February 1, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, February 1, 2002

Dear family and friends,

We've mostly been home over the last week. I'm getting over a nasty bout of bronchitis. I missed my weekly Jerusalem day, Thursday, when I go to class and take care of anything that I need a big city for. This morning, though, Jason and I were feeling a lot better and we decided to use the weekend to take care of a few errands in Jerusalem.

In central Jerusalem this morning I was pleasantly surprised to find the area bustling as usual. I don't know if it's because of the unseasonably warm weather of because it was Friday morning, the start of the weekend, but in any case, it's the busiest I've seen the city centre for a while, and I'm usually there at least once a week.

The popular Cafe Rimon was packed to bursting, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall was crowded and it felt almost like old times in downtown Jerusalem, save for a much bigger police presence than usual. And the falafel at Moshiko's on Ben Yehuda is as good as ever.

On the downside several other well known eateries have either moved or closed down. The legendary Cafe Atara, which has been around longer than the State of Israel, has moved to a quieter residential area, ironically on Gaza Street. Another popular Ben Yehuda meeting place, Cafe Chagall, is now in a shopping mall in the sleepy Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, its huge Ben Yehuda premises empty. Rumour has it that Starbucks might open its first Jerusalem branch there, but I'll believe that when I see it. Several other stores have closing-down sales advertised, and on Jaffa Road a few were temporarily closed due either to bomb damage or financial problems. One or two still sported post-September 11 banners with message of support and sympathy for New York and the American people.

Outside a bank a busker was playing a lively klezmer rendition of the popular Israeli folk song "Bashana Haba-ah" - Next Year. The jaunty clarinet music brought to mind the words of the song (my rough translation):

"Next year we'll sit on the balcony
And count the migrating birds.
Children on vacation will play catch
Between the house and the fields.
You'll see just how good it will be next year.

"Red grapes will ripen by the evening
To be served chilled at the table.
And subdued winds will blow over the road
Carrying old newspapers and a cloud.
Oh you'll see just how good it will be next year."

It is one of those quintessentially Israeli songs, maybe a little cliched, a little naive, a little saccharine, but full of the basic optimism that despite the current situation things will get better, our dreams will be fulfilled, peace is as always just around the next crisis.

As we walked down the street the busker moved on to another Israeli classic "Yerushalayim shel Zahav" - Jerusalem of Gold. I last heard that tune last Sunday as I sat at home watching the breaking news from Jerusalem. As the clock in Jerusalem's Bell Centre chimed the hour, its bells rang out Jerusalem the Gold, the faint melody penetrating the chaos of the sirens and shouts of emergency crews at the scene of the latest suicide bombing on Jaffa Road, just around the corner.

The following day was Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees, the festival which falls in the middle of winter, heralding the approach of spring. It is a festival of renewal, of tree planting, of celebrating the bounty of the land. All around Jerusalem, and elsewhere in Israel, the almond trees are in blossom, dotting the hillsides and fields with puffs of pink and white. On the bare fig trees the first tiny unripe figs are making an appearance.

The stores are full of every kind of dried fruit, from the typical dates, figs and apricots, to more exotic dried etrog (citron) peel and candied kumquats, and the traditional, if nowadays often forgotten, dried carob. Considering the abundance of carob trees here one might as well just collect the dried out fallen fruit, but anyway. Many workplaces serve special fruit platters or send their workers home with baskets of dried fruit.

Some Jews have the custom of holding a special Tu B'Shvat feast at which fruits and nuts are eaten and biblical verses read which refer to the symbolism of the different fruits. The Seven Species, fruits and grains biblically identified with the Land of Israel, hold centre stage, and are blessed and eaten before the other produce. As with many of our festivals, Tu B'Shvat is a festival of the Land of Israel, which has little meaning elsewhere, so tied is it to the seasons and species native to this part of the world. We had meant to go to one, but unfortunately we weren't well enough. Please God next year.

On a more sombre note, for me it's also a time for remembering a classmate who was killed on active duty in a military helicopter crash five years ago. The crash claimed the lives of 73 Israelis, making it the worst such disaster in Israel's history. Israel Channel 1 is going to show a commemorative programme on the event and the memory is cruelly jerked with every promo shown, bringing back that terrible evening's news over and over again, as an eyewitness repeatedly describes the crash over a kibbutz in northern Israel. Last week families of those killed held a tree planting ceremony in their memory near the crash site. It's a time of year when a few of us make a point of calling each other, just to reminisce.

So that's how it's been lately, bittersweet.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.