Don’t Go Into the Light (Rail)

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At least not without a suit of armour.

I used to view the light rail the same way that I did Waze: a wonderful example of Israel’s technological prowess and innovation. Truly, Am Yisrael Chai and all that. I also had no intention of ever using it.

Fast forward to this year. As a Bat Sherut and an Olah Chadasha fresh off the boat, the light rail has become my home away from home. I think I spend at least a third of my day there. This is a huge change for me. Growing up, the closest I’d ever gotten to public transport was–and this was only on rare occasions–carpool. Now I commute to and from the Old City every day. I have racked up so many miles on the light rail that I should be given an award. (Or at least, a plaque in my favorite spot in the back).

Truth be told, anyone who manages to board should get an award. It doesn’t matter what time of day I get on that light rail, (and it doesn’t help that I use it during rush hour). It is always packed to the brim. I’m convinced that it leaves the light rail station with a crowd of people as part of the regulations from the Ministry of Transport. This crowd never disappears. Every time I attempt to make it on, this huge mob of people are blocking the door. “Slicha, Slicha!” I yell, trying to sound like an authoritative native but just squeaking feebly. People shake their heads at my folly at wait for it – trying to get on. No one budges.

I learned this the hard way the first Friday that I tried to take the light rail to the Tachana Merkazit. It was pouring with rain, and there were so many people aboard that it took me a few minutes to locate the entrance. I dramatically tried to thrust myself through the closing doors, getting completely stuck in the process. I stood there, my torso wedged inside the door until someone politely informed me that the doors are electronic and are thus immune to my panic at missing the bus. This rush of adrenaline, of trying to board the train, of plunging through the sea of humanity, of drunkenly weaving my way down the aisle trying to find a place to stand and the terror of being suffocated has effectively cured me of every impulse I’ve ever had to do anything remotely dangerous.

At every stop, the automatic doors will glide open and this wave of people will come crashing on ( how do they do it?). Weary commuters returning from a long day of work, soldiers in uniform, grandmothers with bags of groceries, bewildered tourists eyeing the frenzy nervously- a confusing mass of sweaty limbs, sounds and smells. Seminary girls loudly discuss Shabbos plans, babies wail. Just when you think that there’s no way another person can come on, another ten do.

The packed insanity of the light rail is especially unique to me, as a South African. Personal space back in my hometown meant a genuine meter between every person. If someone were to brush up against you, they would apologize profusely- even if they happened to be your spouse. Here, personal space means thoughtfully not jamming your fingers into someone’s eyeball. I’ve spent many rides crammed in the corner, face pressed against strangers backs, thinking longingly of those times I used to see the sun. I wonder, not for the first time if I should take up camel riding.

Then, of course, are the blue-shirted ticket inspectors who check everyone’s Rav Kavs. Without warning, they will appear out of nowhere, and start striding down the train. (cue ominous Darth Vader music,) and you’ll hear the beep of their scanners and the telltale bark, “Kartisim, bevakasha!”

When the inspectors come down the aisle, I always feel this deep panic and irrational urge to flee. This is ludicrous. I always scan my Rav Kav as soon as I board, on autopilot and as a Bat Sherut transport is free anyway. Nevertheless, when these people who are just doing their jobs come down the aisle towards me, I start making plans to escape into the crowd and start a new life in Peru as a fugitive.

However, there are times when even I- the public transport cynic, can see the beauty of the light rail and its unique Israeli flavor. It’s the Jerusalem skyline, slowly coming into view as we cross the bridge. The woman standing by the ticket scanner who will patiently ring up everyone’s Rav Kavs pressed on her by a hundred hands. The way people will automatically leap to offer their seats to pregnant women and the elderly. The time I saw an older Charedi woman and a young man in a Kippa srugah arguing over the lone vacant seat- each trying to get the other to sit.

I think of one afternoon, a regular sticky ride back from work when a little old woman hobbled onto the train. She was crippled, and leaned on her two canes, gesticulating wildly for a seat. I watched in disbelief. A minute ago, there hadn’t been room to flex a toe. Now, like a miracle, the wall of people parted like the Red Sea to give the woman room. Two girls urged her to sit. A Yeshiva bochur waited patiently for her to step away from the Rav Kav machine so he could scan his card. She soon had a captive audience gathered around her, who were indulgently listening to her stories about her day, her appointments and her plans for the evening.

Two stops later, the silver beast shuddered to a halt and the woman got off, with many shouts of “Erev Tov! Shabbat Shalom!” accompanying her. She was beaming. Not a soul pushed or shoved. They all waited patiently for her to safely leave, before instantly resuming the mad crush.

I felt awed, a little ashamed and proud. As my stop came into view, I gently disengaged myself from someone’s handbag and stepped into the Jerusalem evening, with a little more appreciation for how I’d gotten there.

About the Author
Tehilla Katz made aliya from South Africa and is currently doing her year of national service. When she's not weightlifting or writing, she spends her time pretending she speaks more Hebrew than she does. (Fooling absolutely no-one.)
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