A Moment with Gamliel

Surgery ward at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, Jerusalem

I broke out of the hospital for two hours tonight. I’m in for another of my increasingly frequent bouts with a blocked intestine. Till now, each hospital drama lasts 3 days and ends happily as my guts straighten themselves out without intervention. I needed to handle something I couldn’t do from the hospital and, since I’m getting released tomorrow, the doc in charge didn’t mind my hopping home, 10 minutes from the hospital.  Spent some quality time with my wife, Frumit, had my first food in 72 hours as she threw a bowl of her soulful vegetable soup into the mixer to grind it for my sensitive gut, then I dealt with the errands on my computer, and got back in the car.

I was in no hurry to return to Hadassah, but Frumit was already gearing up for her last night at home alone, and the night nurse would feel betrayed if I didn’t come back to the ward when I said I would.  I drove off, glanced at the new moon above the streetlight, took a deep drag on my cigar and enjoyed the bracing air of a breezy Jerusalem winter’s evening.

As I pulled up to the stoplight at my local junction, I noticed a young Haredi guy (ultra-orthodox religious) trying unsuccessfully to catch a cab. On impulse, I shouted to him, “Where do you need to go?” And he answered, “Bait Vegan,” a religious neighborhood just beyond my home in the mixed secular-religious Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.  When the light turned green, I did a quick U-turn and pulled up beside him. Looking surprised, he opened the door and climbed in.

I had reversed direction, so I figured he might be wondering what I was up to. I told him I noticed he was having trouble hailing a cab, and I had some time and I could get where I’m going through his neighborhood as well. As that settled on him, I tried to put him at ease by adding, “If we don’t help each other out, who’s gonna do it?”  He was maybe 30 years old, with a delicate frame and auburn beard, in a black suit and fedora. He said something appreciative, and asked if I am from the neighborhood, and I said yes.

“It’s a nice neighborhood, Kiryat Yovel,” he offered. “I love it,” I replied, but you know, there are some conflicts here between Haredi people from Bait Vegan and secular folks here.” “Oh yes,” he replied, “I have heard of the conflicts.” “It’s too bad, because we are all going to have to work things out together, don’t you think?” I asked. “Of course,” he said.

Encouraged by his receptiveness, I pressed on….”Do you know, when I am driving down a street on the Sabbath, sometimes religious people walking home from the synagogue, in a group in the middle of the street, will deliberately slow their walk, when they see a Jew breaking the Sabbath by driving, reluctantly clearing the way to make sure I get their message before I can drive through.” What message is that?” he asked. “That it’s not okay for a Jew to drive on the Sabbath, that they would like to irritate him a little to get their point across.”

In genuine alarm, he immediately responded, “The folks I know in Bait Vegan would never do such a thing. It’s a small group of people with certain interests who do that.”

“Yes, I agree that most folks would not behave that way,” I said. “You’re right, I think, there is a cluster of people with agendas that may be looking for trouble.” I took him all the way to his door, but by now he was not wondering into whose car he had climbed. We had connected, just two guys, for a moment, both of us hoping for less rancor in our city. I said, “My name is Yoav,” and he said, “Gamliel” and hesitantly received my handshake.

As I approached his building, he asked, “You came from America?” My American accent in Hebrew is easily identifiable. “Yes, 45 years ago. But I’ll take the accent with me to the grave.” As I pulled to the curb, he chuckled and said, “To complete the picture, you’ve even got those expensive cigars!” He climbed out, smiling, and I shouted over to him, “No, these are the cheap ones.” We both laughed and I drove off.

As I headed toward the hospital, Gamliel’s presence was still in the car. I was touched by his indignation that I might think he would be aggressive toward secular folks. Did he not know that Haredi-secular polarization is a major social issue in the country?  Or maybe he thought that I was some crazy secular guy looking to pick a fight with a Haredi guy, so he gave me compliant answers. But no, I prefer to take it as I felt it, and my five minutes with Gamliel evoked in me visions of small groups of secular and religious folks getting together in our neighborhoods to talk things over. In fact, I believe that Gamliel and I actually warmed up the neighborhood this evening. I think I would like hearing what he told his wife when he got home. Somehow, it felt like a small corner of the world had gotten a little healing for its wounds.

                                                                                 Yoav Peck

About the Author
Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project. Born and raised in New York/New Jersey, he holds a BA from Berkeley, and an MA in organizational psychology. He made aliyah in 1973, and was a member of Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi for 15 years, and has been living in Jerusalem since '88. He has three kids, and three grandchildren.