Warmly greeting my family at Ben Gurion airport in September 1974 was Haggai, a Tel Aviv University history professor who would become my mentor and dear friend during my year as Fulbright professor. He had come to help my family navigate our entry as strangers in a strange land. I had visited Israel for the first time one year earlier with a group of “disaffected Jewish academics,” chosen by the American Jewish Committee in an effort to counter the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment that had begun to spill across college and university campuses. I knew that I was amply qualified. So did the Committee.
The few days that I spent in Jerusalem during that two-week journey convinced me that I must return. The Fulbright professorship became my ticket. Haggai, understandably assuming that we would want to live near the university, went out of his way to guide us through the airport maze to our new home. When I told him that we had already rented an apartment in Jerusalem he was clearly disappointed.
Haggai faithfully attended my weekly seminar (ironically entitled “The American Promised Land”), followed by lunch together. There I became the student, learning about Israel from a superb teacher. A Haganah soldier during the Independence War when he had just turned 18, Haggai chose Kibbutz Revivim, close to the border with Egypt, as his postwar home. A decade later he came to Columbia University for his PhD in American history. With degree in hand he had returned to Israel to teach at Tel Aviv University. Our year together, first as colleagues then as friends, taught me about Israel.
I had other teachers that year. One of my students, Rafi Amir, had been the Kol Israel radio newscaster during the Six-Day War. Arriving at the Western Wall with the first wave of IDF soldiers, he broadcast with palpable excitement the return of Jews to their ancient holy site for the first time since Jordan had destroyed the Jewish Quarter during the Independence War. Rafi became my Jerusalem guide and teacher, taking me to hidden corners in the Old City that I never would have found by myself.
Wandering alone through Jerusalem, I discovered the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, one of whose 19th century founders, I learned, was Rabbi Meir Auerbach. One of the first Jewish enclaves outside the Old City, it endures as an enclosed community where strangers are not always welcome. During one of my hesitant walks of discovery as an explorer from the world of modernity, I passed a large stone school building, resounding with the sound of young boys’ voices in prayer. At street-level there was a corner enclosure with a door and large empty windows that concealed whatever, if anything, might be inside.
With hesitation, I entered. Seated behind a table at one end, surrounded by shelves filled with cartons, was a husky middle-age man dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, wearing a kippa. He pointed to a nearby chair, where I dutifully sat and waited. At his initiative we began a conversation that lasted for thirty years. David Ezra had arrived from Iraq during the Independence War, fought in the Israel Defense Forces and, seriously wounded, was unable to walk thereafter without metal braces and crutches.
Over time David became another favorite teacher, unpacking cartons to show me intricately engraved copper tzedakah boxes and pitchers, samovars, Shabbat and Hanukkah candle holders, and other fascinating Middle Eastern Jewish treasures. Often I sat quietly, watching as prospective buyers examined items from David’s extraordinary collection. One man asked to see candlesticks, which David dug out of one of his cartons. The shopper asked the price; David told him; he asked if David would accept less. David’s face tightened in fury, he pointed to the door and brusquely commanded: “Get out.” I learned never to bargain with David, so I bought the Warsaw-stamped candlesticks at full price.
Over time I also developed friendships with two Arab antiquities dealers in the Old City, Mahmoud and Ibrahim, whose shops were one hundred yards apart on the Via Dolorosa. Like David, Mahmoud was a superb teacher who permitted me to sit, watch, and learn from his negotiations with prospective buyers of his Iron Age juglets, Canaanite fertility figurines, and Hasmonean oil lamps. During quiet times he took me to visit a friendly priest who had his own expansive antiquities collection hidden in cartons beneath his bed. We also toured the vast space below the Temple Mount, not long before Muslims built a mosque there to keep Jews away from their holiest site.
In his tiny nearby shop, Ibrahim encouraged me to browse through his collection of ancient pottery and coins while he played sheshbesh with a friend. He took me to ancient holy cities that I would never have visited alone, including Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Hebron, burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. Showing my passport to an Israeli soldier at the Machpelah entrance, who seemed puzzled by my Arab companion, he permitted our entry to the magnificent Isaac Hall. Ironically, Mahmoud and Ibrahim became my best teachers about ancient Israel.
Those days are long gone, but my memories of discovery in the Land of Israel will endure among my most precious possessions.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaicby Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a best book of 2019.