Time can go fast even when you’ve not been having much fun, it seems. Like most people, the phrase “this time last year” has frequently come to mind as I compared life in the pre- and current coronavirus era. I am used to wearing a mask outside, not hugging, frequently washing my hands and the other corona constraints that would have seemed so extraordinary to me at the beginning of March 2020. Somehow I still find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that the COVID pandemic has been part of my life for a full year.
Permit me a bit of personal sentimentality: It’s my birthday. Not just any birthday, but a nicely rounded 60. Last year, I wrote about eating out in a crowded local restaurant to celebrate turning 59. The same restaurant has somehow survived the closures – unlike many businesses and eateries – but my few, sporadic visits between lockdowns over the last 12 months have been take-out only.
This week, on the eve of my Hebrew birthday as luck would have it, I had a taste of pre-coronavirus normalcy that reminded me both of what I had been missing and yet gave me hope. The Jerusalem Development Authority and Government Press Office hosted a tour of Jerusalem’s Follow the Lights city-wide event in cooperation with the Fun in Jerusalem website. It was indeed both illuminating and fun.
For the event – a corona-era version of the traditional Festival of Lights that usually takes place in the winter – 22 sites around the capital were lit up in an incredible display. As we got in a minibus, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a school trip. We hadn’t been out for a long time. However, I admit I had never before noticed how close the seating is on a minibus and it had never before bothered me so much that the windows could not be opened. I have been successfully programmed to take pandemic precautions. I felt truly grateful for having had the two vaccination shots that are readily available to all Israelis over the age of 16.
Follow the Lights was jointly initiated by the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and Tourism Ministry and is part of a series of attractions designed to encourage domestic tourism to the capital. Nonetheless, the accompanying website and special effects made it clear that the designers were aware of the virtual tourism phenomenon that has taken off this year: Traveling remotely without leaving home comforts as air travel all but came to a halt has become a thing. Several tour guides I know are now working virtually with overseas visitors.
For those able to come in person, the festival, which ended on Thursday, was designed mainly as a drive-by event, although the car-less could reach the sites by public transportation, on foot or by bike. Unable to see all 22 sites on a tight schedule, we drove by many of them and made four stops. The whole city was lit up – from the spotlighted lion statues in the Rabin Tunnel to the lampposts and trees along the bike paths; from the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to the city to the Old City walls.
Each stop came with memories. As my friend and colleague, Jerusalem Report editor-in-chief Steve Linde, put it: “The landmark sites reminded me of the history of my love affair with Jerusalem.”
Our first stop was the Israel Museum where, among other spectacular effects, the Shrine of the Book was decorated with the Hebrew script of the ancient scrolls in the domed building while the ever-changing colors of the museum’s cube-like buildings provided an attraction that could be seen even from a distance. Part of the concept was to take the exhibitions that were still inaccessible behind closed doors and depict them on the exterior walls.
I recalled a tour I did there 10 years ago – how fast did that go? – in which I was first introduced to the one of the most poignant exhibits. Known as the Reaper’s Plea, it is a letter written from a simple agricultural worker to the governor, complaining that his shirt has been unfairly and illegally taken from his back by his employer. The potsherd on which the petition was written in ink dates from the seventh century BCE, and was found near Yavne. It touchingly shows that despite his humble status, the reaper was well aware of biblical law and his rights.
I often wonder how long it took for his petition to reach the governor, whether he ever got his shirt back and what state it would have been in. Compensation rights for businesses forcibly closed and unemployment pay for those put on leave during the corona lockdowns were light years away for the poor reaper.
Our trip this week also took us past the Knesset building, where I worked as parliamentary reporter for five tumultuous years in the 1990s. The House was appropriately dressed in blue-and-white colors with lasers beaming out from the rooftop. In yet another “who would have thought it?” moment, I was reminded that this month we’re heading back to the polls for the fourth elections in two years. Democracy is wonderful but non-stop elections are not a sign of a healthy, functioning system. Our pride last year in being one of the first countries to hold elections with corona restrictions is surely wearing off as the Central Elections Committee prepares for drive-by polling stations for those in quarantine.
The second stop on our itinerary was the Haas Promenade, overlooking a panoramic view of the city – old and modern. Light beams put on a show to complement the breathtaking vista. To borrow a phrase from Amos Oz, it was a tale of love and darkness.
We moved on, passing the decorated Khan Theater among other installations, and made a third stop close to the iconic Tower of David Museum. This is another of my favorite places and I have enjoyed many exhibitions and events there over the years. This week the stone structure looked gorgeous as what was essentially the Sound and Light show that visitors usually see within the compound was on display outside. A short walk took us to a plaza where we could get a good look at the Old City walls, festively decorated of course. It was like traveling back in time – but with a futuristic twist.
Our evening ended at the First Station – a popular tourist venue. Here, Follow the Lights organizers had literally put on a show: a drive-in disco. To a pulsing beat provided by a live DJ and spectacular lighting effects, visitors let themselves go. My eyes were drawn to a young girl swaying to the music as she sat on the roof of her family vehicle while her younger sister danced nearby. They are part of the Zoom generation – those kids who have been stuck at home, learning remotely, without the chance to hang out with friends and relax.
Joining in the fun, and munching a pizza, I felt that the organizers had managed to throw me an improvised birthday party.
A 60th birthday in a pandemic has made me see everything in a different light. It puts things in proportion. It has been a time for going back to basics and home pleasures. (I started baking challot for Shabbat and now can’t imagine my apartment on a Friday without the smell of yeast.)
I wasn’t planning to have a party for my 60th, but I didn’t imagine that my greatest gift would be a surprise visit from my son whom I hadn’t seen for a month. The cake he brought was an extra sweet bonus.
I count my blessings and look forward to looking back. I had fun following the lights around Jerusalem this week – I hope they signal hope at the end of the corona time tunnel.