“Welcome back. How’s the matzav over there?”
When you return from a trip to Israel, you’re presumed to be, if not an expert, at least a worthy reporter on the state of affairs in the Holy Land.
People always want to know, “How is the mood?” but these days they ask with special emphasis, as murderous knife-wielders run around stabbing people or ram their vehicles into crowds, and not just in high-risk neighborhoods. The current onslaught is different: there are no shelters to hide from it.
So how is the mood? People get up in the morning, send their children to school, make their way to work, go out in the evenings. At least on the surface, life goes on. What’s happening beneath is harder to gauge.
Some people speak of precautions they take, or have thought of taking. They avoid buses, tell their kids to take cabs (but only certain cabs), carry pepper spray. They don’t visit certain areas, drive their family to places to which children would normally walk unattended. Even as people list these steps, they shrug, as though to concede, “Short of staying home and locking the door, what can you do, really?”
There are soldiers on the streets. Men stand in shul with weapons protruding from their pockets. Are there more of these than usual? It is hard for a visitor to tell.
My wife and I made our way to central Jerusalem to pick up a pair of tefillin for our grandson, who plans to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in Israel next summer. Counseled not to walk, we took a cab. The streets seemed less crowded, though by no means empty.
The sofer greeted us. “Sorry I was held up,” he said. “There was a knifing just outside our town, and they closed the road. Big delays.”
“Are there fewer people than usual walking outside?” we asked.
He consulted with a colleague behind the counter. They both guessed so, at least to some extent.
What seemed striking was not so much what the two said, but their tone as they said it. Not angry. Not fearful. Rather, they spoke with a kind of bemused resignation, as if to say, “Yes, such things happen. They will happen for a while. We will get through it.”
My wife and I rented a car at the Jerusalem office of an American car rental company, half a block from the King David Hotel. Both men behind the counter were Arab. Our only difficulty was the security code texted to my phone to unlock the engine: 3-3-5-1. This is hard to punch in when the only keypad options are 1, 2, 3, and 4. Another Arab man, who checked out the car and handed me the key, took care of it.
Despite warnings about Israeli motorists, driving posed no problem. Rush hour in Tel Aviv was rush hour in a big-city. Drivers were no more aggressive than the ones in Boston, and more polite than the ones in Manhattan, where leaning on the horn is the default position.
At the Technion in Haifa, where my sister-in-law taught for 35 years, hijabs outnumbered kippot by an easy 3-1 margin. Security, presumably present, was unobtrusive. The student shops and snackeries bustled with what felt like business as usual.
The matzav, the elephant in every room, sometimes nudged its trunk into conversations with friends. The internet lets in, unfiltered, what people on the outside are saying about Israel. “They really don’t like us very much, do they?” asked one friend. No, they don’t. “They don’t understand what we’re going through,” said another. No, many don’t. “Israelis shoot Palestinians,” read the headlines. Who is attacking whom? Outsiders cannot tell, or don’t have the time to figure it out, or don’t care. Or worse. Best not to discuss what there isn’t much good to say about.
Eating at elegant kosher restaurants is a rare treat for visitors. (Boston is lovely, but don’t come here for the falafel.) Tel Aviv friends took us to an upscale bistro at the top of one of the Azrieli Towers. What I ate was very tasty, though I’m not sure what it was.
My friend took me to the window to view the panorama. “That’s the Kirya,” he said, pointing, “the Israeli Pentagon. Do you see all those buildings around it? Ten years ago they were shacks.” He gestured at the gleaming city with its many skyscrapers, built or under construction.
Everywhere there is verve and dynamism and energy: tall buildings going up, highways widening, high-speed intercity rail links being carved out of the landscape. Anywhere you look are children, and mothers about to have them. You don’t have to be very perceptive to see how child-centered Israel is, compared to many other parts of the world. Back where I live, women expecting their second often announce–without being asked– “and then the office is closed!” Population figures confirm that Israeli offices stay open longer. Having children means many things, but giving up on the future is not one of them.
How is all this creativity possible, especially when enemies within and without routinely issue vicious and bloody proclamations, inspiring followers down to the age of 13 to commit murder. How do Israelis manage to get on with things while bored or hostile outside observers look on at knifings and missiles aimed at Israelis, then either yawn with indifference or quietly cheer. How does Israel do it?
When we were kids, they taught us that sentimental old song, V’af al pi chen v’lamrot hakol Eretz Yisrael. Maybe it’s that, whatever that is. I am not an expert, only passing through. But on visits or from afar, I see it all the same. Despite everything, Israelis in effect declare: Israel is here. We’re here. Deal with it.
We landed back in Boston (nonstop—thank you, El Al) at 5:30 Sunday morning. Looking out at the dark and empty runway, I sensed something missing. Yes, that was it—there was no existential threat. No existential threat! What do people in Boston do all day?
By working to establish a Jewish state, the early Zionists wanted to normalize the Jewish condition. On the evidence, they did not succeed. Maybe someday. Meantime, the Jewish state is not normal. It’s better than that.