Between 1991 and 1996, seven Israeli and Palestinian children starred in a Canadian documentary series about life in Jerusalem. Though they grew up within miles of one another, they lived worlds apart, never to meet. A quarter-century later, I set out to find them.
I learned about the obscure series, called “Children of Jerusalem,” from my editor. He had learned about it from his 6-year-old daughter, who discovered it while surfing the Internet for shows about children from faraway lands. “I wonder if it would be interesting to do something about where the kids in the film wound up and what happened to the filmmaker,” my editor said in an email. It sounded like a story and possibly an adventure.
The piece was also an opportunity to look at how Jerusalem shapes its children. Israelis often tell me that the only people who can appreciate Jerusalem are those who grew up there, as if a childhood spent in the white stone city unlocks it for a lifetime.
I was mystified by Jerusalem when I visited it for the first time, at 12, roughly the age of the children in the film series. But when I returned there to live as a foreign correspondent in 2014, I found it utterly stifling. Like so many secular people, I decamped to Tel Aviv, returning to Jerusalem only for work. Could these seven people, now my own age, help me understand and appreciate their city?
To find them, I contacted Beverly Shaffer, the Canadian filmmaker who created “Children of Jerusalem.” Shaffer made her first reporting trip to Jerusalem in 1990. At the time, Jerusalem was a city on the brink of war and peace. From the first intifada to the Oslo Peace Accords, the city vacillated between the two extremes. Children in 1990s Jerusalem were brought up on fear but also on hope, the last generation to glimpse a joint future before violence and political stalemates calcified the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians.
Shaffer was a documentarian with the National Film Board of Canada with a mandate to make films that would “make Canadians feel proud,” she said. Her most successful project to date was “Children of Canada,” a series of 10 short documentaries narrated by Canadian children. After one of the “Children of Canada” documentaries won an Oscar for best short film, she decided to apply the formula to the Holy Land.
Shaffer, who is Jewish, had studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for a year. She wagered that Canadian children would have something to learn from Israelis and Palestinians their age. “Why not try to influence children so they will grow up and become adults and already have a notion of how the other lives?” she said. She was also motivated by a personal mission. “Peace was in the air,” she said. “I wanted to make my contribution to bringing peace.”
Shaffer wanted to find native-born Israelis and Palestinians, but also recent immigrants. Beginning in the 1980s, Israel welcomed close to 1 million Russian immigrants and tens of thousands of Ethiopians to its shores. Shaffer, who speaks Hebrew, was able to locate four Jewish children on her own. Not knowing Arabic, she turned to a Palestinian journalist, Daoud Kuttab, to help her find Palestinian youngsters. With the first intifada underway, she said, Palestinian kids were typically depicted in the media as rock-throwing aggressors or as victims of the Israeli military. She wanted to find, in her words, “nice” Palestinian kids.
Shaffer’s cast is not exactly representative of Jerusalem or Israel — there is no Mizrachi Jew, that is, no Jew of Arab origin — but it captures a wide swath of the city. There’s Tamar, the Orthodox Jewish baritone horn player; Yehuda, the studious Haredi boy; Gashaw, a soccer-playing Ethiopian immigrant; Assia, a Russian animal lover; Yacoub, a rambunctious Catholic Palestinian; Ibrahim, a secular Muslim Israeli Arab, and Neveen, the intellectual child of Palestinian refugees.
Though short, the seven films are slow, even plodding, by today’s standards, filled with scenes of ordinary life as the children go to school, play, eat and shop with their families. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hangs in the background. Occasionally it is dealt with head-on, such as when 9-year-old Yacoub coaches his younger brother to sidestep Palestinian demonstrations in order to avoid trouble with the Israeli police. Several of the children speak of the real potential for peace between Arabs and Jews. It’s difficult to imagine these statements coming from kids today, born during the second intifada and now living through what some are calling the third — a spate of Palestinian knife attacks that has been met with a severe Israeli crackdown.
After their Canadian debut, Shaffer had hoped that the films would eventually be shown in Israel, introducing Palestinians to Israelis and vice versa. But that never happened. “To be honest, these films did not take off in a way I wanted them to,” she said. When the children turned 18, Shaffer wanted to update the series, but the film board declined to fund the project. Over the next several years, the film board laid off its in-house directors. Shaffer’s position was eliminated in 2008, and she hasn’t made a film since. Meanwhile, she stayed in touch with the children from the series and met with some of them on trips to Jerusalem. But aside from Shaffer and her Jerusalem subjects, the world forgot about “Children of Jerusalem.”
When I reached Shaffer, now 70, she was eager to help bring the films back from obscurity. She connected me to several of her subjects; the others proved much more difficult to find. In the more than two decades since Shaffer interviewed them, life had thrown them down unexpected and sometimes difficult paths. It would take me months and many miles to locate the full cast.
I could sense Assia’s hesitation in her response to my email: “I guess I can try to answer your questions.” In the film, she was an articulate 12-year-old who had come to Israel 10 months before from Moscow with her parents and younger sister. The film opens with her playing with a turtle, Gerda, on the grass. “She doesn’t actually realize that she came to Israel,” a child’s voiceover said, referring to the turtle. Assia’s family lived apart from other Russian immigrants, in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, where a couple had rented them an apartment at a deep discount. While Assia’s parents had a difficult time adjusting to life in Israel — her father, a math and physics professor, was still out of work — Assia quickly adapted. In the film, she looked at a photo of herself in the Russian airport. “It was great to leave!” she said.
Assia’s world was filled with animals, and one gets the sense that they helped her to assimilate. After school she helped a veterinarian, translating for Russian families who brought in their dogs to get treated. She appeared on an Israeli children’s radio show about animals. But all the callers wanted to know about her life as an immigrant. “In Russia, people are shy. I couldn’t stop them on the street and talk,” she said in response to one caller. “I don’t know how, I started to do it on my own here. And it didn’t feel strange. My parents sometimes are shocked when they see me. They remained Russians. They had no choice. I don’t know how, all of a sudden I became Israeli.”
I had expected to find Assia the adult as an Israeli patriot, an example of the way that Russians had successfully integrated into the Israeli mainstream. But it turned out that she didn’t even live in Israel anymore; she had moved to Barcelona with her husband. When I called her on Skype, Assia was waving goodbye to her son, Adrian, almost 2, as the baby sitter took him out of the room. Assia, now 36, looked like her 12-year-old self, with the same straight, thick hair and narrow face, but she also seemed very tired.
In preparation for our conversation, Assia had watched the film twice. “I really laughed at how stupid I was,” she said. “I was young and enthusiastic and stupid.” Just two years after the film, I was surprised to learn, Assia was kicked out of school for behavior problems. The child who spoke fluent Hebrew within a year of moving to Israel had grown too smart for her Israeli school. She shaved her head and smoked cigarettes, eventually enrolling at another Jerusalem high school. She wriggled out of Israel’s compulsory military draft with a letter expressing her objection to war. It started with her description of a friend who committed suicide in the army.
Assia grew disillusioned with Israel. In the summers, her family made trips to Moscow, and Jerusalem began to seem “fake” compared to her birth city, with its “amazing art.” She met a boy there, and they started a difficult, decade-long relationship. When she was 19 she moved to Moscow to be with him. But parts of Moscow began to bother her — “the people you see on the street, the way you are treated sometimes, the psychology of the whole nation.” She dragged herself back to Jerusalem, calling it the hardest decision she ever made: “I was wondering if I made a mistake, if I would never love again, and if I would always live in that horrible place.”
Assia, of course, would leave Jerusalem again, but not for another few years. I pictured her as a veterinarian, but I was wrong — she pursued a career in graphic design. When she came back to Jerusalem she enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. She met her husband, Udi, through a friend at Bezalel. In 2006, when Israel went to war with Lebanon, Udi was called up on reserve duty as a medic treating wounded Israelis at the Lebanese border. His base, Kfar Giladi, was hit by a Hezbollah rocket that killed 12 soldiers. That was enough for Assia: “I was like, ‘Okay, this is really too much like the movies, and I don’t want to be here for another one of these.” The couple chose Barcelona almost at random, and stayed even as Spain’s economy plummeted.
Today she works as a manager of an art gallery; he is a data analyst. The last time Assia visited Israel was more than a year ago. Her parents still live in Jerusalem with Gerda, the turtle. Her father eventually found work as a physics researcher at the Hebrew University, and her mother works for an architecture firm. Her younger sister also lives in Jerusalem. Assia wants to convince her parents to move to Spain when they retire so that she doesn’t have to return to Israel, where, she said, it can be “very suffocating.” “Everything is in your face all the time: You are a Jew or not a Jew, you are an Arab. Here, I have lived for six years and nobody gives a f—k if I’m a Jew or an Arab.”
“I couldn’t really live, not in Israel and not in Russia,” she said. “And in Barcelona I am quite happy. I don’t have such conflicts anymore.”
I reached Yehuda via email. He agreed to meet with me at a cafe near Abu Tor, the Jerusalem neighborhood to which he had moved with his new wife. During our conversation, Shaffer implied that Yehuda was her favorite subject of the seven. It was easy to see why. The film began with 10-year-old Yehuda singing psalms, a picture of uncomplicated piety. It’s clear that his spirituality is personal; he was not parroting his parents. “We pray three times a day, in the morning, and in the noon and in the evening,” he said in perfect English. “And when I pray I feel that I am really talking to God and that these moments, they are the highest moments.”
Yehuda’s family — he was one of 11 children in the film, and his parents later had three more — organized life around the Jewish calendar. In one scene, he went to the market with his father to select supplies for Sukkot; in another scene they placed branches on top of the family sukkah. There were glimpses of Yehuda’s individuality, too. He snapped in frustration as his brother taught him to mount a bicycle. He told a story about how he cut his hair after his classmates made fun of his long sidelocks — theirs were all short — and his father told him to be proud of his appearance.
When we talked, Yehuda told me that he wore his sidelocks long in part to reflect his family’s affinity with the famous rabbi and composer Shlomo Carlebach. That bit of nuance, he worried, was lost on viewers in Canada.
I had seen a picture of Yehuda on Facebook before we met. In it he was wearing a large, knitted yarmulke and a plaid shirt, with his beard shorn close. It was an outfit that, I thought, marked him as an Orthodox nationalist. I assumed that he had left the Haredi world. It turned out that he did leave, but then he came back — sort of. In person, Yehuda, now 32, was dressed in the Haredi uniform: a black hat with a black suitcoat and ritual fringes hanging over his slacks. His beard had grown out to a soft point underneath his chin. The conservative getup belied his more liberal outlook, he said. Part of the appeal of wearing it was to surprise others. He mentioned that his new wife “likes that I dress this way. It’s making a statement that it is okay to be an interesting, outgoing couple dressing ultra-Orthodox but not being ultra-Orthodox, really.”
As followers of Carlebach, Yehuda’s parents, Americans who both became religious later in life, were deeply involved in kiruv, or outreach to less-observant Jews, at their apartment in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. Yehuda’s exposure to secular people like his grandmother made it difficult for him to hew to a strictly Orthodox lifestyle. At the age of 18 he dropped out of his Haredi yeshiva. “It was too closed for me,” he said.
He went to Tekoa, a settlement south of Jerusalem. There he met Menachem Froman. The legendary rabbi was among the first West Bank settlers, but he also believed that Palestinians should have their own state — and that Jewish settlers could live there. Froman’s ideas were controversial among the settlers. One spring, two Jewish teens from Tekoa were murdered outside the settlement — the Israeli government blamed Palestinians, though the killers were never found — and Yehuda attended their memorial service. When Froman walked into the room, some mourners walked out in protest, Yehuda remembered. But he was more open to Froman’s ideas, and he found himself wondering what life was like for Palestinians. “The concept of occupation wasn’t even a thing in my mind growing up,” he said. “It was clear that they are the terrorists and we are the good guys. I didn’t think of it from a different angle.”
Yehuda felt that something was missing at the settlement. “I wasn’t able to really connect in a devotional way,” he said. He went back to his childhood neighborhood of Nachlaot and met his first wife, an immigrant from Amsterdam who was exploring Judaism. Together they had two children, and Yehuda’s days were consumed with providing for his family. He worked in construction, carrying and mixing cement. As his wife pulled away from Orthodox practice, Yehuda did, too. Religion occupied a smaller and smaller space in his life, and sometimes he went without a yarmulke.
To the degree that Yehuda remained spiritual, he felt misunderstood by his wife. He loved Hasidic music, and his wife couldn’t tolerate it. “There is no dialogue between the worlds” they came from, he said. They divorced after eight years together. I asked him if his parents judged him for his divorce, and I was surprised to learn that his own parents had split up, too. Their Jerusalem home, which once welcomed so many strangers, was now inhabited by his younger sister, her partner and their two children.
Yehuda spent the next four years looking squarely at his faith. He met with rabbis from his childhood, and tried to resolve his largest religious questions, such as the teaching that Judaism is superior to other faiths: “I don’t know what to call it, fascism or racism, or some kind of idea of Jews being at a higher level in the rest of the world, never sat well with me, even as a kid.” He came to believe that rabbis were reacting to an anti-Semitic environment at the time. It was harder for him to come to terms with other matters, like the segregation of men and women.
One weekend, an artist from Boston visited his mother’s house to share the Sabbath meal. She was in Israel on a year-long fellowship, having traced her own path from Reform to Orthodox Judaism. “I happened to be there, and we kind of clicked,” Yehuda said. They married three months later. Like Yehuda, she dresses in Orthodox apparel. Yehuda says he likes watching other Orthodox Jews react to them when they hear nonconformist ideas coming from such a conservative-looking couple.
“We have to kind of keep mixing it up,” he said.
After my interview with Yehuda, I crossed the city to Beit Hakerem, a leafy neighborhood in West Jerusalem, to interview Tamar. The image I carried in my mind was of a girl blowing heartily into a baritone horn. Shaffer was intent on one of her subjects being a musician, and she picked 10.5-year-old Tamar when she visited the Jerusalem Municipal Youth Orchestra. In one of the first scenes, the orchestra played “Oseh Shalom,” a plea for peace in Israel. The song set the tone of the film.
Tamar’s parents emigrated from Canada, and she was one of five children. “I just thought Tamar and her family represent the ideal Zionists,” Shaffer told me. In the film, her brother lived in a settlement south of Jerusalem, called Kibbutz Migdal Oz, and Tamar and her mother drove there to visit him, passing through the Palestinian city of Bethlehem on their way. Shaffer dubbed an English-language broadcast over the clip, creating the impression that the mother and daughter were listening to the news from Gaza in the car. Tamar turned off the radio. “When we pass, my mother is very scared,” Tamar said. “Because sometimes the Palestinians throw stones at us.”
At the end of the film, Tamar wrote to her grandparents in Canada about the orchestra: “Everyone plays a different instrument. And when we play together the music has a really nice sound.” It was a heavy-handed metaphor for Jerusalem as a city of peace. Tamar underscored the point: “As it says in the song, I hope God will make real peace between Arabs and Jews.”
Tamar, now 36, answered the door in black sweatpants and a blue hooded sweatshirt, her red hair piled on top of her head. There were three small backpacks near the door. They belong to her children, who soon scuttled into the living room: Sheked, 8; Avner, 6, and Maya, 3.5. They had just put some corn muffins in the oven for me. I was moved by Tamar’s welcome. After watching her childhood film, I felt a little like I was encountering a long-lost friend.
“I love motherhood,” Tamar said when we sat down to talk. As a child she seemed like a natural caretaker. In one scene in the film, she wrote to her grandparents in Canada, telling them not to worry: “We are all okay.” But it was clear that she wasn’t just making her grandparents feel better about the news out of Jerusalem. She wasn’t as deeply affected by the situation as her mother was. She told me that during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein launched rockets onto Israeli cities, she stayed home with her mother while her father and brother were abroad. “We were only the girls in the house,” she said. “That was fun. The best war.”
After high school, Tamar joined the army and became a commander of soldiers who had dropped out of school. Her job was to bring them up to speed in their education and teach them basic training. That was when she discovered her love of teaching; she is now an instructor at a mixed-gender high school for traditional families. “You go in the door and you close the door and it is your world. Nobody interferes with it,” she said. She never stopped playing the baritone horn, and practices regularly with a Jerusalem band.
At 26 she married Uri, a friend of a friend she met while traveling in Peru. “Three weeks later, I became pregnant. That was the purpose of getting married,” she said. Tamar is the only one of the children in her family who stayed in Jerusalem, deliberately avoiding the West Bank, where three of her four siblings live. “Since I was a girl, all my family is opposite from me,” she said.
As a mother, Tamar has been deliberate in shielding her children from the conflict while they are young. “My mother always listened to news all the time,” she said. “And when the kids are in the car, I only put on music. I don’t want them to listen to the news.” During Israel’s 2014 military campaign in Gaza, she deliberately didn’t tell them that there was a war happening. She recalled her son playing soccer in a field when a rocket siren rang out, scattering the children in all directions. Her son continued kicking the ball, and by the time she reached him the siren had ended. “He didn’t realize that everyone disappeared,” she said.
“They feel their world is a good place and not scary,” she said of her children. “And here it is a big achievement, I think.”
Next on my list was Ibrahim. He grew up in Wadi al-Joz, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that “feels like a village.” His parents were from Northern Israel, so he had Israeli citizenship. This confluence of identities was a source of confusion for young Ibrahim, a lanky boy with a slight mustache on his top lip. “I am 11 years old and I am an Arab-Palestinian Israeli,” he said, then corrected himself again before he got it right: “I am an Israeli-Arab Palestinian. I am a Palestinian-Arab Israeli. Yeah.”
Ibrahim spoke perfect English. He learned the language at an international program in the Anglican school in West Jerusalem, where he studied with the children of diplomats and journalists. His father was a professor at Bethlehem University, and his mother worked for the Israeli Ministry of Education, creating the curriculum for Arabic textbooks. He had two older sisters, Rasha and Abir.
Ibrahim seemed to possess a fluency with the city of Jerusalem that the other children in the series lacked, traveling from east to west and back again with a confidence that ran counter to his youth — or perhaps reflected it. On the way home from school his bus passed an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, a secular Jewish one and an Arab one. “Going from one neighborhood in Jerusalem to another is a bit like traveling through time,” he said.
Out of all of Shaffer’s subjects, Ibrahim struck me the most. He conveyed a kind of intelligent innocence about Jerusalem. I wondered if he had maintained his curiosity about the city or if he had succumbed to cynicism as I had. I looked for clues about him on the Internet, but came up empty-handed. I asked Shaffer what had happened to him. “There is a very tragic story,” she told me. Ibrahim died in a car accident in Iowa in 2009 at the age of 26. “Children of Jerusalem” was played at his memorial service, she said.
Ibrahim’s mother and father, Khawla and Adnan Saadi, agreed to meet me in Jerusalem to tell me about their son. A few years after the film was made, the family left Wadi al-Joz and moved to Beit Safafa, another Jerusalem neighborhood. They lived in a home with a sweeping view of the city, decorated with Palestinian embroidery. Ibrahim’s upstairs bedroom remains the way it was before he died; his clothes are still in the closet. His parents are both retired now, and they spend their time running the Dr. Ibrahim Adnan Saadi Foundation, which provides scholarships to graduate students in a range of fields.
“Abie changed people, everywhere,” his mother said, using Ibrahim’s nickname. “Now, with the foundation, we have 25 students every year, and Abie changes their lives.”
When Ibrahim was 15, his parents sent him to an elite Hebrew-language high school after the Anglican school came under threat of closure. His mother recalled Ibrahim’s interview with the headmaster, who asked him how he would feel as the only Palestinian Arab in his class. What if his peers rejected him? Ibrahim replied: “It is their loss if they don’t want to talk to me. I am an open person. I respect everybody. I have a lot of things they can learn from me, I think I have a lot of things to learn from them,” Khawla said. “After two months, he was the hero of the class,” she added.
Ibrahim became close with five Jewish students whom he called “my brothers.” Friends often visited him in his upstairs room in the Beit Safafa home. His parents later learned that many came not to socialize, but to be tutored by Ibrahim in English and math.
After high school, Ibrahim wanted to go to the United States to attend college. At the time, Rasha lived in Iowa and Abir was in Vancouver, since Shaffer, who remained close with the family, helped her find a graduate program there. But Ibrahim’s parents wanted him to stay in Jerusalem for his first degree. He went to school in pharmacology and then made plans to join Rasha in Iowa. Before he left, he got an elaborate Arabic tattoo of his parents’ names on his back. His message to them, said Khawla, was: “I will hold you with me all my life.”
In Iowa, Ibrahim worked at Walgreens as a pharmacist. He had spent three months in Spain to learn Spanish, supplementing English, French, Hebrew and Arabic so that he could talk to customers. Khawla said he sometimes paid for customers who couldn’t afford to fill their prescriptions. “He couldn’t stand that people could die because they don’t have $200 or $100 for their medicine,” she said. After a year, Ibrahim enrolled in medical school at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City.
In his final year, Ibrahim was assigned a clerkship at a hospital in Waterloo, about 80 miles north of Iowa City. He was driving home from Waterloo in January when another car slid across the highway and hit him. The police identified him by his tattoo. Khawla attended his graduation. “I went to take his degree, because he wasn’t there,” she said.
Ibrahim left behind a girlfriend, Stephanie Johnson, an opera singer whom he met at a party in Des Moines. They connected when she mentioned a film series she watched in school about seven children who lived in the city, “Children of Jerusalem.” Her favorite was Ibrahim.
Stephanie traveled to Israel for the funeral, where Ibrahim’s Israeli and Palestinian friends recalled him as their champion and mentor. A few days after the funeral, Stephanie took Khawla aside and told her she believed that she was pregnant. She had been waiting until Ibrahim returned from Waterloo to tell him about it. Stephanie visited a doctor in Israel who confirmed the pregnancy. Nine months later she gave birth to Adnan, named for Ibrahim’s father.
“He is going to be 7,” Khawla said, showing me a photograph of Adnan in a plaid shirt. He looked like his father as a child. As our interview finished, her phone rang. It was Adnan calling on Skype from Iowa before school. Stephanie, who is now married, was at home on maternity leave, due to give birth to a daughter any day. “Did you get your present?” Khawla asked Adnan. “Do you like the cookies I sent you? I want to hear!” Adnan was distracted by a Rubik’s Cube.
“This toy was your dad’s favorite one,” Khawla said. Adnan perked up: “It was?” “He was so quick to make it the same color on every side,” Khawla said. Adnan’s mother called to him — “Nano!” — to get ready for school. He waved goodbye, and Khawla blew him a kiss.
The film about Yacoub began with him playing a game called “soldiers and masked youth” with his younger brother, his best friend, in a courtyard in Jerusalem. The premise was clearly taken from real life; soldiers were everywhere in Yacoub’s world, lining the streets in his neighborhood. At the dinner table, Yacoub’s parents admonished him to come home right after school, and he passed on the warning to his little brother: The next time he sees a protest in the street, he should just walk by naturally. “Don’t run. The soldiers might think you were participating,” he told him.
A Palestinian Catholic who lives in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, Yacoub’s life was filled with scenes familiar to any Jerusalem tourist. He worshipped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and passed the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Yet Yacoub, 9.5 years old, felt hemmed in by the Old City.
As the intifada roiled, his afterschool activities were canceled; even a trip to the playground stirred up worry in his parents. But most of all, he couldn’t ride his bike on the streets. He rode in the courtyard instead, turning in small circles to practice. “I really wish that one of these days there would finally be peace between Palestinians and Jews and they would start liking each other. Then I could go to my friend’s house after school and play outside and feel free,” he said.
Shaffer didn’t have information for Yacoub, so I called a contact in the Old City, who dug up Yacoub’s phone number. When I rang, he told me that he was one of four Yacoub Toubassis, all cousins. He was the wrong one. The one I was looking for lived in Beit Hanina, in East Jerusalem.
A few weeks later, I found myself on the porch outside the right Yacoub’s home. There was a motorcycle covered in a gray tarp. Long gone were Yacoub’s days of riding a bike in circles outside his parents’ house. Now he drives his motorcycle all over the country as a member of a Harley-Davidson club. “My motorcycle’s nickname is Hellboy,” he said.
Yacoub, now 35, invited me into his living room, where the walls were lined with shelves of liquor. His daughter Naya, 9, and son Nabil, 6, joined him on the couch. “She is Daddy’s pride and joy, and this guy is the gangster,” he said. Nabil is an identical copy of his father as a child. He recently watched the “Children of Jerusalem” video and pointed to his father, recognizing his face as his own, said Sally, Yacoub’s wife.
Yacoub was raised by devout Catholic parents. At age 14 he began to question the concept of the afterlife, leading him to a crisis of faith. Since no one had ever come back from the dead to report back, how could he believe in heaven and hell? He asked a priest to explain the concept to him, but he was not satisfied with the answer. “He was like a really bad sales and marketing guy who wants to sell you something and he is insisting that his product is the best product,” he said. Yacoub started to get gothic tattoos that reflected his questions, such as a skull with a raven. He also began riding a motorcycle. He felt his uncles’ judgment. The Old City started to suffocate him.
After he finished high school, he went to a hospitality program in Jerusalem and then worked at a Hilton hotel as a chef. “The second intifada broke loose, and things started going sideways,” he said. “Not just the Arab employees were fired, but all the employees were fired because tourism simply stopped.” He went to Eilat, the Israeli resort city, to work as a chef. Toward the end of the intifada he returned to Jerusalem and met his wife, who was a manager at a burger restaurant in Beit Hanina. Yacoub was hired as a deliveryman there, but he quit six hours after he began, in order to date her. “I don’t like mixing my personal life with my job, and it wasn’t the best job,” he said. Today he is an employee of the United Kingdom’s consulate in Jerusalem.
Yacoub and Sally wanted to live in Ramallah, where they could afford a larger home for less money. But they worried that they would lose their foothold in Jerusalem. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after it conquered the territory in 1967. Most Palestinians there reject Israeli sovereignty and opt against taking Israeli citizenship. Yacoub and Sally are residents, not citizens, and they could lose their residency status if they decide to move away.
The couple was also priced out of West Jerusalem neighborhoods. Yacoub suspects there was discrimination behind the high quotes. “We were not accepted, let’s put it that way,” he said. Beit Hanina seemed like the safest Palestinian neighborhood. But these days it doesn’t feel so secure. He recalled a recent incident when Palestinians threw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli vehicle, igniting it. His children wanted to know why Israeli soldiers came to the scene instead of firemen. “I had to explain that this is trouble between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Rimon, Yacoub’s younger brother, stayed in the Old City, and the two remained best friends as they raised their families. Two years ago, his brother flipped his Jeep in an off-roading accident near Jericho and died. Six thousand people came to the funeral. “The Israeli police in the Old City thought it was a demonstration of the Palestinians they did not know of,” Yacoub said. “And when they found out this was a funeral, they helped us and blocked the traffic.”
His brother’s death only deepened Yacoub’s questions about the afterlife. “I don’t know if it’s an Arab thing, but the priest told us that God chose him, God chose Rimon. And I would ask, ‘Why Rimon?’ Life shouldn’t be that way. We expect that good people work, grow with their family, grow old and eventually die.”
Since Rimon’s death, Yacoub has helped fend for his brother’s wife and two children. He saw them the day before we met, at a memorial for his father, who passed away not long after his brother. “We sat with friends, had a coffee and chatted, and the kids were with me, all four,” he said. “We are close together.”
NEVEEN AHMAD MUHAMMAD ALI
Shaffer found Neveen, an 11-year-old Palestinian, by visiting her school in the Shuafat camp, originally built for refugees who fled or were forced from their homes by Israeli forces in 1948. The principal was “thrilled” to introduce several candidates to the Canadian filmmaker, and Shaffer chose Neveen, a quiet, intellectual girl from a family of nine. In the film, Neveen lived in a two-bedroom apartment. The camp’s streets were lined with rubble; graffiti covered the walls.
In the film, Neveen dreamed of being a doctor, and her favorite class was science. The instructor brought animal parts to illustrate an anatomy lesson, and pulled a windpipe out of a bucket. “This is something that you usually eat,” she said. There were also political lessons. Another teacher asked about the main topic in the news. Neveen raised her hand: “The peace conference?”
Neveen’s mother was more political than her husband. She talked about current events, supporting a teachers strike. Did Neveen see the Israeli army destroy a neighbor’s home? “What can we do?” her mother said. “One builds a house over a lifetime and it can be destroyed overnight.” Her father was more optimistic. He described a friend “Moti,” an Israeli man with whom he had a “good working relationship.” “If God wills it, there will be peace,” he told Neveen. “It’s better for us and for you, too. So you can have a better future.”
I had never been to Shuafat refugee camp, and I was looking forward to meeting Neveen there to fill in the gap in my reporting. In the 24 years since the film, the camp’s population ballooned to about 80,000 people. Israel’s separation barrier, started in 2002, cut parts of the camp from the rest of Jerusalem, isolating the residents there. In recent years, Shuafat has been the site of brutal clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian youth.
Shaffer gave me the phone number of Hiba Muhammad Ali, Neveen’s English-speaking sister-in-law. I called her, and she promised to ask Neveen if she would do the interview. But Neveen wasn’t interested. She didn’t like the film. “She doesn’t want to relive the experience again,” her sister-in-law told me. “She doesn’t like that memory, and how the film was. And her husband doesn’t like the idea.” I pleaded with Hiba to ask Neveen to reconsider, but she was set against it.
In lieu of the interview, Hiba offered to fill me in on a few details of Neveen’s life. Neveen studied until grade 12. In her late teens she married a cousin. They have two children, ages 14 and 8. She worked at a nursery, and then at a kindergarten, eventually becoming the headmistress of the school. A religious Muslim, she is planning on traveling to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage.
I asked Hiba if Neveen, now 35, ever tried to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. “Honestly, her husband made an obstacle to that,” she said. But he has since softened this stance, at least with their children. “He changed a lot,” Hiba said, “And he wants his daughter to go on to study at university to be whatever she wants.”
The last person I needed to find was Gashaw. In the film, he was 13 years old and living in Givat Hamatos, a caravan neighborhood over the Green Line, built for Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. The family planned to leave Givat Hamatos once it found sturdier footing. In the meantime, Gashaw tended a prolific garden there with corn, watermelons, tomatoes and sunflowers. “When I see my garden blooming it reminds me of Ethiopia,” he said.
Onscreen, Gashaw longed for Ethiopia. He came to Israel two years earlier on Operation Solomon, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopians to Israel. “Hundreds of Israelis were waiting to welcome us,” he said. Gashaw remembered his synagogue and his school, which he left at grade six to help his father on the family farm. He had a large family, with eight brothers and sisters.
Gashaw was comforted by his brother, Benjamin, who was separated from the family when he went into hiding to avoid being drafted in the military in Ethiopia. He came to Israel years before his family, and struggled to fit in. Eventually, he served in the Israeli military and found work as a policeman. “I, too, had problems when I arrived in Israel,” Gashaw said. “Everything was so different.”
Shaffer helped me to get in touch with Gashaw’s wife, a doctoral student named Yifat. She sent me Gashaw’s email address but wouldn’t give me his phone number. Gashaw didn’t respond to my email. On a whim, I contacted an activist I know in the Ethiopian community. A few days later, he provided me with a phone number and a location. Gashaw lives in Kedar Adumim, he said. I surmised that he meant Kedar, a small neighborhood that is practically a suburb of Maale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Gashaw was enthusiastic when we spoke on the phone. He just needed to check with Yifat about the time and he would call me back. But he never did. Nor did he return my calls or emails. With just days until deadline, I decided to take matters into my own hands and go to Kedar. There were only 800 people there, how long could it take? But as soon as I got to Kedar, a manicured neighborhood with terra cotta roofs, it became clear that this would be no simple task. I asked people on the street; nobody had heard of Gashaw or Yifat, a native-born Israeli of Turkish heritage. I went from Kedar to Kedar South, a group of caravans on a hilltop, and then back to Kedar. Finally, a woman on a main thoroughfare said she had heard of a couple that matched my description; they were renting around the corner. I rang the doorbell, and an elderly woman appeared. She hadn’t heard of the family, but perhaps her son-in-law, an Ethiopian Israeli named Daniel, could help. She led me downstairs to a ground-level apartment where Daniel and his Ashkenazi wife were eating pizza with their two blond children. I explained my search, and Daniel mulled it over. He thought he may have gone to school with one of Gashaw’s brothers, Amare, in Maale Adumim. He phoned Amare. Apparently Gashaw was living in the tiny settlement of Neve Erez, an outpost considered illegal by the Israeli government, about 16 miles to the north.
I puzzled over it with my driver. The Ethiopian activist who gave me Gashaw’s number must have meant not Kedar Adumim but Kfar Adumim, another settlement not far from Neve Erez. We drove north as the sun set, climbing down a winding road, while my driver’s phone barked Hebrew directions to Neve Erez. Finally we reached a clearing with a white caravan glowing from the inside. I rang the doorbell, and a young girl answered, followed by her mother. Gashaw and Yifat live farther down the hill, she said, off a rippling unpaved road. The tires crackled as we crept slowly forward. A black dog chased the car, barking viciously. Every few homes, I got out and knocked. Keep going, each person told me, you’re almost there. I couldn’t quite believe that Gashaw had come all the way from Ethiopia to settle in this desolate place. My driver remarked that it was the kind of town where someone went to hide from his past.
We descended to the lowest point of Neve Erez and parked near another caravan home. It was dark by then, and there were no streetlights. The wind shook the car, and two large dogs roamed outside. I exited the car, and the dogs pawed toward me. I got back in. I went out again and smiled at the dogs. “Shalom,” I said quietly, and walked toward the home. There were a few wooden beams leading to the front door. I stepped up; I felt like I was walking the plank. At the door, the woman inside told me I was wrong yet again: Gashaw lived in the building behind hers, another caravan with a garden outside.
“It’s open!” a man’s voice said when I knocked. Gashaw, 36, was sitting at a small table with his two children, Zohar, 4, and Gilli, 2. He had dreadlocks past his waist, and the same broad smile. I introduced myself and he began to laugh riotously, which made Zohar and Gilli laugh. I laughed, too. How did I find him? he asked. Why didn’t you return my calls? I countered. He was sick, and then he was busy, he said. I sat down at the kitchen table, where Zohar was dipping his hand into a bowl of chopped peppers that Gashaw had grown himself. Most of the family’s food comes from the garden, he said.
Gashaw hadn’t moved to Neve Erez to escape his past so much as return to it. He wanted to give his children a taste of the village he grew up in as a child. It wasn’t exactly Ethiopia, but it wasn’t exactly Israel, either. He saw no conflict in living deep inside the Palestinian West Bank; in his view, the land belongs to Israel. Yet he would move back to Ethiopia if it weren’t for Yifat’s objections. He went there for the first time since childhood in 2008 with Yifat, who was out the night I visited. Then he returned with his father. In October he is bringing his five brothers. One day, he plans to purchase his childhood home back from its current owners. “To know who I am, I have to know where I came from,” he said.
Shortly after Gashaw’s “Children of Jerusalem” segment was filmed, his family moved to Maale Adumim, where his parents remain today. After high school he served in an elite counterterrorism unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He spent 11 months traveling in Asia and Australia. When he returned he moved to Ein Gedi, a nature reserve near the Dead Sea, and worked at a gift shop. He started to volunteer with at-risk youth in the area, and realized that he had a talent for connecting with children. That was the beginning of his career in youth outreach. Today he works for the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority in a children’s program.
Gashaw moved back to Jerusalem, where he met Yifat at a restaurant. A year and a half ago they moved to Neve Erez. There were just 16 families there at the time; now there are 25. Gashaw grows lettuce, watermelon, broccoli and potatoes.
At the house, Zohar soon began to cry in quick, gasping breaths. It was way past his bedtime, Gashaw apologized, rushing him into the shower. I said goodbye and slipped out the front door. My search was complete.
On the way back to Jerusalem, it occurred to me that the subjects of the “Children of Jerusalem” series — Assia, Yehuda, Tamar, Ibrahim, Neveen, Yacoub and Gashaw — were members of an exclusive club. Even though they had never met each other, they were all ambassadors of 1990s Jerusalem for a particular audience of Canadian youth.
To viewers of the series, especially young ones, Jerusalem must have seemed a sunny, if complicated place full of people yearning for peace. In truth, the seven children and their families are not in the minority in this sentiment. Most people in Jerusalem want to lead peaceful lives. But there are enough people who don’t to maintain the combustive status quo. In the years since the series ran, Jerusalem only became more violent and divided.
The “Children of Jerusalem” series froze the seven children in time, when they were buoyant and optimistic. When I decided to find them again, part of me worried that they would reflect the fate of their city, that I might encounter them as brittle grown-ups. Instead, I learned that these seven remarkable children grew into seven remarkable adults, with rich relationships to their city and the world. Most of them still maintained a basic, unshakeable faith in the place that they were from, sometimes simply expressed in the decision to stay.
If there is any hope left in Jerusalem, I found it in the stories of these seven people.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.