Growing up with a dad who was a Jehovah’s Witness and a mom who was agnostic, I had an ambivalent relationship to the concept of Jesus Christ. When I thought about him at all, it was as a man with some good ideas, and horrible timing, but I remained a little fuzzy on the particulars. It seems that, much like me, he preferred wine over water. And I think he may have had some issues with his joints, since he was really into low impact aerobic workouts like water walking.
But thanks to the magic of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whenever I picture Jesus’s superstar entrance into Jerusalem, I always see him waving to the crowd, riding jauntily on a donkey. For years, I thought Christianity’s traditional depiction of Jesus on donkeyback was an attempt to mold him into the Jewish view of Messiah. It wasn’t until I moved to Israel that I realized that a donkey is just the best way to get around the country without having to use the public transportation system.
During my daily trek to work, I arrive at my train station in the middle of rush hour. I take a train which runs on the line between Haifa, Israel’s third most populous city, and Tel Aviv, Israel’s second largest population center. Roughly halfway through the trip, we pass through Netanya, which happens to be Israel’s ninth biggest city. We line up like sardines as the train doors open, hoping to get a seat, or even a few cubic centimeters with a horizontal space onto which we can park our extra-padded bits. Given the large numbers of people who make use of the train station, this understandably proves to be a consistently difficult task.
After a few abortive attempts at getting to work early, I finally decided to rearrange my schedule so that I now regularly take an 8:30 train, switching from an express train that leaves at 8 am, but which also includes stops at Ben Gurion Airport and Modiin, leading to such overcrowding, that if it were a prison, there would already have been a class action lawsuit filed for cruel and unusual punishment.
I face the same scene each time I board the train. I scramble up to the top level and immediately run headlong into people sitting with legs splayed wide, blocking the seats in front of them, and with bags spread out on as many adjacent surfaces as possible, to discourage others from sitting nearby. I glare at the seat hoarders menacingly until they begin to make room, and occasionally I am forced to ask (yes, probably a little sarcastically) if I can sit down.
It’s one of the things about Israel that I still don’t understand after seven years. You get on a train every morning, and by the time you’ve gone three stops, every morning, the train is packed and the aisles are full of people searching for a seat. And yet, every morning, you hope against hope that the train won’t be crowded enough to force you to sit next to someone, despite the fact that this is public transportation, and sharing comes with the territory.
Should I view this behavior as a sign of optimism, in that the seat hoarder wakes up and sallies forth expecting that TODAY will be the day that everyone else who usually takes the train will decide to stay home? Or is it the malevolent pessimism of someone expecting that half of his co-commuters will have been wiped out during the night by a random plague that only hit people planning to take the 8:30 train?
And having lived near Jerusalem for more than five years, I know it’s not any different over there. Riding the light rail system is a more popular full contact sport in Jerusalem than football. And despite signs to the contrary plastered everywhere, the elderly still have to fight it out for a seat just like everyone else. Of course, since they’re all veterans of numerous wars, nine times out of ten, they still kick a whippersnapper’s butt in a fair fight.
An acquaintance once told me that all I have to do when faced with this situation is ask for people to move, instead of complaining. She obviously overestimated my Hebrew fluency. But more to the point, I guess I feel a little sad that expecting the kind of civility known as derech eretz (which I presume is a Jewish concept, since it’s in Hebrew for goodness sake) marks me out as still unassimilated. Was there ever a point when Israelis waited for people to get off of the bus before trying to jam on? Did we stop teaching our children that the elderly and heavily pregnant should be given a seat, preferably as close to the front as possible? And for goodness sake, when did we forget to inform people that socks and deodorant are not a luxury when taking public transportation!
As a good Orthodox Jewess, I don’t think of Jesus as the Messiah, and I’m still waiting for Moshiach’s arrival. As is prophesied, I fully expect him to come riding on a donkey. But I now understand that this is just a mark of his ability to prepare in advance, since he knows he probably wouldn’t be able to find a seat on the bus.