In my first college Hebrew class, we read a book of short stories called “And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories,” by Yossel Birstein. While I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending an entire semester reading someone who wasn’t as recognizable as Agnon or Bialik, what challenged me most was why Birstein had written an entire book about buses. I didn’t understand what could possibly compel someone to string stories together on the sole commonality that they all somehow relate to buses. What I didn’t know as I read Birstein, however, was that he and my Hebrew professor were not only preparing me to tackle Hebrew academic writing, but also the centrality of the bus in Israel.
It seems like such a banal thing — a bus ride. You get on, you give the driver your Rav-Kav or cash, and then you sit or stand until you reach your destination. And perhaps to some people that experience is banal. To me, however, riding the bus is truly defining to my time in Israel.
I came to Israel with Taglit. We toured the country on coach buses, lifted above the land and not immersed in it. After Taglit, I had about 10 days of nomadism. During that time, I had my first true collision with the Israeli bus system:
I had to get from Jerusalem to the South. In order to do this, I had to go to the Tachanat Merkazit in Jerusalem. When I arrived for the very first time at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I was instantly overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite floors of overstimulation and jewelers.
I bought falafel and then went over to the information desk, begging the woman behind the glass to help me get to a place I could barely pronounce. She sold me a ticket and pointed me in the direction of my bus. There were about twenty minutes before my bus was set to depart, so I went off in search of a bathroom. I found the bathroom, dismayed and confused that it was barred by a turnstile and a one-shekel charge.
A woman behind me asked if I had a shekel to spare, and I pulled out two so that we could both pass through the turnstile and relieve our anxious bladders. As I left the bathroom, I couldn’t seem to figure out how to exit the turnstile. A young man tried to explain to me how to exit, first in Hebrew, and then in English. Once I was successfully free, he asked if I had a shekel. I told him that I didn’t, not because I was positive that I didn’t have any change left, but because I couldn’t miss my bus. I apologized to the man and waited for my bus for five more minutes, during which time the same man from the turnstile showed up. He was on my bus, because as I learned, the country is strategically small enough for ironic coincidences like that to happen.
I made it to the South in one piece and had a lovely time. On my way back to Jerusalem, I stopped in Tel Aviv to grab brunch at Benedict’s with a friend. In order to enter Tel Aviv, I got the traumatic pleasure of my first introduction to the Tachanat Merkazit in Tel Aviv. It’s funny to look back on my first experience in Jerusalem, thinking about how overwhelmed I was by the bustle and apparent seediness of the station. If I had only been to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station first, maybe I would’ve been appreciative for the Jerusalem station.
If you’ve never been to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, or if you haven’t been there in thirty years (@mom @dad), then let me attempt to describe it to you: it is a massive structure, built for the sole purpose of traumatizing young, American travelers. There are maybe 8(?) floors, accessible by stairs, escalators, and elevators. However, there are also sporadic ramps that lead to other floors, because the architect clearly had a proclivity for labyrinths. Aside from the actual buses and unhelpful information desks, the station is filled with a slew of capitalistic ventures similar to that of Jerusalem’s station, just with a certain air of sketch and misplacement to them that Jerusalem could only ever try to imitate. There are tattoo and piercing parlors, jewelers, travel agencies, I think a pet store, an Aroma, and the types of shops that have the same suppliers as the tchotchke stands at the Shuk. I’ve seen a guitar on sale for 250 shekels and I’ve bought a falafel with too much cabbage in it. The Tachanat Merkazit in Tel Aviv is one of the most unique and indisputably worst places I have encountered in Israel. But with just a backpack and tote bag, it’s manageable. I survived my first trip there, even after roaming between floors four and six for a half hour until I located my connecting bus. My second trip to the Tachanat was not as breezy.
Two days before I moved into my summer apartment, I was making the schlep from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv with all of the items I had brought for the summer. This included: my giant L.L. Bean rolling duffle bag that could barely close due to its fullness, an overweight over-the-shoulder duffle bag, and my trusty backpack. Three bags; two Central Bus Stations; one American girl who is accustomed to lugging her life and twice her weight around in luggage (thank you Tulane #rollwave). Getting my big duffle off and on the Light Rail was a miracle I’m still awed by to this day, but getting it through the Jerusalem station wasn’t nearly as impressive. What was impressive was how I somehow got in and out of the Tel Aviv Tachanat Merkazit with all of my luggage and all my sanity intact, with my phone battery at 34% and steadily dropping.
I exited the building and found my desired bus stop. I waited for the 5 for ten minutes, but when it finally arrived, the driver just passed by me. Thus, I waited for another 5. It came and I tried to get on, an act that the driver downright refused to accept. He told me that I couldn’t come on and drove away. I asked a woman also waiting for a bus what the issue was, and she hypothesized that maybe my bag was too big—but I could take a sheirut. So I tried to hail a sheirut, but to no avail. The woman said that I was going to have to call a cab. I didn’t have any cash, which forced me to finally cave and download Gett. I got into my cab (refer to this post for my thoughts on cabs), frazzled that my phone was down to 19% and that I couldn’t get on a bus. But I made it through my second encounter with the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, no small feat for a lone American of my stature.
Since those two visits, I went back to the Tel Aviv Tachanat Merkazit on four more occasions. Luckily, I wasn’t alone on those trips, making the station slightly less overwhelming, but still daunting, nonetheless. I went to the South and back once more, and then I returned to Jerusalem. On my way into the Tel Aviv station en route to the holy city, I attempted to take a Snapchat to document the journey. The security guard outside wasn’t in favor of my expression of millennialism and promptly asked me to delete the video and put my phone away. As I’ve learned, arguing with anybody in Israel isn’t the smartest idea—especially if they have a gun. Thus, I deleted my video, waiting until we had entered the premises to record my dear travel companion comparing the Tachanat to “South Shore Plaza – grungy, dirty!”
When we arrived at the Jerusalem station, my friend got the impression that I wish I had received: she viewed the Tachanat Merkazit in Jerusalem as a sanctuary of class and cleanliness, as she had met the greater of two evils first. She had the opportunity to appreciate the Jerusalem station, for she had already encountered true trauma a mere hour and a half prior.
Aside from the stations themselves, one of the things that particularly fascinates me about buses are their drivers:
Bus drivers are an institution. I have the utmost respect for those who are able to multitask by safely driving like maniacs, all the while managing to mentally calculate and dispense change and give directions to screaming Russian men. Even before security guards with guns, bus drivers are not to be messed with.
I’ve seen a bus driver bump a biker, and the biker apologize for being in the way. On my last trip to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, I witnessed an exchange between the bus driver and a soldier who didn’t hold out his identification card for long enough. Essentially, the soldier flipped out his ID and walked onto the bus, which the bus driver would not tolerate because he thought the soldier had an attitude problem. The soldier could not have been more apologetic, for while he was the one with a gun, the bus driver was the one behind the wheel.
I was once on a bus, talking on the phone to my father about something trivial or maybe about something I thought was significant at the time. The bus driver asked what language I was speaking in. I responded in Hebrew and he told me to move or get off the phone because I was speaking too loudly. I was utterly livid, but I ended the call and only resumed once I had reached my destination, not one to push the man in charge of my immediate fate.
In addition to bus drivers, the passengers are also one of the most integral parts of the public transport experience in Israel. I took the bus to and from my internship four days a week for almost two months. In that time, I experienced the full gamut of Israeli bus-goers. On my bus into work from Bat Yam to Jaffa, I often overheard Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, English, and occasionally French being spoken. I only understood two of the languages, reminding me of my linguistic limitations.
On the last night of Ramadan, I was on a bus, leaving Tel Aviv. Traffic in Jaffa headed to Bat Yam was at a standstill, and my bus was packed with broken air conditioning. In that moment, I hated the Israeli public transport system, but I also felt connected to everyone on that bus. We were all suffering through the July heat together, just trying to make it to our stop without passing out or melting in a puddle of our own sweat.
Riding the bus is a collective act. People don’t ignore each other, but rather engage and overly insert themselves into one another’s lives. For example, whenever there are children on a bus, the children are not just the parents’ responsibility, but rather a communal effort. If a child is squirming out of their carriage, trying to escape, an old Russian woman will be the first to strap them right back into their seat. Or if a kid is toddling around on a bus, someone will reach out and grab their hand to ensure that they don’t go tumbling when the bus takes a sharp turn. No one hesitates to take responsibility for children on buses, for in this country with borders but no boundaries, one Israeli child is a child of all of Israel. At times, the responsibility of children is over imposed, like when I was once asked if a child in a carriage was mine, just because I happened to be standing nearby. This was supposed to be my first child-free summer, yet thanks to the Israeli bus system, I got more than my fix of the unripened humans.
When riding the bus, I was always acutely aware of my Americanness – which is another irony of riding the bus, for until opening one’s mouth, all are assumed to be Israeli. I was on a bus in Tel Aviv, about to get off when I noticed a guy wearing a UMass Amherst sweatshirt. “Do you go to UMass?” I asked him. Startled, he turned to me and said, “Yeah.” I then learned that he was on a program similar to my own, though affiliated with Boston. Had I not opened my mouth, he could’ve gone his entire life assuming that I wasn’t who I am.
I don’t think that I look overtly American, save for some of my fashion choices, like the occasional pairing of socks and sandals or if I’m dressed in my trash workout clothes. Because of this, most people in Israel assumed that I was not American. I cannot count the amount of times I was approached for directions in Hebrew. I don’t consider myself a particularly approachable person, but in this boundary-less land, everyone is approachable, whether they want to be or not. I’ve been asked when the bus is coming more times than I’ve consumed falafel, which I think may be due in part to the fact that I always had my phone out when waiting for the bus, closely watching Moovit for bus arrival updates. Old Russian women and young children recognized the power I held in my hand, something that probably would’ve made Birnstein’s stories much simpler and far more boring.
During my last time at the Tel Aviv Tachanat Merkazit, I passed an English-speaking woman being harassed in Hebrew about where she needed to go. I stopped to tell the man trying to help her that I could help, and he then yelled at me in Hebrew about where she needed to go. I nodded at the man and smiled, whipping out my phone and asking the woman where she wanted to get to. She explained her situation and I asked if she had cell reception or Moovit, both of which were negatives (and her main problems). Thus, I utilized my cell reception and Moovit app to route where she needed to go. As it turned out, the Israeli man had been yelling the correct information at her, but my American accent delivered the directions in a much less forceful manner.
I’ve given a Spanish couple directions, directed an Indian woman to her new apartment, and even tried to help an American high school student get to the beach, despite his reluctance to take my advice. I always thought it was funny being asked for directions, because my only advantage from my fellow uninformed bus-goer was that I had cell reception, an app, and a base knowledge of the greater Tel Aviv area.
Despite my moderate mastery of the Israeli bus system, I faced my fair share of challenges when dealing with the bus. For example, it took me nearly two weeks before I realized that you have to press the “stop” button if you want the bus to drop you off at your intended destination. That breakthrough was truly monumental for me. I also dealt with a reasonable amount of anxiety relating to transfers and missing the right bus. Oftentimes I experienced confusion about the physical location of a bus stop, thinking that it was sooner than it actually was and subsequently annoying the driver as I asked why they weren’t stopping. I tried (on multiple occasions) to get a Kav Lilah and failed. I also tried to not laugh every time the stop “Penis” was announced and failed. But I recognized my limitations, which is the first step to overcoming them.
While I experienced the challenges of the bus, I also gained a holistic understanding of why my entire college Hebrew curriculum was centered around the work of a man obsessed with buses. As it turns out, Birstein and my Hebrew professor were not the only ones fixated on buses. Whether intentionally or not, the bus is an institution important to all of Israel. In 2017, when some buses have USB ports, I can understand what would possess a country to hold buses to such high esteem, and perhaps I can even appreciate why buses were so heavily incorporated into my Hebrew education.