Over the years, there were many occasions in Jerusalem when I found myself in a
state of total aloneness.
Take, for example, walking down Jaffa Road –
Jerusalem’s main artery – at 1 a.m. I can recall thinking on many a walk
home from the Central Bus Station, “Here I am in this holiest of cities, where
the souls of prophets and kings who once walked here gather, and yet the only
living soul out on the streets is me. What gives?” During those times, I felt
very alone. But it wasn’t a bad feeling, by any means.
Perhaps because a
sense of exclusiveness accompanied it: Three quarters of a million other souls
live here and at this moment I’m the only one outside, drinking in the Eternal
City as she sleeps.
In Tel Aviv, I’ve yet to experience that sense of
aloneness. Even at 2 a.m. on a cold winter day, you can still spot a few night
owls out for a jog or walking the dog down the city’s main roads.
while aloneness may be a foreign concept in Tel Aviv, loneliness certainly
Despite the constant presence of other living souls – or perhaps
because of it – loneliness has a cunning way of creeping up on you in this city
when you least expect it. If you pay close attention, you can always spot the
Eleanor Rigbys in the crowd, because at one time or another, you’ve been there
too. Like when you’re walking through a crowd of people and suddenly you trip,
and when you look up you see that every head is turned in another
Or when you’re in a club that is heaving with bodies so that
it looks like a scene from a Spencer Tunick photograph and everyone looks
ecstatic, like they’re connecting on some elemental level with the energy being
emitted from all the human bodies smooshed next to them and, as they move in
unison to the beat, all you can think of is how you’ve never felt quite so
alone. And not in the good way.
Or when you’re at a Shabbat meal with
perfect strangers who remain perfect strangers because despite the fact that you
spent the meal exchanging various pleasantries such as job title and age (the
latter being asked only if Israelis are present) – apart from a storehouse of
mundane nothings, you really know nothing about them and they know nothing about
The whole issue of loneliness versus aloneness led me to thinking
about other trends that on the surface seem to be synonymous but that are
actually quite contrary.
One example is rambling versus ambling. While
both Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians are wont to mosey around the streets at a
leisurely pace, Tel Avivians are more inclined to amble, while Jerusalemites
ramble. The Tel Aviv amble is usually a conscious decision made on sunny days by
people with jobs who choose to clear their schedule in favor of a pleasant
stroll to nowhere-in-particular.
At some point, they may stop off for an
espresso in an outdoor café, or they may find themselves on the beach at
sunset. Ultimately, though, the Tel Aviv amble fulfills a purpose of some
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, 80 percent of the people you spot
sauntering in the streets seem to be professional ramblers who spend most
daylight hours wandering aimlessly. They almost never stop for coffee, unless
for some reason it’s free. Ramblers are people who have either been looking for
a job for the past two years, or have reached the conclusion that they were
never destined to have one.
Loneliness versus aloneness. Ramblers versus
amblers. The only thing that comes to mind by way of summary is a phrase coined
by Israeli backpackers the developing world over: Same-same, but
True to my confused identity of being an ex-Jerusalemite in
Tel Aviv, today I took a walk that turned out to be something between an amble
and a ramble.
While it had a purpose – namely, to get chatting to ambling
Tel Avivians about loneliness – I was shuffling my feet just like a Jerusalem
rambler. At one point, I found myself in the courtyard in front of the
cinematheque, where the municipality had been kind enough to put out some chairs
and tables. An old man was standing by a bench playing a mournful tune on his
violin. His violin case was open expectantly by his feet, but passersby were far
too busy to actually stop and listen for a moment.
I headed toward an
empty table to soak up the winter sun and listen to some Mendelssohn. Another
man arrived just as I did and politely told me he’d only be there for a minute
to drink his coffee. I said that was quite all right, and, feeling rather bold,
decided to plow ahead with my mission. I asked him if he was a native, and when
he answered in the affirmative, I asked him if he had ever experienced
loneliness in the Big City.
Like many people who settle here, Elad – that
was his name – moved to Tel Aviv after spending half a year
We compared notes on India, the country where one can buy
T-shirts emblazoned with the aforementioned “Same-same, but different” maxim. He
moved to the Florentin area in south Tel Aviv and discovered that many of his
neighbors were of the same ilk as the people he had met during his travels, yet
at the same time they were also very different.
Elad observed that
despite having returned to Israel with many new things, like a shiny new tiger
lily tattoo, for some reason they forget what it’s like to connect with
strangers. It’s almost as if the city seizes them by the collar the moment they
land and hurls them into their own protective bubble.
But as Elad was
speaking, I realized that although I agreed wholeheartedly with every word, the
argument wasn’t really fair.
After all, he could’ve been referring to
London or New York or any other metropolis in the world. I doubt that the
Japanese backpackers I met while traveling are open enough to converse with
strangers once they return home to Tokyo.
Big, anonymous, 24-hour cities
often feel lonely because many of the people that move to them do so without
their families. They are orphan cities. After Elad had said his goodbyes and
wished me luck with my column, he disappeared into the crowd. I looked up at the
old man who was unwittingly giving my morning a soundtrack with his violin
playing, and vaguely wondered if he was also an orphan in this city.
suddenly recalled the photos of Joshua Bell, the famous violinist, that have
been making the rounds on Facebook recently.
As part of a social
experiment, Bell played Bach on his violin in a metro station in Washington, yet
amazingly, despite his obvious virtuoso ability, very few people actually
stopped to listen. The moral of the story is that if we do not have a moment to
stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music
ever written, how many other things are we missing? While I didn’t actually
believe the old man was a Yehudi Menuhin or Isaac Stern in disguise, I thought
it worthwhile to approach him nonetheless. As I dropped some coins into his case
I let the old man know how appreciative I was of his brightening my morning with
his playing. He looked at me with a quizzical expression that was clearly
asking, “Do I know you?” But when he realized I didn’t, he stretched his bow
over the violin’s strings and played a short tune. It was a musical “thank you”
from one orphan to another.
On the way home, I walked over a bridge that
spans the Ayalon freeway. There is nothing as lonely as standing over a
busy highway. The cars were headed in the direction of Jerusalem, a city that is
bigger than this one yet doesn’t seem to know it. With the attitude of a small
Himalayan village in which strangers talk to strangers, Jerusalem continues to
march on proudly to the beat of its own drum.
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