It’s 1 a.m. The lights of the distant streets of Jerusalem poured across the ridges and down into the valleys.
I had just left the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem in an ambulance-bus of the Hadassah hospitals. An ambulance- bus is an extra-legal fiction. The hospital runs buses on Shabbat to pick up staff.
Decades ago, the buses were stoned by you-know-who for violating the Sabbath.
The solution was to dress the bus in ambulance colors. An ambulance by any other name is an ambulance, as long as so designated.
Even a bus.
Back to the bus: I was the sole passenger.
The driver is a scion of a noted Sephardi- Italian family. As we exited the hospital grounds, stood a man in a beautiful black silk Prince Albert (aka kapoteh) and a tall round rich shtreimel.
The man standing waved at us; he wanted a lift. The moon had not yet come up, and silence surrounded him as he waited, under the dark hillside. Illumination came only from the nearby hospital buildings.
I wondered whether the driver would stop. He did. After all there will be no buses at this hour and who knows when a taxi may come by.
Hadassah Ein Kerem is the furthest end of the outstretched arm of Jerusalem westwards. Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion – so they told me back in December 1955 at the groundbreaking for the hospital – wanted to safeguard Jerusalem from the west and stretch the city as far as possible, because Jordan controlled the eastern boundary. Its soldiers were on the Old City walls, only 400 meters as the bullet flies from where I live today.
From Sha’ar Hagai (Bab al-Wad) a long finger poked up linking Jerusalem to the rest of the country. That finger was the Jerusalem corridor; Ben-Gurion wanted a large Jerusalem, pushing into the corridor.
The empty area in the middle of the city, between say Rehavia and Kiryat Hayovel would be populated later.
The strategic corridor protected the road to Jerusalem. It was populated by lonely immigrant villages as it narrowed down to Jerusalem. Romanians, Moroccans, Holocaust survivors, men and women from the Atlas Mountains and from Kurdistan. All were trained for local defense using the Mauser rifle.
Used by the Imperial German army in the First World War, by Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the IDF in 1948 onward, it had three stamps punched into it: the double-headed eagle of the Kaiser, the swastika and the Star of David. Many new immigrants mispronounced the strange Germanic name: the rifle was rechristened (so to speak) “Roveh Mamzer (bastard rifle).”
A long digression, gentle reader, but one that is necessary to add more light to the dark 1 a.m. night. The driver stopped the white bus-ambulance. The bearded be-shtreimeled hitchhiker clambered in.
The driver pointed him to the seat across the aisle from me. The following conversation ensued: -What group of hassidim do you belong to, sir, if I may ask? -Not a hasid.
-Litvak (Lithuanian)? -No, Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite).
- Oh, but you’re wearing black, not the striped robes.
-Because of Hol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the holiday). Do you speak Yiddish? -Certainly, let’s go on in Yiddish. These are not idle questions. I am asking in order to learn, and not to invade your privacy.
-So may I ask what you do? -I study in a yeshiva.
-Oh, which one? -It’s in Mea She’arim -Yes, but there are many there.
-Yesihvas Shoimrei Hachoimos.
-That is the yeshiva of Natorei Karta.
(Dear reader, in case you are not au courant, that is the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox).
- I am a “Tsiyoini” (Tsiyoni in non-Yiddishized Hebrew means Zionist). I am a Zionist and was a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization and of the Jewish Agency.
I am in an expansive mood. It has been holiday time. I have good neighbors in my hospital room on Mount Scopus. I stretch out my hand to him and fall back (embarrassingly) on that old saw.
–We are all Jews.
He ignores my hand.
I do not get upset. After all, had I not been baiting him with my Zionist credentials? Anyway, normally I would not shake hands with members of a group, some of whom are ministers in the PA or who travel to Tehran and pose for photos, groveling, cloyingly smiling, with the unquestionably Jew-loving leaders of Iran.
- But you don’t take money from the government. You are opposed to the state.
- Those who take… they’re the same as us.
- Okay, so how do you get money [for the yeshiva to support him, I meant]? - We have our sources. Benefactors.
Driving from Ein Kerem to Mount Scopus at 1 a.m. is recommended for avoiding traffic jams. In about as long as this exchange took, we had reached the point where the road meets that will cut us over to Scopus. He gets off.
- Thank you very much. And, a refuah she’lemah – a full recovery.
- Mo’adim lesimha (happy holiday), I reply.
Joyous holiday to you! I wonder who the benefactors are. I think I can guess some of them… In a few minutes, I return to the orthopedic ward on Mount Scopus. In the youth movement, we sang the haunting “From the peak of Mount Scopus, peace unto you O Jerusalem.” Now I am haunting a hospital ward on Scopus.
I enter our triple room. A retiree from Israel TV is in the middle bed. At his other side is the self-stereotyped Liverpudlian- Israeli, Ammi Shor.
Liverpool has a shape of its own and a Jewish shape even more of its own. It is almost 1:30 in the morning. I make no noise. The “middle-man” says, “Ammi! You are snoring!” Ammi: “Only when I sleep.”
Later that night, the middle-man wakes up with a start.
“Ammi, what time is it?” Ammi, awakened from a deep (snoring?) sleep, “Time you bought a watch.”
I burst out laughing loud and hard.
Who can beat Liverpool? Psalms: When the Lord returned the captives to Zion, we were like unto dreamers.
The dream is realized. Shalom to you, O Jerusalem.
Avraham Avi-hai has returned to journalism after decades of public service, including in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. He has (some say is) a pain in the back and is being treated at Hadassah Mount Scopus. His roommate Ammi Shor gave permission to use his name.