JERUSALEM–The Jewish quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem was barely alive. Families were tucked away in their homes, visiting synagogues and spending their day living quietly. They were all taking part in Shabbat, a day of religious observance and abstinence from work, kept by Jews from sundown Friday through until Saturday evening.
Suddenly, a family of six walked down the steps of the main street of the Cardo, a historic site built more than 1,500 years ago. As they reached the bottom step, the mother, Penina Citrin, lifted one of her children up to her chest as four others entangled themselves around her legs; while the other was fast asleep in the stroller that her husband, Joseph, pushed. She wore all black – a long skirt, a full-sleeved top and a tichel – a headscarf covering her hair. The only thing breaking up the black she wore was a knitted silver cardigan that fell softly over her shoulders and torso.
Citrin walked beneath the shade of a tree, while tugging her children along behind her. Here, this softly spoken but proud Jew began to talk about living in the Old City, where she is forced to be neighbors with people she finds difficult to trust, the Arabs.
Citrin said living in the Old City can be challenging, especially because of the large number of different cultures living within the walls. But despite this struggle, she said, she could not imagine living anywhere else. This is the “Promised Land,” she says, the land that was promised to Jews by God.
“It’s not about the house I live in,” she said. “I could buy the exact same one in Brooklyn. It’s because I’m living in the holiest land in the world, and because of that, I find happiness.”
She said Arab-Israeli relations within the Old City are relatively peaceful, but outside the walls that keep them safe is a completely different story. With obvious pain in her eyes, she described how Arabs have affected her husband’s family. She told the story of when his brother and sister were travelling on “Bus 2” from the Western Wall where they passed through a neighborhood in which a bomb exploded. Both were lucky enough to survive, but his brother walked away with hearing loss and his sister experienced the heartbreak of a miscarriage.
Citrin put her hands to her heart while shaking her head and said she could not imagine how it would feel to be directly affected by violence. She pointed to her kids as three of them latched their arms around her waist.
“It terrifies me to think of my children getting injured.”
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed optimism for future peace talks, Citrin said she could not see the situation of Israel and Palestine changing anytime soon. The prospect of negotiations, she said, actually frightens her because of the violence she has heard and seen develop from the Arab population outside of the Old City. Citrin believes there will never be full peace in Israel unless the Arabs choose to live under the Israeli governing forces.
Despite her obvious distrust of Arabs, she said she could still interact in a friendly manner with the Palestinians who live within the Old City, with whom she often shares greetings as they pass each other on the stone walkways. Her parents, who live within the Muslim Quarter, have never had a problem from the Arab community. She even said that when she was pregnant, the Arabs were extremely friendly and were always considerate of her, demonstrating that the two groups can live peacefully together.
Citrin’s face became softer as the topic of conversation changed and she spoke about her children.
“They’re great kids,” she said as she wrapped her arms around her eldest daughter of nine years.
“This is new,” she smiled as she pointed to the small round green diamanté necklace that fell softly on the girl’s chest.
“It’s special and only for Shabbat.”
She said all the children dress their best each week for Shabbat, as she pointed to the boys who were dressed in black slacks and crisp white button-up shirts. The girls, too, we’re dressed up and wore black or white dresses, their hair neatly tied back. She took pride in her children, and her body language told a story of unconditional love.
As she gathered her children with her husband, to whom she has been married for 10 years, she explained the origin of her name, Penina.
“It means Pearl in English,” she said as she smiled.
“It was actually my grandmother’s name — her name was Pearl, and my parents wanted me to have the same name but in Hebrew instead.”