Israel Stories and Tips

From a Bus Seat in Jerusalem

Theodore Herzl's Final Resting Place Photo, Jerusalem, Israel

During a memorable summer 25 years years ago, I took up temporary residence in the ageless city of Jerusalem. As a student (somewhat older than most) in the summer program at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, I quickly discovered that the ubiquitous Egged buses met all my needs for moving about the city--and beyond. The buses were cheap and easy, if not always dependable relative to their published timetables. Despite the buses' proclivity for running on "Jewish time," I thought nothing of hopping aboard for trips to Tel Aviv or Masada. As for Jerusalem itself, riding the buses gave me easy access to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, to the University Campus at Givat Ram and back again to Mount Scopus, to Mount Zion and Mount Herzl, to Hadassah Hospital with its Chagall Windows, to the Knesset and the Israel Museum, to the Rockefeller Museum, and to restaurants and cinemas all over the city. Last but certainly not least, they took me to the gates of the Old City. The buses took me everywhere I could want--so long as it wasn't Shabbat. From just before sundown on Friday until just after sundown on Saturday, the buses did not (and do not) run.

Recent events have given me cause--not for the first, or probably the last, time--to revisit my bus-board experiences in Jerusalem. In quiet moments, vignettes from those journeys float past my inner eye. In a world that did not yet know the word intifada, there were still plenty of perils. We knew to be vigilant, to look for abandoned packages that might have deadly contents and to report anything and anyone that might be suspicious to the police or to uniformed soldiers. Despite this vigilance, we had what today seems an unparalleled innocence--a reality that did not yet include the searching of faces in the crowds to locate suicide bombers.

From one outing all those years ago, I can recall the image of a young Hasidic mother riding the bus with her child. Dressed modestly in a long skirt with a long-sleeved blouse, heavy stockings, and a head covering, the young woman beamed at her child, displaying obvious joy and a quiet pride. Against the backdrop of traffic and amid voices speaking many languages, she taught her son to count. I freely admit to eavesdropping shamelessly, smiling inside and out as I heard the boy's childish voice counting in Yiddish: ayhn, zvei, drei--projected in the high, clear, musical tones of a 3-year-old. That same child should now be about 28, a young man. He is likely either served his tour in the army, riding the buses as he moves between civilian and military roles. Or if he took a religious exemption, he still likely rides the buses on the way to work, study, and worship. Given that marriage often comes early in Hasidic families, he likely has children of his own. Whatever path that child in my memory took, he still probably rides the buses. He is routinely in danger--or perhaps he is already counted among the dead.

On another occasion, a chance encounter on the bus to King George Street found me seated next to a middle-aged woman from Zafat. We had no common language, she and I, yet we somehow managed to communicate--a little Yiddish, a bit of Hebrew, a word of English, those ever-important gestures that are universally understood, photos of our children, and liberal does of laughter. By the time we reached King George Street, we had each learned a few details about the other: names, where we called home, marital and family status, children's names, and why we were in Jerusalem on that particular day. It seems she came often, for shopping and for visits with friends and family. I wonder, does she still make such trips? If she does, dare she connect with strangers as she did with me? Or did she perhaps come to Jerusalem on the wrong day and ride the wrong bus?

Then there were the bus drivers themselves. Most could be epitomized by the indigenous sabra cactus--tough and prickly on the outside, but soft and sweet at heart. The drivers I encountered often dominated the roadways like tyrants (or maniacs, depending on your perspective), determined to rule the roads they traveled and seldom giving way, particularly for another bus. Despite their crustiness, they could be counted on for patience with young mothers, elderly men and women who moved slowly or with difficulty, or tourists not yet adept at making change in a strange currency. They brashly corrected misbehaving youngsters and extended their protection to weaker children against bullies by threatening the latter with promises to chat with mama, papa, or the rebbe. And I personally experienced bus drivers who took the time to provide directions and encouragement to a vaguely confused, middle-aged graduate student struggling to cope with what was largely an unfamiliar environment. Cantankerous and abrupt, they were rarely rude, often funny, and almost always helpful. As the routes I traveled more and more often became the routes traveled by suicide bombers, I wonder how many of the drivers I knew have joined the growing list of victims.

Fridays on the buses of Jerusalem held a special gaiety. Housewives rode back and forth to butcher, baker--and possibly even to candlestick maker, though a trip to the open-air market at Mahaneh Yehuda or to a supermarket was far more likely. For these busy housewives, everything had to be in order for welcoming Shabbos, which of course included preparation of a special meal. Children and adults alike were in higher spirits. Greetings of "Shabbat Shalom" fill the air, peppering conversations between friends and strangers alike. My most compelling memories of riding Jerusalem's buses on Erev Shabbat (Sabbath Eve) are of young soldiers on their way home for the Friday evening meal. Dressed in green fatigues with weapons slung over their shoulders, they carried bright bouquets of flowers for their mothers, wives, and sweethearts--anticipating brief respites from their usual duties. Quite likely, some of those housewives were shopping at Mananeh Yehuda on the day a bomb exploded. Almost certainly, some of those soldiers died violently or took the lives of others during the endless rounds of violence that now define the Middle East.

Once so close and now so far away, peace continues to elude the Middle East. Violence begets violence, and there is the temptation by many onlookers to call a pox on all houses. Yet there can be no excuse for violence that stalks innocents simply for the sake of creating headlines. Whereas the motives of policymakers on all sides can be readily questioned, there can be no real equity between a reign of terror against civilians and the collateral effects of a military campaign. For all the sins of humanity that resulted in the establishment of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian identity, there can be no justification for random acts of murder conducted in restaurants and discos, at community centers and family celebrations, in markets and malls, or on board airplanes and buses filled with passengers conducting the business of everyday life. To suggest otherwise is truly the moral equivalent of validating the terrorists who crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center. To suggest otherwise is to dishonor the victims by validating terror.

There is no justification that excuses violence that stalks innocent civilians simply for the sake of creating headlines. Terrorism has no honor.

- BawBaw/DAnneC

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