I don’t much like change. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home in Jerusalem. It’s the hills. It’s the way you can begin talking to a stranger and immediately make a connection.
I grew up in Pittsburgh when you could still leave the doors unlocked to go around the corner to get some milk at the mom and pop store. You could smile at a random person on the street and get a smile back. It was the kind of place where you were likely to be the second or third generation of your family born in that town, and in fact, I am a third-generation born Pittsburgher by way of my maternal grandmother.
As for hilly topography, Pittsburgh’s Canton Avenue, in Beechview, is the steepest U.S. street on record with a grade of 37%. As newspaper journalist Ernie Pyle wrote, “Pittsburgh is undoubtedly the cockeyedest city in the United States. Physically, it is absolutely irrational. It must have been laid out by a mountain goat.”
So be it the hills of rugged little Jerusalem, with its small town feel, or the Judean Hills, where I have lived for over a quarter of a century, I feel right at home. Perhaps that’s why I was not the least bit surprised when a total stranger struck up a conversation with me as we both waited for the Jerusalem light rail train.
It’s the kind of thing that happens here. Not so much in New York City, where you pretend to wear blinders to not see the people on the subway, but here for sure. Dressed completely in black except for some white doodads decorating her beret, she simply launched into a story she wanted to share with me.
You can do that in Jerusalem because when you live in the holy city for awhile, you develop a knack for reading people. She would have known that we have approximately the same religious values, just by sizing up the way I was dressed, kind of frumpy actually, also mostly in black, with my hair completely covered, wearing glasses. Middle aged, with the careworn look you get from living hard in Israel and having and caring for a large family.
In her lilting South African accent—yes, you get to know the accents, too—she said, “I was waiting at a government office for an hour. I finally got in and right as I finished my business, the electricity went down. They sent everyone after me home—people who’d been waiting for an hour, like me.”
“Such incredible luck that I managed to get in right before the electricity went out, after waiting for an hour! There were 32 people ahead of me. Four clerks working very well, so about 8 minutes per person.”
I nodded, encouraging her.
“The thing is, while I was waiting, I figured I might as well say two prakei tehilim (chapters of psalms) something I do every day. Right as I finished the final word, that’s when I got called in.”
“What do you think of that?” she said with a glint of triumph in her eyes. “It was hashgachas pratis (divine intervention) for sure!”
Seeing I was suitably impressed she continued, “The clerks were all Arabs, very polite, and they know their work. That’s why they have those jobs. You can tell they’ve been working there since forever.
It says something very wrong with us that in our own city, our people are, well, as they are, but the Arabs are so efficient, so polite,” she said, shaking her head.
The train came and we both got on.
I saw her edge her way toward the front of the train as her stop neared. Alas, the front door was out of order, so she made her way back toward the side door. As she passed me she said, “Here I thought I would save time getting off the train by getting to the front before the crowd.”
I said, “Well, you already had your one miracle today. I guess it would have been too much to ask for another.”
“No!” she exclaimed, and that cool holy light returned to her eyes. I was getting to like that about her. “I should have said ANOTHER two prakei tehillim and the door would have worked!”
We both laughed and she got off the train.
I will probably never see her again. Except, who knows? Maybe I will. It’s that kind of town.