After year of coronavirus 'hibernation,' Israel's cities wake up

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: “When the shuk is full, the heart is full,” a vendor in Mahaneh Yehuda told a television reporter.

BACK TO NORMAL? Israelis flock to the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem during Passover this week. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
BACK TO NORMAL? Israelis flock to the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem during Passover this week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A man appearing to be in his 60s danced solo between tables set up at an outdoor café on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road on Tuesday, flitting and gyrating to Greek music coming from a trio of street musicians just a few meters away. He wore a yellow plaid jacket, matching pants, and a tassel-less red fez, all the while swinging a green cocktail umbrella.

It was not clear whether this dancer with the Tiny Tim attire and the moves of Mr. Bojangles was part of the street musicians’ act or just an eclectically dressed passerby with no inhibitions who was so touched by the music that he just had to dance – just had to.
Either way, he did, in the process sweeping up some café customers who joined him for a few steps here, a few swings of the hips there. Then they went back to their tables and continued sipping whipped-cream-topped ice coffees. And he continued to dance.
Others took selfies with the dancing man as a background prop, capturing the colorful moment. An appropriate caption to those photos would be simple: Jerusalem returns to life.

Yes, Jerusalem came back to life this week during the intermediate days of Passover. Downtown was bustling, the Mamilla Mall was wall-to-wall people, Mahaneh Yehuda was packed, the Old City’s Jewish Quarter donned its unique festive air for the holiday. The city regained its vitality and energy that the coronavirus banished over the last year.

And not only Jerusalem.

Cars clogged roads throughout the land, hikers trekked up and down Judean hills dusted green by the wet winter, and parents pushed strollers along gravel trails everywhere from Ein Dvir north of the Kinneret to Givat Hatitora in Modi’in, and thousands of other scenic locales all across the country.

The Nature and Parks Authority was forced to close some of the parks under its auspices, due to overcrowding. Parking lots at some reserves and historical sites began filling up at 8 a.m., and by 11 a.m. could not accommodate any more cars.
After a coronavirus year of being cooped up indoors, behind computers and in front of television screens, the people of Israel took to the outdoors with a vengeance this week – even under somewhat gray skies – as if to declare, “We’re here, we’re back, life has returned to normal.”

Well, almost back to normal. The dancer on Jaffa Road swinging the green cocktail umbrella had a COVID-19 mask resting strategically on his chin. A clear sign of the times.

But the times sure have changed, and they have changed very much for the better.

Think back a year, during the great lockdown of Passover 2020, when grandparents spent Seders alone, when families and friends could not meet, when people were restricted to 100 meters from their homes, when sitting at a coffee shop on a street corner was a distant memory, or a far-off dream.

Back then, even the thought of sitting in traffic or standing in lines did not seem that bad, because it meant that you were able to go somewhere, that you were doing something, that you had some sort of interaction – even if it was only annoying interaction – with others.

Back then, some people even said they would not mind sitting in traffic or standing in lines anymore, because that would be a sign – like a modern-day olive branch after the biblical Flood – that the virus was receding and things were returning to normal.
Well, those people got their wish this week. The checkout lines at stores were long, and the roads to parks and water sites and trails were backed up for kilometers, and often for hours.
With everybody wanting to go out, and everyone seemingly wanting to go to the same places, it created congestion and bottlenecks the likes of which this country has not seen for years.
The reasons were manifold: a dearth of public transportation to vacation spots, inadequate roads to handle the number of cars, and an unusual number of people who just stayed in Israel this year for the holiday, rather than partaking of the annual exodus to the four corners of the world during the Passover vacation.
Even as the streets of Jerusalem and the promenades in Tel Aviv were full, one striking feature that was evident was the complete lack of tourists.
Yes, there were people on the Jerusalem Light Rail fumbling with trying to figure out how to pay for the ride, but these were not foreigners visiting the Holy Land; these were Israelis from other parts of the country visiting the capital. The streets were full, but full of Israelis; the regular tourists of this time of year – American and French Jewish families staying for Passover in five-star hotels or luxury apartments, Christian pilgrims here for Easter – were all absent, unable to get permission to enter Israel this year.
THE CORONAVIRUS had been a part of the country’s landscape for just short of two months during Passover last year. At that time the media was full of speculation about how long the pandemic would last – how long COVID-19 would upend the nation, how long people would be out of work and students out of school. How long it would take to get a vaccine.
Optimists talked about a half-year timeline for a vaccine, and that it would be at least a year until people would go back to their previous lives. Pessimists presented a much longer timeline, with some talking about as late as the end of 2022.
Yet here we are, a year later, and things in Israel are returning to normal. There is something moving about this return to normal, something emotional about once again being a part of a crowd of people, and feeling the energy, the life and spark that those crowds emit.
“When the shuk is full, the heart is full,” a vendor in Mahaneh Yehuda told a television reporter. “That is the most important thing. There is nothing better than that.”
Another woman summed up what many were feeling, saying simply, “It is just fun to return.”
A busker in his 20s sat at the Jaffa Road entrance to Mahaneh Yehuda, two drumsticks in his hands, three large empty plastic containers in front of him, and a cymbal on the ground below. As a boom box blared a 1980s Michael Jackson song, the man’s muscular arms were in furious motion, pounding on the plastic containers, and interspersing that with an occasional thrust at the cymbals. A small crowd gathered around him.
Then, even as the man was engrossed in the music, another man came up from behind, placed his two hands on the drummer’s head, and mouthed what looked to be the priestly blessing: “The Lord bless you and protect you; the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you; the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.”
The whole scene seemed incongruous. Who walks up behind a tattoo-armed stranger banging on a makeshift drum in the middle of a sidewalk, places his hands on his head and blesses him?
Yet it also seemed oddly fitting, a reminder that – as life in Israel starts to return to normal – this country should count its blessings.