JERUSALEM (Jan. 5)
“Aren’t you scared to ride the bus?” asks Charlotte, a family friend visiting from Orlando, Fla.
It’s a question that I’m used to by now, one that I hear from friends and family back home as well as visitors here.
So I give my routine answer: “You just do it. I have to get around, it’s too expensive to get cabs everywhere. Plus,” I add, “there are thousands of buses that arrive safely at their destination every day. It’s not as bad as it seems in the media.”
I deliver my statement with a brave face, explaining how riding the buses and sitting in cafes is my own way of saying that I will not let terrorists stop me from living my life. For a moment I pretend that in the six months that I’ve lived here as a citizen, I’ve overcome my petty fears.
But unfortunately, it’s not true, and I must admit the reality.
“It’s still scary,” I say to Charlotte. “I’m always checking every person that gets on the bus, seeing if they look like an Arab. Even if it’s only a dark-skinned Israeli, I still find myself examining their waistline.”
As we go on speaking about these fears, I think to myself how difficult it is to feel at ease in Jerusalem.
Sometimes, I’ll start to settle into my seat on the No. 18 bus from Ben Yehuda Street, or find a little comfort sipping tea with a friend in a cafe on Emek Refaim Street. Suddenly, a random pedestrian with a bulky winter coat will trigger that dizzy feeling in my stomach, making me sit up nervously in my chair again.
But it’s a feeling that doesn’t stick for long.
The strength of the Israelis becomes clear in so many daily events and helps me push ahead with my own life.
On a Friday afternoon coming back from the open-air market before Shabbat, the bus bustles with a collage of black hats, fruits and vegetables, gel-spiked hair, sweet challahs and tight T-shirts. People are pushing, laughing, and asking strangers about their purchases. There is no tension in the air, only excitement for Shabbat and a burning desire for everyone to get home.
I walk past Sbarro, a restaurant that was the site of a terror bombing back in August 2001. The line for pizza and pasta is long, and the seats are almost all taken. There is a small memorial in the front of the building, but otherwise, no one would know.
Later I walk past Cafe Hillel, the scene of a terror bombing last September. Only a month after the blast the blown-out windows were repaired and the cafe’s doors were open for business again. Now more than ever, the restaurant is filled with a mix of cigarette smoke and laughter as a line of people wait for tables outside.
“Look around, the place is full,” said a Cafe Hillel waiter who was working the night of the bombing. “You see that people are still coming in here and they are still enjoying themselves. Nothing will stop us; we just have to go on living our lives. There is no choice.”
For a second, I wonder sadly if Israelis survive by forgetting. On a Saturday night like any other, friends were gathered, eating, drinking and laughing. Then, all of a sudden, boom. The next moment, smoke, sirens, hysterics. Seven people dead, including American-born Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter; the blast killed her the night before her wedding. Fifty-five others were injured that night.
Only a month later, the Saturday-night crowds are back with a vengeance, the wait staff bustling as people eat, drink and laugh together again. Maybe everyone has just forgotten.
When I asked the Cafe Hillel waiter if thoughts of that evening still haunted him, he answered, “How can you forget?”
He took some time off from work after the bombing. Despite the haunting memories that linger every time he walks into work, when the restaurant opened a month later, he went back on the job.
“If you’re stuck in the past, you’re just not living,” he said.
Sadly, Israelis are people who have grown used to loss. These are people who fight in the army and know the fallen solders whose names appear in the papers. Many have lost friends to terrorism, and some even have lost family. The country is too small to remove the pain from their psyche.
Despite the pain and the fear, everyone still pushes forward. It’s as if they all are trying to tell the world and each other: “We are not only dying here in Israel, we are living too.”
Despite my fears, I too am alive more and more every day in the Jewish homeland.
But I am still scared.
That is the thing that the terrorists have done to me, and to all of us here. They have destroyed our comfort and our feeling of security. They have even destroyed the comfort of my mother and father in Pittsburgh who call diligently every Sunday morning to make sure that I’ve made it home safely after Shabbat.
I’ll just keep pushing forward, however, like the Israelis around me.
I’ll hop on the bus behind the old Moroccan woman with her pushcart full of groceries, smiling and feeling comforted as she reads aloud from her wrinkled Book of Psalms, praying not just for our bus, but for all the buses and all the cafes in Israel.