“People here don’t seem particularly friendly,” my wife Mardena said. I didn’t really want to hear it, but I couldn’t disagree; I’d been thinking the same thing. It seemed like a lot of people we’d met in Israel most, admittedly, in travel related services like hotels, hostels, and car rental agencies were guarded, unsmiling, not exactly models of hospitality.
It reminded me of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. People there had struck me as downright grim. At the time, I wondered if it might have to do with tensions inside the country. Some of the states that made up Yugoslavia–Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, and so on had a history of mutual antagonism, even hostility. It had all ended up boiling over a few years later in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
I wondered if the same sort of thing explained Israel. There was some ill will, I’d read, between the liberal elements of the country and the conservative ones that had grown in influence in recent years. It was encapsulated in the contrast between the relatively secular capital, Tel Aviv, and the more orthodox city of Jerusalem.
The late nineteenth-century Jews who immigrated to the land that later became Israel saw it as a refuge from a perilous world. When Israel eventually declared statehood in 1948, the neighboring Arab countries immediately declared war. In recent decades, hostilities between Israel and Islamic groups based in Gaza and Lebanon have been more or less ongoing. If Israelis felt a bit defensive, it was understandable.
In Jerusalem, a city that bordered the Palestinian West Bank, there were obvious tensions. Young Israeli men and women, not much more than boys and girls really, in army fatigues and combat boots, some with weapons, were a common sight throughout the city. On the Temple Mount, with sites sacred to both Muslims and Jews, we watched angry Muslim women chase off an orthodox Jewish man who had apparently violated their space. In Jerusalem’s Old City, blue and white Israeli flags flew from apartments in the Muslim Quarter, as if staking out a claim.
One heartening incident stood out, but almost like an anomaly. When Mardena and I walked out of a Jerusalem bakery one morning, pastries in hand, a teenage Israeli girl ran out to us on the sidewalk and with the biggest smile I ever remember seeing handed me a ten-shekel note I’d dropped inside. People do good deeds all the time, of course, but I’ve never seen anyone so happy to do one.
The Falafel Boys Change Our Visit
Mardena and I had spent a few nights in Jerusalem while crossing back and forth between Jordan, the West Bank, and far corners of Israel. One evening we walked from our Jerusalem hostel to a tiny cafe, the Falafel and Shwarma King, a few blocks away for a quick dinner. Inside, several customers stood waiting for their orders. People were getting served quickly and there were a couple of empty tables along the cobblestone pedestrian street outside, so we decided to wait.
Techno music played quietly in the background. Four or five guys (the Falafel Boys), probably their early twenties, were working behind the counter. When it was our turn, I ordered a falafel on pita and Mardena a shwarma on pita. A chunky young man assembled my falafel from aluminum bins full of pickles, tomatoes, red cabbage, and tahini sauce sunk into the countertop. He could apparently tell we were out of towners. “This is Jerusalem falafel,” he said proudly as he piled on the ingredients. We paid for our sandwiches and took them outside.
Only one of the three white plastic tables on the cobblestones was unoccupied, and it was easy to see why. It was splattered with sauces and scraps of food: tahini, ketchup, and bits of pita bread, lamb, pickles, and tomato. The cobblestones under the table were littered with greasy napkins and more snippets of food.
Mardena and I eased into plastic chairs. A calico cat poked around under our feet, sniffing at crumbs, nibbling bits of meat and cabbage. The ambiance wasn’t exactly inviting, but the sandwiches were delicious.
The Falafel Boys à Deux
The next day Mardena and I left Jerusalem, but one morning a couple of weeks later we were back. That afternoon we headed over to the Falafel King. The only customer this time was a pretty college age brunette in blue jeans and a white blouse. The techno music played in the background. The young woman finished ordering, then stood aside. Mardena and I ordered and waited. After a minute the woman got her food and left. Mardena and I were the only customers now.
A few seconds later, the boy at the cash register muttered, “Her change,” and walked outside with some coins. After a short while, he came back in, waltzing toward the cash register, humming and swaying to the techno. As he passed me, he turned, took hold of my hands, and pulled me along, keeping time to the music. I tried to keep up. The guys watching from behind the counter started laughing, whooping, and clapping to the techno rhythms. One of them came around the counter, took hold of Mardena’s hands and started dancing with her. The two boys behind the counter, the chunky one and his slim coworker, started dancing with each other, hooting happily. It felt like a party. Mardena and I might have been old enough to be their grandparents.
Pretty soon, my partner sashayed on back behind the counter. The guy with Mardena went back, too. We were all laughing now. Mardena asked if we could get a picture. She and I lined up between two of the boys while the other two snapped photos. Mardena and I got our food, walked outside, and sat at the only empty table, the same one we’d been at two weeks earlier.
The table looked suspiciously familiar. It was still splotched with tahini sauce, ketchup, and remnants of meat, pita, tomatoes, and pickles, just in slightly different places although I wasn’t too sure of that. Wrapping paper and food littered the cobblestones. The calico cat was there, too, nibbling away. Obviously, the boys were not crackerjack housekeepers.
But I was elated. I’d never felt more thoroughly embraced literally or figuratively anywhere I’d traveled. Maybe the guy who started it all was feeling buoyant after meeting the pretty young woman again outside. Maybe, with the cafe empty, the boys felt free to cut loose with a couple of travelers they might have vaguely remembered. Whatever prompted it, it had been great fun. People like the falafel boys and the bakery girl might have been in a minority, but it was heartening to know that despite the tensions and suspicions that seemed to beset this land there were still pockets, occasional though they might be, of spontaneous joy.
Written by: Paul Michelson
Paul has been traveling pretty much as a passion for decades. Mostly,
he likes writing about people he’s met and experiences both good and
bad. Some of the publications Paul’s written for include GoNOMAD
Travel, InTravel Magazine, Go World Travel, In the Fray, Footloose
Magazine, Hackwriters, Travel Mag: The Independent Spirit, On a Junket,
and the Sacramento Bee.