Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem

Lag B’Omer on the Light Rail

So today was Lag B’omer – commemorating the end of a plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, symbolizing a day of relief and even, maybe joy.

And I’m not going to lie to you: finding joy isn’t always easy these days. Things  are tough here, and sometimes, it feels like we are living through a plague – there is a heaviness in the air, a density that makes our eyes well up and our throat constrict randomly when a sad song comes on the radio, or we pass a poster with Hersh or Noa or the Bibas family, or just, out of nowhere the pall of grief can hit because it’s always circling, but today the sky was blue and there was a cool breeze flitting through the streets, and my daughter and I decided to make a day of it in the Holy City.

She just turned sixteen, and sometimes you need a day of fun. (“Janice and Joey’s Day of Fun!” — she’s at the age where I cheerfully annoy her, so it fits. IYKYK)

I picked her up from the bus – and LOL, without coordinating ahead of time, we were matching — long white skirts, camisoles. We are way more similar than either of us can admit some days… and while I watched her cross the street toward me, my same loping walk, the same lift to her chin,  I remembered who also wore the same kind of skirt: my mother. I looked up at the sky, and smiled. “Thanks,” I whispered.

It was a good moment. A break from the gravity well of grief we are sucked into these days .

We had coffee in the shuk. Breakfast at Tmol. Wandered down Jaffa Road. Found worn seashells and healing stones in one shop, old records and a really cute sundress in another … made friends with a guy named Pinchas who was born in the Old Country of Brooklyn and didn’t learn English til he was six, a barista with a nose ring and pink hair, an aggressively friendly cat with one eye.

But the best was getting on the light rail – ok, the best was spending time with my daughter, obv, but let me tell you what happened.

The light rail is a microcosm of the Holy City… wafting like the wind in a deep canyon along the seam between east and west , it wends through Jerusalem, connecting everyone… in spite of our divisions, in spite of the tensions between secular and religious and Jewish and Arab, it gives us an opportunity to share space. Very close space. Like “oh I recognize that deodorant” space… and today, because of lag b’omer, as thousands of religious Jews arrived to celebrate, the train was even more packed than usual. Like we’re talking sardines in a can packed .

But we were late (she had a bus to catch) – and even though the driver did his very best to shut the doors on us, with the help of a tiny octogenarian who later told us her name is MAZAL – luck – we pushed open the doors and squeezed in.

“I don’t want to crowd anyone,” I said, as I tried to fold myself as small as possible.

“Mami, you can’t let the men push you around! Take space!”

A haredi woman in a sheitel nodded. “Nu, take your place.”

“Yeah mom,” my daughter said.

So we did.

But there was no way to swipe our card, so the guy next to the machine – Palestinian, young, hair slicked up like a soccer player – offered to swipe our cards for us. “Fish muskela – no problem” he said when we thanked him.

We made it to her bus on time. She even hugged me. Her skirt made a whoosh whoosh sound as she turned toward the bus and waved goodbye. I know that sound. My skirt does the same. So did my moms.
I looked up at the ceiling – the sky just beyond.

“Thanks,” I said again.

On the way back from dropping her off, the train was just as full, but I channeled Mazal and with the ferocity of a lion and the dexterity  of a wildebeest, I lunged on the train.

This time, the guy by the card machine was Haredi, probably on his way to the grave of Shimon HaTsadik for Lag B’Omer. He beckoned to me to give him my card, I handed it over, and he put it through.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” he said.

He smiled. I smiled.

We both held our space in the crowded train, our arms barely touching – mine covered in tattoos, his covered in a black jacket.

We didn’t speak, but nodded to each other when we disembarked and went our separate ways.

Lag B’Omer marks the end of a plague that, according to tradition, killed 12,000 students of Rabbi Akiva during the Omer period due to their lack of respect for one another and a breakdown in civil discourse. The plague is said to have ceased on Lag B’Omer, making it a day of relief and celebration within the mourning period.

We in Jerusalem are still mourning October 7. The divisions that helped lead to this catastrophe are still there, even though we are repairing the rifts between us, little by little – we are mending our tent. Still, this city is often fraught between our different communities, and tensions will flare between us. But today, on the train, all in it together, noses to armpits, taking our place and sharing this space , there was a reprieve.

I look up at the sky. “Thanks.”


About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.