Returning to the Holy Land with her teenage son, the writer learns to see this complex, ancient place as she never did before.

By Janine Di Giovanni
May 21, 2020
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A new across the rooftops of Jerusalem's Old City reveals layers of cultural and religious history.
Sivan Askayo

My first trip to Jerusalem, three decades ago, took place in the middle of a cold, wet spring. I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in the chilly predawn, but by the time I got into a taxi, the sky was turning lavender and pink. I remember passing farmers tending their sheep on the ancient hills of Samaria. After the bleak darkness of a European winter, the scene struck me as biblical, and breathtaking in its beauty. I was already entranced — and that was before I had even entered the city.

It was March 1990, a tense moment: Jerusalem was engulfed in the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. I was a reporter, covering the situation for the U.K.'s Sunday Correspondent and later, the Times of London and Newsweek. I would return to the city many times over the next 18 years — most memorably after the 1995 assassination of the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and during the grim days of the second intifada in the early 2000s.

That morning, the driver deposited me at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a neighborhood defined by its Ottoman architecture and busy, narrow streets. Once a pasha's palace, the property was later inhabited by Horatio and Anna Spafford, Chicagoans who arrived in 1881 and used the building to house religious pilgrims. It became a hotel in 1902 and, by 1990, it had evolved into the informal headquarters for visiting diplomats, journalists, and intelligence officers. In the lobby, a Reuters newswire machine spooled out spiraling strips of paper, printing the news as it broke. The Cellar Bar was the site of passionate love affairs and secrets, all overseen by the discreet barman, Ibrahim, who would mix you a perfect whiskey sour before you even told him what you wanted to drink.

I remember being handed a large iron key to the door of my room at reception, and feeling like a character in a Graham Greene novel. My guest quarters, where I often lived for months at a time, had stone floors and Turkish rugs, dark wood furniture and Middle Eastern paintings. I would be woken every morning at daybreak by the call to prayer from the nearby mosque on Nablus Road. Breakfast — sweet rolls and Turkish coffee — was served in the courtyard under an umbrella of lemon trees heavy with fruit.

I became fused with Jerusalem on that first trip, and embarked on a professional and personal love affair with the city that would last for decades. The week Rabin was assassinated by a fanatical right-wing student, I flew to Jerusalem to mourn him, a man who had tried so hard to forge peace. I was also mourning my own father, who had died a few weeks earlier. Jerusalem seemed the only place to be to meditate and pray, and I found a sense of calm walking through the gardens of Gethsemane, where Jesus had spent his last night of freedom before Roman soldiers took him away to be crucified.

The American Colony Hotel's romantic courtyard garden.
Sivan Askayo

I was pregnant with my son Luca, who is now 16, one of the last times I went to the Holy Land as a reporter, in 2003. For years now, I'd wanted to introduce him to Jerusalem. So last summer, I decided to make it happen. And this time, I planned to explore the city in a way I never had before — seeing it not in political terms, but as a visitor would, through fresh eyes.

Though the journalists and diplomats were mostly gone, the American Colony had changed very little — aside from the expansion of its bookstore, which is still the best in Jerusalem. To Luca, the place was enchanting: the lemon trees in the courtyard, the vaulted ceilings, the Ottoman furniture, the black-and-white photographs on the walls.

I was delighted to find that one of my favorite corners of the hotel — Barakat, a jewel of a shop selling old maps, Turkish rugs, Persian tiles, and antique jewelry — was still there. In the old days the owner, Munir Barakat, would sit on the curbside drinking coffee. Now the store has an elegant summer terrace where Barakat holds court with his son, Amjad, discussing every object in the store in minute detail.

The minute he saw me, he remembered an intricate piece of silk fabric I had bought in 1990, which I framed and hung on my wall. "That came from Samarkand. It was once a marriage wrapping," he recalled, describing how wedding guests would give the bride and groom fabrics embroidered with their names. This time I came away with more treasures: a delicate Jerusalem cross in gold for my mother; a muted, moody painting of the Old City from the 1920s.

From left: Munir Barakat in his antiques store at the American Colony Hotel; religious icons in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
Sivan Askayo

Before we left the U.S., Luca read my book Against the Stranger, which is set during the first intifada. He told me he wanted to see the city I had written about and to experience the history and politics of the Holy Land. But he is also a kid who was going on vacation. He wanted to go to the Dead Sea, and eat really good falafel, and wander through the Old City at night.

Setting out to explore on our second day, it was instantly clear that the city had changed since my last trip. The Jerusalem I knew — though still a place of fierce religion and political upheaval — was now streetwise, cool. In the 90s, if you wanted to have fun, you took a sherut, or shared taxi, to the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, or its satellite city of Jaffa, to go to a club or bar. Food was not the thing in Jerusalem, either. My tribe of reporters and I would go from the Colony to a bar called Fink's, another legendary spot that had been a meeting point for spies and politicians during the War of Independence. We'd order huge plates of stuffed peppers and goulash — recipes unchanged since 1932, the year the bar opened.

Now there's a whole culinary scene to experience, and a new, dynamic generation of creative young chefs, many of whom have been inspired by the success of internationally renowned Israelis such as Yotam Ottolenghi. The millennial boom has also hit Jerusalem. There are creative hubs and hundreds of tech start-ups, a compelling art scene, cocktail bars, rooftop swimming pools, yoga studios, and sommeliers specializing in Kosher wine.

To help me understand the Jerusalem of today, I enlisted the help of Tova Wald, a boutique tour operator who is a third-generation Jerusalemite. Her mother's family arrived from Uzbekistan in the 1880s, when few people lived outside the walls of the Old City. They settled in the Bukarim Quarter, in the center of Jerusalem, bringing their recipes and traditions with them.

A feast of calamari, sea bream with green salsa, and other modern Mediterranean dishes at Chakra.
Sivan Askayo

Like most Israelis, Wald is passionate about food. She told me that, if I wanted to experience this new cuisine, I should take Luca to Chakra, a restaurant on the edge of Independence Park. Walking there from our hotel one evening, I remembered how, decades before, I would go to the park to watch the Women in Black anti-war protesters hold vigils on Friday afternoons. Now the area was crowded with families pushing strollers, teenagers with tattoos, New York-style nail bars, food shops, and fancy hotels.

At Chakra, we took a table outside and I ordered a cocktail made with basil and passion fruit. The chef, Eran Peretz, who's from Jerusalem, came out to introduce himself. He told us he only cooks with tomatoes grown on Israeli soil, which makes them that much sweeter. "You can't find them anywhere else in the world," he said. Then the food arrived: chili-infused black tiger shrimp as big as my fist; a lamb shank with meat falling off the bone. Plate after plate was served by beautiful, tanned young people who told me about their lives. One had come from Jerusalem to study video art; another was a dancer.

A few days later, we experienced the city's food culture at its most traditional. It was Thursday—the night before Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath—and our guide, Orna Ichay, wanted to go to Mea She'arim, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, to show us a special bakery to buy challah. Her entire family was coming for Shabbat, which is important to most Israelis, even those who aren't religious. "It's more a time for us to get together after the week, to talk, to relax." The bread from Mea She'arim was a crucial ingredient. "Nechama, the best bakery in town, is there," she said. "There are lines out the door late on Thursday night."

On the way, we stopped by the Machane Yehuda market, a winding, ramshackle complex dating back to the Ottoman era. By 6 p.m., the place was packed with women from the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community, wearing wigs and head scarves and pulling trolleys piled with produce for their Sabbath meal, which had to be prepared by sundown the following day. I could smell cardamom from the Arabic coffee and the fresh scent of mint; there were piles of purple eggplants and bursting peaches. Artists had taken over Machane Yehuda since I was last there. Graffiti and street art covered the walls. Buskers played Bob Dylan and classical music. It was electric and fun, a miniature carnival.

Catholic nuns on a pilgrimage in the Old City.
Sivan Askayo

As the sun went down, Machane Yehuda changed even more. The religious housewives disappeared, and the hipsters emerged. At night, many of the stalls are rented out to restaurants, each of which has a different specialty. We started at Arbés, where we were brought fresh plates of hummus laced with extra tahini. We were instructed to scoop it up with raw onion and pickles. Then we went to Dwiny, where the chef had made her own almond-flavored version of arak, a regional spirit. We ate khachapuri, the Georgian cheese-filled bread, and then, farther down the road, had chreime, Moroccan-style fish, next to a stall where a DJ played techno.

At Beer Bazaar, a brewpub with a courtyard next to the wall of a former yeshiva, we tried the Fat Cat Pale Ale at the suggestion of the owner, Avi Moskowitz. He was born in New York but moved to Jerusalem in 2015. Now 56, he told us he was one of the youngest people in the Holy Land with a parent who survived the Holocaust. Why had he come with his American wife to live in Jerusalem? I asked him. He thought for a moment. "I felt I had to."

Late that night, we finally made it to Mea She'arim. At this hour, there were few women on the streets, only Haredi men in their long, dark wool coats and black fedoras, speaking quietly in Hebrew. "Since Netflix aired Shtisel," Ichay said, referring to a series about an ultra-Orthodox family living in a nearby neighborhood, "everyone wants to come here."

But it is still a challenging place to visit. One of Ichay's contacts arranged for us to look around the neighborhood with a member of the Neturei Karta, a sect of the Haredi community. The man, who did not want to be identified in this story, instructed Ichay and me to walk on the other side of the street with his daughters while he and a friend walked with Luca. He led us down a narrow alley to the house where he lives with his wife and their 18 children.

From left: Avihail, a bakery in Mea She'arim; Dormition Abbey, outside the Old City.
Sivan Askayo

Inside, preparations for Shabbat were already under way. His wife carried her four-month-old baby and held the hand of her toddler granddaughter. She said she often stayed up all night on Thursdays, preparing food for the dozens who would sit around their table. We talked politics with him until late, then left to go to Nechama, still lit up and glowing, even though it was after midnight. Ichay got her loaves of warm, golden challah, and I bought cookies stuffed with jam and honey.

Over the years, I have visited most of the refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank, but Luca had never seen one. So the next day, I took him to Kalandia, a UN camp near the main checkpoint between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the West Bank Barrier. Kalandia was established in 1949, after Israel declared itself a state — a time the Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. In the early 2000s, the construction and expansion of Kalandia Checkpoint and the West Bank Barrier drastically affected the economic situation in the camp by isolating it from the city's job market. Today more than 11,000 Palestinians live there, on less than 90 acres of land. There are high levels of unemployment, and frequent incursions by Israeli Defense Forces soldiers.

Despite the misery of life under occupation — the power cuts, the daily humiliation of being subjugated by Israeli soldiers, the lack of any peace process, the lack of work, the lack of a future — the people we met at Kalandia were still welcoming to Luca and me. Everywhere we stopped, they fed us, spoke to us, were curious about our lives. Luca spoke quietly with the baker, and with a young boy, about their lives. "It's so unfair," he said, and I remembered how incensed I had been the first time I went to a refugee camp. And this was by no means one of the worst.

It was worlds away from Mea She'arim, but less than 10 minutes down the road. It reminded me of a young boy I once met in Gaza who pointed to a barrier that cut him off from the rest of the world. "Look. From here you can see Egypt."

From left: Breakfast at Villa Brown, a boutique hotel in downtown Jerusalem; pesa, a dish of red tuna with peanuts and chili wrapped in lettuce, at Satya.
Sivan Askayo

The Old City is the magnet that draws me to Jerusalem. It is one of the holiest places on earth — and one of the most divided. Since the 19th century, the area has been partitioned into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian. On previous visits, I spent hours wandering the tiny streets alone, getting lost but always finding new places: a stone house collapsing under the weight of time; a factory making fresh tahini using 150-year-old wooden presses; an Armenian-owned photo gallery selling evocative prints of old Jerusalem.

Early one morning, before the heat of the day set in, Luca and I met a chef named Ilan Garousi at the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Garousi is the brains behind several restaurants in Jerusalem, including Satya, where we had eaten chopped chicken liver and short ribs the night before. The restaurant's outdoor terrace was full of fashionable Israelis—women with long, curly hair and airy sundresses, tattooed guys in T-shirts and jeans. One beautiful young woman had warned me not to eat before meeting Garousi for breakfast, saying, "It's worth the wait!"

Garousi's history in Jerusalem is long and memorable. His grandfather, Gavriel, arrived in Jerusalem in 1919 from Kurdistan. He walked the entire way — a journey that took him 12 years. Gavriel had a large family, and everyone cooked and spent long hours in the kitchen preparing food, tasting the dishes and eating together. This inspired Garousi. "Everything was seasonal," he says. "If we had peaches, we made jam. If we had okra, we ate that. In the old days, you ate what was in the market."

Today, Garousi sources nearly all of his produce in the Old City, and he knows every corner of it. He led Luca and me through meandering passages in the Christian Quarter, with its shops selling olive-wood crucifixes and rosary beads, and ended up at the morning souk near Damascus Gate. I felt overwhelmed at times by the beauty of the sensory: the taste of a still-sizzling falafel on fresh pita that, Garousi said, was one of the best in Jerusalem; the mingled sounds of the church bells and the call from the muezzin.

The Dome of the Rock, in the Muslim Quarter.
Sivan Askayo

After Garousi left us, Luca and I made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest place in Christendom. Nuns in white laid rosary beads on the Stone of Unction, where Jesus's body is said to have been prepared for burial. We climbed the stairs to a chapel built on what is believed to be Golgotha, or the Place of the Skull, where Jesus's crucifixion is said to have taken place. Both of us felt silenced by the power of it all. We walked back down, lit heavy candles under the strict gaze of the church's resident priest, then went out into the sunlight to drink mint tea.

On one of our last days, we drove to Masada and the Dead Sea. The area is not technically a part of Jerusalem, but Wald said — and I agreed — that you can't really understand the history of the city unless you drive through the desert and see Masada's ancient hilltop fortress, which was built by the Jewish king Herod, sometime between 37 and 31 B.C. This is where Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, had their last stand against Roman soldiers during the Great Revolt. Climbing the hill to the fort, we reached a peak from where we could see across the desert to the muted waters of the Dead Sea, the landscape etched in tones of beige and gray. Somehow, seeing Masada puts the history into context, bringing the upheaval, rebellion, and rebirth of the region alive.

I waited a long time to return to Jerusalem for many reasons, most of them deeply personal. The experience of returning with my teenage son was powerful; the place informed and fascinated, just as it always has done. But this trip was also something else, something that I really had not expected: It was fun. For the first time in three decades of traveling to Jerusalem, I had a really good time.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Once More To Jerusalem."