Early Friday morning I went to Be’er Sheva’s central bus station, so I could travel to Yerushalayim and daven at the kotel (Western Wall) and return to Be’er Sheva in time for Shabbos. Fridays are not an ideal day for travel, since soldiers are given weekend furloughs, and people go away to visit their friends and families for Shabbat – so the buses are packed like sardines, and getting a seat is only for winners of reality TV shows with names like “Survivor.”
The scene at the bus station was as expected. I got there in plenty of time for the bus, and was near the front of the line, but once the bus pulled into the station the hordes descended and soon I was not only nearly crushed, but worse, I was no longer anywhere near the front of the line.
Suddenly, the air was pierced by the deep, youthful voice of a single soldier.
“Chevre (comrades)!” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see there is a lady here?!” He was talking about Yours Truly (I guess I really do look old)! Oblivious, the crowd continued to surge.
“Really- – it’s just not right!” the lone soldier bellowed. “Stop for a minute and let the lady on the bus! Make room!” Not leaving anything to chance, he threw several soldiers into the air like a comic-book hero, and did an actual body block, spreading out his arms and legs across the entrance-way, and then gestured calmly with an elegant sweep of his hand. “After you, ma’am!” and somewhat flustered, I entered the bus and took a seat.
Thanking him as he entered the bus a moment later and passed by my seat, I said a little prayer. “HaShem, please shower this boy with success in all his endeavors, including a wonderful wife, children, parnassa (good income), and shalom. And may he always be a source of nachas to his parents!” Looking around me at the bus filled with 18-year-old soldiers, really just baby-faced boys and girls, I added, “and please, dear G-d, keep all Your precious children safe and free from harm!”
The bus left the station on time and proceeded to Jerusalem. Any other time I might have complained about the dreary, grey skies and incessant drizzle, but rain in Israel is a genuine bracha (blessing), and I took it as a good sign. I arrived at Jerusalem’s central bus station and couldn’t believe how beautiful it was – – it is completely new since I was last in Israel. I boarded the #1 bus to the kotel, surprised to find it empty. Even the traffic getting to the Wall was light; the threat of rain kept many people away. Just as I got there the sun came out and I spent 90 minutes davening on behalf of myself and every member of my family, as well as people I knew that were sick, or beset with various challenges, and for the safety of all Jews in Israel and abroad and an end to galus.
The last time I was in Israel, davening at the kotel was something of a challenge, because just as I would get into a deep state of concentration in my prayers, I was frequently interrupted with requests for donations by a slew of people with their hands or tzedaka boxes extended. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of people asking for money were in many cases bordering on harassment. The government now forbids this activity at the kotel and there are only certain areas at the perimeter of the Wall where people may solicit donations. I’m sorry to say, it was a necessary but very welcome change.
From the kotel I took a bus to Geula, the chareidi (ultra orthodox) neighborhood next to Mea Shearim. It’s probably the only place I’ve been so far that hasn’t changed one iota in 20 years! From there I walked to Machane Yehuda, the Jewish open-air market that is at its busiest on Friday pre-Shabbat. Hordes of Israelis shop for anything and everything to make their Shabbat meals special, and the sellers hawk their wares with colorful speech and delicious samples. The reasons Machane Yehuda has always been my favorite place in the world have not changed: the enormous, beautiful bounty and variety of produce – truly Israel is a “land of milk and honey” and one feels HaShem’s beneficence in a very spiritual way – – and the awe I always feel when seeing thousands of people of every possible color and stripe, speaking dozens of languages – – and realizing that they are all Jews, and despite external differences, we are am echad – – one people.
Can anyone resist a man in a gold crown, with a T-shirt inscribed “The Halvah King,” doling out samples and helping you decide which of the one hundred twenty (!) kinds of halvah to choose? Well, I guess “help” is relative . . .
“Try this one, it’s cappucino flavor.”
“Now try this. It’s pecan flavor.”
“Now try this one – – it’s cocoa chocolate chip.”
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll take the cocoa chocolate chip.”
“No!” the Halvah King tells me, “Take the cappucino. It’s much tastier!” and he starts cutting the cappucino flavor.
“You’re right, the cappucino is delicious,” I say, “but I want the cocoa chocolate chip. I’ll take 350 grams.”
“Trust me lady, you’ll be very happy that I told you to take the cappucino flavor,” the Halvah King says, quickly wrapping up 350 grams of the cappucino.
Some things in Israel never change!
From there I went to Marzipan, a bakery whose specialty is rugelach with an equally daunting number of flavors. Filled with vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, halvah, raspberry, apricot, prune — it was a tough choice so I took a variety to bring to my daughter for a Shabbos dessert treat. I bought myself a few small cheese and spinach borekas fresh out of the oven for lunch for the bus ride back.
Then I scored my biggest bargain of the day: a plastic carpet beater for only 10 shekels (less than $3)! I only have a few small area rugs in my house in Maine, and I don’t want to use up our precious solar-powered electricity on a vacuum cleaner. But go and try to find a carpet beater in America! No one even knows what they look like.
In the days before vacuum cleaners came to Israel, I remember the pounding clop, clop, clop sound of Israeli balabustas (housewives), who would take their carpets outside and hang them over the porch railing, where with rattan or plastic beaters, shaped like a cloverleaf on a long stick, they’d beat the living daylights out of the rugs to free them from dust.
Sadly, it’s nearly the end of an era in Israel as far as carpet beaters are concerned. They’re actually pretty hard to find in any of the numerous specialty housewares stores. After several attempts but no luck, I picked the dustiest and shabbiest housewares store I could find and sure enough, they had a carpet beater. The proprietor seemed somewhat relieved to get rid of it, actually. But I was overjoyed (though I did get a few stares on the bus). Now my rugs in Maine will be clean!
Alas, by now I was a bit short on shekels so I decided to look for a money changer. Before my trip I had called my American credit card company to determine what fees were involved in using an ATM in Israel. Besides a $10 fee to use an ATM, they charge 19% interest from the day you take out money until the day you pay your bill (even if you pay your bill on time!) so I was not planning on using an ATM machine unless I was desperate.
In days of yore, though technically illegal, everyone, including Members of Knesset, went to black-market money changers to convert dollars into shekels or vice versa; not only were there no hidden fees, the rate of exchange was considerably more favorable than you could get at the bank. In those days, Israeli banks charged exorbitant fees and commissions for currency exchanges.
Today things are different, however. One can even change money at the post office. Private money changers are allowed to operate legally, and the black market is basically non-existent. Right in the middle of the shuk was a little (bullet proof) booth where infinite amounts of cash flowed into and from the hands of the solitary figure inside. It took only seconds and I was on my way with my replenished shekalim.
Since I had to be back in Be’er Sheva well before the onset of Shabbat, I had to cut my shuk shopping extravaganza short.
When I got back to Jerusalem’s central bus station, there were two different buses leaving for Be’er Sheva. The “express” bus left at 1:45 and took 90 minutes to reach its destination; the slower, non-direct bus left at 1:30 and took 2 hours. The express bus line was reminiscent of the craziness I had experienced at the Be’er Sheva bus station earlier that morning; but the line at the non-direct bus was devoid of people. Since there was only a 15 minute difference in arrival time, I hopped on the non-direct bus which departed immediately after I sat down.
“What?” my daughter said, when I called her from my cell phone. “That bus winds around and around on little back roads! It feels like it takes forever! Why on earth didn’t you take the direct bus?” Indeed, the direct bus travels on a wide expanse of brand new, modern highway. But I still had plenty of time before Shabbat, and since my daughter was doing all the cooking and other preparations for Shabbos, I was under no pressure. I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
And did I ever enjoy it! From Jerusalem we travelled to Mevassert Tzion, and from there to the edge of Beit Shemesh. From there we travelled towards Yad Binyamin and the edge of Chafetz Chaim. I was excited because Yad Binyamin had absorbed many of the Israeli pioneers who are now, sadly, refugees, since they were forcefully disengaged and removed from their homes in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip by the very (Israeli) government who had encouraged them to settle Gaza in the first place. Now Yad Binyamin is going full speed ahead in its development of beautiful housing, a shopping center, and schools, and it was wonderful to witness this rebirth first hand. It’s become a very desirable place to live for religious Israeli and American olim families and as a result, prices have (unfortunately for me) escalated exponentially.
Soon we passed the outskirts of Yesodot, Ofakim, and Netivot. Then we entered the town of Kiryat Gat. Twenty years ago, Kiryat Gat was a “development town.” In Israel a “development town” is usually an oxymoron for a town where they encouraged immigrants from Morroco, Ethiopia, and the CIS to settle – – people who were poor and who had few prospects of employment. The housing in the typical development town was substandard, as were general services. Boredom and depression usually led to petty crime and substance abuse. Development towns were places where the only dream was how one might escape elsewhere for a better life and livelihood.
In Kiryat Gat, an industrial zone employed factory workers in tedious and underpaid jobs, but that was the only option. Housing and roads were in a terrible state of decay. Those not lucky enough to find a factory job sat around in vacant, garbage-strewn plazas playing backgammon, smoking and drinking and not doing much else.
The Kiryat Gat of today is a very different place, and clearly people take pride in their town. It’s clean and beautifully landscaped. There are American-style shopping malls, modern health clinics, excellent bus service, and a polyglot of people living there. There are beautiful apartments and villas, with many more under construction. Passing through Kiryat Gat was a study in accomplishment. And, I’m happy to report, not exceptional. It seems everywhere one looks in Israel today, there is building and expansion, and new housing is built with an excellent quality of construction unheard of even five or ten years ago.
From Kiryat Gat we travelled a little further before turning onto the main highway that would take us to Be’er Sheva. About 5 miles before arriving, we passed the Jewish National Fund’s Ambassador Forest, which has hundreds of acres of tiny saplings growing in its sandy desert soil. I cannot wait to see the results in twenty years, IY”H! Also there are signs announcing the construction and expansion of the bullet train line, which will mean shorter commutes to Jerusalem, practically making Be’er Sheva a bedroom community or suburb of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s no joke – many Israelis who would never have set foot in dusty, backward Be’er Sheva are snapping up apartments in luxurious new neighborhoods as an investment. Be’er Sheva has plans to increase its population by tens of thousands of people in the next ten years, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t succeed. Already they have all the amenities of other major cities such as a world-class hospital and university, symphony and theatre, shopping plazas (including American luxury stores), etc. Be’er Sheva is a city of immigrants (most recently from South America, France, Italy, Ethiopia, and Russia), Sephardim, a smattering of American academia, religious and secular – – but somehow everyone here seems to live and let live, and there is no visible tension or dissent. That is not to say Be’er Sheva is without problems. While there is no random violent crime, Bedouins are blamed for the high burglary rate and drug trafficking.
This time of year the stores are filling up with Purim costumes, and my daughter told me that even the Bedouin children here buy them, as they want to “celebrate” Purim like everyone else! Many Bedouins send their children to secular Israeli (Jewish) schools.
Alas, if only Be’er Sheva’s desert temperatures were not quite so hot . . . (Remember, I’m used to Maine winters now.)
I finally arrived at my daughter’s apartment in time for a quick shower before Shabbat. (Yes, I realize I keep mixing up “Shabbos” and “Shabbat” but the neighborhood where I’m situated is mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi-relgious-traditional-secular, so it’s hard not to be mixed up!)
In short, it had been the perfect day. Jerusalem: the kotel and the shuk. A tour of the countryside and visual evidence of Israel’s success despite the odds. The promise of Shabbos with my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter.
I’m so grateful to be here.