It’s been a month since returning from my annual family visit to Israel. It has taken that long to process everything I experienced. My first thought was how two weeks is not enough. My dream would be future visits of a month or two.
Grandchildren change things and it was during last year’s visit when I first started to notice my perspective changing. The tourist spots were of waning interest in 2017 and of absolutely no interest this year.
This year I immersed myself in family and community life. I joined a Jerusalem community centre and I was in the gym almost every day. Going every day seemed to help get a snapshot of life in Israel because naked men in a locker room can’t hide anything.
The first thing to understand is that unlike Canada, where there are many relatively young, well-heeled retired people keeping health clubs busy during working hours, in Jerusalem, on working days, it’s mostly very elderly people – among them many Russian-speakers – who use the pool. These Israelis look weathered and worn. Their eyes say they’ve had a hard life. They may have earned the right to be grumpy and intensely grumpy many of them are. I didn’t take it personally, except once.
I came out of the shower and saw that my stuff which had been left on a bench beneath a hook was gone. As I looked for my clothes, an old guy – I can safely say that because he was at least 20 years older than me – pointed his finger around the corner. My bag and clothes were piled on another bench because the grumpy old man thought my belongings were in his way.
I knew no one spoke much English in that locker room crowd but I wanted to show that I wasn’t happy. So, in English, I put on a show of feigned anger. It was an outburst I would never duplicate in Canada. I think I instinctively did it in Israel because it was my way of sticking up for myself. It seems to me, that in Israel, Jews sticking up for themselves is in the blood as much as stubbornness is often in the air.
The community centre had a spinning room with the usual racing bikes but the classes are only in the evening when people are not working. While in Canada there are daily classes and guaranteed access to cycling facilities between classes, at this gym in Jerusalem, the room is locked during the day.
Because they had no racing bikes on the gym floor I asked for access to the spinning room. But I was told it’s never open during the day. On my last day, I asked the gym manager, if, as a special favour, he could quietly unlock the door. He told me he just couldn’t.
Flexibility does not come naturally or easily in Israel. I’ve known that since my daughters made aliyah a decade ago. I knew from their frustration and tears that rules and bureaucracy often lead to a kind of stubborn obstinacy which Canadians can’t understand. But history tells us that rules, coupled with the instinct to stand tall and not give in, are consistent in a country that relies on a strong military to protect it. The military is where soldiers obey orders and follow rules and, of course, almost every Israeli has lived that experience.
Our seder was held in the Golan and it was impossible not to think of the brutal Syrian civil war on the doorstep of thriving Israeli towns. While so much of Syria has been reduced to rubble, Israeli infrastructure in the Golan continues to shine with an emerging oil industry linked by recently built highways.
The contrast between a thriving county in a geo-political neighborhood of turmoil was glaring. The new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has been completed. Final tests are being conducted before the 35-minute service opens to the public. There are sections where the shiny new train will thunder past the controversial and contested wall separating Israelis from Palestinians.
Seventy years of growth and progress contrasted with 70 years of fighting for the right to continue to progress.
Being obstinate, resolute and sometimes grumpy could be what it takes to live there.