Lonely but not alone

Loneliness versus aloneness. Ramblers versus amblers. The only thing that comes to mind by way of summary is a phrase coined by Israeli backpackers the developing world over: Same-same, but different.

A busker plays the violin on the street 521 (photo credit: Deborah S. Danan)
A busker plays the violin on the street 521
(photo credit: Deborah S. Danan)
Over the years, there were many occasions in Jerusalem when I found myself in a state of total aloneness.
Take, for example, walking down Jaffa Road – Jerusalem’s main artery – at 1 a.m. I can recall thinking on many a walk home from the Central Bus Station, “Here I am in this holiest of cities, where the souls of prophets and kings who once walked here gather, and yet the only living soul out on the streets is me. What gives?”
During those times, I felt very alone. But it wasn’t a bad feeling, by any means.Perhaps because a sense of exclusiveness accompanied it: Three quarters of a million other souls live here and at this moment I’m the only one outside, drinking in the Eternal City as she sleeps.
In Tel Aviv, I’ve yet to experience that sense of aloneness. Even at 2 a.m. on a cold winter day, you can still spot a few night owls out for a jog or walking the dog down the city’s main roads.
But while aloneness may be a foreign concept in Tel Aviv, loneliness certainly isn’t.
Despite the constant presence of other living souls – or perhaps because of it – loneliness has a cunning way of creeping up on you in this city when you least expect it. If you pay close attention, you can always spot the Eleanor Rigbys in the crowd, because at one time or another, you’ve been there too. Like when you’re walking through a crowd of people and suddenly you trip, and when you look up you see that every head is turned in another direction.
Or when you’re in a club that is heaving with bodies so that it looks like a scene from a Spencer Tunick photograph and everyone looks ecstatic, like they’re connecting on some elemental level with the energy being emitted from all the human bodies smooshed next to them and, as they move in unison to the beat, all you can think of is how you’ve never felt quite so alone. And not in the good way.
Or when you’re at a Shabbat meal with perfect strangers who remain perfect strangers because despite the fact that you spent the meal exchanging various pleasantries such as job title and age (the latter being asked only if Israelis are present) – apart from a storehouse of mundane nothings, you really know nothing about them and they know nothing about you.
The whole issue of loneliness versus aloneness led me to thinking about other trends that on the surface seem to be synonymous but that are actually quite contrary.
One example is rambling versus ambling. While both Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians are wont to mosey around the streets at a leisurely pace, Tel Avivians are more inclined to amble, while Jerusalemites ramble. The Tel Aviv amble is usually a conscious decision made on sunny days by people with jobs who choose to clear their schedule in favor of a pleasant stroll to nowhere-in-particular.
At some point, they may stop off for an espresso in an outdoor café, or they may find themselves on the beach at sunset. Ultimately, though, the Tel Aviv amble fulfills a purpose of some kind.
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, 80 percent of the people you spot sauntering in the streets seem to be professional ramblers who spend most daylight hours wandering aimlessly. They almost never stop for coffee, unless for some reason it’s free. Ramblers are people who have either been looking for a job for the past two years, or have reached the conclusion that they were never destined to have one.
Loneliness versus aloneness. Ramblers versus amblers. The only thing that comes to mind by way of summary is a phrase coined by Israeli backpackers the developing world over: Same-same, but different.
True to my confused identity of being an ex-Jerusalemite in Tel Aviv, today I took a walk that turned out to be something between an amble and a ramble.
While it had a purpose – namely, to get chatting to ambling Tel Avivians about loneliness – I was shuffling my feet just like a Jerusalem rambler. At one point, I found myself in the courtyard in front of the cinematheque, where the municipality had been kind enough to put out some chairs and tables. An old man was standing by a bench playing a mournful tune on his violin. His violin case was open expectantly by his feet, but passersby were far too busy to actually stop and listen for a moment.
I headed toward an empty table to soak up the winter sun and listen to some Mendelssohn. Another man arrived just as I did and politely told me he’d only be there for a minute to drink his coffee. I said that was quite all right, and, feeling rather bold, decided to plow ahead with my mission. I asked him if he was a native, and when he answered in the affirmative, I asked him if he had ever experienced loneliness in the Big City.
Like many people who settle here, Elad – that was his name – moved to Tel Aviv after spending half a year backpacking.
We compared notes on India, the country where one can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the aforementioned “Same-same, but different” maxim. He moved to the Florentin area in south Tel Aviv and discovered that many of his neighbors were of the same ilk as the people he had met during his travels, yet at the same time they were also very different.
Elad observed that despite having returned to Israel with many new things, like a shiny new tiger lily tattoo, for some reason they forget what it’s like to connect with strangers. It’s almost as if the city seizes them by the collar the moment they land and hurls them into their own protective bubble.
But as Elad was speaking, I realized that although I agreed wholeheartedly with every word, the argument wasn’t really fair.
After all, he could’ve been referring to London or New York or any other metropolis in the world. I doubt that the Japanese backpackers I met while traveling are open enough to converse with strangers once they return home to Tokyo.
Big, anonymous, 24-hour cities often feel lonely because many of the people that move to them do so without their families. They are orphan cities. After Elad had said his goodbyes and wished me luck with my column, he disappeared into the crowd. I looked up at the old man who was unwittingly giving my morning a soundtrack with his violin playing, and vaguely wondered if he was also an orphan in this city.
I suddenly recalled the photos of Joshua Bell, the famous violinist, that have been making the rounds on Facebook recently.
As part of a social experiment, Bell played Bach on his violin in a metro station in Washington, yet amazingly, despite his obvious virtuoso ability, very few people actually stopped to listen. The moral of the story is that if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing? While I didn’t actually believe the old man was a Yehudi Menuhin or Isaac Stern in disguise, I thought it worthwhile to approach him nonetheless. As I dropped some coins into his case I let the old man know how appreciative I was of his brightening my morning with his playing. He looked at me with a quizzical expression that was clearly asking, “Do I know you?” But when he realized I didn’t, he stretched his bow over the violin’s strings and played a short tune. It was a musical “thank you” from one orphan to another.
On the way home, I walked over a bridge that spans the Ayalon freeway. There is nothing as lonely as standing over a busy highway. The cars were headed in the direction of Jerusalem, a city that is bigger than this one yet doesn’t seem to know it. With the attitude of a small Himalayan village in which strangers talk to strangers, Jerusalem continues to march on proudly to the beat of its own drum.