Out and about

Want to see the country, and get to know its people a little better? Just get on an Egged bus, and go somewhere.

An Egged bus 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Egged bus 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Excuse me. Are you waiting for the Haifa bus?” “Yes, I am.”
“Has it come yet?” “Giveret, if the Haifa bus had come, I would be on it.”
An inane interchange I’ve had more than once.
But what of it? When you’re out and about after several years as a semi-invalid, there’s not a whole lot that bothers you.
Plus, of late, I’ve returned to a habit of my youth.
Want to see a country? Want to know the people a bit better? Just get on a bus and go somewhere.
Egged runs the best system on the planet. Longgone are the days when an S.Y. Agnon character could ask a driver, “When does the bus leave?” and receive as an answer, “Am I a prophet, that I should know when the bus leaves?” Schedules have supplanted prophecy. The drivers are courteous, except when they’re not. And a surprising number speak good English.
When I can, I sit in the first row. Once, I got into a conversation with a driver who told me that he’d lived in Texas for several years as a teenager and loved it. Only problem was, he came back speaking Hebrew with a Texas accent. “Twang that thang,” challenged I. He did, convincingly.
Another time, a driver had his radio on some kind of American rock oldies channel. I told him I’d seen The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Judy Collins, even Dylan Himself in concert. He exuded admiration.
We sang along. Other passengers exhibited what is known in sociology as an “etiquette of disregard.”
Egged also keeps me guessing. I’ve yet to fully comprehend the mysteries of the Rav-Kav card, such as which end goes in first (both seem to work) and why you can’t just put money on it and go. And somebody really ought to investigate why inter-city buses can’t use the Haifa Metronit bus lanes, which smirk at you so emptily as you sit in traffic beside them.
The people you meet and/or observe also intrigue.
I’ve seen some magnificently impressive young men and women in uniform. Also, a few who rebut that basic premise of Israeli child-rearing: “The army will straighten them out.” OK, every outfit has its 10 percent.
Still, I learned long ago that the best troops have a certain demeanor. They’re quiet and do not draw attention to themselves. But if you look at them closely, there’s a radiant self-confidence that says, “You can trust me.”
You see a lot of that here.
Then there was the elderly Arab gentleman who was studying English in preparation for a trip to the States to visit family. We chatted pleasantly; I suggested places he might want to visit. Then suddenly a wall came down, and he courteously went silent.
Did I say something wrong, or was the conversation becoming too... human? Herman Wouk once wrote – actually, he had an Israeli character in one of his novels say it – that one Israeli is pretty much the same as the next.
Most groups are, until you get to know them as individuals.
Perhaps Israelis regard one American as pretty much like another. But when Israelis meet an American oleh who is neither ultra-Orthodox nor a rampaging idealist of some persuasion or other, they’re intrigued. They want to know why you left there to come here.
It’s a subject I do my best to elide.
Also, when talking with Russians... I like Russians.
I grew up in a neighborhood with a full complement of immigrants. And now it’s eerie.
So many of the elderly Russians I encounter seem identical to the old folks of my childhood.
“Why, Uncle Jake!” I practically gasped at one dignified gent. “You haven’t aged a day since you died!” The current situation in Crimea and Ukraine, they do their best to elide.
Still, global geopolitics notwithstanding, these last few months, I’ve been happy just to traipse around, up in Safed encountering haredim from New Jersey (“Which exit?”) who were delighted to discuss American football, and standing on the sea wall of old Acre, getting drenched in a late winter storm. But perhaps the most moving recent incident occurred in, of all places, a Tax Authority office.
I went with an American friend who speaks fluent Hebrew. The woman we dealt with was a competent, thorough, no-nonsense type. My friend handled his business, then explained in Hebrew what I needed – a teum mas, plus information on how my National Insurance Institute disability rating for cancer would affect my taxes. We wrapped it up and, as we were leaving, the lady suddenly smiled and said to me in excellent English, “I want you to say to yourself every morning, ‘I am healthy.’” Sound advice from the Tax Authority. And given with a lovely, gracious, somehow utterly Israeli smile.
Philip Gold, an American oleh, is the author of seven books, with a couple more in the works.