12/15/2011 09:51 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2012

Christmas in Jerusalem

A young Israeli woman in panty hose and miniskirt passes an Arab woman whose face is covered by heavy black cloth that also encases her full body. Red poppies dot a hillside sheltering an avant-garde Christian church adjoining 70,000 Jewish graves that can be traced back as far as 2,500 years.

Not far away a Bedouin shepherd stands just above a fast-moving lane of cars as he watches his goats graze on a clump of grass. Paradoxes fit together here with the precision of an ageless mosaic. Inevitably there is more depth to a scene than a naked eye can behold. "This is a peaceful place," I remarked when standing at the foot of the Garden of Gethsemane, gazing at nearby walls of Jerusalem.

'Not always," replied a Jerusalemite. "This has often been a very fierce battleground -- for example, not too many years ago during the Six-Day War." West Jerusalem's classic vista of stone houses and trees -- cypress, pine, pepper, olive, eucalyptus -- is punctuated by the speed and rhythm of a modern welfare state. East Jerusalem, Casbah-like in its labyrinth mazes and bazaars, pushes the clock back to days of royal conquest, storied miracles, and eternal mysteries.

Christmas 1974 -- I was in Jerusalem for a couple of months as a guest of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a cultural center for writers and artists. I rediscovered that Israel is alternately young and old, ancient and modern, chaotic and contemplative. I moved around the country a great deal and interviewed many, many people. Walking along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City -- the route followed by Jesus, after he was flogged by Roman soldiers, toward Golgotha where he was nailed to a cross and died -- one is caught up in the myraid vagaries, sounds and smells of elemental human life.

Here one is fittingly thrust into the midst of people who are baking bread, carrying sacks of corn seed, selling produce, animatedly talking in small groups, or dozing in the noon sun. Smells of orange juice, meat cooking on an open stove, moisture of a wet wall,spices from a shop, and even a latrine close to the street assault one's senses. The dayliglht is blinding, for in Jerusalem the air is clear and there is extraordinary brightness. "There is peace in Jerusalem," an immigrant to Israel remarked during a stroll through the streets of the Old City.

"No," replied a long-time occupant of the city. "We can't have peace in Jerusalem unless the wish for it exists also in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Soviet Russia, the Vatican, Egypt and Syria."

I heard conflicting views. Often they seemed to hold startling similarities. "Will the Arabs allow us to stay and remain alive?" asked an Israeli author. "I think all Arabs are united in the submerged language of the 'buddy' Big Arab nation -- the 100 million of them surrounding us." My interest was sparked when an Israeli teacher seemingly referred to similar "last things" when she told me: "Arabs and Jews are doomed to live together until the end of time. It is tragic that Arabs and Jews are in the Alamo today. Frankly, we don't want to absorb each other. An adequate distance won't go deep in the heart, but it can keep people from killing each other."

During my visit I became friends with Teddy Kollek, the beloved and iconic longtime mayor of Jerusalem. Ours was a highly unusual connection. On most days I did a lot of walking around the city. Mayor Kollek was also up and about, often riding in a vehicle fillled with Palestinian sanitation workers. He nurtured his down-to-earth association with them. However, he noticed me walking seemingly everywhere on the city streets. He wondered: Who is this visitor and what exactly is he doing in Jerusalem?

He found out. We connected. We became good friends. One of his virtues was his boundless, irresistible passion for life. He lived every day fully. This was always matched by his exuberant sense of humor. He had developed a remarkable capacity to stay open to new friends and new ideas. Naturally, I was impessed by his views concerning the future of his beloved Jerusalem.

"The only city that can be compared to Jerusalem is Montreal," Mayor Teddy told me. "There you have French and English, and neither intends to become the other. Here we have no intention of making a goulash. Arabs will remain Arabs and Jews, Jews. Neither wants assimilation. We do not wish to let the dividing lines vanish. You will find the same situation here in a hundred years. People want to stick to their roots. This is a positive and not a negative thing."

After I returned to the U.S., Mayor Teddy and I corresponded sporadically. The last time he appeared in global headlines was after he died and obituaries emerged. However, before that time I received a last note from him. It was written on a postcard which now appears on a chalk board in my office. I need to explain something about his final note. Because I am the author of a number of books, often I am referred to as a "writer-in-residence" in various locales where I am residing. It is a simple way to identify me.

So Mayor Teddy's final note began: "Dear Malcolm. How good it was hearing from you and having news of your writer-in-residence activities. What a fine combination. Surely better than mayor-garbage collector. It has been eons since you were here. Do come back soon. Yours, Teddy."

Our friendship was a delightful part of my life. His positive view of Montreal as a possible model for an embattled Jerusalem seemed inspired in terms of reconciliation between opposites.

Season's greetings, Mr. Mayor.