The line for the bus was long, it served me right for deciding to journey to Jerusalem at nine in the evening on a Thursday, the night before Shabbat. Those waiting included soldiers freshly released for the weekend and orthodox Jews making the ascent from the secular world to the religious one. They were off to welcome in the Shabbat bride in the city where God lives. If you believe in that sort of thing. I was travelling to Jerusalem for a slightly different reason. My intent was to get drunk with a friend.
I took a seat near the back of the bus where I was surrounded by three ultra orthodox women and no less than 15 young children. The ruckus they were causing ensured that mine was the only double seat left empty on a bus that was already almost full. With headphones safely tucked into my pocket I figured it was worth being surrounded by toddlers for the duration of the trip if it meant I could sit by the window.
The soothing (though slightly boring) tones of Coldplay escorted me through the journey ensuring that the only time the kids disrupted my journey was when I felt the occasional prod of little feet in my back from the seat behind mine. Prodding which I ignored surprisingly easily.
Upon arrival in the Jerusalem central bus station I exited through the main exit and into cold the likes of which are yet to be seen in Tel Aviv. Travelling to Jerusalem allowed me the first opportunity in a long time to wear my black Sgt Pepper jacket and I was grateful to have brought it, though surprised that the jacket wasn’t quite enough to keep the cold at bay. The first sounds to greet my ears are the shouts of the sellers of various goods whose voices carry through the cold to my ears. I never fail to be surprised by just how religious everyone around me seems to be when I make it to Jerusalem. Tsit tsit, kippot, peos, black hats and black overcoats are the norm. As are American accents.
Stepping out into the night and crossing from one side of Rehov Jaffa to the light rail station on the other I am greeted by a symphony of voices from a cacophony of conversations all around. I listen in and gain snapshots into the lives of the people I hear all around me. The platform is filled almost to capacity. There are so many people that I can’t even get to the ticket machine and cross to the other platform to do so. When I cross back my eyes pick out a skinny kid wearing a black kippa on his head and whose tsit tsit are hanging casually outside of his trousers. It ws his shrill voice that hitting my ears that caused my eyes to pick him out over all others.
“Yeah that’s what I want to be, a journalist, like a foreign correspondent” He has friends standing all around him and they’ve entered into a conversation with a dark skinned man who looks only slightly older than them. He is sitting next to a woman who I take to be his girlfriend. They’re 18 and they’re studying at yehiva. I know because they say so but I would have known anyway. I imagine they’re here through B’nei Akiva
“So do you feel like this is your home?” He asks in only very slightly halting English.
“Well I’m from Jersey” he says and then the others around him chime in and I lose the conversation among a debate between the kids over who feels at home and who doesn’t. “Spiritually I feel at home” I hear one of them say as I move further down the platform to find a map.
I move through the knots of people talking about life, the weather and everything in between as I find what I’m looking for and stop to examine it. Next to me are two teenagers just starting one of those fights that friends have from time to time when one of them announces how tough he is and gives the other a playful slap. The fight begins with both sides smiling and escalates until only one side is smiling and again until neither of them are. Slap turns into push which turns into the huggy, slappy, pushy not-quite-fight situation that any male who’s been through puberty has experienced. The situation becomes a lot clearer when I notice the girl sitting on a wall watching them nearby. An old man makes a typically Israeli sound that comes across as eh, eh, EH! He gestures to the two as they wrestle and the girl looks on.
They exchange furtive glances towards her and settle down without entirely stopping.
The tram arrives and I hop on board and watch the Jerusalem out of the window as I shuttle towards the centre of the city. I’ve arranged to meet my friend near Zion Square in the heart of what one might call the new city. The tram will take me all of the way there if I want it to. I watch Machane Yehuda market pass by me as the carriage glides over the tracks.
I jump off early at the station called Ha’Davidka in order to breath in some of the city. It was cold but a good kind of cold, the kind that lets you know you’re still alive. I walk past hundreds of people all hustling and bustling their way through the city and feel the life blood of Jerusalem whose energy is all around me.
It’s the start of the weekend and everyone knows it.
There’s something going on in the square itself, several hundred people are standing there and I can see some signs being held up. A Jewish baby was just murdered by a Hamas supporter who drove his car directly into people who were waiting for a tram and I assume this is connected. I see the black sweatshirts of the group Lehavim. These are the guys who recently demonstrated against the wedding of a Jew and an Arab. They are waving banners with slogans such as “Jewish blood isn’t forfeit” and “Jews Revenge”.
There are people everywhere in the square, a mix of young and old, religious and secular. I walk past a big man, over six feet tall and around the age of 50. He’s dressed in the black suit and white shirt of a religious man, he’s arguing with someone but I don’t stop to find out what about. The whole thing leaves a nasty taste in my mouth and I’m reminded of what friends told me happened in the city just after the three kids were murdered this summer, when thugs roamed the streets looking for Arabs and left wingers to beat up.
My friend, Natanel has sent me his location on WhatsApp and when I get there I’m not disappointed. It’s a little way up from Zion Square towards the Russian compound, very close to where Mike’s Place used to be when I was 18. I walk and am greeted by Netanel and his new girlfriend. We hug it out as Ray Charles’ piano plays out at us through speakers that I can’t see. The walls of the bar were once red but the paint has flaked off to such a great degree that the red was interspersed with the original light brown colour of the walls. There was a bar with several bearded hipster types sitting at it and I joined them. I get a beer and a complementary shot of whisky from a barman when I sit down. I’ve never met the guy yet soon we know each other intimately in that way barmen seem to have of making you their friend within moments.
We drink a few pints there and then it’s time to move on to a bar called Tel Aviv. Netanel swears by the hamburgers they serve. I’m not allowed to pay for my drinks as Netanel insists on covering the bill.
We make it to Tel Aviv and all order the same burger and more beer. It arrives and I’m not disappointed and it’s actually the first time I’ve ever had a burger with a fried egg on it despite the fact that it’s been in fashion for a while.
Tel Aviv is just one of a whole strip of bars and restaurants in the heart of Jerusalem and the thoroughfare all around is full of people. The seats are all taken and people are wandering around between them. Bumping into each other, meeting friends and just passing through. I think of the riots that are going on in East Jerusalem and as if on cue Netanel starts talking about it.
“You never feel it, whenever the news talks about riots people think that the city has come to a halt but it’s bullshit. You wouldn’t even know it was happening.”
It’s true. But the truth of that statement somehow gave me the feeling that it just provided further testament to just how utterly divorced form one another the two sides of the city really are.
We moved on to a final place. Netanel says it’s the only place in Jerusalem where every kind of person in the city can bump into each other. “Arabs, gays and lesbians, Chinese tourists, everyone comes here” he tells me. And so everyone does, just after we arrive my cousin Ma’ayan walks into the place, she’s a journalist with Reuters. We chat for a moment or two and I introduce my people to hers and she introduces her man to me.
Then she’s gone off some place.
The bar is built out of Jerusalem stone which makes me feel like I’m in a cave that has been carved out of rock and has a bar shoved into it. A small dance floor and the worst toilet you’ve ever seen complete the ambience.
After more drinks there the night’s over and I take the bus back to Tel Aviv. I love the 480 night bus because whenever I’ve taken it I’m usually the only one on the bus. This time there are a grand total of six of us descending back to the calm warmth of the city by the sea Tel Aviv. I arrive home to discover I forgot to take my keys out with me and wake up the wife in what she calls a “nicely drunken stupor”.