There are two things The Wife and I don’t do a lot: we don’t spend many
Shabbatot in Jerusalem (we live in Ma’aleh Adumim), and we don’t log a lot of
kilometers on public transportation in the capital.
The last Shabbat we
spent in Jerusalem must have been 10 years ago, when a friend celebrated his
kid’s bar mitzvah and put all his guests up in a hotel (I wish that friend was
blessed with even more sons). And the last time I rode Jerusalem’s Light Rail
was soon after it opened, when one could ride for free.
So imagine our
thrill when we had the good fortune two weeks ago to again spend Shabbat in a
Jerusalem hotel. The Wife and I planned to drive into town, but this was the day
the main streets of the capital were closed to let Formula 1 cars race around
the city. Instead we drove to Ammunition Hill and took the Light
There, standing at the train station with dozens of others trying
to figure out how exactly to use the ticket machine, and silently joining in the
cursing of some guy at the front fumbling with his change and causing everyone
in line to miss the next train, we witnessed a singular sight: a smattering of
young people in red shirts cordially handing out pamphlets to the not-so-happy
And what did the pamphlets say? “First exit, then
In other words, first let people off the train before piling on
The contrast was jarring. On one side of the platform were a
couple dozen tense people gathered helterskelter around the user-unfriendly
machine – not in a proper queue – eyeballing each other suspiciously and ready
to kill if someone butted in line. On the other side stood the cheerful
teenagers handing out pamphlets, trying to educate the masses on proper
“Nope” I admonished The Wife within earshot of
one of the pamphlet distributors, as a train stopped and she edged ever so close
to the door. “First they get off, and only then can we get on.” The pamphlet
MY FIRST reaction to this exercise in public
education was the reflexive condescending snicker of the American immigrant:
“How stupid these natives who don’t know innately how to board a train. How
utterly boorish these people who must be taught such basic behavior. This would
never happen in San Francisco.”
Only in Israel, I thought disdainfully,
were public funds wasted trying to teach people something they should know
But then I caught myself. First, because anyone who has
traveled trains and subways around the world can describe the crush when doors
open and the impatient try to rush in before the others step out (except,
perhaps, in Japan). And, secondly, because efforts to educate “dull-witted”
publics about basic behavior are a world-wide phenomenon.
Walk into the
restrooms in restaurants and department stores in New York and over the
washbasin you will see a sign screaming, “Employees must wash hands before
returning to work.”
Is that stating the obvious any less than those train
etiquette pamphlets? Shouldn’t that be instinctive knowledge? (I have always
been troubled by those signs because they were only addressed to employees. Does
that mean that employees must wash their hands, but everyone else can go out
with germ-laden paws?) In Canada signs instruct the public on respiratory
etiquette. When you sneeze or cough, these signs read, be sure to cover your
mouth. And in Hong Kong notices are posted in potentially jam-packed squares
dispensing crowd control advice. “Stay calm,” one sign entreats, “Do not push
your way through the crowd.”
Providing obvious instructions, therefore,
is not only done in Israel.
IF ANYTHING, Israel is proof that change is
possible. This country has traveled light-years over the past three decades in
promoting norms of civility and etiquette. The stereotype of the rude Israeli
elbowing a grandma out of a bus line to grab a seat while spitting
sunflower-seed shells and yelling at a guy sitting at the back of the bus has
lost some of its accuracy over the years. Israelis do change; they have
Take smoking in public, for instance. When the Knesset passed a
law in 1983 banning smoking in public places the conventional wisdom was that
this was a decree the public could simply not bear.
Israelis, it was
widely thought, would not give up smoking at coffee shops, in army barracks, or
on the buses. Heck, there was deep doubt whether bus drivers would give up
smoking on the buses.
But here we are, a mere 30 years later, and smoking
in public places has been greatly reduced as that law has gradually been
respected. Granted, it wasn’t easy. For years fights broke out in cafes, cinemas
and maternity wards whenever someone lit up a cigarette. My father, on one of
his visits here, took a picture in a restaurant of a uniformed policeman sitting
at a table and lighting up directly under a no-smoking sign.
happens if you point to the sign and ask him to stop smoking,” I urged in
Ever prescient, he declined.
NO, RATHER than roll the eyes
and look down the nose at Jerusalem Light Rail’s efforts to educate the public,
I say why stop there.
Why not hire monitors in supermarkets to hand out
leaflets at the “express lane” saying 10 items means just that, 10 items, and
that Coke and frozen orange juice are considered two items, even though they are
both from the beverage family.
Why not place people at stoplights to hand
out pamphlets to drivers saying it is not really worth it to honk during that
nanosecond before the light turns from orange to green? Why not place
supervisors at bowling lanes reminding folks that if two people are up to roll
at the same time, the bowler on the left must let the one on the right go first?
And why not place people at ATMs around the country with flyers extolling the
virtues of standing a few steps back from the guy in front when he draws his
cash out of the machine?
Rather than looking at the Jerusalem Light Rail
campaign as a reflection of our national loutishness, I recommend looking at the
glass half full: the campaign reflects Israeli hopefulness, a basic belief that
behavior – even the most ingrained – can be modified. Indeed, the belief that
Israelis may change the way they get on and off the train bespeaks a fiercely