Karen Brunwasser

This piece appeared in the FT Weekend’s Expat Lives column:

Karen Brunwasser in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market or ‘shuk’
©Eyal Warshavsky

Nothing beats the shuk, as far as Karen Brunwasser is concerned, especially on a busy Friday afternoon when Jerusalemites stock up for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. “People push and shove, and there’s yelling, but that’s when the Mahane Yehuda market is at its peak,” she says. A bustling marketplace by day, the shuk is full of bars and restaurants that open late most evenings, attracting an eclectic crowd from across the city’s ethnic, religious and political divides.

Until about five years ago, there was no nightlife at the market, except for one man who would bring in a live band and serve tapas once a week in the summer. As deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, Brunwasser takes pride in the shuk’s revitalisation.

The JSOC stages various public arts festivals in the city designed to bring different communities together, including the hugely popular Balabasta festival of dance, music and drama amid the stalls of the shuk. Started in 2010, Balabasta continued for two years until the local night scene took on a life of its own.

Over dinner in one of the shuk’s covered alleyways, Brunwasser tells me how, walking through the market one night, she met her husband, Lior Shabo, who was hanging out at a bar. A seventh-generation Jerusalemite on his mother’s side, Shabo embodies the city’s rich ethnic mix, his family being of Yemenite, Spanish, Kurdish and Persian descent.

This diversity and cosmopolitanism are what drew Brunwasser to Jerusalem and persuaded her to settle here as opposed to, say, Tel Aviv, a city she finds “very young, fun and energetic” but relatively homogeneous. “Jerusalem isn’t just diverse. It preserves cultures; it’s not a melting pot,” she says. “Cultures continue to exist, almost as if they were in different eras of history, alongside one another.”

Brunwasser, 39, first visited Israel when she was 16, for her brother’s bar mitzvah. Her mother, an Irish-American Catholic, was attracted to Jewish culture from a young age and converted to Judaism together with her daughter, who was then a baby, after she married Brunwasser’s father. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the second world war to Polish Jewish parents. “I grew up in a religious home, in a very Jewish part of Philadelphia,” says Brunwasser.

Israel cast a spell over the 16-year-old. Yet “Jerusalem was the thing that most fascinated me”, she says. The city’s depth and cultural richness appealed to her intellectual and spiritual sides, but the teenager also found Israelis rowdy and fun. “There was a lot of freedom there for a teen that we didn’t have in the US,” she says.

In subsequent years, Brunwasser would return to Jerusalem often, finding different jobs and taking advantage of various programmes for Jewish teens and young adults. She spent a year of her undergraduate degree at New York University studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and returned to Israel a couple of years later to do a masters in Middle Eastern studies.

In the US, Brunwasser lived in Washington, New York and Los Angeles at different points during and after her studies, but none of these places proved a substitute for Jerusalem. She couldn’t get over the place so eventually, after 12 years of grappling with the idea, she bought a one-way ticket to Israel.

Jewish immigrants to Israel often feel as though they are fulfilling a promise or destiny — a 2,000-year-old longing. They do not migrate; they “make aliyah” (Hebrew for “to ascend”). Yet the reality is often more challenging, and “they’re smacked in the face with the difficulties of another culture, in particular Israel with all its issues and challenges”, says Brunwasser.

When she flew into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport 10 years ago, on a plane full of people making aliyah, they were welcomed by the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and former prime minister Shimon Peres. Brunwasser’s fluent Hebrew led to her becoming the “aliyah poster girl”, as she puts it, after her image was used to promote aliyah.

Yet when it came to getting married in a religious ceremony some years later, Brunwasser discovered her conversion was not recognised by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which in recent years had grown more extreme and rigid.

“In an orthodox synagogue, there is usually some sort of barrier between men and women who pray,” says Brunwasser. But because some of the rabbis who converted her in Philadelphia had previously served in a synagogue that didn’t have this barrier, her conversion was declared invalid. It took her husband’s connections for it to be acknowledged, the day before the wedding.

The barrier that gave rise to all this “nitpicking”, as she describes it, also stands for the wider divisions in her adopted country and city. The recent wave of stabbings in Jerusalem have further damaged fraught Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Although UN statistics from 2012 (the most recent available) show the US murder rate was more than double that of Israel, Brunwasser, who is pregnant, wonders if it is right to bring a child into a place that is so conflicted. “But then real life takes over,” she says. “People are nice to each other on the streets. You get into a taxi with a Palestinian driver and you’re both trying to reassure each other, ‘I’m not going to hurt you’. Real life pulls you out and keeps you going.”


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