Bus stories: After the holidays

In my ongoing pursuit of anecdotes to remind us that there is so much good in life, my stories during the holiday period were marked with interactions between different sectors of the population.

 Illustrative photograph of a man putting tefilin on an IDF soldier outside the Jerusalem Bus Station (photo credit: JIM HOLLANDER/REUTERS)
Illustrative photograph of a man putting tefilin on an IDF soldier outside the Jerusalem Bus Station

We are into the month of Marcheshvan, a month on the Jewish calendar when we are returning to the mundane, but during which we can hopefully hold on to the inspiration from the previous month, Tishrei, which began with Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simhat Torah.

There are signs of cooler weather as we tread through the autumn, but the holiday period has left behind heartwarming stories.

In my ongoing pursuit of anecdotes to remind us that there is so much good in life, my stories during the holiday period were marked with interactions between different sectors of the population, proving yet again that you don’t have to agree with one another to respect, dare I say also care for one another.

If you’re an IDF soldier, you might not have been home for the holidays. A soldier is on the bus, on his way to the base on a Sunday morning, just a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah.

Sitting nearby is someone who says he finished compulsory service just a couple of years ago. He’s married and has a small child.

He asks the current soldier: “You’ll be home for the holiday?”

Soldier shakes his head.

Former soldier reaches into a bag that he’s been holding.

“Take this,” he says to the current soldier. It’s a package of the simanim: one-sentence prayers with good wishes for the new year together with various food items that match the terminology of the blessings.

This package has it all. The various texts and the appropriate food.

Current soldier: “No, no, that’s for your wife and small child.”

Former soldier: “Please, I can easily get another one; I know what it’s like to be on the base or in action on Rosh Hashanah without the family.”

The current soldier ultimately accepts. He seems emotional.

As he is getting off the bus at our last stop, an older woman, who obviously heard the earlier conversation, stops him and says: “Just a moment. You won’t be late. OK, I won’t put my hands on your head – you know, corona.” But she then recites a battery of blessings for the man in uniform.

She concludes. “Now, an old Sephardi woman has blessed you. Now, you’re truly protected.”

Other soldiers are nearby, also on their way to a new week of serving the country, and with looks on their faces that say: “How about blessing us?”

For its part, the Chabad hassidic movement is known for its outreach to Jews of different stripes. It is known for, among other things, its booths scattered in various locations, where men are encouraged to place the tefillin phylacteries on one of their arms and head, but where sometimes, at least, a conversation can also evolve that might sound surprising.

Leading up to Yom Kippur last month, a man who said that he does not believe in God, but instead in “advancing humanity,” came to one such booth, not to wear tefillin, but instead to receive the assistance of the Chabad representative in seeking forgiveness, in advance of the Day of Atonement, from friends he has wronged over the past year.

“Can I send them WhatsApp messages?” the man asks.

“I think you should speak with them,” the Chabadnik replies.

“That’s hard,” says the gentleman.

“Perhaps, text your friends first to set the stage and talk afterward,” the Chabad rep responds.

“Can we rehearse how the conversations might go?” the man asks.

The Chabad member notes that there is a synagogue nearby where, he suggests, the two of them should go to find a quiet room, to go through the process of seeking forgiveness from your fellow human, to set the stage for this man to make peace with his friends.

They coordinated their schedules and by the end of that day, Operation: Forgiveness was hopefully carried out successfully.

IN THE promenade between the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and light rail station, one evening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there was a large circle of youth who were sitting on the ground. Different shades of ideology, different shades of skin, different styles of dress, discussing the same theme: What does God want from us as we approach Yom Kippur?

A bystander says to me: “I think the answer to what God wants is more get-togethers like this one.”

Elsewhere in Jerusalem, an older man and woman were walking down the street.

At the same time, a young mom and small child were walking down the street. The child is eating ice cream.

The older man, who is walking crouched and with a walker, says to the older woman: “That looks very delicious.”

The young mom hears what the older man said.

She says to her little boy: “Let’s buy that man some ice cream.”

The boy, seven years old, asks the man: “What flavor do you like the most?”

He takes the man’s order and goes with his mom to a nearby store. “How much does that cost?” asks the older woman.

Boy: “There’s a discount today. It’s usually 10 shekels, but we’re offering it today for five.”

Older couple laughs. Boy insists. Mom asks them to take up her son’s offer. And the transaction takes place.

Later, I was walking down the same street and met the same older couple again. This time, they were sitting on a bench.

We engage in conversation. They tell me that they are both Holocaust survivors, later lived in France, and in the 1990s moved to Israel.

As I came across them the second time on this day, they were laughing. Enjoying each other’s company.

“On Yom Kippur,” she tells me, “we thank God that we’ve made it another year. We have overcome many challenges: the Nazis, antisemitism in France, and now we are so grateful in Israel. So, on Yom Kippur, I’ll just ask God: ‘How about another year?’”

He says: “We were not religious when we lived in France but when we came to Israel, we fell in love with the life here and very naturally started living a more religious life. I love that on Yom Kippur, the  roads are empty. There’s our relationship with God, with other humans, and with the world God has given us. Not driving on Yom Kippur, and fewer people driving on Shabbat, helps the environment.”

Then he adds: “It’s also important to take the bus instead of your car all the time.”

I didn’t mention to them that I take many buses and even write bus stories. I just smiled and wished them a G’mar Chatima Tova, the traditional wish that one should be “sealed” to a good life in the coming year.

On a walk a couple of nights after Yom Kippur, I heard the sounds of a celebration.

It was a birthday party for Etty. Etty was born on Yom Kippur 100 years ago, I am told.

She has four children. 17 grandchildren. 53 great-grandchildren. Two great-great-grandchildren.

The celebration took place at the home of one of her grandchildren. Etty and her caregiver sat at the doorway. The four children and their spouses sat in the yard outside. A large Zoom screen was filled with the other participants from the subsequent generations.

As I passed by, I could hear the various participants on the Zoom screen wishing Etty a happy birthday. They did so in Hebrew, English, French and Spanish from within Israel and other countries.

One of the grandchildren says: “Grandma, you deserve until 150. 120 [the traditional Jewish symbol for longevity] would be way too soon.”

WORKING AS a security guard at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station has many demands, especially during the intermediate days of Sukkot.

A family is walking near the bus platforms. One of the children is giving the parents a hard time. It causes the mom to take her hands off the stroller in which her baby is traveling, even as the dad is attending to yet another child.

The security guard sees the problem. Takes hold of the stroller and transports the baby, while mom and dad deal with their other children, until the family reaches the platform it needs.

“All good?” asks the guard. Parents nod and express appreciation.

At which point, a teen walking by seems distraught. The security guard asks him what’s troubling him. The teen says that he just missed his bus. He’s going to be late for a date with his girlfriend.

Guard: “What’s her name?

Teen: “Noa.”

Guard: “Call her and put on the video.”

Noa answers.

Guard: “Hi, Noa. I’m Benny from security. You see your friend here? He’s very upset. The bus just left without him. It’s hectic here at the Central Bus Station. It’s not his fault. Give him another chance to prove himself. And while he’s waiting for the next bus, he’ll buy you something nice.”

And on a different night at the central bus terminal, a young woman is loading a large backpack and folded tent into the luggage compartment. She also has a duffel bag. She is struggling a bit.

A man, perhaps in his upper twenties or early thirties, dressed in a haredi or perhaps yeshivish manner, offers to help and assists in making sure that the equipment is secured inside the compartment.

“Camping trip?” he asks.

“Yes,” she replies. “Thanks so much for helping me. Especially since I’m not dressed in what you might consider a [religiously] modest manner.”

“Hey,” he counters. “What were you supposed to do on a camping trip or water activities? Wear a suit?”

“You might, right?” she replies, referring to the common practice of haredi Jews to wear less revealing clothing even when out in nature or even swimming. They both laugh.

“That’s not the point,” he says. “You were having a hard time and I had the chance to help. So of course, I did.”

They board the bus. The driver is listening and notes the beauty of unity between different sectors that has been exhibited in this episode.

“If this conversation is some sort of symbol, this is going to be a very good new year,” the driver says.

May these encounters of mutual respect guide us through even the darkest days of winter.

The writer is the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.