I’d been living in Jerusalem for three years before I discovered the local pool. I’d heard it was on Emek Refaim, the Street of the Valley of the Ghosts, behind the supermarket that sells American products like Cheerios and Skippy peanut butter, but since I wasn’t really sure I wanted to swim—feeling more out of my depth than I cared to let on—I’d never really looked for it. In fact, I only found out where it was when Roberto, a bald Argentinian with kind eyes who rented salon space from the supermarket owners,My hair was brittle and thinning, my eyes circled black pointed the entrance out to me as he swept a previous client's hair from the floor. And it was only because his salon was so small and tucked away off the street that I had dared to venture in for a haircut in the first place. When I was paying, Roberto asked me gently if it was cancer, and I replied, no, just sadness, though I could see why he might have thought it was. My hair was brittle and thinning, my eyes circled black and my face etched with pain.

Even after finding out its location, I didn’t venture to the pool for a long time. A whole season passed before I dug out my swimming stuff, packed it into a duffle bag and walked the mile or so to the pool. Twenty dollars bought me a one-swim ticket. It was the most extravagant thing I’d allowed myself in ages. And, as it turned out, the sanest thing I’d done since arriving in Israel.

On entering the building, I was amazed to discover that the pool, which I’d imagined would be small, extended the length of the adjacent Templar cemetery all the way back to the disused railway track. It was twice the size of the pool where I’d learned to swim as a child in London—a proper open-air (in summer) Olympic pool, with four roped-off lanes and a learners’ section, surrounded on two sides by open grassy areas with chairs for lounging. There was a smaller kiddie pool with a slide where a bunch of mothers were teaching their children to float.

It was magnificent.

Since making aliyah in a mad fit of misplaced optimism three years earlier—leaving behind a husband, friends, family and cats—I’d lost everything that makes a person human, including social contact. Rather than “finding myself” as I’d intended, I felt hopelessly lost and bereft, a stranger in a strange land. The landscapes I’d loved when writing my hiking guide to the country a year earlier no longer provided solace; I was stuck in the reality of a Jerusalem to which I couldn’t relate and among people who talked about things I knew nothing about but vaguely derided—G‑d, blessings, Shabbat, mitzvot. When I decided to return home to London after a few dispiriting months, my soon-to-be ex-husband informed me that it would not be possible, at least not to him or my former home. The following year, he married a friend of mine, closing off all possibility of return. Ever.

I was ready to take the plunge. With arms outstretched, I flung myself from the poolside, hitting the water head first with barely a splash. The body, I was relieved to discover, doesn’t forget easily. Three years of living out of a suitcase in a cold two-room flat, too miserable to venture out or allow anyone in, and I was scarcely out of breath. A forgotten vigor returned to my limbs as I did lap after lap. Three winters and two summers of moribund neglect dissipated as I moved effortlessly through the water, trailing the froth of new life behind me. In the pool, buoyed up by an old friend who resolutely ignored my self-pity, I was indistinguishable from the rest of humanity.

Back in the changing room, I peeled off my lycra skin and luxuriated in the pelt of shower water on my body. I’ve always loved water, taken recourse in baths and hot tubs, but hadn’t been able to since arriving in Jerusalem. The appliances in my flat, part of a complex constructed in the 1950s for “unionized workers,” were worse than useless. A calcified shower head emitted a weak spray that barely wet me, but drenched toilet and toilet paper, and if I stayed under it long enough formed a stream that trickled under the warped bathroom door, down the hallway and into the kitchen.

From my shower cubicle, I surveyed my fellow swimmers. Rebbetzins, teachers, doctors, housewives, daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers. Their bellies slack from childbirth. I eavesdropped on their talk, the American vowels of my mother tongue in exile. When I first moved to Israel and rented a flat in south Jerusalem, it had been a shock to me that most of my neighbors were not native-born Israelis but Americans. Religious Americans. Researching my hiking guide, I’d encountered scarcely one. My companions and guides on trails across the country had been sabras—secular, muscular geologists and archaeologists, mapmakers and trail-markers, botanists and ornithologists. I hadn’t made aliyah to live with Americans.

I stepped out of the shower and found an empty spot in the changing room. Around me, the usual Jerusalem talk: Shabbat and kids, family, travel abroad, domestic stuff, recipes. Nothing offensive, but I was offended nonetheless. It was all so intimate and cozy, and so utterly alien to me. For the past three years, I’d done my best to avoid any reminder of the enormity of my loss, which had basically meant shunning all social events, restricting my shopping to the local convenience store and fleeing from situations or people that triggered me, which amounted to more or less everything and everyone. In the changing room, surrounded by the very people I’d been trying so hard to avoid, there was nowhere to run to and little chance of anonymity.

“Are you new to the pool?” a voice behind me enquired after I’d hung my duffle bag on a peg.

The speaker was a woman I’d noticed earlier, pleasantly plump with a beaming round face and rather startling black hair, with a touch of frizz, piled up in a bun on the back of her head. She had few, if any, wrinkles and bore a striking resemblance to a Matryoshka doll.

“It’s my first time,” I said, “but I’ll be coming regularly from now on.” The decision to buy an annual subscription was made on the spot, and I wondered if I’d actually make it through another year. Thoughts of death were never far from my mind.

“Did you recently move to Jerusalem?” she“Did you recently move to Jerusalem?” she asked continued. I knew where the conversation was leading and momentarily considered making a dash for the exit, semi-dressed and barefoot, hair sopping wet.

“No, I’ve been here some time. I came to write a book and kind of fell in love with the place.”

It was my usual line, though it wasn’t strictly true. Sometimes, it shut people up. But more often than not, it didn’t.

“So are you here with family?”

The question inevitably came, and yet I always found myself caught off-guard. Half the changing room was by now listening in, ready to pity me if I replied truthfully that I was alone, childless, and frankly, hopeless and desperate to return to London.

“I’ve got some relatives in Tel Aviv. But I’m not married ... yet,” I said, attempting to sound breezy, though I knew that a woman in her late 30s shouldn’t be unmarried or childless or thinking about death all the time.

“I’m Anita,” said the Matryoshka doll. “I’ve been swimming here for decades. How are you set for dinner tomorrow night?”

When I’d first arrived in Jerusalem, a well-meaning neighbor had invited me for Friday-night dinner with her and her husband. I’d first met her in the makolet, the local grocery-cum-convenience store across the road from my flat. I was buying my staple cottage cheese and fluffy white roll, and she was talking to the owner, a Moroccan called Moshe. She didn’t live in the complex where I lived, but adjacent to the grocery in a fine Ottoman building with ornate terrace and greenery. Against my better judgment, I agreed—and had been so thoroughly depressed by the experience that I’d turned down all future invitations from anyone except to join a rabbi and his family for seder night (my first), which turned out to be an even greater (and far lengthier) mistake.

But Anita seemed different. She looked, well, eccentric, rather bohemian and colorful. I think she must have sensed some reticence on my part.

“It won’t be your usual Shabbat,” she said, not knowing that there was no “usual” or “Shabbat” to talk about. “It’ll be a buffet because I’ve invited my orchestra.”

A glimmer of something joyous from my past flickered onto my radar. One of the things I missed most since leaving London was music. I was in no shape to go to concerts alone in Jerusalem and hadn’t bothered to pack any CDs or tapes, or even a radio, when I left home. I lived in silence in my flat with only the upstairs neighbor’s trance music for (unwelcome) distraction.

“I’d love to join you,” I said.

Anita, a conductor, and her musicologist husband lived a few minutes’ walk from the pool on a leafy street facing a park. They actually lived in a house, a rarity in a city where everyone lives in apartments or houses divided up into some semblance of an apartment. The house—warm, messy and real—was filled with talk and laughter, musicians and Anita’s children, who weren’t much younger than me. For the first time in three years, I stopped thinking I’d made the biggest mistake of my life and started to think I might find my place in my new habitat, and that with effort and perseverance and a good deal of help from kind-hearted people like Anita, I might grow and even flourish.

The Sunday after my meal at Anita’s home, I went and bought a year-long subscription to the pool. The same women I’d feared to encounter on the street or in the supermarket because I felt so different from them, so intimidated by their happy domestic lives, became a community of sorts. Swimming daily meant I was no longer invisible—that there were witnesses to my life, however small it was. If I didn’t show up, there were women who noticed and would call to find out how I was. People cared, more than I cared for myself. I owed it to them to make an effort.

My maternal grandmother, Elise Nachmias, whom I had known when I was a child before she moved to Turkey to live with her brother and disappeared from my life, always said that a girl should learn to play tennis, swim and play cards because then she’d never be lonely and had a good chance of finding a (suitable) husband. From a young age, she could do all three, but her marriage to Karl Arenz from Prague was arranged by her parents anyway and was by all accounts unhappy. She was right though. Swimming might not be a social activity in the strict sense, but there’s something about Jewish women in changing rooms that she clearly understood. You can’t hide a thing from them. Nor will you ever want for a Shabbat meal, be alone for the holidays, lack a sympathetic ear or someone to give you good counsel.

That first plunge in the Jerusalem pool,That first plunge was a turning point in my life now closed for good, was a turning point in my life in Jerusalem. The women I met there kept me afloat in hard times and shared my small successes in happier times. Whatever time of day I came for a swim, there was always a familiar face to check in with. My week took on a new rhythm—the rhythm of life in Jerusalem, which meant I too started preparing for Shabbat, buying a challah and lighting the candles on Friday night. I moved out of my flat and into a more modern one in a different neighborhood. I got a dog. Anita invited me to concerts and introduced me to people who became friends and things snowballed until I had as many friends here as I’d left in England.

Last year, after two decades of questioning and hesitation, I finally joined a synagogue. If joining the pool was the sanest move I’ve made in my life, shul membership comes a close second. I feel sorry that my Bulgarian grandmother, who felt so alone once she arrived in London with two young children in 1938, didn’t consider this option, for despite following her own advice and swimming regularly in the local pool, she scarcely made a friend during her time in England.

I find myself thinking about my grandmother often these days. She longed to speak her native Bulgarian and to meet people who shared the culture she had grown up in. I live among those very people and, even though I was born in London and not in Sofia as she was, or in Vienna or Rotterdam, where my father and mother respectively were born, I finally feel that this is home.