Survive and be decent [A story from Jerusalem]


Early this evening, I walked back from the Central Bus Station, in the direction of Nahlaot, my old neighborhood in central West Jerusalem, to visit family. I’d just finished a really good and really long walk and talk with a really good friend, Hamutal, who I’ve known for a pretty long time now. We talked about all of The Things: The Situation, exhaustion, politics, leftism, cute dogs, leftist community, lack thereof, the need to build and rebuild.

On the way back, I didn’t put in headphones. No podcast this evening, just listening to the rush of the city, flinching at the wail of ambulances, breathing in the delicious smog of a Jerusalem early fall early evening.

A man walked a few paces behind me. I heard him mutter: “Stumim. Dopes.”

“Who are?” I asked him. I liked his voice.

“These drivers,” he said, and I slowed my gait a twinge so that we were walking side by side. “I’m trying to signal to them to turn their lights on, but they’re not paying attention.”

He was wearing a crisp white Polo shirt, and had dark skin and wore white yarmulkeh. He was probably in his late sixties, and his Hebrew was accented with an Arabic ‘’heyt,” the sound of which I’ve always loved, and especially since learning Arabic, and learing to differentiate between the “kh” sound — which exists in both languages, as in “Shelkha,” Hebrew for yours, or “Batikh,” Arabic for watermelon — and the ‘’hh,’’ which hovers between an English “h” and a crunching “kh,” and exists in both languages, but has been mostly phased out of modern Hebrew, except when spoken by Palestinian Arabs or by Jews from Arab countries like my walking companion.

“They don’t realize that they could get fined, or even two points on their license.”

I didn’t exactly know what two points on their license means. I’m still an immigrant here in a lot of ways. But it sounds bad, so I cluck my tongue.

“People are so distracted,” he said, “They’re thinking about work, about money, about the situation. They don’t even pay attention to their own car lights.”

Another car drove by without its lights on. Both of us trying to signal, and then to yell to the driver, but to no avail. He drove onwards, lightless, at risk of two points and a fine. We both sighed and chuckled.

“I think you’re right,” I said, “I’ve seen three car crashes since the beginning of last week. People are distracted by the situation, for sure.”

“Not only that, though,” said my companion, “People are thinking all the time about money, and how to pay their mortgages, and so on. You can live in a golden tower, and you’ll be more stressed out about how to get more money than someone who just has enough for three meals a day.”

“Amen,” I said, “I hope that I am never rich, money-wise.”

“You said that smartly,” said my companion, “The sages teach what it really means to be rich.”

“What do they say?”

“Being rich means to have eyes, teeth, hands and feet!”

I smiled, “So I guess that I am already rich, in that sense.”

“You are. You know, it’s also taught that there are three types of people who are dead before they die: The blind, the childless, and the starving.”

I don’t connect to this teaching quite as smoothly. I try to argue that I know a number of people who can’t see, but seem deeply alive to me, much more than many who can see.

“But you don’t know them on the inside,” he replied.

“That’s true — but what about Our Father Isaac,” I suggest, finding, for the first time in a while, my Hebrew School education to come in handy, “He was blind.”

“Yes, but he had the holy spirit with him.”

“Maybe more blind people than we think have the holy spirt with them?” I proceeded to tell him a little bit about the Invisibilia podcast about blind people seeing, leaving out the question of “podcasts,” which will just confuse things.

Our conversation shifts back to wealth, and to happiness.

“You know,” he said, “I grew up in a Ma’abara [a transit camp in which many Mizrahi Jews were placed after arriving to Israel in the 1950s, and a symbol for the marginalization, from the beginning of the State, of Jews coming from Arab and Muslim countries]. I know the meaning of lack, and of living simply. It has helped me live a good life.”

He was the most calm person I had encountered for days.

We parted ways upon arriving at the shuk. He told me his name is Nissan, like the month, and I said that I’m Moriel, as in God is My Teacher. We shook hands warmly, and blessed each other to have peaceful days.

I then went up to visit my niece and nephew, and told them a story about two dogs and hot air balloons and kangaroos and a big bakery and magical donuts before they went to bed. You know the one. Afterwards, I walked back down, toward home, through the early evening, not checking my phone as it buzzed, not needing to get the updates of ugliness in real time.

Instead, I bought half a falafel at the entrance to the shuk.

The shuk, which was strangely empty all day, was at its most magical near-closing time, everything going for cheap, the vendors laughing, teasing each other, the egg guy throwing a rolled up plastic bag at the nuts guy.

“Are the grape leaves filled with just rice?” I asked.

“I could fill them with hashish, if you want,” the vendor grunted back,

“I’ll take a kilo, in that case.” I’m feeling sharp. Usually, I can’t keep up, and stumble — Ashkenazily, Immigrantly — through the jabs and jibes.

He was finishing helping another man, and was speaking to him in Yiddish. The vendor, I was guessing, from a just a bit of accent-and-appearance profiling, did not grow up speaking Yiddish.

“Do you speak for real?” I asked.

“How else would I speak, for a lie? I know Yiddish, Kurdish, Russian and Hebrew. I learned Yiddish 40 years ago, right here.”

“Were you born in Jerusalem?”

“I was born right above here, in a building by the shuk.”

“Wow. I’d love to learn Yiddish,” I said. “Do you speak Arabic?”

“A bit,” he said, “But who wants to speak those murderers’ language?”

“That’s an unfair generalization,” I said.

“What, Arabs haven’t murdered people over the last few weeks?”

“People who are are Arabs have committed murders, but that’s not The Arabs, and not everyone who speaks Arabic is a murderer, just like Hebrew.”

“What else, aside from the grape leaves?”
I selected a box of the little spicy yellow cone peppers.

“Anything else?”

Bas,” I said, in Arabic which I knew he understood, “That’s all.”

“28 shekels,” he said, handing me the big package of stuffed grape leaves and the box of yellow cone peppers.

“Zei gezhunt,” I said, Yiddish for Good Health.

He smiled.

The next vendor I went to was selling grapes, no leaves. The man in line before me, a religious Jew with a black kippah on his head, was chatting with the vendor in Arabic.

“Come on,” the vendor said, “These are good grapes.”

“Give me a second, give me a second,” said the Jewish shopper, “I want to find the best ones.”

“They’re all the best,” said the vendor, snatching the box of grapes from the mans hands. Both chuckled.

I asked for another box of the best grapes, in Arabic, and the language felt heavy and rich and delicious as it flowed off my tongue and into the West Jerusalem marketplace.

“4 and a half shekels, habibi,” said the vendor, in Arabic.

Bas?” I said. “That’s it?”

Bas,” he smiled.

I thanked him and hopped on the light rail, homeward bound, thinking about some political goals of mine for the next little while:

  1. Survive, literally and spiritually.
  2. Be decent, even to those who say strange or frustrating or awful things.
  3. Turn my lights on when I drive.
  4. Try to build community, in expected and unexpected places, for long and for short moments.

At home, I sat down to write, munching on grapes and grape leaves (started half an hour ago, still not high…). I also poured myself a glass of wine, and am only realizing now that it turned out to be a very grape-themed meal.


And that’s all.