The city I grew up in had a population of about a hundred thousand within its borders, but its metropolitan area was in the vicinity of a couple of million. It was--is--the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. Now I live in a city of about half a million, maybe a little more, and it's also a capital, and might just influence the future of the world as much as dear old DC--at least Washington DC in the older, sleepier incarnation of my childhood, before JFK shook it up and when "Watergate" meant the steps leading from the Lincoln Memorial to the edge of the Potomac. On summer nights there would be Navy and Marine Band concerts on a barge moored there, and there was a very nice restaurant called the "Watergate Inn" just a couple of blocks away. Before I left DC finally in 1978, the concerts were still being held, but no one could hear anything because planes were coming in to land at National--whoops, it's now Reagan--Airport every minute, and the restaurant was long gone; the infamous apartment complex that has given the suffix "-gate" to every government booboo in the world has squashed out even the very memory of pleasant lunches overlooking the river.
This past week I went to a conference in Tiberias, and since I don't get out of Jerusalem much, I was thinking, on the armored bus taking me through the Jordan Valley, a bit about the difference in capitals. The notorious "bureaucratia Israelit" (don't think you need a dictionary for that one) never bothered me much--with a mother who spent over 35 years working for the US government, first at the Veterans' Administration and later in the State Department/Agency for International Administration--I was immunized at an early age to the peculiar mindset of the tenured civil servant. That the ones here speak a different dialect of bureaucratese (right to left) and forms here tend to be in triplicate instead of quintuple (and aren't 5 feet long and accordion-pleated as the Form 57 for summer employment I used to fill out in high school, asking me if I intended to overthrow the US government by force, and if I was a homosexual) isn't much of a barrier, really.
What American immigrants to Israel lack is the feeling of camaraderie, that we're all in this mess (whatever the mess is) together, that old-timers in Israel have. They also have (from the Israeli standpoint) an astonishing respect for authority. American immigrants expect everything to be governed by immutable rules and procedures in a fair way. Israelis know that everything is indeed subject to rules, etc. but also knows that if the clerk is a relative of the sister-in-law of the upstairs neighbor, it need not be immutable. Only a fool would think the regulations and procedures were instigated for fairness and efficiency, and Israelis aren't fools--or "frieirs", which means "suckers". The rules exist (1) because they've always been there, and (2) they give a semblance of power and control to the person who applies them, and heaven knows, we usually feel quite out of control of our destinies in this part of the world.
I was thinking about this because, as we neared the Kinneret--the Sea of Galilee, I was musing on an upcoming trip to City Hall that I need to make, and have been putting off. The governmental agency in charge of water just discontinued my discount on a certain number of cubic meters of water specially designated for my garden, which means the current crop of weeds isn't being watered at all, and if I have any sense I will turn the whole place into the kind of garden seen in Japanese Zen temples--you know, gravel raked artfully around a couple of giant stones. Dealing with the necessary bureaucrats will take all morning and probably not get me anywhere, but what's annoying is that while the Kinneret was at its lowest level ever, due to three years' drought, I had the discount, while now that it's gently lapping at the top of the embankments of Tiberias and shloshing right up to lawns (the beaches are submerged) because of two years of extraordinary rains...the City, in its infinite wisdom, has made water more expensive. Of course, it's only expensive for me because I'm not growing a couple hundred dunams of cotton; if I were a farmer, my water would be government-subsidized. But there may be hope...I think there's a woman in that department whose child was in pre-school with one of mine...
Tiberias has changed mightily since I lived on a nearby kibbutz, Lavi, in 1978 for half a year. I have a fondness for the town, which is a little odd, because it's not really a very attractive or comfortable place. I used to joke that it was in competition with Afula for the "Armpit of Israel" award, but both places have improved. The downtown is still rather grotty, and, because of the lack of tourists, everyone's rather glum. My personal problem with it is that it's 200 meters, more or less, below sea level, which gives me headaches and means there are only two kinds of climate: hot, and extremely hot. However, the escarpment directly behind the town center is very steep, and the top neighborhoods, some of which are (by Israeli standards) very upscale indeed, are almost 100 meters above sea level and the temperature is about 10 degrees Celsius lower, which makes it tolerable. Lavi, which is higher still, was quite cold in winter.
There are three reasons I like Tiberias. One is the Pagoda restaurant, which is the best kosher Chinese restaurant in Israel, not just food-wise, but architecturally, since it's built like a Chinese pavilion--the roof tiles are exquisite and the Devil screen at the entrance is a nice touch. The next reason is a little odd. I'm not normally given to visions, or epiphanies (of the variety Saul/Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, or Bilaam and his ass. The only talking donkey I know was in "Shrek")
However, in 1976, while accompanying my parents on an organized tour of Israel, I visited the ruins of the ancient city, dating from the Mishnaic period. They are right by the hot springs, and one of the excavated buildings is a synagogue with a mosaic floor. While the guide was doing his spiel, I wandered around a bit. Just prior to coming to Israel, I'd been learning a bit of Talmud. And now, in my head, I thought I could see Reb Moishe and Reb Shmulik, venerable sages, sitting on the stone benches surrounding the walls of the synagogue.
"Oof", says Reb Moishe, standing up and rubbing his tush. "Why didn't I think to bring a cushion?"
"Yeah", says Reb Shmulik. "I could do with a soak in the hot springs. My joints aren't what they used to be". And off they go, and when they're relaxing in the mineral water, they begin to argue a point that had been discussed during the study session earlier. Just then a third Tanna (early Mishnaic sage) enters the room. "What is it with you guys? Always talking shop!"At this point, I returned to reality, if not sanity, since this "vision" became one of my main reasons for making aliyah.
At Kibbutz Lavi, on top of the Jordan Valley escarpment, only a few hundred meters from the Horns of Hattin, the spot where Saladin put an end to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, a group of men sit every evening in a Daf Yomi group (Lavi is a religious kibbutz) and learn what Reb Moishe and Reb Shmulik taught.
The chain never broke; not the Romans, not the Inquisition, not the Nazis, could break it.
My last reason is rather sentimental. When I made formal aliyah (immigrated) to Israel in 1978, I decided to change my surname to an Israeli one. It's a fairly common practice. Since I was at Lavi, the closest branch of the Interior Ministry was a single room in a black basalt stone building dating from Ottoman times. I doubt the clerks had very much to do besides drink coffee. They were so enthused about my name-changing that one of them found a bottle of sweet Kiddush wine in a drawer and called in all his co-workers to raise a "kosit" in celebration. Only in Israel!
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