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House of Windows: Portraits From a Jerusalem Neighborhood [Paperback]

Adina Hoffman
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The author and her husband, Peter, moved to Jerusalem from the United States a decade ago, soon after she completed college, in an attempt to "test the bonds and limits of our American home." But unlike many of her contemporaries who write about themselves, Hoffman refreshingly ignores her inner world in favor of the geography and personalities in one neighborhood in the ancient and much fought over city of Jerusalem. It's her experiences with her neighborsAand their fascinating historiesAthat distinguish this expatriate's work. Some of those experiences could occur in any city, as when a neighbor who is still a virtual stranger thrusts all of her valuables on them to safeguard when she goes on a short trip. But others could only happen in Jerusalem: discussions with a fish-stand operator who describes his childhood in Morocco and his immigration to the Jewish state; an impromptu, "bittersweet" visit with a Palestinian family on a trip to Jordan; and a neighborhood battle with Orthodox Jews who want to cut down trees to make way for a religious school. At times, as in the latter case, Hoffman's American sensitivities may seem a bit extreme, but to her credit, she doesn't take herself too seriously. The writing in this debut book by the film critic for the Jerusalem Post is as poignant and layered as the subjects she writes aboutAand by detailing the ways history and culture play out in the day-to-day lives of the residents of one of the world's most contentious cities, she adds nuance and complexity to a much-studied subject. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Hoffman, an American who has settled in Jerusalem, is the film critic for the Jerusalem Post. Her first book uses the colorful neighborhood where she lives, Musrara, on the border between East and West Jerusalem, as a way of introducing her readers to the rich variety of life in contemporary Israel. Originally a well-to-do Arab neighborhood, Musrara became the home of poor Moroccan Jews after 1948. Although many Moroccans still live there, the neighborhood is now more diversified and beginning to gentrify. Hoffman captures its essence in a series of portraits: a Moroccan Sephardic grocer, a Palestinian gardener, a multilingual retired fishmonger from Casablanca, and a nosy mother of 10. Her sketches of daily life in Musrara not only depict a changing community but also raise the issues of identity and exile. Jerusalem beyond the travelogues and the headlines. Barbara Bibel
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A gracefully wrought, impressionistic portrait of life in a singular Jerusalem neighborhood.A native of New Hampshire, Jerusalem Post film critic Hoffman made Jerusalem her home eight years ago. With the dramatic edge of narrative, Hoffman vividly creates portraits of her new neighbors, rich and poor, Arab and Jew. What emerges is an unsettling portrait of a divided society. Despite daily interactions with a Moroccan-born contractor neighbor and the neighborhood's Palestinian fix-it man, the contact remains largely superficial: class and ethnic bridges cannot be crossed. In the Musrara neighborhood itself, the newcomers (like Hoffman) live in stylish old Arab homes beside longtime residents who are boxed into uniformly ugly cement structures. Although Hoffman is undeniably drawn to her new home ("I love this place," she tells the local market owner), she is also revolted by some of her neighbors. Among these is a group of newly religious, self-righteous yeshiva students whose contempt for women is matched by their overall boorishness (e.g., they mock the author for her displeasure at their cutting down a tree). And as a newcomer of the 1990s, Hoffman mourns the city's loss of the cafés and bookstores that once thrived in the center of town. A metaphor for the new Jerusalem is perhaps to be found in the dumpster filled with discarded Hebrew, German, Yiddish, English, and French books that posed no interest to any passerby. The religious texts were collected by some local Orthodox Jews-but not to be read, only to be saved from desecration. Also disturbing to Hoffman is the abyss between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem-a few streets apart, but actually worlds and decades away from each other.Steadily perceptive and brimming with informed passion, Hoffman's account opens the shades on one of the most remarkable cities on earth. -- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“A work of literary art.” –Phillip Lopate

“With House of Windows, Adina Hoffman fills a gap in an extraordinary manner with a book that is truly a work of art. Written with style and truth, Hoffman’s portrait of [Jerusalem] will long remain in the mind’s eye of the reader.” –Ruminator Review

“Hoffman’s remarkable work of nonfiction, wonderfully written, takes us deep inside the lives...of the people who have been virtually invisible outside Israel and who have been ignored and disregarded by the Ashkenazi elite.” –Linda Grant, The Independent

“The writing is as poignant and layered as the subjects she writes about–and by detailing the ways history and culture play out in the day-to-day lives of the residents of one of the world’s most contentious cities, she adds nuance and complexity to a much-studied subject.” –Publishers Weekly

From the Inside Flap

A brilliant and moving evocation of the rhythms of life (and the darker shadows below it) in a working-class quarter of the world?s most fascinating and divided city.
In the tradition of the literature of place perfected by such expatriate writers as M. F. K. Fisher and Isak Dinesen, Adina Hoffman?s House of Windows compellingly evokes Jerusalem through the prism of the neighborhood where she has lived for eight years since moving from the United States. In a series of interlocking sketches and intimate portraits of the inhabitants of Musrara, a neighborhood on the border of the western (Jewish) and eastern (Arab) sides of the city?a Sephardic grocer, an aging civil servant, a Palestinian gardener, a nosy mother of ten?Hoffman constructs an intimate view of Jerusalem life that will be a revelation to American readers bombarded with politics and headlines. By focusing on the day-to-day pace of existence in this close-knit community, she provides a rich, precise, and refreshingly honest portrait of a city often reduced to cliche?and takes in the larger question of identity and exile that haunts Jews and Palestinians alike.

From the Back Cover

“A work of literary art.” –Phillip Lopate

“With House of Windows, Adina Hoffman fills a gap in an extraordinary manner with a book that is truly a work of art. Written with style and truth, Hoffman’s portrait of [Jerusalem] will long remain in the mind’s eye of the reader.” –Ruminator Review

“Hoffman’s remarkable work of nonfiction, wonderfully written, takes us deep inside the lives...of the people who have been virtually invisible outside Israel and who have been ignored and disregarded by the Ashkenazi elite.” –Linda Grant, The Independent

“The writing is as poignant and layered as the subjects she writes about–and by detailing the ways history and culture play out in the day-to-day lives of the residents of one of the world’s most contentious cities, she adds nuance and complexity to a much-studied subject.” –Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Adina Hoffman grew up in New Hampshire and Texas. She now lives in Jerusalem, where she is a film critic for The Jerusalem Post.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Aerial Courtyard

With its flight of worn limestone steps, its slender columns and iron banisters, rising at intervals into delicate archways, the house called to mind a host of mismatched objects and structures, the entire assortment of which might suggest, together, something of its quirky elegance, but none of which alone does justice to the building's eccentric proportions. It had the multiple, zigzagging decks of a luxury liner, the intricate balconies and catwalks of a stage set, the busy grid of a crossword puzzle, and

The tall, spindly struts of an oversized canopy bed. All and none. Whatever else it resembled (as it turned out, some other thing or form almost every time I mounted the stairs), we both felt the mysterious lure of the place in excited silence the first time we ascended. It was nighttime and December. The bite of the air made the stars appear sharper with each step upward.

E., the young architect who had just bought the apartment perched at the uppermost back corner of the building, had decided to travel from Jerusalem to Rome for nine months. He'd been offered work at an Italian firm and meant to rent his new place for a reasonable fee. Sleepy-lidded and skinny-hipped, he greeted us at the door and waved us casually inside the cavernous front room--which looked, in the glare of the fluorescent lights that night, too wide and lofty and tiled a space to ever be adequately heated, or even thinly warmed. This prediction proved accurate. When the temperature there was ours to control, we discovered that it didn't matter if we placed both our on-loan space heaters in the room and cranked them high enough to singe the links of the feeble electrical system: We would never manage to take the edge off that chill. But in the end, the cold didn't really matter. If anything, it came to seem a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, aspect of the apartment's obstinate charm. Life there would be as raw as that at the summit of a wind-blasted cliff, I imagined then, and again was more or less right in my estimation.

After glancing at the rest of the apartment to be sure that our first charged impression had been correct--we agreed that we would take it. There were two large rooms, a hallway of a kitchen, and a basic bathroom with a ragged piece of broken mirror propped on the primitive sink. The place had some furniture (a boxy Formica-topped desk, a stuffed couch, several rigid chairs, and a drafting table from whose weak back we would soon learn to eat our meals, taking extra care not to set pots down suddenly and upset its nervous balance), but still it echoed, hollow as an airplane hangar. Even after we scattered the floors with the candy-striped rag rugs we'd toted back under our arms from the Old City, the front room talked back when we whispered. A child's desk and rickety trundle bed took up most of the back room, whose most magical feature was a wood-and-glass-fronted cabinet, set back into an arch. When we visited that first night, its papered shelves served as a resting place for what looked like most of E.'s belongings: a few rolled floor plans, a sweater tangled in its own tattered sleeves, some notebooks, several pairs of worn tube socks. A plastic-framed poster of a David Hockney swimming pool leaned against one wall, its electric new blues and yellows at once worlds away from this turn-of-the-last-century Arab house and, in a blockier, more abstract sense, a perfect extension of the building's deepest shapes.

E. seemed reluctant to make the place his. As we sat and discussed the lease and security deposit, we sipped the tea he served us from what appeared to be his only two cups. He coiled his arms around his legs meanwhile and squeezed himself into a tight knot on the couch, unwilling, it looked, even to let his feet touch the floor. I had never owned property, but I thought I understood E.'s impulse to flee town just as soon as the apartment was officially his. It wasn't that he didn't love the place; as he showed us the views from the bedroom windows and the faint scar on the floor where he'd knocked down an extraneous wall, it was clear that he did. He just needed to leave and come back, I supposed, to prove that this was home.

We ourselves had, in a way, set out on a similar probative trek. By packing all our books, plates, lamps, rugs, and paintings into a San Francisco storage locker and flying with the key to Jerusalem for ten months, we were testing the bonds and limits of our American home. Peter had a fellowship to translate medieval Hebrew poetry from Muslim Spain. His stipend would pay our expenses that first married year in the city where he had spent the better part of his adult life and where I'd lived briefly as a student. He would finish his book; I looked forward to improving my Hebrew and, just as important, to not being in San Francisco, where I had moved, fresh and confident, straight out of college, and found myself almost instantly at loose ends.

While I couldn't blame my newfound confusion on anyone but myself, I sensed there was something in the slack rhythms, the soft air, and famous fog of that city that encouraged aimlessness. Was it something in the water? Almost everyone I knew there was caught--if that's not too active a word to describe this floaty way of drifting through life--between careers or lovers or coasts. Nothing stuck. Or perhaps I should say, nothing stuck to me. There were others, obviously, who were quite content to pass the time there, and though I took an active dislike to the local cult of the good life and its literary equivalent, I tried for a while to adapt myself by searching out and soaking up the more grounded sides of the city: I'd stroll past the herbalists, fish stores, and stationery shops of Chinatown or buy my fruit, cheap and in Spanish, from the outdoor stands in the Mission District. There was an Iranian grocer named Muhammad from whom I often purchased salted white cheese, pickled vegetables, and powdery cardamom cookies. ("Your husband is Persian?" he asked skeptically once, as I loaded my goods on the counter.) But these (mainly commercial) wanderings of mine had a haphazard quality. The neighborhoods were not my own, and my own wasn't quite mine either: We lived, at the time, in a liminal area that Peter called the Tendernob, at the peculiar, anonymous midpoint between the seamy, druggy Tenderloin and upscale, patrician Nob Hill.

My occupation also seemed, for the first time in my life, fuzzy, even pointless. When I'd first arrived in California, I worked at a magazine where I wrote rejection letters by the stack and learned to proofread--both inherently depressing tasks, as they make one fixate on all that is wrong with a given paragraph or poem. Later, I assembled indexes, edited textbooks, taught Hebrew school, and worked for a while as a receptionist in an imposing Victorian mansion where illegal immigrants would come for help in getting their green cards. Surrounded by the heavy, plush drapes and mahogany paneling, I sat at a huge desk and answered the phone, then tried to decide, on the basis of a few nervous words mumbled in one of twelve or fifteen languages I didn't understand, where to transfer the call. To the Cantonese-speaking social worker or the Mandarin one? Vietnamese? Thai? Polish? Serbo-Croatian? When the phone wasn't ringing I would read. Once, in the midst of a biography of the poet Mandelstam, I looked up to find a gaunt young man inspecting me and my book scornfully from the bench where he slumped, waiting to talk to Ella, the sweet, pudgy Russian counselor whose bright pink lipstick only emphasized her full mouth of gold teeth. Finally, he spoke: "You are not Russian." No, I said. "You have interest in this poet?" Yes. "But you do not know Russian language." No--which prompted an exasperated shake of the head and a lengthy lecture, in broken English, on the superiority to all others of his native tongue. This literary-jingoistic diatribe--from a person who had, in fact, come to wait opposite me in the hope that he might someday win American citizenship--veered now to the subject of Shakespeare and culminated in the conversation-killing pronouncement, "Is much better in Russian." Who was I to disagree? My internal sense of continental drift had become so pronounced by then, I could hardly defend Shakespeare's language, let alone my own.

Throughout all this, no matter what my paying work, I spent several hours a day forcing myself to sit still in a claustrophobic little lean-to I'd rented, attempting to grind out my fictions. Few of these efforts took: My subject matter felt random, my narrative gaze blurred. (Was the Novel dead, or was it me? I honestly had to wonder.) Chekhov, I'd heard, had once written a story a day for one hundred days. I too would write a story a day, and I did so, for a few weeks, that is, till my ideas dried up, and I began to sense the words evaporating even as I scribbled. At one point, as if to rub in my own sudden loss of nerve and focus, I taught a correspondence course in expository writing to precocious seventh- and eighth-graders. I never once laid eyes upon my students, yet their strong personalities asserted themselves through the loopy, pinched, or jagged script that covered and spilled from their envelopes, and through their often hilariously self-assured prose, which, in a rather frightening way, reminded me of myself at a certain, cocky age. "My first novel was a derivative affair, a minor historical trifle," one thirteen-year-old aspiring romance writer explained for me in her swirly purple hand. "But my second is, I feel, a much more mature attempt. Might I interest you in a copy?" As jobs went, it was entertaining, though the epistolary nature of my relationship with these kids only added to my out-of-body sense of myself in San Francisco. For all they knew or cared, I might as well live in a Nebraska log cabin. This pleasant, mild, defiantly nonchalant city was getting to me, I announced to Peter. (As soon as I said it, I felt relieved, as if I'd been running a low...
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