In trying to write about Israel, from Israel, it’s often difficult to know where to start. So much seems to happen in such a short time, so many impressions rush into and past you.
It’s Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, and I just walked out on to Emek Refaim, the trendy main street of the so-called German Colony in Jerusalem, to get a cappuccino and a newspaper. But no papers today, all stores being closed except a few restaurants and coffee shops. A few people were quietly enjoying the dazzling sun and slightly chilly morning breeze. People appreciate the rare day off from work that doesn’t involve religious restrictions or pressures.
Last night, it could have been July Fourth: fireworks over the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in the city center, people barbecuing and even tenting in the parks, teens roaming around with ice cream cones in nonthreatening packs, profligate bright lights, children brandishing balloons shaped like hammers or even caveman clubs in the patriotic blue and white with the Star of David, flags everywhere—on cars, houses, and businesses. Some people literally wrapped themselves in it, but it was a very mellow, celebratory atmosphere.
The fireworks were an hour late—just JST, Jewish Standard Time, I think—but rumors flew among the American expats gathered to watch from nearby Zarfat Square at the busy intersection of King George and Ramban (just like Israel to have an English king meet a medieval rabbi at the corner), with a new fountain presented in 2008 by the mayor of Paris to the mayor of Jerusalem (Hey, that fountain looks French, I had thought, before reading the plaque).
The rumors? firefighters were refusing to give permission to start because they were angry that three of their colleagues killed while putting out a recent fire had not been properly honored; Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, had gotten herself arrested along with Gilad Shalit’s family, in protest over that young man’s five years of captivity in Gaza, and the present government’s inaction; or the breeze was just too strong to shoot off the fireworks safely. Explanations, circuitous and otherwise, are never far from people’s minds.
We arrived last Thursday evening (it’s now Tuesday) after a long flight surrounded strangely by a mixture of ultra-Orthodox and hippie-looking Jews speaking animated Spanish, including a distinguished looking rebbe from Argentina in a blue silk robe, and a sweet, fat young man from Mexico City next to me who prayed fiercely during take-off and landing while his shaking legs slapped into mine.
He also slept with his tuches taking up half my seat, his tzitzis (ritual fringes) dangling over me—I had to swap with my wife Ann so he wouldn’t have to touch her—but I didn’t have the heart to give him the elbow. It was his first trip to Israel, and when we landed and his legs stopped their tremor, he looked out at the bleak runway-scape of Ben Gurion Airport and pronounced it “muy bonito”—very pretty.
It was my first time in the new arrivals building—I’m ashamed to say my last trip was in 2004, just before it was built—and it really is bonito. It reminded me of any number of European airports. I was immediately struck by the absence of uniforms and automatic rifles, which I had grown accustomed to seeing in all public places on my previous eight trips. Finally we saw a uniform: a young Ethiopian sitting on a bench in the arrivals area; in his hand not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers. (In the Atlanta airport before boarding, we ‘d seen a tall, muscular, uniformed, armed, African-American security officer with a huge automatic rifle and a German shepherd to match, and I’d been glad to see them.)
Late that night after dropping off our suitcases at the apartment, we had quite good pizza and salad on an Italian restaurant patio under an old eucalyptus. On Friday we woke up late shopped—fast, since Shabbat was coming—and Ann got her first lesson in Israeli pushing and shoving. The narrow aisles in the grocery can barely pass two people, much less two carts or strollers (they are everywhere), and when the closing hour approached people got very serious about getting what they needed. Nevertheless, I heard the word “S’licha”—“excuse me,” or “sorry”—several times in the course of twenty minutes. We had a private little Shabbat dinner in our new place and tried to sleep off some of our jet lag.
Saturday we went up to Binyamina (near Haifa) to visit some old, dear friends of mine, both born here but fluent in English, both combat veterans, both loyal Israelis who don’t like their country’s direction, and we spent five or six hours talking about everything. When we got tired of politics we talked about family, and Ann and they got along very well (both women are devoted mothers and psychologists with banker fathers and a love for gardens). After a rich meal among their citrus and bougainvillea, we took a short drive to Caesarea and walked the beach and the Roman-Byzantine ruins at sunset. As we watched it, I reminded my friend of the time she had looked out at that same seascape and said wistfully, “What a great country this would be if it weren’t for the conflict.”