Many people harbor a stereotypical image of Israel as a nation of camel-riding rabbis and Rambos; a country defined by religious intolerance and terror attacks.
Jerusalem in particular is imagined as a place where women must cover their knees and elbows lest they get stoned by fanatical Jews, and everyone is in constant danger of getting stabbed by bloodthirsty Arabs.
Most every stereotype has a kernel of truth at its core, but it’s the nuances that are critical to an accurate and fair picture. Visitors always express surprise upon discovering that everyday life in the Jewish state looks more like a vibrant mosaic than a black-and-white photograph. Disturbing events tinge the variegated portrait without dominating it.
I’d like to illustrate that point simply by describing, without commentary, a few of my experiences last weekend (that’s Friday and Saturday here in Israel).
Friday morning I strolled to our local grocery to buy fruit for a brunch at the Jerusalem home of a close friend. As I walked in, another customer was handing a huge watermelon to one of the Arab workers, Bassem. She asked him to halve it.
“I’ll take the other half, please,” I chimed in. Bassem placed the melon on a cutting board and cleaved it in two with an enormous knife. He wrapped the halves in plastic and handed them across the counter. “Shabbat shalom,” he said with a smile and a nod, as he does every Friday.
Steve and I had booked a downtown Jerusalem hotel room for that night, so we hoisted our overnight bags and our sliced watermelon aboard the 174 bus outside our house in Ma’aleh Adumim. Ordinarily, the trip to our friend’s house takes about an hour on two buses and the light rail.
This time, however, the driver announced that we would be bypassing the Ammunition Hill light rail station. This was the last Friday in the Muslim month of Ramadan, and as a precaution in a week marked by Arab-on-Jewish violence on the Temple Mount, police had blocked certain approach roads.
Recalibrating our route, we got off the 174 near the stop for a city bus that would take us where we needed to go, albeit slowly. Due to the closed roads and backed-up traffic, the electronic signboard at the stop indicated a longer wait than usual.
Resigning ourselves to a late arrival, we set our bags down on the crowded sidewalk when suddenly I heard someone calling my name. It was the daughter of one of my first cousins, a young charedi (ultra-Orthodox) nursery school teacher. Noting our luggage, she asked where we were headed, and we explained that we were at this bus stop because we couldn’t reach the light rail. “I guess you were meant to run into me!” she said with a laugh as we embraced, me with my bare polished toes in sandals, she with her thick-stockinged legs in sturdy black shoes.
We finally arrived at our destination, where a small group, ranging in age from five months to 74 years, celebrated the June birthdays of my husband, our hostess, and a mutual friend from Tel Aviv. Though all three honorees are passionate Zionists who made aliyah from the United States, one is Orthodox, one Conservative, and one unaffiliated.
While we were enjoying good food and good cheer, a Jewish father of 10 driving near Hebron was shot dead by terrorists. That was only 15 kilometers from where Hallel Yaffa Ariel, 13, was stabbed to death in her bedroom by 17-year-old Muhammad Tarayrah the previous day. About 50 kilometers due west of Hebron, a missile launched from Gaza had damaged a preschool in Sderot on Thursday.
We didn’t yet know about the latest attack, 28 kilometers to the south, as we entered the hotel late Friday afternoon. Two employees whose nametags read “Naser” and “Muhammad” greeted us warmly at the reception desk. Naser handed us a notice with the times for candle-lighting and Havdalah, and asked if we wanted a non-electronic key for the Sabbath.
Strains of Kiddush and Sabbath hymns circulated in the hotel dining room that night, along with the incomparable aroma of Shabbat delicacies. A well-coiffed older woman, eating alone, was invited to join a family from her hometown. A young woman in shorts and a t-shirt cried softly into her phone and pushed food around her plate. Outside, streams of young people — some in their Sabbath best, some in everyday clothes — walked the streets in boisterous fellowship.
The following morning in the lobby, an American hotel guest asked Naser when Shabbat would be over. “About 3:30 or 4?” she ventured. “No, 8:30,” Naser told her in English. “At sundown.”
Our hotel was in easy walking distance of the Great Synagogue and other Orthodox houses of worship, Hebrew Union College (Reform), Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism, the Worldwide North Africa Jewish Heritage Center, the Rosary Sisters Convent, and the Jerusalem International YMCA.
Though public transportation ceases on Shabbat, cars traversed the streets at all hours, and the busy intersection and public square outside our window were filled with passersby: modern Orthodox families holding hands, shul-going men wrapped in prayer shawls, dog-walkers talking on cell phones, tourists hailing cabs.
A gay couple, crocheted kippot pinned to their heads, pushed a stroller in which a dark-skinned toddler clutched a teddy bear. Patrons streamed into a non-kosher restaurant at the edge of an urban park. Black-hatted men wordlessly shared sidewalk space with tank-topped women.
The balcony of our room was cattycorner from the balcony of the Fuchsberg Center. As the sun sank into the horizon Saturday night, I saw about 25 young people sitting in a circle, singing, arms linked, the flame of the Havdalah candle flickering on their faces.
When we went downstairs to check out, a new shift had arrived. We handed our non-electronic key to Tarik and he wished us shavuah tov. A good week.