Tales of the Heritage House
Morning at the Heritage House in the Old City is a special kind of bliss. The kitchen area is small but cozy, hinting at the age underneath the peach cream orange and gray paint. Everyone seems to congregate here before the hostel closes at 9 am, including Chaya, the overall matron of the house. When I came down the stairs, I was stuck in the awe that I woke up with that morning, and how all I could think about was, I’m here.
Heritage House is a hostel located about three minutes from the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. For 20 shekels a night on weekdays (about $6), any young Jewish person could stay there. It’s a more religious house, but warm and welcoming. I was told about it a month previously at a Shabbat dinner in Los Angeles, so I looked it up. And sure enough, here I was.
The amazement started the night before. After a full evening in Jerusalem with falafel and the shuk, I was delirious with jet lag. At 8 pm, Brad walked me back to the Heritage House where I was staying in the Old City. It was an all-women’s hostel, hidden behind a blue gate near a courtyard with bright purple leaves.
When we first approached it, Brad was shocked by the gate and the buzzer. “Why is there such a strong gate? This isn’t at the men’s Heritage House.”
“We need protection from you evil men,” I joked. But as we said goodnight and I lowered my head to walk in, I was greeted by the sounds of laughing girls. I turned the corner into the tiny kitchen, where several of them were sitting with cups and bowls.
“Hi,” I waved. “I’m Reina.”
The girls introduced themselves enthusiastically one by one, and they seemed to be from all over the place: France, Australia and one girl who was actually from down the street from where I live in Los Angeles.
“Do you want orange soup?” one asked.
Orange? Really? And then they laughed and told me it was just the color of the soup, not actual orange flavor. I sat down as I grabbed a Chinese-style bowl and was encouraged to scoop out the carrot-flavored soup with just the bowl, as there was no ladle for it. As I joined the girls in that kitchen with the old stone and new steel kitchen appliances, I knew I was in a place like no other.
As I sat there and James Morrison sang about “Broken Strings” to the room, we talked about our lives. One of the girls chatted me up about my story as the Madracha (house mother) began making chocolate rice crispy treats with dark chocolate and honey. The intoxicating smell of chocolate filled the air as I began to open up.
I didn’t expect anything from this place, really. When I met Chaya earlier that day, her warmth of how I was going to have an awesome time with new sisters was strange to me. I was passing through, a ghost in this world absorbing everything that the Old City had to offer while staying quiet. I didn’t believe her. Then came this night, and this was different for me. I felt a sense of peace here.
I hadn’t really lived with girls since my very early college days, and although I had female friends, it was never like this. We were together, but not like this where I was wearing my pink Supergirl pajamas and talking as if it was with my roommate Zack from back home. We laughed and smiled at each other. We shared our stories. And even though after a while I was sent directly to bed due to my yawning fits, I didn’t want to. I could have stayed with them all night, enveloped in a tremendous sisterhood. For some odd reason, Heritage House was almost like it could have been down the street from my house in Los Angeles. Or at least it should be.
The next morning, I woke up and the sun was shining brightly. I joined everyone in the kitchen, including Chaya, and made myself a cup of oatmeal with one of the other girls. We sat and we chatted as each girl touched up, got herself ready and left the house to go greet the day in the Old City. Sitting at the table, I was invited to a wedding — a shock for a girl who arrived less than 24 hours before in Jerusalem.
“Really?” I asked. “I don’t know them.”
“Hush,” Chaya said with a warm smile and a wink. “We’re relatives.”
The girls left one by one as it was now down to me and Chaya, and I got to find out a little bit about her. She didn’t start out religious. She was from America, and decided to come to Israel to see if there was any validity to Judaism. She was amazed and eventually found her way to become more religious. She now had five children and a husband she really loved who ran the men’s house. The fact that I was sitting before her, being who I was, didn’t seem to matter. She was just happy to have me.
I looked at Chaya and smiled. “Chaya, this is truly an amazing place,” I said to her. “Less than 24 hours ago, I didn’t have anybody. Now, I have everybody.”
She grinned brightly and hugged me tightly as I went off to the Kotel, looking forward to my last Shabbat in Israel where I would return to the Heritage House. Even though I was leaving for Tel Aviv that day to meet Inbar, I was already going to miss this place. Halfway around the world in the Old City, somehow I found home.