A view of the sea was mine for a month, but vacation did not win me that pleasure. Family health issues brought me out of my normal environment to a seaside refuge, an apartment on loan in Haifa’s Bat Galim neighborhood, easy walking distance to Rambam Hospital.
This chesed (an act of selfless kindness) and countless other such acts large and small, gave me a new slant on Blanche DuBois’ words, when unexpectedly, I found myself depending on the “kindness of strangers (Tennessee Williams “A Streetcar named Desire”).”
Bat Galim, Hebrew for “daughter of the waves,” is a neighborhood founded in the early 1920’s, sandwiched between train lines and ocean, with the rise of the Carmel mountain providing a muted backdrop of pine trees to balance the brilliant aqua of the sea. It also reflects the mix of the north, with Jews from every background, Arabs, and Druse taking walks or jogging on the promenade hugging the ocean, though Russian was the predominant language heard. This comfortable mélange was also apparent in the hospital mini-mall and waiting rooms, where families gathered while visiting their relatives, making the accusation of apartheid laughable.
Though the sauna-like humidity was a constant, a cooling breeze off the waves provided relief. It was also a relief be in a zone still under-exploited for commercial purposes, nary a corporate franchise was present. The reasons for that lapse include a hornet’s nest of social, preservation and planning issues ranging from proposals for a marina to ones for high rises. There is still time to explore this low-key spot before the developers take over.
There was a mix of structures from different periods: older Templer–style and Bauhaus ones with arched windows, those with crumbling stucco walls and flaking wooden shutters eaten by the salty air, alongside brutally utilitarian apartment blocks. The neighborhood post office never had a line longer than one – and that was just poor timing.
Windows are of great interest to me, they serve as a both a defender of what is within and an opening to expand outwards, bringing the outside in. That thought accompanied me as I returned to Jerusalem, where pre-holiday preparations were in full swing.
The contrasts to my sojourn in Bat Galim could not be more striking. Going from an endless unobstructed horizon continuing to lands unseen, I came home to the alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, where glimpses of sky are treasured.
The Jewish Quarter has in recent years become a focus of tour groups who visit to conduct “selichot tours” in the lead- up to Rosh Ha Shana, the Jewish New Year, a time when observant Jews of the Sefardi tradition conduct penitent prayers at dawn complete with shofar blowing for a full month. The Ashkenazi Jews limit this tradition to the night following the Shabbat before the holiday for that week. Whichever the tradition, the observant are in preparations for the somber two days of self-examination that is at the center of Rosh Ha Shana.
The easy-going and skimpy beach-side wear is nowhere to be found. Instead of oppressive humidity, the dry Jerusalem air seems a bit chilly, a welcome re-discovery. Clothing reflects this: for the religious it is a question of modesty, for the secular, it is common sense.
The nature-ordered schedules of surfers, wind-sailors, dawn to dusk sun-worshipers, and fishermen, are replaced by the devoted Jerusalemites who keep to their prayer schedules; the Jews seek out synagogues three times a day, the muezzin calls out five times a day, and the church bells chime the hours as they pass. Both lifestyles share an order and devotion to something greater than themselves.
The rhythmic pounding of the waves have come home with me and will remind me that people, essentially, have the capacity for wonderful acts of kindness, which I saw in so many ways over the long period leading up to and including the last month, relatives, friends and strangers alike.
With much gratitude, best wishes for continued health, and peace in the New Year.