Avi Rockoff

Honey, I shrunk Jerusalem!

Where does that street lead to? A secret garden? The abyss? The Indies? You don’t know. You’re not from around here
Jerusalem city center. Nov 18 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Jerusalem city center. Nov 18 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In the year and a bit since we came on aliyah, Jerusalem has gotten smaller.

All right, not all of Jerusalem, just the parts we hang out in: Katamon, Rechavia, the center of town, Baka, Arnona, Talpiot.

And OK, even that part did not really shrink. It just feels that way.

Everyone knows that when you visit the spots where you grew up as a kid, things that seemed big look smaller. But a year-plus is not so long ago. And we were hardly kids then.

I have given this puzzle the kind of deep thought it deserves. And I want to share a likely explanation.

It starts with the Egged #13 bus.

We live in Katamon. Our ulpan was in Talpiot. Moovit, the indispensable travel app, directed us to the #13 bus, which stops right around the corner from our flat. 15 minutes. 12 stops. Seemed reasonable.

Here is the route of the Egged 13 bus:

Author photo

When agents in thrillers abduct a guy, they blindfold him and take this kind of route so the kidnappee won’t know where he went. Though we were not blindfolded, our bus ride on the #13 achieved the same goal. We careened around tight corners, squeezed through narrow streets, turned right, turned left, turned right again, passed a building with a golden dome on top that was not the Mosque of Omar, then headed left again, made a sweeping loop, and got off at the specified stop: the corner of HaUman and HaSadna Streets.

From there, thoroughly disoriented, we headed up a hill with no sidewalk on the right side and skirted cars waiting to enter auto-repair garages while trying not to be run over by drivers going up the street. At the top, we crossed over to a traffic circle and headed a couple of blocks past massive construction sites to our ulpan on General Pierre Kenig Street. We arrived intact.

Over time, we refined our route. We learned that we could get off one stop earlier and head up a curvy street that got us there faster. Or so we thought.

Author illiustration

A quick look at this diagram shows why it is so hard for newcomers to orient themselves here when few streets are at right angles. Jerusalem has no grid. Most streets bend this way and then that way. Some head off at acute angles, obtuse angles, or trace curious curves that would be hard to graph. It’s like geometry class, trying to figure out a triangle when you’re two-dimensional and flat on the page yourself.

Which is why those who are new end up not knowing where they’re at, where they’ve got to, or how to get anywhere at all.

This triggers a certain enchantment and wonder. You walk down a street. It intersects with another street. Where does that other street lead to? A secret garden? The abyss? The Indies? You don’t know. You’re not from around here.

Then you hang around town for a while. You go here, you go there. You do this, you do that. You see places, you read street signs.

Then you figure out that the mysterious street leads to your barber. He’s two blocks up. You didn’t realize that because you got to him by another route.

Alas, the end of enchantment. Also the end of disorientation. The world is less magical. And smaller.

The more you live here and walk around, the more you find that going places on foot can be shorter and more direct than by bus. And maybe faster. And happier for your step counter.

Better yet, shortcuts start to appear, like wormholes in spacetime. Soon after we got to Jerusalem, we were invited to the Aspaklaria Theater in First Station. Excited, we took the #91 bus to the Khan Theater on David Remez Street. Just 4 stops and a few minutes. But because it was dark, and the bus made a big loop at the end, we got off with no idea where we were.

Author photo

As instructed, we headed back up to Derech Beit Lechem. We passed the storage area behind the theater we were going to, but had no way to get through the fence. Back at the intersection, we turned left and made our way to our destination:

Author illustration

Going home, we naturally retraced our steps. And missed the bus. (Another one came, eventually.)

When we recounted our adventure sometime later, a local who knows the terrain asked, “Why didn’t you just go through the door?”

“The door? What door?”

“The door at the back of First Station.”

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This door. Easier to see in the daytime.

When you exit the back door, you see:

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The bus stop—right there! With two buses!

The long and the short of it:

Author illustration

Maybe the reason things look big to children is not that children are small, but because kids have no idea where they are or where they’re going.

Then they grow up. Less enchanted, perhaps. Also less lost.

The ancients were entranced by the stars. They looked up at the heavens and saw what may look to us like random clusters of tiny points of light and said, “Look—Orion the Hunter!  Look—a Big Bear!”

The most I could ever recognize up there was the Big Dipper. Sort of.

But lately I’ve been looking at Israeli bus routes, which have fired my imagination. I share some examples:

Shmulik Seahorse

Wikimedia Commons

Chatzkl Crab

Wikimedia Commons

But look!  See it, high in the sky?  It’s our 91 bus route to First Station!

Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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