Last night I was sitting on a bus stop bench in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. I was out of breath and wheezing from a bad bout of pneumonia I am still getting over the remains of when a young woman of about 20 on the bench shifted herself away from me. The New Yorker in me thought she was moving away because she was disgusted or afraid of the maybe homeless middled-aged man sitting next to her. So, I was shocked when instead she said, “are you ok, adoni. I have some water. Do you want some?”
When I said, “no, thank you,” she did not give up. She kept asking me if I was ok and needed help, even switching into English to make sure I understood her.
The only help I really needed at that point was for the bus to come and there was nothing she could do to help that happen. But I was deeply touched by her effort. I thought of my own daughter, not yet two years old, and hoped she would grow up to be like this young Yisraelit, someone able to recognize the suffering around them and be willing to try and help.
This is not the first time I’ve experienced this incredible helpfulness in this country, and, in a typically Israeli impulse, been offered water. Once it happened in Tel Aviv when I was suddenly ill and vomited by a tree on a busy street. A waiter from a nearby restaurant who “did not know me from Adam” asked me if I was ok and offered me water.
This is the Jerusalem and the Israel I know. So a recent New York Times story entitled “Jerusalem: It’s Tense, Crowded and Can Feel Like a Jail” felt particularly unfair and one-sided to me.
It seemed to me a particularly NY Times kind of tunnel vision, as if they wrote a story about New York City, but only talked to people in Manhattan — that is, it’s true that if you only talk to people in Palestinian areas or parts of Jerusalem that are adjacent to Palestinian areas — like the area outside the Damascus Gate — you could easily get such an impression of Jerusalem. It can be a very tough and confrontational city (in ways often not too dissimilar from New York’s streets, despite Jerusalem being such a smaller city). Getting on the local buses at the Central Bus Station during rush hour (well, almost anytime) is one of my least favorite things to do, and the buses, with their narrow frames and high G-force turns, can be crowded in a way that makes NYC subways look like a cake walk.
So, the NY Times story was not all wrong. We do live on a fault line here — the fault line between what we used to call the Third and the First worlds, and that leads to everyday tensions on top of the well-known potential of terrorism.
But, day-to-day, that’s not where/how most of us here in Jerusalem live. Even in areas of the city where most people live below the poverty line — like some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods — street crime is almost unknown. Basic services like water and electricity are reliable. There is bus service to get everywhere. Healthcare is universal.
And then there are the people. Not just the one young woman of compassion I met at the bus stop. But all the people who came here to learn, to pursue their relationship with Judaism, with the people Israel and with God. They make this a city of dreams, giving it — along with its beautiful Jerusalem Stone — a golden glow that is both actual and metaphoric.
I love it here.