Eliezer Finkelman

An Incident at the Train Station in Bet Shemesh

The train station at Bet Shemesh is built into a hillside. You take the stairs, or a ramp, a long way down from the street to the front door of the station. After you have gone through security and purchased your ticket, you still have three steps down to the platform.

The three steps do not present a problem to most riders. For those who have trouble negotiating steps, there is a handrail.

I visited Israel a few weeks ago, and had occasion to take the train from Bet Shemesh.  As I waited for my train, I also indulged in people watching.  I noticed a pair of young women — both about 14-years-old — who stood beside that handrail, deep in conversation with each other. They formed a neat contrast. The  one nearest the handrail was black, wearing a black sweatshirt, with the legend in big white letters: “What has been is nothing compared to what is to come.”  Her friend was a pale blonde, wearing a blouse and short skirt more or less the color of her hair.

As the two girls chatted, a woman — I guess about 80-years-old — shuffled towards toward the handrail. Judging by her clothing, I think the elderly woman was Haredi. She certainly wore a version of the Haredi uniform. She got closer and closer to the handrail, but she could not get to it without some accommodation by the young conversationalists, who appeared not to notice her at all.

Maybe I missed the negotiation, maybe the next act happened without negotiation. Next time I noticed this drama, the Haredi woman had a firm grasp on the blond girl’s bare arm, and used it to steady herself as she navigated the three steps. When she got to the bottom, she let go of the girl’s arm, bobbed her head at the girl, and smiled. The girl returned the smile, and then turned back to conversing with her friend.

That is what I saw.

What to make of it? I do not know, exactly. It seemed a kind of intimacy with a stranger in public that would not happen in America. Would anyone presume to grasp the arm of a stranger in America? Would the stranger accept her role as helper without protest?

I think we in America have layers of insulation to keep us from interacting with people we do not know, and especially to protect us from people who represent different populations. In Israel — at least, in that one train station in Israel — one old religious (I guess) lady and one young secular (I guess) woman anticipated doing without much insulation.

It looked as if they both felt satisfied with their interaction. I did not ask them.

Clearly, Israel is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman currently resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Until recently, he taught Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and served as half the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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