From my 6th row aisle seat, I observed the motley assemblage ascending the Egged bus I was riding in Jerusalem. Nearly all shared one common characteristic; they were tuned in and tuned out – tuned into themselves and tuned out to their fellow passengers. Some qualified for chiropractic “before” pictures with necks inelegantly cocked supporting cell phones, while others visually displayed virtual euphoria plugged into MP3s. What a pity. Victims of technology, they will never taste the adventure and reality of the Jerusalem that greeted me some 30 years before.
The primary mode of transportation for the majority of Jerusalemites for decades has been an Egged bus. Call it mazal, call it destiny; Jerusalem is a city that always gives more than you bargain for, even regarding something as mundane as a bus ride. Depending on your mazal, you might have been happened upon by an elderly Sepharadi, shuffling down the aisle schlepping his bags and squishing himself into you as if you were part family, part favorite recliner. No sooner had he landed in his seat, when he turned to you and asked how many children you had; “How many?” not “If?” Escorted by the aroma of Machaneh Yehuda wafting from the bags he piled half in the aisle, half in his lap and somehow, half on you, he volunteered stories of his native Baghdad, oblivious to the fact that you never requested. Offense to your American etiquette aside, no sooner had he launched into his verbal missive than he captivated your imagination with a first-hand account of a life more charming than Lawrence of Arabia; a life so distant, so different from your own, so fascinating.
At times, “mazal” might place you next to an elderly payos-framed chassid attired in typical chassidic garb, who reminisced about the long destroyed European chassidic court he visited in his youth – having deemed destiny wanted you to know while anointing him as narrator. Graphically breathing life into vague memories, he artistically resuscitated history into current events; unearthing the life buried in those all too familiar photos of destruction every Jew knows only too well. Swept up in a surreal reality, you traveled with him, at one moment swaying next to him at the Rebbe’s tisch and moments later, hovering over him like an accompanying angel as he fled the destruction of his town and the tragic end of his family. Were you listening for yourself or for him? You never really knew.
Mazal might find you seatmates with an old Jerusalemite offering a personal account of stories you read decades before in Yerushalayim Shel Maala. Stories you hitherto suspected might be liberally sprinkled with poetic license swiftly became vividly real and authentic. The cobblestone streets of Me’ah She’arim visited umpteen times as archaic tourist sites morphed into someone’s home; the place where Jews lived great in spirit in spite of hardships unfathomable to you, the American.
How many exotic journeys did I take, how much of the world did I witness in just a few stops on a bus? One of the things I loved most about exploring Jerusalem was never knowing in advance what awaited me. In Jerusalem, even a “mundane” bus ride boasts magical and majestic.
How much did I appreciate entering and experiencing the lives of Jews from throughout the world just because my ears were open and strangers – if they could be called that – filled them with their stories.
Today, the ears are closed. Nobody listens. Nobody communicates with live people. Nobody acknowledges the person next to him or her. People have become islands; traveling in public yet condemning themselves to solitary confinement. The Jerusalem that welcomed me was a city that understood the technology of people. Sadly, today I find people of technology. I lament the lost joy and intrigue – the journey into the unknown – that I experienced as a Wandering Jew, who, throughout all his wanderings, became enriched by the flavor of ethnic “baggage” each Jew brought here and unselfishly dropped in my lap. What an unimaginable wealth of gems are to be found upon the streets of Jerusalem, thanks to the people who love this Holy City, hold Jerusalem dear, share their stories and welcome strangers into their lives…