Jerusalem of Scowls

In Jerusalem the preferred greeting for strangers is the averted eye and the scowl. 

Not that I’m unfamiliar with these, of course.  I’ve spent time in Brooklyn, where trying to make eye contact with strangers is a near-capital offense (“Who you lookin’ at?”)  But I guess I’ve been in Boston too long, where convention calls for greeting people who walk by with a smile and a nod.  You get in the habit of expecting a nod and smile in return.  These small gestures mean nothing personal, nothing at all really, unless they aren’t there.  So it takes practice to not expect them.

In Boston you can watch former Russians practicing the opposite.  Like many Europeans, Russians mostly don’t smile unless they’re happy.  Many of them think Americans are grinning fools for doing otherwise.  But when they find themselves fetched up among us grinners (reverse pun intended), they learn that poker faces make them seem grim and unfriendly even when they’re not.  So they try to look genial.  Often their lips smile, but not their eyes.  It’s hard to learn new languages later in life, with words or without.

In Jerusalem averted eyes are not limited to passersby in the street.  On my recent visit I ran into an old friend and recent oleh who now lives in a neighborhood with many Anglos.  “Have you found a shul to daven at?” I asked him.

“An interesting question,” he replied.

“Why interesting?”

“I found a shul around the corner,” he said.  They have no levi’im, so they call me up to the Torah a lot.  But they won’t look at me.”

I laughed, having experienced the same thing a few years ago when I wandered into a Jerusalem bet knesset on Shabbat morning.  The accents of the shlichei tzibbur and event announcers were American, yet I left at the end marveling at how they’d honored me with an aliya without looking at me.  How did they manage that?  The gabbai had signaled with the impassive finesse of a third-base coach calling for a hit-and-run.  Neat.

In the US many shul communities serve as refuge from the isolated anonymity of urban life.  Gentiles and non-traditional Jews express astonishment that a family can just move into a new town and find itself enveloped at once by strangers offering play dates for the kids and more lunch invitations than there are lunches.  Co-workers and fellow school parents don’t often do things like that, which is why so many folks bowl alone.  American synagogues thus serve some of the same functions as Cheers (also in Boston!): a place where everybody knows your name, only with dues.

But most Israeli batei knesset are more narrowly functional.  On my recent visit to Jerusalem I attended morning minyanim most days in a neighborhood shul and, except for a couple of people I knew from elsewhere, made eye contact with no one.  But why should anyone look?  They were all rushing off to work and would notice a stranger, if they noticed one at all, as just another in the shifting swarm of transients who presumably spend their days inflating local real-estate values and whiling away afternoons eating waffles and  drinking lattes on Emek Refaim or Derekh Bet Lekhem.

Jerusalem can be a tough town.  A gentleman of my vintage passed through Boston on business not long ago and came for lunch.  He had made aliya from the Midwest.  “We’ve been renting,” he told me, “but we had to move.  It’s really good that we found a place right nearby.  Most people are pretty set with their own family and circle of friends.  It’s taken us ten years to make the couple of good friends we have.  At this stage of life, I’m honestly not sure that in a new neighborhood we could start all over again.”

There is a slight, graying man who stands all day in the alley next to where we stay.  He is the shamash of the small Moroccan bet knesset on the ground floor, and he doesn’t seem to have much to do but open the doors for tefillah morning and evening and drink coffee.  I’ve passed him and nodded dozens of times.  By now he recognizes me and nods back.

When he saw me loading our luggage into the taxi, he came over and said, in Hebrew, “Good journey.  May you have an opportunity to come back again soon to our land.”

I thanked him and said I hoped the same.  You can be overlooked, or looked through, anywhere in the world.  But being dismissed by strangers is nothing remarkable.  In Jerusalem the averted eyes are our averted eyes.  And the scowls—those are ours too.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts