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The courage to be Israeli

Unlike her Israeli friends, she doesn't have to summon all her courage to board a train
Illustrative photo of a light-rail train in Prague. (Photo credit: Prague tram image via Shutterstock)
Illustrative photo of a light-rail train in Prague. (Photo credit: Prague tram image via Shutterstock)

I love that train, the Jerusalem Light Rail, where the lovely 21-year old British woman was murdered last Friday by a suicidal man. It reminds me of old trams that used to run through the heart of just about every major city in Russia and in Europe.

Jerusalem’s is a fancier version of that tram, to be sure – a very modern one, in fact. But there is still that same homey feeling about it. There is that comforting clickety-clack sound of train wheels passing over rail joints. There is the more leisurely, “humane” speed compared to a car without the tedium of traffic jams. And there is the added bonus of being able to review life passing outside the window and inside the train. And it’s hard to imagine a city where local life is as varied in form, substance, costume, custom, headgear, hair style, footwear, and accessory – religious and otherwise – as it is in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s tram-train sweeps through the city in a zig-zaggy line that looks on a map like a 23-point constellation. It starts out in the city’s northeastern corner, passes Mount Scopus, loops briefly around Old City walls, runs the length of Jaffa Street, and drops off in the southwest at Mount Herzl. For tourists, it’s a quick way to get to attractions – the Damascus Gate, the Mahane Yehudah market, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. For locals, it’s a way to get, quickly and inexpensively, to university, the market, the central bus station, or simply to meet a friend at a café.

The last time I took that train, I was granted a bonus of a kind: I got to see what happens when you try to catch a free ride. The culprit? Myself.

The truth is, I really didn’t mean to cheat. I simply forgot that the only way to buy a ticket was from ticket dispensers at the train stop. More truthfully? I didn’t really forget. I was just running late, I couldn’t make the machine work, and as the train arrived, I told myself that surely, in this city visited by millions of people, there should be additional opportunities to pay for your ride. Surely one should be able to do it right on the train.

From Ammunition Hill, where I boarded, to Jaffa Center, where I needed to go, it was a short, five-stop ride. I quickly realized that there was no way to purchase fare inside the train. But five stops? What are the chances of anyone coming by to check? And if they did, surely I should be able to either buy a ticket from them (that’s how I remember it worked on trams back in Russia, um, 35 years ago?) – or else talk them into forgiving this friendly foreigner.

The fare inspector was a young Israeli woman, who within moments disabused me of whatever notions I entertained about how ticket sales should be organized in her country. She had no tickets to sell, and she didn’t see why my incorrect assumptions (or foreignness) needed to be indulged. “Why didn’t you get off the train when you saw that you couldn’t get the ticket here?” she demanded. Telling her that I was running late clearly wasn’t going to impress her. I put on my bravest face: “I thought I could get one from you.” “Well, you can’t. You should have gotten off the train.”

Her logic was unassailable. I visualized her in ZAHAL uniform guarding the borders of the Jewish state. I was clearly no match for her. Her male colleague, who soon joined the scene, seemed more willing to go soft on a foreigner, but by the time he arrived, it was too late: she had dug in and wasn’t going to lose face by retreating from her positions. I surrendered: my stop was fast approaching, and the last thing I wanted was to let the train carry me off to Mount Herzl while I argued with the inspectors. I offered to pay the fine on the spot.

I am sure the passengers enjoyed the semi-comical scene that ensued, as the apprehended free-rider (myself) tried to help the two enforcement officers grapple with their portable credit card device. “Maybe press this button? No, this card really should work, I just used it this morning…” I intoned, nervously glancing out the window to see how much time I had before my stop.

The machine refused to cooperate. The young woman, irritated further by the embarrassment of technical failure at this critical moment, pulled out her ticket booklet. Pressing so hard I feared she might tear holes in the paper, she scribbled out a ticket, ripped it out and handed it to me just as the train pulled up to Jaffa Center. She walked off in a huff to look for her next victim, and I got off the train with a 200-shekel ticket in hand.

But I felt more amused than annoyed. In a strange way, being part of this scene fused me, for a few brief moments, into the matrix of the city. An elderly Jewish woman with a classic Jerusalem wrap around her head got off together with me. “They shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “You are a visitor in our country!” She had wanted to argue on my behalf, she said, but her daughter told her to be quiet and not get involved for a change.

I told her not to worry. I didn’t mind leaving money in Israel, I said. Let it help the city, the railway company, let it help this young woman with a chip on her shoulder keep her job.

The woman looked me straight in the eye. “God bless you,” she said and disappeared into the bustle of Jaffa Street.

And there it was, in those few dizzying moments – the heady brew of toughness, kindness, love, compassion, personal involvement – and an understanding like no other between two strangers – that is the essence of what Israel is to me.

As I read the accounts of last Friday’s murder on the train that I love so much, I was reminded not just of that episode but of the strange privilege that those of us who are Jews living outside of Israel have.

We have Jerusalem in our lives. We have Israel in our lives. We benefit from that connection all the time, even though most of us don’t think about it. As a Soviet Jew, I am especially aware that it was, to a very considerable degree, thanks to Israel’s existence that my family was able to exit that version of Mitzraim. I am also continuously aware that it is thanks to the existence of Israel that we are no longer a powerless people we used to be just the length of a human life ago.

And yet this morning, it wasn’t me who had to summon all my courage to board that train. Unlike my Israeli friends, I didn’t have to break through my fears just to keep going about my business. It wasn’t I who had to face the fragility of my life and the life of my loved ones or to contemplate the possibility of reality as I know it ending at any moment.

It is Israelis who pay that price on behalf of the rest of us. Israelis’ trademark toughness comes from living that reality, day in and day out. It is this kind of living that creates that alchemy of no-nonsense hardiness and a capacity for love and joy that is uniquely Israeli. And it exerts its price – a price that is far higher than the 200 shekels I paid thanks to the diligence of the tough inspector of the Jerusalem Light Rail company.

I know I’ll be going back soon. And next time make no mistake about it: I’ll be boarding that train with a ticket in hand. Miss Tough Inspector, I learned my lesson. Next time, I’ll leave my 200 shekels somewhere else.

About the Author
Izabella Tabarovsky is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. She grew up in Russia, has lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, and travels frequently to Israel. She works at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory of the Holocaust and Stalin's repressions in the former Soviet Union. Her writings have appeared in Newsweek, The Tablet Magazine, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post Ivrit, The Wilson Quarterly, Kennan Cable, Russia File, and Science and Diplomacy, among others. The views expressed here are her own.
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