City on a hill


It is noteworthy, though seldom noted, that Rome's claim to be the capital of Christianity is, you know, a little ... odd. All the Passover and Easter drama the donkey and the palm fronds, the Last Supper, the betrayal by a kiss in moonlit Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the rock mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the tomb was supposed to have taken place in, or near, Jerusalem, after all. Why, then, do we not find the pope there, waving to the crowds from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? One obvious part of the answer is, of course, that Rome, not Jerusalem, was the seat of the Caesars, whose honorific title, pontifex maximus, was appropriated by their successors in imperial interest, the popes (hence pontiff). Another might be that Jerusalem is a contested city, the symbolic heart of a triad of related monotheisms whose fierce and often violent competitions carry some of the sharp flavor of sibling rivalry.

When you take a seat at little Old Jerusalem Restaurant, which opened earlier this winter on an as yet unyuppified stretch of Mission, your eye is ineluctably drawn to the mural of the Old City that fills most of the restaurant's long north wall. Yes, you think, the city on a hill, bundled within its 16th-century Ottoman walls, really is that color, a pale gold with just a slight suggestion of rose. And: Yes, there is the gilded Dome of the Rock, conspicuous in its looming centrality, at least in the mural. Jerusalem is many Jerusalems: It is the place from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to the heavens as well as the home of the Western Wall and of the pit where St. Helena claimed to have found pieces of the True Cross.

Fortunately, everyone likes falafel, the hamburger of the Middle East and the lingua franca of Palestine, a torn land desperately in need of shared joys and pleasures. You can buy falafel from street (or lane) carts all through the Old City, but if you happen to be here instead, you’ll find that Old Jerusalem's version is pretty good, consisting of golf ballsize spheres of ground, seasoned chickpeas that are a deep, crusty bronze outside and pasty green within and just 39¢ each if you can stand your falafel naked. (A sandwich edition, with pita bread and condiments, is $4.99.) Naked falafel balls are actually a little harsh for my taste, a little dry in the mouth, but luckily the menu, while fairly brief, is rich in saucy and spreadable things that can be discreetly spooned around, whether the tahini-lemon dressing of a Jerusalem salad ($3.49) of quartered tomatoes and cucumber chunks, or the fabulous hummus that turns up as an accompaniment to many of the larger plates.

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