Nachlaot: Our Kind of Place by Chaya Houpt

Nachlaot: Our Kind of Place by Chaya Houpt

“Are you planning to stay in Nachlaot?” has been the question of the year. But underneath that question, I understand that my multitude of questioners are really asking me a different question: “Chana Jenny, why in the world would you stay in Nachlaot!?”

Thank you to fellow Nachlaoter, JewishMOM Chaya Houpt of All Victories for writing such a perfect answer– for them, and for me.

Where should we live? The plan was always to move to Israel, and here we are. Faced with the choice of which city to choose as our home, my husband and I decided to make a temporary move to Jerusalem and figure it out from there. We lived here for two years as students and it’s what we knew. And where would we live if we could live anywhere in Jerusalem? Nachlaot, of course.

Actually, I don’t know how Nachlaot came to capture my imagination while we lived in America. When I lived in Jerusalem six years ago, I thought this neighborhood was sort of eye-rollingly crunchy. And hard to navigate with its winding alleyways.

But over the years, more and more of our friends moved to this neighborhood. I began to look upon it with fondness, and decided it was the perfect place for us to live until we figured out where we wanted to put down roots.

Now we have been here for a year and a half, and I don’t want to leave. I love living in the city, right next to the Machane Yehuda market and a short walk to downtown. I love being close to the Old City and the Kotel. I love the noise and pace and constantly-shifting scenery.

I lived in Manhattan for many years and left for the suburbs right before my girls were born. We wanted more living space for our family. I met wonderful people when we lived in New Jersey, but it was so, so, so boring living there.

When I moved there, I looked at the tree-lined streets and Victorian homes and thought how lovely and peaceful it would be to push my double stroller down those blocks every day. I was tired of people elbowing into my pregnant belly on the smelly subway. I thought this move would bring a welcome change. But in reality, the sights of suburbia got old very quickly. There was never anything new or interesting to explore, unless I piled everyone into the car.

I fantasized about being a city parent, exploring Manhattan with my daughters in tow. And while I was happy that we were all rattling around a three-story townhouse instead of packing into a Manhattan one-bedroom, I wished we had a city to explore.

And now we live in the city. Not just the city, but The City: the city called by 70 names, the spiritual center of the world. The city with the mountain with the rock from which the world was created.

Everything about this city calls to me. It is filled with hidden corners and stretches of beauty. The architecture and the layers of history all on top of each other. The cafes and the shops and the villas and the squalid bits. And the people: Jews from every corner of the world with every expressing every sort of identity. Arab Christians and Muslims. Visitors and students and pilgrims and dreamers.

And in the middle of all of it, Nachlaot. A quiet village in the heart of the rush.

* * *

Yesterday, I was running errands with the girls, and a couple of Catholic student-tourists from Mexico stopped me and asked, “What is this place?” And of course, it’s just a neighborhood, but a neighborhood of such charm and so filled with surprises that it seems to be much more.

Nachlaot is actually a collection of tiny neighborhoods, some of the first ones built outside the walls of the Old City. It had its immigrant heyday and then its drug-slum era and now it is in the midst of gentrification.

Ah, gentrification. In other words, it costs a lot of money to live here. Also, there are no backyards. No green spaces, either, although we live close to an astounding park. My husband and I are such homebodies, though, that it sometimes seems silly to pay so much rent to just sit around our small apartment. Or other people’s small apartments. That’s most of what we do.

So we are checking out other places to live, trying to imagine how life might feel in another place.

Two weeks ago, we visited friends in a town filled with citrus groves, five minutes from the sea. The architecture and the landscaping reminded me so much of the Tucson neighborhood where I was raised; it was unsettling, in the best of ways. I tried to picture us living there—with all that space and clean air, all the natural beauty and the yards for the kids to explore.

I want to live there. And I want to stay here. Stupid adulthood, with its closing off of possibilities. I want both of these places, and several others, as well. The city and the country. The English-speaking enclave and the full cultural immersion. The pioneer life and comfort of an established community. I want to live everywhere. I want to be all different versions of myself in all of these places. I want my children to grow up everywhere.

I told this to my friend, and she pointed out that we could always live one place and do a home swap for vacations. I pondered this and realized that one thing I do know about myself is that wherever I’m living, I don’t want to go anywhere else, ever. I love travel, but I hate packing and . . . how do I say this . . . being places with my family.

Anyway, choose we must, and so we will continue to visit communities and weigh our options. Like adults.

* * *

The thing about Nachlaot is that it’s not just visually compelling and close to everything. It’s also filled with what my friend Faitha calls OKP, our kind of people.

Now, I am an orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, and Faitha is Irish Catholic and lives in Arizona. So you might think that OKP would be different K of P. But we have been best friends since we were 12, so we formed our opinions on most things together quite early and we’ve stuck to those opinions.

In any case, Nachlaot is an OKP kind of place. The people here are idealistic and genuine. They talk about ideas and create art and strive to grow spiritually. They eat well and listen to great music and dress creatively. They live simply and keep beautiful homes. They parent consciously and whimsically. They take care of each other and try to make the community and the world better for everyone. It’s a privilege to live amongst people like this.

* * *

Last week, my husband and I attended our cousin’s wedding. These cousins are more on the super-duper-insular end of orthodoxy, so I fretted a bit over my outfit, trying to dress fancy and like myself, but not, you know, SO much like myself.

When I got the wedding, I felt silly for worrying. Because, yes, the families and most of the guests are from a different segment of the Jewish people than I am. But who cares? Watching the bride’s mother cry as the groom approach to veil her daughter, I felt empathy and joy. And a warm glee to be around cousins when most of our family is far away. And excitement to see another cousin and meet her newborn.

Which is to say, the wedding was nearly devoid of OKP, filled with a different K of P entirely. And I danced with them and was happy with them and felt close to them. And I thought, I love these people, and yet, I don’t want to live with them.

I have to be honest about how important it is to me to live in the company of people whom I relate to and aspire to be like. It might actually be the most important consideration in choosing a community. I don’t know if that means that we will stay where we are, or that we will discover another place that’s a better fit. In the meantime, anyway, I’m happy right where I am.


  1. Beautifully written.

    This is our current situation as well. It’s a challenge to choose the people around us, because it’s also a big signifier to our children of the kind of people we respect and consider it important to emulate. We are actually looking for somewhere pretty mixed because we can’t think of one “type” that fits all those requirements!

    A particularly difficult decision for baalei teshuva (like us) because we are drawn to so many aspects of the world, it’s hard to edit sometimes for the sake of the children, if need be.

  2. Ditto yehudit…ditto. I actually joined a gym about 6 wks ago in a haredi town nearby and I got to know all walks of orthodox jewish woman and their lives…it was amazing to me how similar we all are on the inside…just my luck though, it closed tgis week, just as I was on my way to getting fit…and also I got attached to the belZer woman trainer and the dati liumi kiosk owner lady…and the viznich eliptical addict…i guess chaya said it best, I loved hanging out but I still just love where I am…only im on the neautiful moshav away from the busy city, and I love it, I need it..

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