Jerusalem doesn’t let you forget that it is old. The city building façades are required to be at least 70 percent stone, giving Jerusalem a uniform and colorless aesthetic. Many residents dress as conservatively and ancient as the buildings around them. The conflict hasn’t changed much either as Arabs and Jews historically alternate reign over Jerusalem’s hallowed ground.
I arrived in pious Jerusalem amidst the most recent troubles. There were race riots over the slaughtered boys on both sides, the light rail that weaved and symbolically connected East (Arab) and West (Jewish) Jerusalem was vandalized and the IDF launched attacks in Gaza while rockets were launched into Israel in return.
I planned to stay at the Heritage House, a free hostel in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The Heritage House is a “warm and friendly environment, where people can explore their Jewish roots.” When I arrived it felt like a summer camp dormitory. Empty bags of chips and warm, half-empty bottles of Coca-Cola ornamented the living room.
“So what brings you to Israel?” Jake, one of the live-in camp counselors asked me.
I debated telling him the truth–that I was here to play basketball and the Heritage House was simply the most affordable way for me to do so.
“You know, little bit of this, little bit of that.”
“Oh, well,” Jake leaned forward, “You wanna plant pomegranate trees tomorrow morning with the group?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, maybe, I mean, if I’m not busy.”
He gave me a wary look. I was already blowing my cover. Jake showed me to my quarters. It was a 3/4 single mattress bottom bunk. There were three other bunk beds in the room. Whatever. It was free. But how many times do I have to learn the lesson that nothing is free in this world?
I escaped the boy-musk-filled lodgings and began to walk out of the Old City to meet with a basketball contact, who was to show me the best courts in Jerusalem. As I walked on the worn stones of the Old City, my friend Noah, who had been living in Tel Aviv for the past six months, called me.
“Rockets just exploded above us in the city,” he said from Tel Aviv.
I didn’t say anything.
“I don’t want to scare you,” Noah filled the empty space. “I just want you to be careful.”
“Thanks, man. I will.”
I put the phone back in my pocket. Rockets might be launched at me. Well, not at me, but at something symbolic upon which I stood. I wondered if it was right to play basketball against the backdrop of an armed conflict that would surely result in the deaths of many. But, then again, maybe it was all that I was supposed to do. My feet started walking and I followed them.
I was to meet my guide, Shlomo, at Liberty Bell Park in the northwest. Shlomo (he ask I not use his real name) was a Boston-bred Israeli who promised to show me around Jerusalem’s courts. When we met, he felt a bit peckish and suggested we grab a bit to eat before we played. I was hungry, but I usually leave a solid three hours between food and play. Still, I wanted to be a good guest and went along with him. On our way to the food stand we went through a bourgeois outdoor center. Underneath a pavilion were dozens of Israelis square dancing. This was strange on two levels: First, Hamas and Israel were lobbing missiles at each other. Isn’t this nation at war and in peril? Second, square dancing?
Shlomo laughed at the event but was more interested in food. He ordered chicken and I got soup. We ate and politicked. He was center-right and he said the same things that many Israelis said: “We want peace.” And like most Israelis he had no idea how that was going to happen.
After grubbing, we walked backed through the center. The square dancing was usurped by a single guy singing Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The crowd swayed softly to the tale of the whimsical, pot-smoking dragon.
This was getting weird.
Shlomo and I walked to the courts at Liberty Bell Park. There were three full courts, but everyone was concentrated at the eastern most end where a game of three-on-three went on. They were young and old, but mostly young. There were three Thai men, all under five feet tall, waiting to play. One wore a white jersey with a pot leaf on the front and “Superkush” written in ballooned letters on back. These weren’t the first Thai I had seen in Israel. Many Southeast Asians are temporarily imported to do Israel’s manual labor. With the addition of Shlomo and me, a second game of three-on-three began at the other end. It was me, Shlomo and yarmulka-wearing Omer against three other Israelis. Our opponents weren’t particularly intimidating. One was a lean redhead with a decent shot who never once opened his mouth–not even to breath. The third was a short and round young guy with glasses that kept falling off. Then there was Shai, a great blonde bear of a man with a t-shirt two sizes too small. We handled them without breaking much of a sweat. The only issue I confronted was the soup sloshing around in my belly. At one point, Shai the bear gave me a solid shoulder to the gut and I felt the Yemeni-influenced soup nearly geyser up through and out my esophagus.
Soon, several young American students arrived and asked if we were interested in playing 5 on 5. I didn’t think that the old guys would be up for it, but we abandoned our game and made teams. I was put on the all-Israeli team against my American compatriots. This was good because I wanted to separate myself and decided to be unkind to my fellow gringos. The game was sloppy and interrupted by the need to retrieve balls out of bushes from the constant turnovers and airballs.
About 15 minutes in, the ball was deflected out of bounds and each side assigned blame to the other. But before a resolution was made, a siren sounded. Though I had never heard it before, I knew exactly what it was, what it meant. It was unlike the rapid, pulsating and impatient wail of a police car as it pushes traffic aside. It was slow and long and deliberate and it reached into you. Under the urgent drone of the air raid siren, the players on the court and the observers briskly jogged to the closest protected area. It was a 10×10 stone structure that was about three stories high. It was unclear what exactly the building’s purpose was. The 20 of us stood next to the building in wait underneath the siren’s roar. The length of the siren depends on the distance from Gaza. In Jerusalem, you have 75 seconds to find shelter. In Sderot, which is about a mile from the Gaza Strip, you have 15. Shlomo translated the multiple conversations around me. There were two Arab teens who walked fearlessly through the park, snickering at our huddled mass. There were several Haredim who Talmudically debated where the most appropriate place to stand would be. Shai, the bear, sighed, “Look at the country we live in.” Another of the Israeli players lazily pled to the visiting Americans, “Tell everybody what they are doing to us.”
Moments after the sirens stopped, two loud booms echoed from the west.
“That was the intercept,” Shlomo told me.
“Or maybe it was impact,” another said.
The rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome, Israel’s novel defense system that shoots incoming rockets out of the sky with faster rockets. Imagine Reagan’s Star Wars–except it actually works.
I stood still. I didn’t know what to do. So I did as the Israelis and walked back onto the court.
“Whose ball was it?” they asked.
And play began once more. Soon the momentum was back and it was as if nothing had happened before. Basketball was basketball and all was right in the world besides the poor quality of these players.
For those of you concerned for my safety, thanks. I appreciate your thoughts. But there has yet to be a single death within the state of Israel from the week-long rocket barrage. Unless you live in Gaza, where the threat is real and where more than 170 have died, the Hamas attacks across the border are largely symbolic. There have, however, been scores of deaths from gun violence in the U.S. these past ten days. I would warn my American friends and family to stay indoors.
I would not describe the current state of Israel as frightening, perilous or terrorized. It is not. The state of Israel is surreal. Not long after the rockets were launched and intercepted, I saw a young couple pushing a newborn in a stroller. There is a great nonchalance in response to the current situation. Most Israelis treat the daily rockets as they would an ambulance–they get out of the way, and when it’s passed, they go about their business. In a way, it’s similar to the way Americans unblinkingly register the latest mass shooting.
I guess we can all get used to just about anything.