Friday, December 14, 2001

Hannukah in Jerusalem

Thursday, December 13, 2001


This morning I was awoken at around 5am by the sound of low-flying helicopters. Half asleep, I thought I was just dreaming it, but the sound persisted and got closer. By the time I had the presence of mind to look out the window they were gone, the sound fading into the distance.
Later, on the morning news, I heard that the Israeli Air Force had hit Palestinian military facilities in Ramallah, just five miles northeast of Modi'in. The raids were in response to yesterday's Palestinian ambush of a civilian Israeli bus near the Israeli town of Immanuel. The assault with both roadside bombs and automatic rifles left 10 Israelis dead - nine civilians of all ages and a soldier who came to rescue them - and over 30 wounded.
This afternoon I took the bus into Jerusalem, as I do most Thursdays. On board, a man sitting up front was chatting to the driver. Apparently this morning the Modi'in-Jerusalem road was closed while the army checked it for Palestinian ambushes. Following last night's massacre, the army wanted to make extra sure that the road was safe. They determined that it is, but they stepped up security on the road all the same.
I don't know if it's the tense situation or the fact that I'm spending more time in front of the TV watching news, but lately I've had the urge to keep my hands occupied with something creative. Over the last few months I've been beading scarves, decorating skirts, making jewellery and pretty much trying to ornament anything in sight. Having exhausted my stock of broken necklaces to reinvent, I went into town today to buy some beads.
I don't really know how to sew, let alone bead, but I seem to be doing all right - I haven't ruined anything yet. (If anyone would like to buy a beaded or beribboned headscarf or a necklace, I seem to be producing them faster than I have time to wear them...) Right now I've been making them up as Hanukah gifts.
There are some nice bead and textile shops downtown, and the chilly but sunny weather was amenable to strolling the streets, so I took my time to find just the right thingamajig.
My walk took me up and down and across Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem's downtown pedestrian mall, which has been the scene of several terrorist bombings in recent years - most recently, two weeks ago, killing 11 Israeli teenagers. Every alley and side street leading to it had been barricaded off, with police and soldiers checking everyone who passed. I lost count of how many security guards checked and rechecked my bags.
Not far from the recent bombing, a busker was alternating between Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". An elderly lady was hawking small Psalms books, blessing anyone who bought one with a special "segula", a mystical protection from terrorist attacks and car accidents, she said.
Outside each café and restaurant, bored-looking security guards stood around smoking while eyeing the foot traffic, waiting around for someone to try and enter their establishments. Weird having your bags searched just to go and have a cup of coffee or a burger.
At the Jaffa Road end of the street, near Zion Square, right in the heart of Jerusalem's entertainment district, a stage had been set up, not far from the site of this month's suicide bombing. A big orange sign read, "Banu Hoshekh Legaresh" - "We have come to banish darkness" - a line from a well-known Hanukah song. A large, makeshift-looking hanukiah, Hanukah candelabra, adorned one corner of the stage. A pair of klezmer musicians were doing last minute sound tests and a growing crowd was massing expectantly nearby.
A huge knot of people were crowding around a couple of tables set up near the stage. Standing on tiptoe I could just make out the source of the commotion - a giant sufganiah, the oily jelly doughnut traditionally eaten on Hanukah. Soon someone announced over a microphone that this was the largest sufganiah ever made. Weighing in at 22.3kg, it had beaten the previous Guinness record of 15kg. (Only he pronounced it "Jinness"....) A gaggle of photographers was swarming around it, flashing and clicking as though some mighty celebrity had been spotted. Not bad for a doughnut.
Yet even this mighty sufganiah was not the real source of the ruckus. No, the real reason the crowds were closing in was that on the next table over they were handing out free sufganiot, albeit regular sized ones. And you didn't have to be Israeli, or even Jewish, to get in on the action. Several Arab families and at least one priest were joining in the doughnut frenzy. You'd have thought no one had ever seen a sufganiah before, and, believe me, by the fifth day of Hanukah there isn't a soul in Israel who hasn't had at least one forced upon him or her at some point.
For each night of Hanukah, the Jerusalem municipality has held a festive Hanukah candle lighting at this spot, with all manner of entertainment. Tonight the city chose to honour the Bnei Akiva youth movement and the city's tourism industry. A giggly group of kids in Bnei Akiva shirts held a mini torchlit parade up to the podium. The director of the tourism ministry lit the hanukiah and the municipality's tourism chief performed an operatic rendition of Ma'oz Tzur, the traditional Hanukkah hymn, in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew. The klezmer band burst into life again and soon the crowd were enthusiastically moving along to the lively music, some tapping their toes, others dancing with their toddlers, while some garishly-clad young men swirled and swayed in an almost trancelike state. I heard a refined British accent behind me announce that Jerusalem certainly had the spirit of the Blitz, minus Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller.
"Spirit of the Blitz" described it well. For an ordinary Hanukah the scene was quite normal. Yet it was totally bizarre to consider that this lively celebration was taking place on the site where only a couple of weeks ago two suicide bombers detonated themselves, killing eleven Israelis and wounding over a hundred. But what else do you do when the enemy has made your town centre, your Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, his battleground? The only choice is to reclaim it as your own, to return it to its original purpose as an entertainment centre, as a place of joy.
I stayed a while to enjoy the music and then turned to get my bus home. As I walked down towards Zion Square, I noticed an assortment of homemade posters stuck onto walls and barricades, all around the makeshift memorial where the bomb had gone off. "Am Yisrael Hai - the nation of Israel lives", "Hazak Ve-ematz - be strong and of good courage", "Lo Nitya-esh - we will not despair!", and so on.
In Zion Square itself a large group of teenagers sat cross-legged on the cold stone, huddled around a guitar player singing Israeli songs. A man walked along with a sign proclaiming that Israel should respond firmly to terrorism. A car which stopped at the lights was festooned with Israeli and American flags, with a sign taped inside the window: "Nitgaber - we shall overcome".
Despite the bombs, despite the fear riding on a bus or walking down a city street now induces, Jerusalem was crowded and festive, just as it should be on Hanukah. Today you can be a hero just by going to a café.
After spending two hours stuck in traffic on the ride home, I arrived too worn out to cook dinner. Knowing that Jason had to work late, I stopped by my local falafel place for a bite. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend. Turning to the TV hanging in the corner of his shop he shook his head, "So, what will be? They bomb a busload of civilians and we bomb empty military buildings."
"What will be?" He repeated. That is the question every Israeli is asking right now.
Shabbat shalom,

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