by: Annelize Williams, BFP Staff Writer
I often think of the city of Jerusalem as a delicious box of chocolates. I would pick through a box of colorfully wrapped chocolates, enjoying the distinct taste of each one, when suddenly I become overwhelmed by the taste of a particularly exquisite chocolate. Likewise, walking the streets of Jerusalem and interacting with its diverse residents may reveal such a sweet treasure. Every so often you just happen to cross paths with such an exceptional Jerusalemite, who completely shifts your whole paradigm about this unique desert land.
This was definitely the case the day I met Rivkah Cohen.* I can still hear the hoarse voice yell at me from across the coffee shop in HaMoshava Germanit. I would later learn that her voice was this hoarse due to a fish bone she swallowed as a child that had permanently damaged her vocal cords. “You, over there!” I nervously glanced in the direction of the voice. “Yes you! Come over here.” An elegantly dressed, elderly lady was waving her arm, indicating for me to come over to her table. I was utterly surprised to say the least.
My inward stereotypes and generalizations about Jerusalem and its inhabitants were about to be disproved. Foreigners generally tend to have a stereotypical idea that the elderly Israelis are inclined to be slightly rude and are mostly not fluent in English. Contradicting the notions I had previously formed, this elderly lady smiled brightly at me, calling me over to her table.
As I approached Rivkah, who was seated alone, she insisted that I join her as she ate the rest of her meal. Not only was this Jewish lady friendly and hospitable, but she also turned out to be so pleasant—an absolute sweetheart—giving me many compliments in perfect English. That was my first taste of this deliciously sweet Israeli “chocolate.”
Shortly after this initial warm act of kindness of that first meeting, Rivkah invited me over to her home. This became a weekly engagement. We enjoyed many cups of tea and little treats together, while Rivkah recounted stories of her rich childhood.
Born in Jerusalem in the early 1920s, Rivkah detailed living through the War of Independence and the severe water shortages that were a reality of life—a weekly bath considered an absolute luxury. Rivkah lived in a Jerusalem that looked vastly different, with not nearly as many trees or buildings.
Our encounters were like stepping into the pages of history seasoned with the thrills of a brilliant novel, both enlightening and highly entertaining at the same time. Earlier in her life, Rivkah, a talented pianist, eventually left Israel to study music in London. Thereafter returning to Israel, she married an engineer and ended up living in Nahariya for a time before returning to her beloved Jerusalem in later years.
Rivkah not only taught me about Jerusalem and its colorful inhabitants, but her stories were a living testament to the profound miracle of the nation of Israel. The stories of the day Israel was born or when David Ben Gurion’s vision to make the Negev Desert bloom became a reality, were the most vivid in her memory.
More importantly Rivkah taught me about unconditional love. Every time I arrived at her front door, she greeted me with a hug and a kiss and again, showered me with compliments. When I looked into her eyes with their soft twinkle, I knew her love was authentic. This Jewish matriarch also had an unshakable faith, as her family had experienced great heartache, the loss of her daughter to cancer and later her beloved husband as well.
Yet, despite all the sadness Rivkah had to face, her spirit was the personification of joy. There was not a day that I arrived at her home that she was not in high spirits, celebrating life and enthralled by the beauty of nature. In fact her whole house was adorned with a wide array of beautiful flowers that she gathered everyday on her walks through the neighborhood. A glorious Steinway piano, her pride and joy, stood as a silent reminder of her days as a concert pianist and of course her thousands of books, stacked to the roof in her little library.
Unfortunately as time went by, Rivkah started battling with the merciless disease called Alzheimer’s. Eventually she had to leave her beloved Jerusalem, when her family moved her to an assisted living home in Tel Aviv. We lost contact after some time, but to this day I consider Rivkah one of the most precious gems I have discovered in Jerusalem. The flavor and texture of her idiosyncratic friendship makes her without a doubt the most exquisite chocolate in the box. When wandering the streets of Jerusalem do not forget this chance encounter, a wonderful illustration of the treasure trove of gems that awaits the avid seeker.
*The name and image have been changed to protect privacy.
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