West Side Story in Jerusalem
Letter from Israel

West Side Story in Jerusalem

The finger-snapping began as soon as the sounds of the overture filled the Jerusalem Cinemateque. My husband and I grinned at each other behind our face masks and joined in.

I just knew that this 60th anniversary singalong screening of “West Side Story” would be the perfect way to sweeten a week flavored with the bitter taste of the Ben & Jerry’s boycott and the worrying rise in covid cases.

Really, how could our mood not be lightened by singing along with Tony and Maria, Anita and Bernardo, and the rest of the Jets and the Sharks?

Six thousand miles and six decades away from the New York City streets on which the classic movie was filmed when Steve and I were toddlers, we sat in a Jerusalem theater with a multigenerational audience, belting out the lyrics to one of the best musicals ever made.

When you live in a country in which you did not grow up, cultural touchstones from your past have a heightened resonance. And “West Side Story” is one of those touchstones. I adored it in high school, and I watched the film with my daughter countless times when she was in high school. She’s 32 now.

Nothing that is hopelessly dated about this movie – which I imagine Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake will remedy – detracted from the brilliant cinematography, choreography, and score.

The film’s creative crew consisted of extraordinarily talented Jews, including Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Wise, and Ernest Lehman. The one Jewish character in the film, the grandfatherly candy store owner Doc, is pained by the senseless interracial gang violence, as any good Jew would be. I’ve read that Mr. Robbins originally envisioned the story as a clash between Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side.

The details of the setting don’t really matter. Because the message of this 20th century “Romeo & Juliet” story is, sadly, no less relevant or universal today.

After the Sharks and the Jets watch (Polish) Tony die in (Puerto Rican) Maria’s arms, Maria grabs the murder weapon and points it at the members of these warring gangs, speaking words as true today as they were in Shakespeare’s era and in the 1960s: “You all killed him! … Not with bullets and knives! With hate! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!”

Well, hate continues to permeate our world, in the Middle East and everywhere else.

It’s no secret that ethnic tensions sometimes boil over in Jerusalem. What does seem to be a secret is how often they don’t. Most of the time, the Arabs and Jews of greater Jerusalem interact daily in countless uneventful ways: in buses and trains, hospitals and clinics, restaurants and hotels, shops and businesses, colleges and universities.

When we left the theater after 11 p.m., we indulged in a cab to get home faster. Our driver was an Arab resident of Silwan (Shiloach in Hebrew), a mere five minutes’ drive from the Cinemateque. If you Google Silwan you’ll see that it is a longstanding flashpoint in “the conflict,” and you’d think it would be foolhardy for a Jewish couple to enter the taxicab of an Arab from Silwan.

As usual, the reality is much more nuanced.

Whereas most cabbies are polite but silent, Abdallah chatted with us in Hebrew throughout the 30-minute ride.

He commented that the drive from Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim was so much faster and more direct before the security fence went up — when was that? About 20 years ago? Who remembers?

And speaking of the old days, when he was a kid 30 years ago, a shekel would buy you a falafel or a pack of cigarettes. He would earn that shekel by taking Old City tourists for a spin on his family’s donkey. Now a falafel costs 15 shekels. And did we have any idea of the crazy price of cigarettes? No, he didn’t think so. “I can tell you guys don’t smoke,” he added with a chuckle.

We learned that Abdallah has seven brothers and four sisters, and he goes broke buying presents for his very many nieces and nephews.

He lamented that he has only a sixth-grade education and that the pandemic wrecked his plan to go back to school and learn English. He told us that he used to be a cook in a shawarma joint, and upon hearing that I don’t eat meat he questioned me skeptically: Do you ever feel weak? Are you sure you get enough protein?

And on he went, except for a few minutes when his patter was interrupted by a call from our daughter in Oregon, eager to hear all the fun details about the “West Side Story” singalong.

We bade Abdallah goodnight and got out of the cab, humming “I Feel Pretty.” Like that moment when Tony first locked eyes with Maria, all seemed right with the world.

Our correspondent Abigail Klein Leichman and her family made aliyah 14 years ago, after living in Teaneck for decades.

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