Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reflections on riding the bus in Jerusalem

The bus: my constant companion. I wait for her. I get annoyed with her. I marvel at her. I wish I could give her directions that would directly take me to my destination in lieu of her circuitous routes that reach out to everyone. I’m grateful for her despite my frustrations. One of my proudest Courtney trumps Israeli style bureaucracy and spiteful office workers was getting my discounted 6 month student bus pass.

I’m back on the bus today after an attempt to have an affair with the train. The bus was against me. She avoided me. When my fellow waiter (soon to be rider) informed me the bus snuck by silently just before I arrived for our rendez vous I decided to splurge for a cab to catch the train. I flirt with the train- it’s smooth ride and fewer disruptions. She has large windows opening to our beautiful countryside, spacious tables, and larger, more comfortable, seats. She doesn’t confine me like the bus does. The bus wants me to stay in my small space defined by chairs covered in blue carpet-like upholstery with electric colored squiggles. But the train is a fickle, infrequent affair. The taxi arrived in time for me to see her sleek body pull out of the station, red warning lights flashing at the crossing.

Frustrated, dejected, I returned to the bus. I had to look for her. And she made me wait, maybe a little longer than usual to make a point. But she accepted me back, ignoring my attempted transgression. So, I board bus 4 Aleph from the south of Jerusalem, to the center. 8 takes me to the Central Bus station and now 480 and bearing me to Tel Aviv, where again, I flirt with the idea of the train to take me to Tel Aviv University so that I can at least catch the end of my class and meet in instructor.

The bus in Jerusalem is a microcosm of society. Strangers talk to each other in these double long busses that haul Jerusalemites and tourists alike. A rich brew of Russian, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English bounce around inside, maybe flavored with Yiddish or Ahmaric on the right bus lines. We ask for help, strike up conversations, make comments on everything, invite strangers home, and run into friends. Strangers can become friends on a bus, trapped for the long halting stops through the congested streets. There isn’t just the assumption that we will help each other, but the expectation. Fellow bus riders are constantly helping mothers with strollers alight and disembark through the rear doors, passing their fares up to the driver. The wheelchair ramp isn’t automated but requires a passenger to lean down to open and close it. Today, I was one of 6 people who, without asking even if there was a need, rose to the expectation to help a woman in a wheelchair navigate off the stiff curb, and up the steep ramp into the bus and then pass her fare card to the driver and back. No words are needed; we all know how we’re supposed to help. I live in that alternate reality where youngsters pop up and insist that elderly people and pregnant woman take their seats. These are the moments I love the bus.

The bus in Jerusalem: I love her, I loath her, I wait for her. But I say my blessings that I do not fear her. The fear of busses still clings to our group consciousness. Today, a reminder of that fear was a black roller bag, ownerless, sitting near the front of the bus. “Is this someone’s black bag?” an older man calls out. No answer. Again, “Is this someone’s black bag?” he shouts louder into the back of the bus. “It’s no one’s bag,” the back of the bus answers him. I can see his nervousness. I feel the tension. He looks around. He studies the bag. The bag stares back at him, silently, menacingly. The bag challenges the man at the front of the bus. The man finally accepts the challenge and opens the bag. “Don’t open it,” a voice floats up from behind me. I’m relieved when he’s finished his search and closes the bag. No explosives. We won’t be tonight’s news, unidentifiable limbs mixed with the metal that once was a bus. That terrible, horrible wall that brings international condemnation as a cheap land grab is working. We are free from the reality of the second infatada that blasted its angry shouts with daily suicide bombs and converted the busses from the most popular transportation to a gamble with your life. Soon an elderly woman is running up next to the bus, banging on the windows with her fists. She runs inside, explains she took a taxi to catch up with the bus and reclaims her bag. We, the bus riders, smile inside with relief. Today a lonely bag is just that: forgotten, but not a threat. And again I hate the need for the large concrete wall I can see traipsing across the east of Jerusalem and I’m so thankful that simple concrete can save so many lives.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Checking in

It’s been too long- in terms of communicating with you and also with myself. The decadently long expanses of solitary reflective time that characterized my time in Bangladesh are distant memories. From a single “single friend” I’ve landed spat into a beautiful, inviting community of single friends with lots of time and energy. From being a teacher and managing my own time I’ve become an overloaded student- Hebrew classes, Torah classes, grammar classes, teacher recertification classes, Jewish thought classes- and neglected homework. I’ve fallen into a long forgotten habit of over committing myself, above and beyond the coursework. I’ve discovered volunteering and dove in- reading to the elderly, helping lone soldiers, doing morale boosting for members of the Israeli Defense Forces and helping to coordinate large Shabbat meals to bring various members of our diverse community together. The hours of silence- without work, to do lists, roommate, phone calls, rushing errands- are gone. So too, it seems, are the blog entries and all the wonderful reflection and repackaging they required.

But I finally, regardless of my own critical judgment about creating a quality, readable, reflective piece starting with a clear direction, I’m letting go of my own expectations and just writting. Letting go of my need to express my anger and defensiveness about the flotilla escapades and journalistic creative fiction and spin that followed. Letting go of my need to provide a documentation of daily events. Writing to reconnect- with you- and with myself.

Shifting through the layers of commitments and conversations, studies and bureaucracy, errands and endless bus rides- searching back to the source, the central experience of my time here- and I find- settled contentment. It’s been the biggest life shift of all. A lifetime of running after new adventures, pushing my boundaries, exploring my ever shifting paradigm, immerging myself in languages and cultures as I bounced and bopped around the globe- the great trips and fanciful adventures have lost their hold on my heart. What started to root in my heart as a traveled around Asia and saw such amazing sites remains- yes the world is an amazing and diverse place, yes I feel very privileged to have seen and experienced so much of it in such a personal way, and I’d rather be in Israel.

And true to my inner voice, everyday as I walk around Jerusalem, watching grapes, olives, figs and pomegranates form in my neighbors’ yards, I give thanks for being able to be here. I marvel daily at the very communal, non city feel cultivated in such a walkable, beautiful city where strangers help each other without question and I always run into people I know. I cringe at the intolerance of the inhabitants of neighborhoods like Mea Sharim who I perceive as perverting Judaism in the conquest to save and preserve it. I flair up at the disproportionately large amount of spinning incorrect journalism about my home. I revel in the glorious walls of the old city and the multitude of invitations I receive into the homes of my fellow Israelis. What are my challenges in adapting? Too many welcoming people creating an outpouring of invitations? Friends always finding new adventures from climbing Masada, eating at Black Out, hiking near Tzfat, listening to the Israeli Philharmonic or simply enjoying the sights and events of Jerusalem? People always trying to figure out how they can help me? Should all people be so lucky to face similar challenges.

And since it’s been a while, I’ll also let you know. Next school year I’ll be gainfully employed teaching English to Hebrew speakers in grades 7 through 9 and also English literature to native English speakers in grade 10.

And since my silence has been echoed back for so long, I hope that my voice can also be echoed back with a small insight into your lives as well.