon Tet Merkaz Klita, or Absorption Center, was located in one of Jerusalem's poorest neighborhoods. For us, the time spent in the slum area was a strange introduction into Israeli society. For the residents living on that street, immigrant families who were veterans of the waves of immigration from Arab countries in the 1950s, life was a never-ending struggle to remain above the poverty line. Katamon Tet was a place they were eager to escape.
Most of the families at the Merkaz Klita were from Russia or Georgia, with a small number from Argentina. There were few fellow American or English families to ease this transitional period. The staff of the center was willing to help, to offer advice and assistance. Teaching the adults the basics of the Hebrew language was top priority, while the children were assigned to ulpan classes in the city center. Like any normal teenager, skipping classes to go see movies in the downtown cinemas seemed a more important way to spend the summer.
A few times a week, fresh milk was delivered to our apartment door. The cream separated from the milk and we needed to shake the glass bottles before it could be poured. There was a shared television on the first floor and the American show “Hawaii Five-O” was very popular, if not that colorful when broadcast in black and white. On the streets, long-haired teenagers sported Beatles t-shirts, even though the well-known group had disbanded two years before. There was an asimon-swallowing payphone at the center; waiting to receive a private phone line could take months. The preferred method of communicating with loved ones back in the old country was by mailing paper-thin aerogrammes.
A loss of innocence
That year, Jerusalem was in the midst of a massive building boom, the result of the heady euphoria in the wake of Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War. New, high-class residential areas were being built in Ramat Eshkol and French Hill. The standard of living for Israelis was rising. Jews around the world were encouraged to make aliyah, to return to their roots in the Jewish State.
We were naïve about many things in our new homeland, an innocence that quickly faded when we faced the horrific news of a terrorist attack at Lod Airport at the end of May 1972. Even more powerful in establishing our connection to Israel was the massacre of our athletes at the Munich Olympics that September. The father of one of my high school classmates was one of the victims; I didn’t yet have a strong enough command of Hebrew to fully comprehend what sitting shiva meant.
In the early days of my life in Israel I took frequent walks in the open fields behind the Katamon Tet Absorption Center, watching the train pass by twice daily on its way to and from Tel Aviv. The hills in the distance were bare, while in the other direction it was possible to hike up to the Holyland Hotel to view the model of Second Temple Jerusalem.
Forty years later, those hills are covered with the suburban sprawl of Gilo, and the old train tracks are no longer visible due to the presence of the Malha Mall and Teddy Stadium. The red-bricked tenements of Katamon Tet circa 1972 are still in place, but their use as an absorption center for new olim struggling to establish a foothold in Israel have faded into rose-colored memories.
This image of an apartment building in the Katamon Tet neighborhood was taken by user Gilabrand and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Originally published on The Times of Israel.