I had only been in Israel a few hours when I received my first berating, from the driver of a Nesher sherut (shared taxi).
I was about to help fill up a van full of passengers heading to Jerusalem, when I realized I had left my suitcase inside the airport (a big no-no anywhere, let alone in Israel). I immediately told the driver I had to go back inside and look for my luggage. I assumed he would just go on his way and I would wait for the next van.
Twenty minutes later I came out again with my luggage — which thankfully was intact even after Israeli security personnel had gotten their hands on it — when I found the same driver waiting for me. “Eyfo hayeet” — “where were you?” — he screamed.
What? He was waiting for me? I couldn’t believe it, and I was flustered when I tried to explain what happened. He said I would have to wait another hour for the van to fill up, but in reality it only took about 30 minutes.
“Welcome to Israel,” I quipped along with fellow passengers who had also arrived from the United States. I laughed at the driver’s rudeness, but only half in jest for fear that I would do something else to offend him.
My inhibitions diminished, however, as we got closer to Jerusalem, and one of the passengers asked to be dropped off past the Old City in the city’s eastern side. Although she said she was fine getting off at Jaffa Gate and walking the rest of the way, the driver would have none of that — insisting it was dangerous for her to walk and that he couldn’t take her to her final destination.
She insisted she was fine and would walk as long as she needed to, and I explained in Hebrew that she understood what she was doing. His response? “I give you 30 shekels” for another cab. Did I hear him right?This boorish driver with no manners was worried about her safety, to the point where he appeared ready to pay for her next ride!
Rak b’yisrael — only in Israel, I thought! As I was retelling the story later to friends in Jerusalem, they explained that Israelis treat strangers as they would family, and just like one would have an argument with one’s family, so too can tempers flare.
I experienced many other highs and lows during my week-long stay in the country. And truthfully I felt less like a tourist and more a part of Israeli society, although I could easily be mistaken for the former with my clumsy Hebrew and sunburned arms.
I experienced so many highs on this adventure: exploring off-the-beaten parts of the Old City with my adventurous American olah pal, snagging an invitation to go to Beit Hanassi (the President’s Residence) for the first Jerusalem Unity Prize ceremony, experiencing the Light Festival in the Old City followed by soulful personal prayers at the Kotel. An Israel Scaventures hunt through the hopelessly charming Yemin Moshe neighborhood, singing Shabbat zemirot with friends, and taking a walk through Emek Hatzvaim (valley of the gazelles), a new Jerusalem park that was built thanks to residents who sought to counter the massive overdevelopment in the city. Riding a bus out of Jerusalem packed with soldiers, and on the way back, receiving travel advice and offers of bottled water from a lone chayal originally from New Jersey. Meeting young Israeli pioneers determined to raise their families in the South, even close to the Gaza border, for the sense of community that is engendered.
But I keenly felt the lows — or at least sharp contrasts — to the more uplifting experiences. Gazing at the garish Holyland Park apartment complex from the peaceful Emek Hatzvaim, watching passengers squabble over the ticket machine at the Jerusalem Light Rail, squeezing by mobs of people checking out the Light Festival and having to take an unnecessarily long and kitschy route to get to the Kotel for my own personal pilgrimage.
Yet, isn’t this what life in Israel is all about? It’s not a permanent vacation for the people who live there, and it’s certainly not a relaxing experience. It’s expensive, hot, and humid, and people have no qualms about saying what is on their minds. It is also sobering to see the steps Israelis take to protect themselves from enemies such as missiles fired close to their doorstep — as the “Code Red” app on my phone indicated, this happened several times during my stay.
But I also can’t think of a place where there is a greater sense of purpose, full of adventure, where luscious pomegranates and other fruits dangle from trees and nature constantly surrounds you. Where Jews come from all over the world with their own stories yet speak one common language. Where both clueless tourists and sabras are ultimately part of the same family — warts and all.