Hovering at Low Altitude over Haifa

Haifa City of Steps Book CoverThe streets and slopes of the Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood of Haifa are etched into the soul of Nili Gold, whose Haifa: City of Steps (Brandeis, $29.95) is a love letter to the city where she was born and raised. In each of the five chapters of this book, Gold writes about another part of her neighborhood, weaving together her personal recollections with the history of the city and the Hebrew novels and poems set on the very steps and street corners she chronicles. As such, this unusual book is part memoir, part history, and part literary scholarship, as well as a moving testament to the enduring power of place in the human imagination.

Gold grew up on the “seamline” between the largest Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in Haifa, and she writes about the era of common Jewish-Arab coexistence that preceded the founding of the State in the year she was born, 1948. Her father, who arrived in Palestine as an illegal immigrant from Vienna in 1939, owned a housewares store in the Talpiot House, once the commercial hub of the city, and she attended a preschool near the Technion—the Technological Institute of Israel, completed in 1914—whose garden she played in nearly every afternoon with her mother, also a European immigrant. Gold provides an architectural history of the Technion, built by a German-Jewish architect who was determined to remain faithful to the region’s indigenous style. “In my nursery school days, it seemed to me, as to generations of Haifa children… that the Technion and its garden had been on that slope since the beginning of time…. Even before I grasped its structure and design, the Technion area at the heart of Hadar seeped into my consciousness.” This blend of architecture, history, and memory also characterizes her reflections on the Alliance School, the first Jewish school in Haifa, which Gold attended from the third grade on; the Central Synagogue, where she accompanied her father for prayers until his death when she was 10, at which point she was told that she was a woman and could no longer enter; the Struck House, built by the Technion’s architect in the 1920s as an artist’s residence and studio for a German-Jewish painter; and the Itzkovitz House, where her parents were married in 1946.

Gold, a professor of literature at the University of Pennsylvania, previously published a literary biography of Yehuda Amichai, who figures prominently in this book. Although better known as a Jerusalem poet, Amichai lived in Haifa between 1947–48, a period in which his beloved girlfriend Ruth Hermann left him to study in New York City. Amichai did not know that she would never return to him, and he spent his months in Haifa teaching in the Geula elementary school (where Gold studied just a few years later) and writing Hermann love letters that Gold would discover in 2003, after the poet’s death. Gold quotes frequently from these letters and from the poems Amichai wrote in the very same Haifa cafés that Gold visited as a young girl with her mother. She quotes, too, from the poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, who grew up in various foster homes in Haifa, and from the novels of Sami Michael, Yehudit Katzir, Yehudit Hendel, Esty Haim and A.B. Yehoshua, taking us with her on a literary tour of the parks and intersections where various lines and scenes are set, and showing us how geography takes on an emotional quality in these authors’ works.

These literary excurses will be of most interest to those familiar with the works she is chronicling; I found myself racing past her discussion of other novels to get to Esty Haim’s Corner People, which I had recently read and loved. In any case, the most arresting moments in this book are not Gold’s reflections on other works of literature, but her own nostalgic memories—of running by the thick-trunked eucalyptus trees on her way to school; of Friday afternoon bus trips to the pool by the sea at Bat Galim, “symbol of a lost childhood in the literary and memorial writings of poets and authors from Haifa”; of Saturday afternoons spent playing on a neighbor’s terrace while all the adults relished their schlafstunde, their afternoon nap. The book suffers from occasional repetition, as background supplied in one chapter is reiterated in the next, but this may also be owing to the nature of memory, especially when hovering at such a low altitude, to borrow an image from Dahlia Ravikovitch. Our memories come back to us unbidden, latched each time to a different associative thread.

Even in writing about other authors, Gold’s own love for her city comes through, infusing her prose with a lyricism unusual for academic writing: “The language of steps is the secret language in which the residents of the city express their love to this slope on which they live…Haifa is [Yehudit] Hendel’s city of steps, to whom she made love with her feet and whom she serenaded with her pen. The heroes of the streets of steps are all the people of Haifa, those who live among them, and those who climbed them up and down, like me, on the way to the store from Herzl Street.”

This deeply personal work of scholarship is a reminder that often the most powerful literature emerges from those who are unafraid to write, with the discerning eye and sensitive ear of a critic of the highest order, about that which they love most.

ILANA KURSHAN’s book If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir came out last year.