Israel experience offers new take on humanity

This is usually illegal,” my Israeli cab driver said in Hebrew as we swung left onto an enormous, mostly deserted Jerusalem boulevard. “But it’s four in the morning. Nobody’s watching.”

I didn’t even know what was illegal about the turn. Then again, at 4 a.m. I was in no state to process road signs in English, let alone in Hebrew. “For sure!” I said. One of the fun things in Hebrew is how conversations sound like the Bible. The slang term “for sure” comes from the ancient root “sure” or “promised” — as in, “the Promised Land.” Essentially, we were agreeing that the Lord in His grace had provided for us to careen through the streets of Jerusalem at 4 a.m.

“You’re American?” my cab driver asked. We talked about my summer job in Israel, American life and my experiences in Israel, and then he asked:

“Do you know who sings this song?” He proceeded to play on his cell phone a scratchy version of a modern classic I swiftly identified for him: “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley.

“An American Jew can do only a few things well in Israel, but naming Gnarls Barkley is one of them,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” my cab driver said, as we reached my street. “Slowly, slowly, your Hebrew will improve. I am happy we met.”

The next evening, I visited my landlord’s apartment to pay the rent. When I arrived, I called him — just to ask where to get off the elevator. But in two minutes he was down to greet me and welcome me upstairs.

“Come, sit, let me get you a glass of water!” he said in English. “I wish I could offer you more.” Scarcely older than I, he wore the white shirt and black slacks traditional to ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

On the sofa, a friend of my landlord’s greeted me. I told them hilarious and painful stories from my time as the token Jew at prep school. My landlord described how studying his ancestors’ millennia-old ideas — in Israel, the very place where they were passed down — almost feels like standing at Mount Sinai.

They invited me to evening prayers. My landlord’s friend described how his great-grandfather worshipped in the same tiny synagogue.

“You see these cobblestones?” he said. “It’s the same floor.”

Afterward, they walked me halfway back to my neighborhood. We hugged.

These two stories might seem like opposites, revealing a society where fast, cool modernity adjoins religious tradition. But the common thread is a loud fearlessness of loving strangers.

In America, I probably would have just taken the cab quietly and left, and I probably would have just paid the rent quietly and left.

America, granted, is a big country. Different areas have different cultures. Nor is all of Israel like Jerusalem. But even in Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean Manhattan, I felt a spirit I never felt growing up in an American city.

In another duality of spirit, this summer saw two sagas close: “Harry Potter” and “The Sopranos.” (As J.K. Rowling is English, Harry Potter is not American per se, but you wouldn’t know it from the series’s stranglehold on U.S. bestseller lists.) One can debate the Potter installment’s merits. Less debatable is that the final pages glide off into nonsense. Capping the showdown with Evil Personified, Harry announces, “I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime,” and dances straight into an epilogue where, happily married, he sends his children off to Hogwarts. “All was well,” J.K. Rowling writes.

Is all ever well? After the peak battle with Voldemort — or the peak joy of sending one’s children to one’s alma mater — comes another day of small delights and private anxieties. The American dream of transforming this organic poignancy into a perpetual happy ending too often stifles wellness. It breeds insatiability.

David Chase gets this. Ending a TV epic in the middle of a scene suggests that ordinary moments are not waiting periods before full destruction or redemption. Our time on Earth is just time. Life is simply whatever we do in this time, for as long as this time lasts.

If America is “Harry Potter,” Israel is “The Sopranos.” The Palestinian Intifada ended three years ago, yet Israel remains threaded with awareness of terrorism. The era is recent when every bus, school and nightclub was a war zone. For this reason — combined with spirited peoplehood, in the only country where Jews, finally freed from being minorities, can enjoy the peace of normalcy — Israelis reach out with bare emotion. They do not wait. They do not wait for a day when “all is well”; that day may never come. Israelis reach out in parks, between cars in traffic and walking home from work, with whoever is there.

This philosophy is not cheerful. But it is real. Small and fought for, human affections become something not to acquire, but to experience. I may never see that cab driver again. Still, freed of planning or worrying about whether I would, I enjoyed that cab ride fearlessly. And, ironically, people we meet this way are often people whom we want to see again, and whom we do see again.

A life of official pageants — Valentine’s Day, a national holiday or a first day at school — and moments spent waiting for them feels hollow in comparison. Raw reality sharpens the sweetness of gratitude. In Israel, a common answer to “How are you?” is “Thank God” — literally, “Blessed be the Name.”

One remembers why reaching out amid traffic makes sense in the first place: We are all people. Hebrew, interestingly, has no plural for the word “person.” The term used instead is “children of Adam.”

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on Mondays.

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