Monday, May 18, 2015

Yom Yerushalayim Part 1

I'm delighted that this year I've been able to return to my Torah studies in Jerusalem, even more so that it's with my daughter in tow, having a chance to share with her not only the pleasure of in depth Bible study with some amazing scholars but also to have a weekly date with her in Jerusalem.

One of my greatest joys has always been spending time in Jerusalem, just walking her streets, riding the buses, being part of this wonderful frustrating holy impossible city and giving my daugher a more in depth knowledge of the city beyond its holiness and major historic sites, an appreciation for how special she is even in the mundane workings of her streets, neighbourhoods, markets and buses.

The Jerusalem stories that make the headlines tend not to be the everyday observations that are truly what make this city function. News reports only seem to pick up on points of tension, of Arab against Jew or rigid old school religious populations clashing with the city's more liberal populations. And it's true, yes, there is no shortage of problems here, of cultural conflict, of political and national aspirations doomed to butt heads it seems for all eternity.

And yet for me this is not the true headline of Jerusalem, this isn't the real news story. I can never read books when riding the buses, I'm too busy watching the people, my fellow passengers, the stories of the people outside my window. My Jerusalem is one which despite the international news reports to the contrary is one of de facto coexistence, disparate peoples thrust together and united by their love and connection to the city.

My Jerusalem is the young Hareidi ultra-Orthodox man hopping off the bus to aid an elderly lady, her gnarled hands trying to juggle hoisting herself on to the bus and her bulging bags of produce from the market. He nimbly grabs her bags in one hands, offers her his other to help her mount the steep step up from the street, and then gives up his seat to her so that she can sit quickly near the front of the bus before it lurches off on it's route.

It is the middle aged woman who sees a heavily pregnant woman and her frail elderly companion get on a crowded bus and who immediately sets about rearranging the passengers, Jews, Arabs, Christian clergy and tourists, so that these women will have somewhere to sit near the front. 

Or the older man who looks like he's doing an impression of the Fonz, all slicked dyed black hair, tight white t-shirt and gold medallion who sees an elderly couple struggling to get off the bus at their stop and hails the driver loudly "Driver, driver, wait up, what if these were your grandparents trying to disembark!" while at the same time holding the door open for them and lending a hand as they gingerly step down to the pavement, then helping a mother with a baby pram on to the bus, offering to go to the front to swipe her bus pass for her so she can stay with the unwieldy buggy and baby.

It is the teens and college students who've organised a sort of voluntary squad of helps who offer to carry heavy shopping for those doing their groceries at the Mahane Yehuda Market. The Arab produce vendor who seeds a poor Hareidi woman telling her children they can't afford the latest in season fruit and they'll have to make do with just the basics, so while she's rummaging in her purse he slips a an extra bag with fine winter red oranges and strawberries into her meagre shopping basket without her noticing. Turning to me, the next customer, he says, "It's a big holiday coming up you know (this is just around Hannukah), and the Sabbath soon, she should have something special for the children."

It is the fact that according to several studies and surveys beggars make more money in Jerusalem than anywhere else, this despite Jerusalem being one of Israel's poorer cities with many populations who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

It is the young modern Orthodox Ethiopian yeshiva student in his white shirt and knitted yarmulka learning Gemara while riding the bus. An older Hassidic man gets on and sits next to him, peers over his shoulder at the page of Gemara, hesitates, and then in heavily Yiddish accented Hebrew asks the younger man about his studies. They spend the rest of the ride discussing the sugya. I'm sitting behind them and can just about make out that the matter at hand is Masekhet Brakhot, the section dealing with the blessings one makes over fruits and how one decides which to bless and eat first.

It is the ambulance pulling up to help someone who has collapsed in the street, and the paramedics who leap out of the vehicle are a modern Orthodox young woman and an Arab man. The ambulance driver looks Hassidic.

This is what I see every week as I wend my way across neighbourhood after neighbourhood, through the bustling Mahane Yehuda market and central bus station, quiet suburbs and historic stone clad streets in the heart of ultra-traditional Hassidic Jerusalem. This is my Jerusalem.

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