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I arrived in Jerusalem a week ago on Friday afternoon — just as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin. Mindful that, on the Sabbath it is hard to find anywhere to get a bite to eat in Bakah (where I was staying), the Provost of Shalem College invited me to join his family for dinner that night. Thinking that I would be exhausted and not a suitable guest, I declined and ordered takeout from a burger joint that delivers to hotels and homes. The next day, however, I took a taxi to Ramot Bet — some distance away in northwestern Jerusalem — to join my host and his family for the mid-day meal and for the dinner held at the end of the Sabbath.
This was for me a treat. I have a great many Jewish friends in the United States, and some of them are what they call “observant.” What that word means in Jerusalem, however, is something else again. Within Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have become opposites. The pious have gravitated to Jerusalem. The hedonists tend to live in or near Tel Aviv, which has the feel of Miami Beach. The Israelis of Jerusalem and many of the Jews from abroad who come to the Holy City for a visit are strictly observant. On the Sabbath, they not only do not work. They do not answer the phone, make phone calls, check their email, turn on or off the lights, drive, cook. The list is long. Instead, they pray, they read, they converse with the members of their family, they relax.
Their meals are family affairs. The food has been prepared in advance. Before partaking of it, there are prayers and rituals designed to distinguish the Sabbath from ordinary time, to give thanks to God, and to celebrate familial relations.
Last night, I took a taxi to Ramot Bet to dine with my host and his family. On this occasion, the meal and the rituals associated with it were linked with the transition from ordinary time to the Sabbath. Before dinner, my host and his wife blessed their children one by one, reciting a prayer from the Jewish Bible. Later the family sang a series of verses from the same source, honoring the valorous wife. It was quite wonderful, and I hope to find those verses and spring them on my own wife (who is, indeed, valorous). My children will shriek with joy.
I encountered only one difficulty with regard to Shabbat. The provost of Shalem College and his family live on a side street in Ramot Bet. My taxi driver did not know the street and dropped me in the wrong place — a mile or two away from where I was supposed to be. Ramot Bet is heavily orthodox. Everyone was at dinner or preparing to dine. The streets were for the most part deserted, and there I was . . . lost. There were no taxis. I saw at most two cars in the half hour following, and I was right on time for dinner but in the wrong place — which is to say, I was going to be late . . . if I got there at all. And I had no idea how to find transportation back to my hotel.
I found some people on the street but they were from elsewhere and did not recognize the address. Finally, I resorted to ringing doorbells. Think for a moment. There is a war on. Ramot Bet is near the green line separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. There is an Arab village on the other side of the line within easy walking distance. Sometimes there are incidents involving people from that village . . . and a stranger who speaks no Hebrew rings your doorbell. Eventually, however, I found someone with good English whose relatives knew where the house I was seeking was located, and so I walked and walked and found the street.
I also found my host, pacing up and down — and armed with a revolver and hollow-point bullets. The civil guard had warned that there had been attempts in the neighborhood to kidnap Israelis. This is the sort of thing that people here habitually live with.
When the evening ended, another taxi driver came as prearranged. He, too, could not find the house, and he telephoned. I was the only one in the house who was allowed to answer the phone. What followed was a comedy, which greatly amused my host and his family. The taxi driver’s English was less than perfect. My pronunciation of the name of the street on which my host lived was, ahem, less than perfect, and it took some time and two or three calls before he made it. When I later apologized to him for all the trouble he had had to go to, he apologized to me for not knowing every nook and cranny in the city he served.
This last exchange typified my experience here. I met quite a few people — in all walks of life. Everyone was polite; everyone was courteous; everyone was helpful. Israel — and Jerusalem in particular — is a lovely place. You should visit. Above all else, you should visit the Old City. I have traveled far and wide, and never have I encountered a place so moving.
ADDENDUM: If all goes as planned, I will leave shortly past midnight for the States; I depart the U.S. the next day for Istanbul. When I get time and have the energy, I will continue writing for a while on Israel and Jerusalem. I have thus far, for the most part, eschewed political commentary. I have, however, gained here political intelligence of a sort that you will not read about in the press.