Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Crossing the Street

August 25, 2010 / 15, Elul 5770
1521 days, Gilad Shalit in Captivity

I strapped on a helmet and pads and went to do battle, in an Israeli bank. I waited in three lines until, exasperated, I sat with the bank teller, Alon, who admired my son’s Kobe Bryant jersey and, as he explained the intricacies of transferring dollars to a shekel account from an American bank, asked about the LA Lakers and told me, “perhaps after 10 months, you’ll decide to stay?”

“It’ll take me ten months before I get out of this bank,” I thought.

Benjamin and I are crossing Derkeh Hevron, a large street, on the way back from the bank. No traffic engineer would have set out to create the system of lanes on Derekh Hevron. Jerusalem is a city whose streets were clearly laid out well before thought went into traffic patterns. On Derekh Hevron, outside lanes are for regular traffic. But inside the outside lanes are lanes for buses and taxis so that they can travel faster. What this means for pedestrians is that to cross the street, one must cross 4 lanes of traffic, stopping at 2 different islands along the way, each of which are fenced off from the ongoing rush of cars, trucks, buses and taxis. We have already given our sons opening lectures on crazy Israeli drivers and on the importance of always waiting for the “green man” who tells you that it’s okay to cross and, even when the green man is there, of being on constant alert for cars. A green man appears. Benjamin and I obey and cautiously cross lanes for taxis and buses. A bus has stopped halfway into the crosswalk so we move in front of it and scurry towards the second island. Someone crossing the opposite direction walks closer to the bus and, as he does, whacks his head on the mirror of the bus. He stumbles backward, regains his balance, walks around towards the entrance of the bus, and starts hitting the door and screaming at the driver in Hebrew, “Why are you blocking the crosswalk?! I hit my head! Idiot!!!” The driver stares forward and says nothing. People on the bus seem a mixture of disturbed and amused at this unnecessary outburst.

“The bus shouldn’t have been stopped in the crosswalk,” I explain to Benjamin. “But he probably doesn’t need to scream and hit the bus, does he?”

We’ve all had days when we’ve hit our heads and, rather than laugh it off or remain calm, we just lose it. When we do, it’s rarely because we hit our head, but because other things are bothering us and hitting our head sets us off. As we wait for the next green man, the experience of being in Israel begins its work on me and I begin to think about why this man may have lost it, and the man on Derekh Hevron becomes (quite unfairly) a symbol in my mind of the state of the Israelis in the state of Israel. Are Israelis frustrated? Why?

The most realistic explanation is the heat. The heat, of late, is stifling. We arrived to Jerusalem – a good 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the country – on a day that locals tell us represents a break in the heat. It is 32.5 Celsius, 90.5 Fahrenheit. In Eilat and the North, it was 46 degrees Celsius in the shade – that’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to make anyone hit a bus! I heard rumors Eilat hit 49 degrees. But I wonder for a moment if the man hit the bus not because of the heat, but because part of the experience of being in Israel is frustrated hopes and dreams.

As we taxied for takeoff on the flight here, my 4-year old delighted the woman in front of us with his barely controllable enthusiasm, “soon we’re going to fly to Israel!!” A few weeks ago, Benjamin remarked to a friend about our upcoming year, “we’re not going to visit. We’re going home, because Israel is home to all the Jewish people.” Israel in their minds is a paradise, a place of hopes and dreams. That is perfectly appropriate for children, but it does not last. What must Benjamin have thought as he turned around and, in his first few hours in Israel, he witnessed an enraged man hitting the bus and screaming in Hebrew at the bus driver?

I pray his love will evolve. That he will learn the language and learn to feel at home. That he will remember not only the enraged man banging on the bus, but the fact that in the first moments of our arrival, someone already invited us over to their home for seudah shlisheet (a late afternoon Shabbat meal) and many people have stopped by with offers for help. That a friend filled our refrigerator with food so that when we arrived, we would already feel at home. That another friend arranged for David and Uri to meet us, not only so we wouldn't get taken by strange taxi drivers, but so that we'd be taken care of in the first few hours of our year in Israel. I pray Benjamin remembers how a neighbor lent us a dining room table. That other neighbors, perfect strangers, helped us move our 15 bags from the taxicabs to our new home. Perhaps he already forgot the man hitting the bus, or the bus driver who couldn't be bothered that someone hit his head. But if not, I pray after a year that Israel will not be a fantasy but will be real, both sour and sweet, and that his love will grow deeper.

Walking DistanceWe have no car yet; I like this. We’ve walked to the pizza place, to the grocery, to the pool, to school. I brought a bike and got it reassembled. Having it will broaden my horizons, make a few other parts of the city accessible – though biking in Jerusalem must be done carefully (see the part about crazy Israeli drivers above). But we live walking distance to the boys’ schools. Walking distance to shopping. Walking distance to Mandel where I will study. In Los Angeles, there was always something freeing, truly restful, about walking on Saturday while the rest of the world drove by. Walking reminds you how large the world really is because it takes so much effort to go just a short way; how much effort is required to carry groceries. Walking humbles.

Grassy Parks in the Middle EastThose of you who know Jerusalem will remember that near Pardes (near Emek Refaim and Pierre Koenig) there is a set of old train tracks. Those tracks are being ripped up and the area is becoming a long stretch of park to sit and enjoy. The area is still under construction but some of it is done and it will eventually be really great; a stretch of open space in a city with too little. As I saw this project for the first time, I noticed that it is being done with grass and I thought to myself how the use of grass reflects a European sensibility since grass uses too much water for the Middle East and that large swaths of grass don’t really belong here (like the golf course in Caesarea). But I also thought, “it’s a small enough area. You have to live too. And a park in Jerusalem is a good thing for the soul. Perhaps that man would feel a bit less rage if there were more parks to enjoy. Beauty. Places to play. These things too have a place when building a State, even if there are more efficient uses of water.”

Israel Reading in IsraelI was too busy running camp over the summer to read much. So I collected a bunch of articles to get caught up on. On the last stretch of the flight I started an article from the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/09/the-point-of-no-return/8186/) called, “The Point of No Return.” It seems to have been making the rounds amongst folks who follow Israel and is one of those articles it is important to have read. It is about the Iranian nuclear threat and the prospects of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel or the United States. At 5am this morning, our four year-old and I are up together as the sun rises over Jerusalem. He watches Backyardigans in Hebrew with a mixture of pleasure at having found a familiar TV show and confusion at the fact that it’s in Hebrew. As he watches TV and my wife and other children sleep, I am struck how reading such articles in Jerusalem is a different experience than reading them in Los Angeles. I always care deeply about politics in the Middle East; having an emotional connection to the news is not new for me. But consider the following sentences:

“The Iranian leadership’s own view of nuclear dangers is perhaps best
exemplified by a comment made in 2001 by the former Iranian president Ali Akbar
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who entertained the idea that Israel’s demise could be
brought about in a relatively pain-free manner for the Muslim world. ‘The use of
an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear
attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages,” Rafsanjani
said. It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence
theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case
of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge.”
Reading those sentences while you are here, where the missiles would strike (God forbid), sharpens one’s attunement to the news.

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