You know, I hadn’t realized just how cramped I was feeling, or just how suffocated, pressured and squashed I was in the small apartment we just left.
We moved into that apartment 3 ½ years ago to get away from our neo-nazi landlord who bumped up the rent after just three months, and mamash had storm-trooper tendencies, especially when it came to the cardinal sin of me hanging my washing up in ‘his’ designer house.
And for that first year, that tiny apartment was like a sanitorium, or a rest-home for broken and battered-by-life people. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t have guests, because I had no energy for guests. I didn’t mind that I didn’t feel like cooking up big feasts in the pokey kitchen, because I’d lost my appetite anyway.
Then the second year, I got some energy back and I tried to have guests (wedged awkwardly around our too-big table) and it was always a hassle, for a lot of reasons. The final straw came when we tried to do a sheva brachot for someone my husband used to learn with, and even after we moved the massive sofa and the rest of the furniture out of the salon, there still was scarcely any room to breathe.
That evening was so stressful for me that I told me husband ‘no more! We can’t do any more sheva brachot, we can’t invite any more people! This apartment really won’t let us.’
In the meantime, my kids supplied the lack.
Teenagers don’t mind sleeping piled all over the floor; they don’t mind squashing two people to a seat; they don’t mind that none of your plates match, or that everything is plastic. So for the last three years, pretty much the only guests we had in that house were aged 16 and under.
Every now and then I’d pine for a place where I could swing a cat, and not stub my toe on all the furniture blocking the path to my kids’ room, and where I could do an exercise routine without rapping my knuckles on the back of a hard wooden chair, or knocking all the ancient dust off my (low down) light shade.
But mostly, I just tried to grin and bear it. Because we were in a situation where I couldn’t see anyway to get out of it, and I knew the test was to work on my patience and emuna, and just try to accept God’s will.
BH, a couple of months’ ago, God finally threw us the key to get out of that particular prison, and I’m writing this from an apartment in a different part of town, that is costing us around the same in rent but is nearly twice as big.
It has two toilets!
It has a utility room, so I don’t have to worry about electrocuting myself with the washing machine every time I take a shower (and yes, I did actively worry about that at least once a month - more at the beginning.)
For the first time in years, both my sofas can be in the same room, which means there’s enough space for everyone to cosy-in on a Friday night. And you can actually walk around my table - all the way around it - which is also something that hasn’t been possible for 4 years.
When you rent, you can’t change much in the house to your taste. The first two years, I didn’t want to even paint the kids’ room a different colour (like they were begging me) because I didn’t want the hassle of changing them back to white when we left. Imminently.
Which we didn’t do.
So by year three, I painted one room duck-egg blue and the other pink with one wall of purple ‘natznatz’, or glitter paint. And on the one remaining white wall in that room, my daughter copied out - by hand! - all the words to her favorite song, and wrote it on the wall in permanent marker.
Hey, if you’re going to do something, do it the whole way.
Within two months of finishing her room, the pillar of cloud lifted and we got the signal that we needed to move on.
Thank God, we managed to find something to buy before we left Musrara, and it’s a lovely flat even though it definitely needs some work. So in the meantime, we are renting in a different neighborhood for a final six months, and all my pictures and mirrors are staying packed, and nearly all my books are staying boxed, because I don’t have the koach to do it all twice between here and August.
So I feel happy that the house test is hopefully nearly over, and also relieved that Hashem has taken us out of a very narrow place, and also a bit sad that the last few years have been so difficult, in some ways.
I know we all had to go through it all. I know my family is now much less spoilt and far more appreciative of our blessings. I got over my ‘toilet kooties’ (mostly…) and past my snobby arrogance about being a home owner (mostly…) and I tried really, really hard to see the good and to focus on the good of my situation (mostly…)
Sometimes it was easier than others. It took me years to realize why I’d hear strange male voices accompanying the single man upstairs in the wee hours of the morning. Once that particularly penny dropped, I was so grossed-out I had a ‘leave now’ urge pass over me for a good fortnight.
Then there was the fight between two families in my block - a chareidi version of the Crips and the Bloods, except they were fighting over a bike, not a person - which resulted in the police being called and a quite a lot of bad blood sloshing around afterwards. One of those families moved out a couple of weeks’ ago, shortly before we left.
Before my old neighborhood went mostly Breslov, it was mostly gangsters, and sometimes that vibe is still vibrating in strange ways throughout the walls.
But here’s some of what I’ll miss:
boys with massive payot and na-nach kippas playing football in the local migrash (court) next to my window. Apparently secular neighbors who quote the Zohar at you by heart. Conversations between old friends where one of them is a chassid on a motorbike with his tzitzit flying, and the other one is walking next to him in jeans and T-shirt.
The little neighborhood Nachmans setting the recycling bin on fire pretty much every Pesach, when they burn their chametz (it’s mostly accidental. I think.)
I’ll also miss the eccentric makolet man who sometimes asks me to hand him bottles of Arak to help him stock the shelf; and the Kotel being a 10 minute walk away, and strange this, the sound of the muezzin blaring away at 5.30 in the morning.
And of course, I’ll miss the madness and kedusha that is the Rav’s shteibel, where I routinely got run over by ladies with strollers, and kids with strollers, and even toddlers with strollers (when a toddler runs straight at you with their stroller and it’s a direct hit, it really hurts, let me tell you.)
It’s another new stage. Another new start. Another new house.
This time it struck me that while moving is really, really hard, when you’re stuck in a place of constriction and limitation, the hardships of moving are actually still an enormous blessing.
I just hope I can remember that when it takes PazGas another two weeks to send round a technician to hook up my gas burners.
One of Rebbe Nachman’s followers was once asked whether he could recount any of the open miracles that Rebbe Nachman was reputed to have done. He turned to his questioner and told him:
“Me! I’m the biggest miracle of all. You had no idea what Rabbenu did with me!”
I have to admit that when I first heard that, I wasn’t so impressed. I mean really? What’s the big deal that now someone started eating kosher, or even grew some impressive side-curls? Lots of people do those things without Breslov, so how was that meant to be a proof of Rabbenu’s
These days, I have a different view.
Around three years’ back, at the time when I was writing The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, things seemed so very bleak. Me and my husband had been broken into a million pieces by everything we’d gone through, from the finances turning sour through to losing our home, through to having no-one to talk to - at all! - because we’d both turned into holier-than-thou martinets.
By God’s grace, we managed to hang on to our marriage, our kids and our sanity, but it was a very close call.
I look back at that awful, absolutely awful, time, and I wonder: How on earth did me and my family come through all that in one piece? And not only in one piece, with more equanimity and genuine simcha than we had before everything fell apart.
How did that happen?
Or more precisely, following the advice of Rabbenu, which includes talking to God for at least an hour every single day, knowing that everything that happens is 100% determined by Hashem and for our own good, and going to Uman every time you think you’re really going to crack up because you simply can’t take it anymore.
There’s other stuff in there too, like working on your bad middot, understanding that everyone, even the psychos, are just a mirror reflecting your own ‘uck’ back at you, and doing your darndest to have no despair in the world, even when really, you’re drowning in it.
All that stuff really, really helps.
But ultimately, it’s Rabbenu that got me through the last few years, and into a space where things are really starting to turn around, BH.
Yesterday, we signed on a house in Jerusalem.
We can’t move into it for another six months (long story…) so I have to go live somewhere else for a while, but who cares?
A home of my own in Jerusalem!
I had really given up on owning a house of my own anywhere, let alone the holiest city in the world. Let alone, one of the holiest neighborhoods. Let alone, a place where you can literally see Har HaBayit out your window if your apartment faces in the right direction. (Mine doesn’t).
But who cares?!
My husband sighed a big sigh today, and told me he couldn’t believe how far we’ve come the last three years, what miracles God has done for us.
There’s a mitzvah to publicise the nes¸ so let me end with this: Two days ago, after two months solid of wrangling with our seller, it really looked like our house was going to fall through. Her horrible lawyer wanted to put a clause in the contract that no person in their right mind would ever agree to, as it basically amounted to underwriting a blank cheque.
We’d given in on every other matter, so our hopes weren’t high that our seller and her horrible lawyer would back down, and for once, we simply couldn’t be the ones to compromise.
We really needed a miracle for things to move.
Luckily, we live in Musrara, so my husband nipped over to Rav Berland’s shteibel and amazingly managed to get near enough to his podium to ask him what to do, and whether to continue.
“Continue!” the Rav told him.
Although frankly, we couldn’t see how that was really possible.
The next day, all by herself, the seller came around and pulled the impossible-to-agree-to clause so we could actually close the deal.
We got the house.
But the biggest miracle is still me.
It’s so true that you sometimes only appreciate what you have when you don’t have it any more.
For three long years, I’ve been bewailing being stuck in my current apartment, the so-called ‘rented dump’ which was a third of the size of my old house in the village, and that has only one toilet.
And no bath.
That bath thing upset me so much the first two years because I have had some pronounced germ issues, and the thought of having to use the bath at the local mikvah was pretty challenging, to say the least.
Especially that (thankfully unique…) time when I got there and someone’s clipped toenails were still scattered around everywhere. I almost left… but couldn’t. I came home in such a bad mood, that this was my lot in life, having to bathe surrounded by someone else’s mouldy toenail clippings.
Uck uck uck.
So the bath was a sore point.
The one toilet was also a sore point, for similar reasons. In the West, it’s de rigeur to have a guest toilet for other people, and one you keep just for you. My germ issues loved this arrangement! To bits!
And then suddenly, there was one toilet for everyone: me, the rest of my family, my kids’ 15 girl-friends that would show up for Shabbos, my landlord, the charity collector who knocked on my door, the rare Shabbos guest.
Uck uck uck.
But after nearly four years of this, I have to report that most of my germ issues have reduced greatly, so there is a silver lining to that cloud.
But then, there were other issues like having just one working electric socket in every room. For three years, I had to literally wrap myself in electric cables to be able to print anything off, or to have a light on concurrent with my CD player.
We’d trail a cable across 20 metres of floor to plug in a radiator in during winter. And I’d trip over it every single time I walked around. That’s just how it is.
Then, there was neighbors’ insistence that I should sponga the outside stairs every two weeks, which I just couldn’t do. I have many talents, but housekeeping barely makes the list and sponga is completely off it.
The first time, it took me an hour, I soaked the bottom of my (long) skirt in bleach water, and I couldn’t figure out how to whisk all that water down the stairs and out the entrance fast enough to:
a) actually clean the stairs
b) prevent the dirty water from seeping under my downstairs neighbour’s door.
She came out with an extremely displeased expression on her face, and I could see this sponga thing was just not going to work.
So, I’ve always had one neighbor or other upset about the stairs - both on the rare occasions I tried to clean it, and the far more frequently occasions when I didn’t.
Then there’s the location. Musrara. So close to the Old City, Meah Shearim, Downtown - and the Rav.
So busy. So crazy. So intense. So lonely.
And yet now that it looks like I have to leave, at least for a few months, I’m starting to really appreciate what I truly have in my neighborhood. Even the crazies that have been driving me bonkers for three years.
People around here are alive, they’re real. And I have my place in the pantheon of neighborhood characters, I’m the crazy ‘English’ person that no-one can quite figure out.
They see me pop up at the Rav to read tehillim with my beach chair, then they see me wearing weird hats that no-one else within 5 miles of Meah Shearim would touch with a bargepool.
They hear me blasting out Gad Elbaz (occasionally….) and then hear my household blasting out Tyler Swift, and a few other things besides. I see the obvious confusion on their faces not infrequently, because whatever box they’ve got handy, they can’t quite fit my family into it.
So, we’re kind of famous around these parts, as the weird, semi-frum English family who are into the Rav but whose kids have blue hair.
Wherever we go next, we’ll be anonymous again.
So, the point of this post is that I’m understanding that because I didn’t appreciate my apartment, and because I also didn’t appreciate my neighborhood, at least for long swathes of time, I now have to leave, at least for a few months.
We’re still hoping to stay in Jerusalem, but nothing is coming up for rent remotely close to Musrara except places that are up four flights of stairs in the ‘gay’ area of town where you have to put your oven and fridge on the balcony as there’s no space for them in the kitchen.
And that’s too much of a stretch, even for me.
So dear reader, mea culpa for not appreciating my rented dump enough.
I learned my lesson, the hard way, the same way I always seem to learn my lesson.
But BH, that also means that hopefully when we return to Musrara in the Summer, I’ll have a renewed appreciation for this mad, crazy, intense and amazing neighborhood.
Where Breslov rebbes and crazy chilonim rub shoulders, where you see chassidim on motorbikes, payot flying, where your apparently ‘secular’ neighbor quotes passages of the Zohar by heart, and where every preconceived notion you ever had about life in Israel is challenged head-on.
I’ll miss you Musrara.
But BH, I’ll be back soon.