Half past four, erev Shabbat, Jerusalem: There was no chance I was walking all the way to the shuk in that unbearable heat. I’d come from Giv’at Shmuel, where the hot air doesn’t move, to Jerusalem of mountain breeze. I’d come for some relief. Not just from the sweat, but from the azakot, the sirens that blare there at least once a day, commanding us into cover from Hamas rockets. My friend, who is serving in miluim in the south, let me stay in her empty studio apartment in Nachlaot. I was thankful, but my joy was contained. I wished she could spend Shabbat with me.
I was tired, hot, and still needed to get to the shuk to buy the ingredients needed for a simple rice and lentil dish I’d planned on making. I was just heading to the bus stop, when a taxi drove by. The driver saw me, sensed my fatigue, and slowed down. Although my head was overheated, my brain automatically registered his features: dark hair and dark skin; he was Arab. Then I stored the information in the back of my hot head, gave into my fatigue, and got into the taxi.
“L’shuk“, I told him.
“Thirty-five shekels is okay?”
“Ken.” I had no strength to argue. Besides, thirty-five shekels from Emek Refaim to Nachlaot seemed reasonable.
“It’s very hot today. Impossible to walk all the way in this heat,” I said. I was thirsty for human contact. Talking has become a necessity these days; talking about the rockets, the sirens, the bombed and broken Aza families, the tunnels, and the young soldiers. The world is too much with me. But I can’t flee into the forest like Wordsworth; I need to talk.
“Ken, very hot,” he agreed.
He asked me where exactly I needed to be dropped off. Traffic was tempered, hot like the air. A driver cut his way in front of us, hoping to outsmart the inevitable waiting that awaited him.
“Unbelievable. Driving in Jerusalem is a fight for survival. I hope you didn’t get your license here,” the taxi driver laughed. Had his brain also registered my features, and concluded that I am an olah, not native to Israel? Or did my Hebrew-of-six-years give away my Dutch origin?
“No, thank God. I got my license in Petach Tikva. But it would’ve been better if I’d gotten it in Holland,” I laughed. I was ready to break down the barriers, the fears that drive us.
“You’re from Holland? Your Hebrew is perfect.”
“Todah. Not really, but thanks.”
“Holland’s a great place, isn’t it? Why would you come here, to live in this balagan, this mess?” He wasn’t just referring to Israeli traffic.
“I’m wondering the same thing lately,” I laughed. “My mother asks me to come home every day. I was in a skype-call with her when the first siren went off. I had just told her war was breaking out. Miskena, poor woman.”
“Where do you live?”
“In Giv’at Shmuel. I never thought the rockets would make it that far.”
“Aish, such a balagan. We should see peace soon.”
We spoke about Israel, Holland, driving and peace. I told him I wished I spoke Arabic. That week I decided Israel really is my home and I’m staying; after six years there’s no going back. But if I’m staying here, I need to learn Arabic.
“Language connects people. You speak my tongue, but I don’t speak yours. It creates an unnecessary barrier,” I said.
“We can speak; we’re speaking right now,” he laughed. “But I hear what you’re saying.”
He started telling me about his family and job, when we arrived at my destination. He gave me a discount, because I was such a chamuda, a sweetheart.
“Thanks so much. What’s your name?”
“Naji.” His green eyes sparkled.
“Naim meod, Naji. It’s a pleasure.”
“Hashem yevarech otach,” he said. May God bless you.
“Inshallah,” I replied. God willing.
He spoke my tongue, and I spoke his. God’s blessing comes in many languages. I got out of the taxi, feeling lighter somehow. When later I looked up the meaning of the name Naji, I found it originated from Africa and meant ‘saved’ or ‘rescued.’ I smiled, because my name means ‘redemption.’
That evening Jerusalem enveloped me with her cool breeze. I felt less sweaty, less hot headed. I realized next week would be Shabbat Nachamu; the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, which is the day Jews mourn the destruction of the Second Temple. Nachama means ‘comfort’ in Hebrew. Jews pray for God to comfort the Jewish people; nachamu ami. I wanted to pray for the families of the young soldiers who have been killed in combat, defending our people. I wanted to pray for comfort, but not just for the Jewish people. I wanted to pray for all of us. For all the mothers and fathers who have lost their sons and daughters; for all of us living in fear.
I wanted to pray, but I couldn’t. Still I opened my siddur, my prayer book, just to get a feel of the pages. It had been a while. My fingertips slid past ancient words of praise and supplication, and then stopped at a passage I’d never seen before: “B’chol goyim yeshuatecha; v’leumim b’aretz tenachem selah. Your redemption is for all nations. Comfort the nations of the land.” I closed my eyes and let out a deep sigh. And then I finally let go of the tears I’d been holding back all this time. I finally could cry for everyone. I could mourn and feel comforted at the same time, knowing that my God is the God of mankind, and He cries for all of us.
“Todah. Thank you,” I whispered.