Snow fell in Jerusalem this week, or what passes for snow, in this Mediterranean country on the same latitude as Miami, Florida.
Of course, Israelis in general and Jerusalemites in particular don't have a clue what to do when a white flake or two begins to fall, and everything--everything--comes to a screeching halt. Snow is rare even in our mountain regions--Jerusalem only gets a dusting every 5 to 7 years on an average, and the coastal regions never see it. The ski "resort" at Neve Ativ on the Golan often opens (barely) for a month or so. Jerusalem is one of the few places in the country where central heating is needed at all in the winter, and even then, the temperature usually dips to freezing for maybe a couple of nights in the entire season (days tend to be, at worst, in the 40s Farenheit, usually in the 50s). Below freezing is very unusual, and really hated because the solar panels which provide hot water year round tend to crack if the pipes in them freeze; an expensive repair.
Nevertheless most American olim find Jerusalem winters very cold. Homes here are built for hot summer weather; insulation is virtually nonexistent, cracks around window frames let in cold air, the method of building itself (cement or cement block with plaster on the inside, stone facing on the outside) is cold, and most apartment buildings that do have central heating only turn it on for about 4 hours a day. There's no point in heating a building when everyone's at work or in school, especially since heating oil is now about $6 a gallon.
Israelis cope in a number of ingenious ways. They sit in their living rooms bundled up in anoraks, scarves, hats, clutching hot water bottles or electric foot warmers, or just don't get out of bed. We have electric underblankets, called "electric sheets" in Hebrew, which are pads put on top of the mattress, beneath the bedding, and which you switch on for a few minutes before getting into bed but do not sleep with them on. Delightful! Israelis also use portable gas or electric room heaters and relate to them rather like having a campfire in the middle of the living room. The latest craze is for dual-purpose air conditioners, which can heat in winter. The result of all this has been an unprecedented strain on the national electric grid.
Since Israeli winters are short, beginning (usually) toward the end of November, and ending by March, there's not much reason for investing a lot of money in long term solutions to the cold. Most of the winter the days are nippy but bright, indeed, it can be quite warm in midday. Then a front arrives, from the north (now you know what the references to the north wind mean in the Song of Songs), blowing wet and frigid from Russia and/or Turkey. First it gets overcast and very windy, then the rain begins, and if there is snow at all, it starts after the ground is absolutely saturated, which is why snow in Jerusalem is really slush. I find it very unimpressive, but parents bring their kids from Tel Aviv and other warmer places just to see it.
Israelis don't really have the necessary clothes for winter, since they need them so seldom. In the "big" storm of 1992, I found myself tying plastic bags over my kids' feet, since they only had trainers and no boots, and letting them use the oven mitts for lack of gloves. I also had to teach them that, if they were making a snow man, not to roll the giant balls of snow for the body uphill from the base of the garden but to begin from higher up and roll down. (I was rather surprised that this wasn't obvious)
So, life stopped for two days this week. Husband didn't drive his taxi, not because he doesn't know how to drive on slick streets but because at least 90% of the other drivers don't, and he didn't want to be hit by one. No one but myself went to work, and I only went on the second of the two days, as my clinic was running on an "emergency only" schedule. I was very glad to go as all of us had cabin fever badly by the second day. The only one who seemed happy with the weather was our sheep-sized Samoyed, Sheleg (which means "Snowy, davka). He was born here, so he copes with hot weather better than his breed does in its natural habitat of Alaska or Siberia, but he really gets frisky when winter begins.
No one's been complaining much, however. This winter has been unusually dry (but unusually cold) so far, and Israel's water reserves are very low. All the rain there is falls during the winter--from May to October there isn't a cloud in the sky--and what doesn't run into the Sea of Galilee or get soaked into the ground and winds up in an aquifer is a total loss. So snow, which melts slowly and doesn't run off saturated ground, is good. But what fell isn't enough, and we can only hope for a lot more stormy weather before the rainy season ends. The farmers, however, who are almost always unhappy (too dry, too wet, too windy, etc.) have already started lobbying the government for compensation on their spoiled crops and the price of strawberries this year is horrendous (the fact that it's a shemitta year, during which the land is supposed to lay fallow and the Orthodox won't eat the produce thereof unless certain methods are used, has jacked prices up anyway on just about everything).
Now that I'm diabetic I'm feeling the cold much more than I used to. And my computer is in a kind of storeroom that doesn't have any heating so I'm typing this with numb fingers. Could be worse, of course--last night, just as we sat down to Shabbat dinner, the electricity in our neighborhood went out for about 15 minutes. Very romantic.
And now I'm going to end this and put my hands back in my armpits to warm them up.