June 1, 2006
Welcome to the Neighborhood
Like most L.A. residents, we've moved many times over the years. From Santa Monica to Culver City, Marina del Rey and then Westwood, it's not easy to pick up and move 10 or 20 miles with everything you own. At least, that's how we felt until a little over a year ago, when we made the 7,582-mile move to Jerusalem.
We rented an apartment, and after two months, we started looking for a place to buy. We were used to the traditional wooden ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling L.A. suburban neighborhood. Of course, we knew we'd need to be flexible -- Jerusalem is not, after all, Los Angeles. So we set out looking for a traditional stone ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling Jerusalem suburb.
Our first clue that things might be just a bit different in Israel came when a realtor offered us a ride to the property he was showing. That is, he offered one of us a ride.
"Sorry," he said, pointing across the street at his motorcycle. "I only have room for one."
I'm not sure, but I think in California you have to prove ownership of an Infiniti or a Cadillac to secure a real estate agent's license.
One of the other differences in Israel is that a real estate agent finds the buyer a property, but that's about it. The next steps are to hire a lawyer, sit down with a banker and, finally -- with your lawyer at your elbow -- sign a contract. At first this seemed like excessive specialization. Then, on the first property we tried to buy, our lawyer discovered the city was planning to put in a new road -- running right through the property we wanted to buy.
We began to get the idea.
You can find large homes in Israel, although ranch style is pretty much off the menu. Homes in Jerusalem are mostly condos, but in the suburbs there are larger properties -- townhomes with private gardens and large single-family homes in communities like Efrat in Gush Etzion.
What you can find in Jerusalem depends very much on the neighborhood. In our case we wanted to be in Kiryat Moshe -- a central neighborhood, and that meant getting used to a different approach to housing.
Jerusalem is small by L.A. standards, and space is at a premium. We began to figure this out when we looked at an apartment advertised as "spacious" that seemed to have only two bedrooms.
"No, there's plenty of room," the agent explained to my wife, Sarah, waving his hands around. "Just come through here. Wait till you see this!"
They went through a door and there, sure enough, were two more bedrooms, and what was probably the nicest kitchen (though small) she had seen yet.
"You can even rent this out as a separate unit," the realtor explained, "if you don't need the space."
"But isn't this the, uh, parking area?" Sarah asked.
The realtor smiled back. "Sure. What's the problem? Zoning laws? If an inspector comes, just take out the beds and open it up. No big deal."
As you would expect, each neighborhood has its own unique features. After touring a condo in the Old City with an amazing view of the Temple Mount, the agent mentioned, somewhat casually, "Of course, they're still digging for antiquities in the basement."
You get used to privacy in Los Angeles. Life is defined by home, work and the commute between, and meeting your neighbors takes a bit of effort and planning. Not so in Israel.
In Jerusalem, people get involved in each other's lives. We noticed this when we first moved in, walking into our living room to find a fresh plate of cake and cookies waiting for us on a white tablecloth, set out by our landlady. Then, just a few weeks ago, our downstairs neighbor's son had a bar mitzvah. She had a number of friends and relatives coming into town, and neighbors all through the neighborhood volunteered to host them for Shabbat.
Of course this cuts both ways, as we found when we went to take another look at the home we're (finally) thinking of buying. We walked down the sidewalk and stopped, looking at the backyard. A boy, around 11 or 12, was sitting on the fence in the yard next door -- Tom Sawyer in a kippah.
"Are you buying the house?" he asked, in tones that sounded somewhat suspicious.
"Maybe," I answered. "We're thinking about it."
He kicked his feet a few times, then looked up and asked, "Do you have any children?"
"Yes, we do," I told him. "Older than you. Why?"
He jumped off the wall and glanced at us, his expression showing impatience that anyone could miss something so obvious. "Boys to play with, of course," he said, picking up a soccer ball and tossing it, over our heads, to a few of his friends down the block.
If we do end up buying it, I'll tell my lawyer to be sure to check the contract carefully.
There may be a soccer clause in there somewhere.
Avi Schnurr has been a regular speaker and writer for policy institutes and other forums and received his master's in physics from UCLA. He is married with four children, and lives, works and studies in Jerusalem.