Thoughts on the pandemic and its effects on the Manhattan housing market

Sunday, March 22, 2020

How will the Manhattan housing market be affected by the Covid 19 pandemic?  What are the short and the longer-term effects?  This is an attempt to address these questions.  Let us begin with the belief that we have the tools and the will with which to manage this crisis, however awkwardly and imperfectly.  

Short term: what is happening now?

Right now, there are no statistics on transactions.  If this crisis is like the last one, deals that were pending are concluding, being renegotiated or aborted, but it is likely that the volume of new deals has collapsed.  Indeed, on Friday, March 20, the governor ordered a city-wide lock down.  Showing real estate is not an essential service.

Many, both buyers and sellers can choose when to act, and until circumstances normalize, relatively few will choose to do so.  Most owners do not want or need to sell in a crisis, and excepting the opportunistic, most are too distracted or terrified to buy.

Does this means that prices are lower?  In a circumstance where there is no market, which is now the case for most properties, there is no answer.  If I had to sell my cooperative apartment today, sight unseen, on-line, I would likely have to accept a severe discount.  Temporarily, my most cherished asset is worth very little. 

Social distance at home in Manhattan, March 22

The Manhattan housing market does not react to crises in the same way as the stock market.  It is much less liquid; prices do not measurably change on a daily basis—indeed it is sometimes difficult to discern trends in the quarterly data.  Some sellers will drop their prices, anticipating a difficult environment for a very long time, but in a wealthy market, where few are under duress, there may be relatively few “good deals” in the near term, and a lower asking price may be no more than acceptance of last year’s market reality.

Sellers, like the rest of us, have read that a vaccine will be found in the next year-to-18 months.  Most/many of them will decide to wait, or stay in place, until the market revives.  Until a new “normal” is achieved, either by the success of our current social-distance and “lock-down” protocols, a medical breakthrough (or series of them), or an acceptance of some  frequency of illness and death, there may be no significant revival in sales volume.

The coming months

As this crisis persists, even at a less panicked level, sellers will begin to adjust to a “new normal”. Some, perhaps few at first, will start dropping their prices, choosing to “move-on”, for reasons practical or financial, in an attempt to attract the few buyers who are in in the market.  These buyers will step in as they see real opportunities, and this will lead the market “down”, restoring liquidity. Prices may drop in increments, that is not all at once. Our market may not see significantly lower prices for some weeks or months, or even a year, but, eventually, the rest of the market will follow until the crisis abates and sale volume is restored.  

Something like this happened during the financial crisis of 2008, of which the bellwether was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September.  At the end of this post is a table of Manhattan cooperative and condominium price averages beginning in 2005. These indicate that:

-Average and median prices peaked in the first and second quarters of 2008 and began to fall in the 3rd quarter.  

-But prices, on average, did not hit bottom until the 2nd and 3rd quarters of 2009, and a sustained recovery did not begin until the 3rd quarter of 2010.  (Regarding sale volume, the quarterly peak was earlier, in the second and third quarters of 2007; it dropped to its lowest levels in the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2009.)

-Average prices did not recover to early 2008 levels until the beginning of 2014.   

As I remember it, from the observation of individual transactions, these averages hid varying and sometimes substantial value declines for certain types of apartments.  There was a shift to more desirable apartments, to “quality”, in the weaker market.  Less desirable apartments—unrenovated,  poorly located, without daylight, or with high monthly maintenance charges—became more difficult to sell. 

Some version of this scenario may happen in this crisis.  Covid 19 is much more dramatic and personal; many people are suddenly without work, and there may be many deaths. But there will be medicines and a vaccine, so the worst effects will have a much-too-long, but limited, time frame.  The market may snap back quickly, once a reliable vaccine is available. 

For now the market may slow substantially.  In some weeks, we will be back to work and back on the streets, but the medical crisis will still not have been fully resolved.  Prices and sale volume are likely to suffer, until a lasting medical solution is found and the economy revives.

Looking back and to the longer term

When the market does revive, and it will, it may not immediately return to its earlier prices and habits. By earlier prices, I mean those that prevailed in late 2019 and the first eight or ten weeks of 2020.  Habits are a bit different; they are the pattern of preferences that dictate how the market determines relative value.

Most of the time, we think about prices—are they going up or down?  But there are equally interesting changes in the pattern of preferences. 

Over the past forty years the major changes in this market have been a function of increased wealth and its dispersion within Manhattan. 

Manhattan is a much richer place than it was when I first moved here, after college in 1975.  There is a lot more wealth, and wealthy buyers now choose different locations and different types of housing.  Whereas in the suburban era, following the Second World War, wealthy New Yorkers retreated primarily to the Upper East Side, or to smaller enclaves on the East River or in Greenwich Village, an expansion began in the 1980’s—to the Upper West Side, to brownstone Brooklyn, and perhaps most significantly, to Downtown.  This trend has continued with the revival of Harlem, the recent new towers in the financial district and north of Madison Square Park, and most prominently with the “super-talls” along Central Park South and West 57th Street.  

Central Park South, January 1, 2019, by Rhododentrites, Wikimedia Commons

With the geographic expansion came new types of housing: the loft and the condominium.

At first the lofts were taken over by artists, and the condominium units were smaller and architecturally banal, often pied-a-terre.  Now these housing types have expanded in size, in height, in design, and in luxury.  Virtually everything new or converted is a condominium; the most expensive new apartments are in the newest high-rise condominium towers.  The Upper East Side and pre-war cooperatives, while still very fine, have lost relative value and prestige. 

Will Covid 19 change these trends?   There have been articles on social distancing as the new “normal”, on the possibly increased frequency of viruses and, consequently, the relatively lesser desirability of high-density living.  I believe that these changes are temporary, once a cure has been found.  Note the very temporary impact of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, even Downtown which was attacked and the most prone to flooding. People will go back to work; they will want to be together, and the economy will revive, whatever the damage.  Prices will go down, perhaps substantially, and then they will go back up.

I am 66 years old.  Among those who are important to me, a number are at risk.  So I  brace myself against  possible illness or loss.  At this time of life, dying is acceptable, but losing someone who matters—a hurt that would heal but not recover.      

My great-grandmother, and one of her children, died in New York during the great flu epidemic of 1918.  My father never knew her and never spoke about her, although he did speak about her husband and her successful, wealthy brothers and the support they continued to give his family. (They clearly did not forget her.)  I have only her name, Clara Picker, and a photograph of her with her family, dated 1899.  Like my father then, most of the world is younger now and fortunately will move-on and recover. 

Clara Picker with her husband Solomon Sicular
and older children, Odessa 1899

It is interesting to contrast our reactions to Covid 19 with our reactions to the climate crisis. Climate is a  longer term issue and much more likely to impact our habits.  We will face enormous costs as we face more frequent storms, coastal flooding and fires; and these costs may require much higher taxes, in order to protect ourselves from worse.  Eventually, our coast lines will be abandoned.  Some centuries from now, there will be no Manhattan housing market.  Consider the impact that a reduction in tax-deduction benefits has had on our housing market, before this crisis, and then consider the much greater impact of this issue, over the longer term. 

Covid 19 is a short-term crisis, and better protecting ourselves against pandemics is a relatively modest investment.  I believe that we will finally have the will to make that investment.  Perhaps we will even now find the will to better protect ourselves against the climate crisis.  For now, the pandemic need not fundamentally alter our housing market.

Quarterly Average and Median Cooperative and Condominium Closed Prices for Manhattan as of February 29, 2020 Source: Brown Harris Stevens Analytics

QuarterSalesAverage PriceMedian Price
1Q054,085$1,002,412$611,020
2Q055,063$1,065,594$639,706
3Q054,454$1,045,120$660,310
4Q053,474$994,414$650,350
1Q064,018$1,068,926$659,028
2Q064,901$1,105,784$704,125
3Q064,594$1,056,386$719,136
4Q064,030$1,089,872$735,420
1Q074,555$1,157,155$755,602
2Q075,643$1,251,087$812,304
3Q075,293$1,302,835$819,452
4Q073,858$1,401,417$843,572
1Q084,033$1,644,561$893,178
2Q084,473$1,554,369$936,660
3Q084,511$1,361,652$862,965
4Q082,985$1,441,317$885,126
1Q091,678$1,437,961$876,691
2Q092,129$1,269,034$782,444
3Q093,237$1,241,250$762,464
4Q093,546$1,300,029$766,910
1Q103,145$1,301,359$777,853
2Q103,959$1,282,673$763,384
3Q103,350$1,349,585$840,141
4Q102,907$1,414,235$825,094
1Q112,691$1,339,395$781,355
2Q113,616$1,333,702$808,975
3Q113,401$1,376,471$828,749
4Q112,664$1,305,342$743,161
1Q122,728$1,394,611$780,746
2Q123,703$1,399,519$831,961
3Q123,883$1,313,019$825,670
4Q123,751$1,532,943$829,375
1Q132,816$1,287,682$774,961
2Q134,338$1,381,696$835,332
3Q134,787$1,386,628$849,923
4Q133,911$1,551,722$844,354
1Q143,257$1,654,217$874,364
2Q143,937$1,613,734$877,930
3Q144,240$1,609,840$873,874
4Q143,498$1,698,899$933,223
1Q153,115$1,782,724$926,130
2Q153,825$1,736,065$949,503
3Q154,368$1,647,370$948,792
4Q153,678$1,883,615$1,058,615
1Q163,429$2,029,220$1,083,307
2Q163,646$1,981,731$1,066,549
3Q163,643$1,981,249$998,540
4Q163,059$1,978,913$994,300
1Q173,158$2,076,993$1,056,228
2Q173,685$2,100,282$1,163,360
3Q173,663$1,900,175$1,138,388
4Q173,059$1,907,094$1,080,570
1Q182,677$1,902,772$1,098,399
2Q183,157$2,042,621$1,092,376
3Q183,204$1,904,114$1,096,944
4Q182,722$2,063,797$1,047,295
1Q192,508$2,044,137$1,116,118
2Q193,668$2,434,159$1,360,167
3Q192,927$1,705,845$998,961
4Q192,703$1,898,000$1,028,052
1Q201,604$1,854,341$1,132,750

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CHOOSING GREEN: Deciding Where to Live in Manhattan

January 2020

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NOT IN THE NEWS: HEALTHY MARKET ACTIVITY ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE

July 2019

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I am a Jew

(A series of 7 articles)

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Tel Aviv

January 31, 2019

I am no longer in Tel Aviv or in Israel, but Tel Aviv was “home” in a country that is an unsettling combination of foreign and intimately familiar.  I was guided by knowing that many, of my ancestry, settled there and that only timing,  fortuitous decisions and the chance of US entry visas (rarely given in the 1930’s) separated us from death or an alternative path to refuge in Israel.

Tel Aviv

For three weeks, I visited and interacted with cousins or other descendants of central and eastern European Jews, a marked contrast to a life lived largely, and at times almost exclusively, among Christians.  For two generations in my family, we have been with others, learned to be like others, shared intimacy with others, deeply loved others, partnered and married others—such that they are no longer others but dear and close to us—and yet we have not lost our Jewish identity,  and there is something deeply familiar about Israelis.

Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

In Israel, it was as though my entire adolescence and adult life had been stripped away.  California, Asia, Europe, and even New York felt like temporary influences.  What I had with Israelis seems to precede these places—I had returned to the home of my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents.

And yet, as my cousin Miriam said:  we are the stories we tell ourselves . . .

I visited with Miriam, her sister Laura, and two other cousins in Israel.  These cousins share the same great-grandparents or are descended from siblings of the same great-grandmother.  The family moved from what became Poland to Vienna, sometime around World War I; one branch then moved to Antwerp and the rest to New York and New Jersey.  These cousins still know each other, or of each other.  So I was led from those I knew, to two whom I had never heard of or met.  None of them were born in Israel.  They were Zionists who chose Israel.

My cousins have many years and strong bonds in Israel.  One, a retired Belgian journalist, covered the Middle East for Belgian newspapers.  She is disappointed that the path to peace has been so difficult and might have left,  but has nevertheless been there since 1971.   The others are married, or divorced with spouses or partners, friends and children, and one with grandchildren.  One is married to another American Jew, another to an anglo-Canadian.  One does business with the U.S., another is in a close circle of American émigré friends.  They switch back and forth easily between Hebrew and English, and their Israeli children have served in its army.

In Israel, I also had my first close-up view of a world that precedes me, that of Orthodox Jewry.  One Polish great-grandfather was a progressive orthodox rabbi, according to Miriam, and on the lecture circuit in Europe and later in the United States.  Yet I do not know the ultra-orthodox or even many orthodox Jews.  There are many in New York, but generally, like other assimilated Jews, my preferences and geography have separated me from them.  The traditionally religious are often viewed as backwards, insular, clannish, and likely to judge us as non-Jewish. . . and yet these views are based on very little.  I have no knowledge of them, and so Israel was my chance to listen, ask questions and challenge my prejudices.

First in Jerusalem to the tour guide at the Western Wall, a traditionally dressed American woman, who led the English speaking tour of the excavations.  Using a model, she explained the ancient configuration of the Temple Mount and the location of the Holy of Holies, the prayer and celebratory activities now possible in the tunnels, and the prohibition to entering the Mount until the arrival of the Messiah.  Among the tour visitors were a few American rabbinical students, one of whom is the son of the Orthodox rabbi in London, Ontario, where my sister lives.

At the Dead Sea, I initiated a conversation with two more American students, who explained (while floating) that many young Orthodox students come to Israel for a year or two of rabbinical studies, but not necessarily to become rabbis.  The studies are part of an education which encourages them to practice whatever profession they choose, while keeping their minds on the Torah.  They briefly explained the differences between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds—the latter offering a more varied, subtle, less clearly directive commentary, a more interesting text to study.  They have been reading it, in the original Aramaic, since the fifth grade.

In Israel we also have old friends, and with them too I found the warmth of the familiar.  A brother Ilan (in Jerusalem) and sister Efrat (in the Galilee), whom we knew at school in Singapore and whose parents were friends of our parents.  Both are married, with children, and now their first grandchildren.  I had last seen Ilan, in about 1983, when he recognized me at the Marina Safeway in San Francisco; he then spent a couple of nights sleeping on the floor of my studio.  It was easy to feel the similarity in their liberal education, warmth,  directness, and in the strength of the women.

But there were differences.  Our friends and their children have served in the army—no one in my world has ever been in the military.  They both married Jews—I’m single, gay, my sister married to a Scots-Irish Canadian.  They seem more closely engaged in the building of their country—in a larger, older country like the United States, fewer of us are able to do this.  They see their children frequently and are often with them for Friday evening Shabbat.  My niece is far away in Liverpool studying theatre.  Seder dinners yes, Chanukah or Rosh Hashanah dinners at my parents in California (years ago) or more recently at my cousin’s in New York, but I cannot think of a sabbath dinner in recent memory.  I was at three in Israel, and the candles were lit.

Tel Aviv has a lot of high-rises, but mostly it is still a city of 4 to 6 story buildings, dating from the 1930’s and later in the 20th century,  with surprisingly shabby facades, but beautiful tree-lined streets and gardens.  The avenues are filled with stores, and with bakery cafés, seemingly on every block.  The city is relaxed and urbane with wonderful weather and a beautiful, endless, beach, like Los Angeles, but much smaller and more intimate.

The men, or some of the men, in Israel are intense and uniquely handsome.  Some are almost biblical, thin, with darkish skin and black hair, fit from the army and with no other pretense.  Israel, for the older gay man, appeared to offer a paradise–lacking the ageist prejudices of New York.

Since I have relatives there, and the weather is better than in New York, a cab driver asked, why I was not living in Tel Aviv?   The welcome is automatic.   I did not have to blend-in or change myself in any way.  I do not have to be observant (most Israelis are not).  I don’t even have to speak Hebrew.  I was welcomed, my right to be there understood, a unique and wonderful feeling, a sense of belonging (as my pool friend M. described it when I returned).  All of this was wonderful, a refuge, and a kind of liberation, although it does not include the Palestinians.

Independence Hall, Tel Aviv

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Visiting the Wall

January 16, 2019

Israel is a complex country, not simply because of the contrast and friction between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also because of the richness of its historical and contemporary Judaism.

Israel’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem, in 1967, was an extraordinary event, since the Old City is majority Arab and the site of important Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites.  For Israel, it is for the first time the repossession of the remains of its ancient capital and of its Temple, from which the Jews were expelled by the Romans in 70 AD.

the Western Wall, courtesy Dan Lundberg and Wikimedia Commons

While I believe that religion has or should have evolved beyond its origins in time and place, this is not what others believe.  There is an extraordinary triumph in taking back a place to which access has been denied, or severely limited, for two thousand years, and the triumph is both religious and nationalistic. The formerly-limited praying area in front of the Temple’s Western Wall was enlarged after the 1967 war, by demolishing houses and relocating their Muslim occupants.  Now there is a large plaza busy with visitors and worshippers. What is known as the Old City’s Jewish quarter has been rebuilt and expanded, including several religious institutions and the reconstruction of the city’s most significant synagogue which was destroyed by Jordanians.  And while Israeli security carefully protects the integrity and security of the Moslem mosques on the Temple Mount, excavations around its base are uncovering layers of history, including ancient Jewish history, providing religious Jews with additional opportunities to worship in close proximity to the identified location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

a new sanctuary, created in excavations adjacent to the Wall

Alone on this second visit, I covered my head, walked onto the plaza and touched the wall.  Even for the liberal, ignorant, Diaspora Jew, it was impossible to feel nothing.

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Jerusalem, Day Three

January 13, 2019

Last night I slept off my jet lag with 10 hours in bed, walked it off from my cousin’s apartment to the Old City, and then swam it off at the Jerusalem YMCA.

Jerusalem’s Old City retains its magnificence.  It is surrounded by medieval Ottoman and earlier Herodian walls, set off from their surroundings.  I have never seen a walled city of this importance.  The great commercial cities of Europe shed their walls—and this was never a commercial city.

The walls are surrounded by archeological sites, cemeteries, and plazas, walkways, parks and roads, widened and improved by the Israelis.  The Temple Mount sits high within, on a stone platform of ancient Temple walls.  It has been ornamented for centuries, since the Moslem conquest, by two mosques including the gorgeous Dome of the Rock.  (Despite my love of beauty, I decide to respect traditional Judaism, which does not permit me to visit. )  Mohammed ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount, and my guide tells me that Moslems (some, I later read) do not believe that David and Solomon were Jews or that the Hebrew Temple existed.

The Old City from the Mount of Olives

The Old City retains its holy sites, intertwined with competing narratives, its separate and ancient way of life, its holiness, its craziness, and its mystery.  Its narrow streets and shops cater to residents and pilgrims as they have since the First Temple.  Walking the narrow streets, past holy trinkets and souvenirs, I imagine Jesus walking past the money changers in the old Temple, intent on purifying and elevating Judaism.  Tomorrow I will tour the ancient tunnels under the Wailing Wall and see more of this. Otherwise I’d prefer to avoid the tensions of a place that has been prayed-in for three thousand years and fought-over since 70 AD.  After all we lived here for only a thousand -plus years.  Remembering the tragedy of losing it, we were nevertheless gone for nearly two thousand.

Beginning at some point in the 19th century, modern Jerusalem, Moslem, Christian and Jewish, grew up around the Old City walls, but it is not up against them.  Outside the walls, we saw or visited relatively poor Arab towns, on and below the Mount of Olives.  We visited important Christian churches and monasteries–where Jesus ascended to heaven (White Russian Orthodox), where Jesus wept for the future destruction of Jerusalem, where Jesus lied down before the crucifixion (Catholic), and where John the Baptist was born (Ein Karem).

An ancient olive tree on the Mount of Olives

Then this weekend I saw the newer city that is Jewish Jerusalem and modern Israel’s capital.  I caught up with a childhood friend, Ilan K., met his family, heard their Hebrew, shared the warmth and familiarity of their family life, and had coffee with a distant Belgian cousin (Renee Ann G.) who settled here in 1971.  I visited new neighborhoods, new shopping centers, and re-imagined, nearby Moslem villages, Ein Karem and Abu Gosh.   Ilan drove me past the Israel Museum, the Holocaust Memorial (Yad Veshem), the Jerusalem Forest,  and the Herzl Memorial.  This city is less ancient,  less mysterious, less crowded, not always beautiful, but more comfortable and appealing.  The tensions and competing claims of the Old City are more distant.  The Arabs are no longer here, or seemingly more integrated into Israeli life.  This may not be the City on a Hill, but it is the refuge of the Jews and of more consequence and importance to me.

Yad Vashem

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Jerusalem

January 10, 2019

So much has been written about Jerusalem, so my describing the sites is meaningless.  All I can offer here are my observations informed by the knowledge of my guide, Berhanu, an Ethiopian Christian and a close friend of my second cousins, who has studied and lived in Jerusalem since childhood, but is not responsible for my reactions.

I am staying on a narrow lane not too far from Hapalmach Street, formerly a wealthy Arab suburb although the Arab residents left in 1967; the residents are now Jews, and the street names Hebrew.  The buildings are low-rise apartments, built in stone, as is the entire city.  Some of the buildings are new and others were large houses, now converted into apartments, with some stories added, stone over stone, as in the oldest parts of the city.  The neighborhood looks homogeneous and relatively affluent, with here and there interesting shops and small restaurants, an arts cooperative and organic food restaurant in a former leprosy asylum, a wine store with only Israeli wines,  a small café with three tables and breads and pastries, a tired supermarket, lacking a bar of soap, but with salt from the Dead Sea.

My cousins’ aunt owns a long and rectangular ground floor apartment, one room deep, in an old Ottoman house.  The entry is through a gate and a long fenced-in garden, at the rear, with a stone terrace, a lemon tree, a garden shed, path and flowering shrubs.  It was raining when I arrived, and inside, stone walls, a tiled floor, and eclectic fenestration and doors face the greenery.  The aunt, Yocheved, a Zionist now in her 90’s, fought in the 1948 war, lived here for some years, worked for the Anti- Defamation League in New York and has lived, primarily, at 100th Street and Riverside Drive, for years, just eight blocks south of me.  Her husband was a prominent biblical scholar, and they spent the summers here.  I know her as Judy, who can command a Seder and read complex Hebrew text at the morning service of the  Ansche Chesed synagogue on West End Avenue at 100th Street.  She is a huge personality and she and her friends, American women,  know the texts as they know Judaism.

Aunt Judy’s garden

Berhanu’s tour of the old city began outside the walls, which date from Herodian times and were built up by the Ottomans.  Our first stop was on Mount Zion, which surprised me, but it was the site of either King David’s first castle or alternatively where he first,  temporarily, placed the tablets and the arc of the covenant.  The main church is German Catholic, built over much earlier ruins. The Christians first focused on this site because of its earlier importance, and because Mary, the mother of Jesus, was linked to earlier Hebrew symbols.  Architecturally, the building resembles Greek Orthodox churches and Greek Orthodox art, which, more than the Roman, inherited the earlier Hebrew aversion to statuary and three-dimensional representation.

Except at limited hours, the Temple Mount is not readily accessible to non-Moslems, a disappointment, as I had read that it is extremely beautiful. The Turkish market, a long vaulted street, lined with shops and stalls and crowds, leads directly to a main entrance to the Mount.  But access is now guarded by Israeli soldiers, who guarantee its security and would allow me no further.  The Jordanians rule from within.

The Dome of the Rock (691 AD), built on the even more ancient Temple Mount    (500-1000 BC) and photographed from the Mount of Olives.  Grave stones in the foreground

the Turkish market

The plaza in front of the mount’s Western Wall (the focus of Jewish prayer), is protected by security personnel and scanners, but otherwise it is easily accessible.  The Israeli military has a presence just above it, and military induction ceremonies are held in front of it.   Close to the wall, men and women, worship in separate zones, with men having about two thirds of it.  The plaza is guarded by young Israeli soldiers shouldering guns.  At this visit, I am unable to feel inspired by the Herodian wall or its later additions.  Perhaps mistakenly, I do not approach or touch the Wall. ( I did that, in 1969, when my father brought me here.)

Walking the streets of the Old City is an intense and ancient experience.  The city feels older and more complex than anything I have seen in Europe—something like the ancient complexity of Rome, an imperfect comparison. The streets of the Moslem section are crowded with shops and people, a warren of narrow, often covered, pedestrian streets shared by Moslem and Jewish visitors.  This is the Middle East, and the city is also a crowded bazaar, with cheap clothing, houseware, and hardware stores, spice shops and food markets, and in the less crowded Christian section, store after store of religious objects and art.  People live here in tight conditions, even in this relatively quiet post-Christmas season.  Hostility is unpredictable and there is no easy escape.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, found the true cross and the burial tomb of Jesus.  We enter from crowded streets through small chapels controlled by Ethiopian (and therefore African) orthodox clergy.  They sing and worship in an ancient semitic language, and the two chapels each reproduces the ancient Temple’s Holy of Holies, a small room with an Ark of the Covenant and tablets within.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is said to date from 43 AD, belying the ancient presumptions of Christian Europe.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The main church is shared by the Greek Orthodox and Catholic, and to a lesser degree Armenian, churches, all struggling for relative control and the primacy or legitimacy of their various theological interpretations.  The church is gorgeous and ancient and strangely intimate, with a long line of pilgrims waiting to enter Christ’s Byzantine tomb, all standing beneath the dome of its grand Crusader chapel.

This is a city that is a living place, much more than a series of churches and museums. It has been worshipped and fought over, but it is the latter, the struggles for power, identity and theological interpretation, that I am feeling everywhere.  The struggle is very ancient, so much older than we commonly reference, of religions and sects fighting for legitimacy, as defined by control, or asserting control or re-asserting control of holy and previously holy places.  I am fascinated to see it but recoil from associating with it.

Let’s give these ancient sites to those who define their beliefs by control of them. I see nothing in it but pain and grief.  Judaism survived and evolved for two thousand years without Jerusalem, although Judaism brings me here again as I seek to redefine my relationship with it.  I need Israel, but perhaps I do not need ownership of this old city or control of it.  I want to honor it, but I do not want to repeat the past and fight over it, even if others would inevitably and again, deny me access to it.  In my view, and perhaps that of others, we created what underlies it and can be proud and honored by what arose from it.  We no longer need to control it to define us.

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Israel Starts at Kennedy Airport

My trip to Israel began at my building at 108th Street and Riverside Drive.  I had plenty of time before the 6:30 pm flight so took the subway:  first the #1 train to the B at 59th Street, then a change to the E at 7th Avenue, and finally the JFK Air Train at Sutphin Boulevard.   All typically New York so far, with many different types of people including a young couple from Moscow on the E—all in a system that moves quickly but cannot be described as clean or attractive, excepting perhaps the Air-Train.  It was midday, and not too crowded, and I had a nice conversation with an MTA employee who clarified my transfers.   Then at Kennedy’s Terminal 4, a helpful young woman, directing passengers, told me that that I was too early for El Al check-in and placed me at the beginning of what became a long passenger waiting line.

The crowd was eclectic—a number of older American couples traveling to the Holy Land, by their look Christians, mostly white some black from the continent’s interior—and a number of Israelis. I had a pleasant conversation with an older Israeli  who was directly behind me.  She frequently visits her son and grandchildren in Cleveland and was on her way home.  The food she said is not good in Cleveland, so she did a lot of cooking, but her grandchildren are learning Hebrew as their mother is a Hebrew teacher.  She is round, casually but carefully dressed, with hair too-perfectly-set against an elderly face, and she is warm and genuine.  Her antecedents were from both Europe and Syria, an unusual blending for Jews in the United States.

When El Al is ready,  I am the first to line up at one of the small standing desks for interviews, and a young Israeli woman asks me a number of security questions:

Why are you visiting?   I’m seeing friends and cousins.

Do you belong to a congregation?   No

Do you celebrate the holidays?   Passover, with a shrug that indicated some of the time.

What are your cousins’ names?    These were given.

Do you have any plans to visit the surrounding countries?  No.   Have you visited the surrounding countries?  No

Do you know anyone in the surrounding countries?   I have a Palestinian American friend who visits her family in Jordan.  How often do you see her?   Every few months.  When did you most recently see her?  A few weeks ago.

And then the usual . . . but with the explicit reference to protecting against explosives—did you pack your own luggage?  Yes.  Did anyone else give you anything else to carry?   No

All very friendly, but she spoke clearly and with authority.   She then walked me over to the ticket agent,  an American, and waited a few moments while the agent began to check me in.  The ticketing, but not the security, is delegated to local ground staff.

At the gate I was early, so it was quiet for a while, but soon there was an animated and interactive crowd that was surprisingly religious, including Americans and Israelis.  At about 5 o’clock a number of men, seemingly unrelated to each other, some in kipa, others in the black suits and fedora of the more orthodox, gathered to face a large east-facing window, praying, with a series of shallow bows known as davening.  I had seen this before, but now I was moved, among Jews and in Israel, well before boarding.

courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On the plane, a  young American mother with a baby and her sister asked me to switch seats with a third young woman behind me, so that they would not be sitting next to a man.  She later found an empty aisle seat, elsewhere on the plane and then asked the third young woman to move to that seat, so that she and her sister could better manage the baby.

The mother was friendly, not insistent, but without embarrassment for these requests.  Her daughter, reddish-blond, round faced, and two years old, was charming, happy and interactive.  The mother entered the plane with her head uncovered, but later put on a head scarf. Her sister, perhaps twenty, was very beautiful–in her face, figure, movement and extraordinary golden hair.  Her modest clothing did not conceal her looks. Meanwhile to my left, two young Israeli men barely said a word and did not get up once, during the entire 10 hour flight.  As is occasionally the case around straight men and beautiful women, I seem to be doing all of the looking.

January 10, 2019 

prayer at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv

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My Aliyah

Judaism is a fixed part of my life, although I’ve never emphasized it. I have used it to focus on other things—that is until the shootings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh which had an unexpected and negative impact.

As a first reaction, I wrote a brief essay on my limited experience with antisemitism and then started reading:  Paul Johnson,  A History of the Jews (a favorite); Ari Shavit, The Promised Land;  David S. Wyman, Abandonment of the Jews, Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah, Amos Oz,  Dear Zealots Letters from a Divided Land, A Tale of Love and Darkness; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, David ben Gurion, Israel, a Personal History,  and now others.  For the first time, and with pleasure, I’m reading the Bible, from start to finish, although currently I’m only in Exodus.

I’m at the beginning of a new exploration, but I do not know Israel.  I visited, but only briefly with my parents in the 1960’s, so I am going next week.  The trip now includes five days in Jerusalem, a possible day trip to the West Bank, two days at the Ein Gedi hotel near the Dead Sea,  a week in northern Israel, west of Haifa and then Acre, and 4-5 days in Tel Aviv.

Most compelling will be the people:  some I’m getting to know (two second cousins I met in New York);  family friends I have not seen in decades; cousins, several times removed,  I have never met, and perhaps others.

Israel is where Jews come from and where we began.  When I think of Israelis, I think of “them”, and I think of “us”.   Israel is a safe haven for Jews, even if we do not need it.  (Very few of us were welcomed to the United States, during and after the Holocaust, and many from the Middle East and Russia have gone to Israel  because they needed to do so.)  Israel has changed all of us.  We no longer vie or cringe for acceptance, and antisemitism need no longer define us.  Because we have Israel, we know, and the world knows, that when Jews are victims we can push back.  For us, Israel must exist.

But Israel exists because we founded or re-founded a state where others, not Jews, were already living.  Our state excluded or did not fully include them.  We reclaimed something that was taken from us, but arguably no longer belonged to us.  Time, war and memory have not yet remedied this.  And so what was achieved is marred by something wrong at the beginning—and will continue to be so until we find a way to correct or compensate for it.

Of course, this is not for me to decide, or rather it is not primarily for me to decide.  I do not live in Israel; I have made no sacrifice for Israel; and I have no knowledge of insecurity.  I am fully embraced by a country that does not hate me, and where my personal security as a Jew is generally taken for granted.  I live in a society that is not defined by religion, and that is how I prefer it .

But here too I descend from a people that took its land from others and with no prior claim or disaster to justify it.   All Americans, even those we view as oppressed, have benefited from a country founded and taken by force. We rarely talk of it, because the implications of doing so are too great.

So my views on Israel should be based on introspection and care.  I am descended from two peoples who found refuge and who took from others in order to be secure.  I cannot disassociate myself from Israel, because I am a Jew, nor from America,  because I have inherited and implicitly accepted its benefits.  And in my view, I cannot be whom I need to be without considering both the light and the dark side of what was done for us.  I can think, I can speak, I can even participate, but I cannot easily judge because I have made no effort to put my country, the United States,  in order.

December 31, 2018

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