Real Israel: Sound bites

We live in a country where a lot of the right noises are made at the wrong volume.

liat story 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
liat story 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A colleague of mine, who is neither as old nor as grumpy as he likes to make out, recently asked me if I ever write anything controversial – on purpose, that is. The answer is no. I’m more the “pick your battles” than “pick a fight” type.
Nonetheless, over the years I have discovered that certain subjects are guaranteed to provoke a response – and these aren’t, strangely, the state of Israeli politics, religion or the Iranian threat. They are, in no particular order: dog poop/litter/parked cars on the sidewalk; bad translations/transliterations and typing errors on shop signs, street signs and menus; and noise pollution.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – though not at the top of my voice – noise is a form of pollution that might not kill you, but might make you want to kill someone else.
In Israel, it takes several forms: In my neighborhood, despite the entrenched use of mobile phones, people still shout conversations at each other from street level to window; there is the unmistakable thwack of carpets being whacked free of dust on a Friday as part of the preparations for Shabbat; I can follow the fortunes of the local and national soccer teams from the roaring sound and tooting horns; and there are regular fireworks from wedding halls. (The nearby Arab neighborhoods have their own idea of “shotgun” weddings, with the sound of shooting into the air.) Tooting horns, noisy weddings and loud music from passing cars are not, as much as we’d like to believe, only-in-Israel phenomena; but Israel does have its own special sounds: One is them is, surprisingly, the sound of silence. Few who have experienced the quiet of Yom Kippur in Israel – when almost no Jew drives, there is no air traffic and no radio or television broadcasts – can help but appreciate the lack of noise.
At the other extreme are the sound of the “Color Red” alert in the South; the siren for incoming missiles; and the siren that calls for two minutes silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, again made more stark by the noise and bustle that precedes them.
One of the most Israeli noises is the sound of a Torah scroll being accompanied like a bride to a dedication ceremony in a synagogue.
Last week, I participated in the dedication of a scroll at Rambam Medical Center in memory of Yaffa Peretz, the almost legendary long-time assistant to the hospital director and a mover and shaker in the local political and religious scene. At the time, I couldn’t help but remark that only in Israel would you hear such a commotion in the middle of the day, right outside patients’ windows, as the scroll was escorted by a klezmer duo and scores of well-wishers from the hospital auditorium to the hospital synagogue. And only here would wheelchair-bound patients follow the noise as if the clarinetist were some Pied Piper.
The sound of Breslov Hassidim living out the commandment “to be joyous at all times” is also very Israeli, as is the sight of a van blasting religious music with hassidim dancing on the roof like the characters in a Sholem Aleichem story.
I once made a particularly strategic miscalculation with a young couple who lived in the apartment above mine. I gave them my son’s old bimba, the plastic mini-car ubiquitously used by toddlers too young to mount a tricycle but already with a taste for life in the fast lane. To you, it probably sounds like a nice thing to do. To me it soon came to sound like the noisiest mistake I could have made. The toddler was an early riser and passed the first hours of his day picking up bad driving habits as he raced between his room and his parents’ – on a roll directly above my head.
When the family moved away, I was sorry to see them go; I’d already been through the worst, as far as I can tell. The sound of a teen partying above me or driving home with the stereo blaring might not have been sweeter than the rumble of the little plastic toy fueled by a toddler at full speed, but it would be easier to ignore.
Several years ago, in a different building, my upstairs neighbors, fervent Chabadniks, made a unique noise that took me a while to figure out. It seemed to me that every Friday night, however improbably, they left their washing machine going. A couple of hours after the start of Shabbat, roughly at the time when most religious families were singing “Shalom aleichem,” all I could hear was the rhythmic thumping that sounded like an old washing machine in a painful spin cycle.
After a few months, the wife mentioned that they were going to be holding a midweek “tisch” (gathering around the rebbe’s table), to which I was invited, and if I could lend them some chairs they’d be grateful.
Only that evening did I finally realize that the cyclic crashing above my head was not a machine but man-made and divinely inspired – it was the sound of a dozen or so men beating the rhythm of a hassidic tune with their feet – sole music, as it were.
I enjoy hearing families singing Shabbat songs or Grace after Meals on a Friday night, and the sound of the shofar being blown throughout the month of Elul carries all the power of the blast from a past of some 3,000 or 4,000 years.
I guess it depends on what you’re used to.
During a trip to Istanbul, I once had to calm a Chinese journalist who came down to the hotel breakfast not only tired but in a panic.
The calls of the muezzin, which I had barely registered, had sounded completely foreign and threatening to her.
In Jerusalem, the sound of the muezzin is a barometer of the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. When all is relatively quiet in the security sense, the muezzins’ calls are relatively low volume. When things heat up, the calls grow louder in a form of intifada in which, at least, nobody gets hurt by the blasts. Residents of French Hill have grown so frustrated with the muezzins’ calls from neighboring Isawiya that they have threatened to retaliate with the ultimate weapon: speakers blaring the music of Eyal Golan.
I hasten to note, that (a) I like some of Eyal Golan’s music and (b) I do not favor a ban on the muezzin’s calls or on having mosques with minarets. I objected even when it was enlightened Switzerland that quietly held a referendum on the subject.
Some years ago I followed the report in a local Jerusalem paper of an attempt for residents in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to change their tune. Instead of the sound of the siren heralding Shabbat as if it were an incoming missile, the idea was to play an instrumental version of songs such as Lecha Dodi, welcoming the Sabbath as one would a beloved bride. The project struck a chord with me.
Since the Shabbat siren is such an “only in Israel” thing, I wasn’t surprised to hear that during the pilot project, some people took their phones out onto their balconies and dialed friends and relatives abroad so they could hear the noteworthy change.
I pray we can live in a state of peace in the Middle East. As to the quiet, well, that might be too much to ask for.
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