There are some things you cannot get used to.
I slept on the roof my first night in Jerusalem at the Heritage House. There was a fellow camper in the bed adjacent to mine whose snores were cartoonishly loud and sleep was futile next to him. I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and found a mattress on the roof balcony. It was already 3:30 in the morning. At quarter to four, the Muslim prayer rang from the east side of Jerusalem. It was spectral, otherworldly, ephemeral, ancient, primordial. I couldn't sleep and watched the sun rise over the Arabic end of Jerusalem.
I was woken by a member of the hostel.
"Hey buddy, wake up call."
I'm up, I'm up.
"What's your name? Oh yeah? How long do you think you'll be staying with us? We have a rule that if you stay more than two nights, you have to attend religious classes. That sound good?"
So it looked like I was only going to stay for one more night.
I went out and got some breakfast and coffee. The coffee tasted like cat litter. I went back to the House to use their wifi, which was only available in the main room. Mine was a new face, so the introductions began. I met some of the other hostel-stayers. I also met Ben Packer, the head coordinator of the House. He was short and vaguely heavy and sat behind his computer and never made eye contact. He began to read news updates from Israel Today, Sheldon Adelson's right wing news publication.
"Listen to this: 23 dead in Gaza."
Everybody else just stared at their respective screens.
"Why aren't there more zeroes?" Ben scoffed. Soon a self-righteous, indignant conversation began between Ben and one of the younger residents. The kid started Googling things and found this quote:
It would be my greatest sadness to see Zionists do to Palestinian Arabs much of what Nazis did to Jews.
"Einstein was stupid," said Ben.
"I mean, he was good at math, but he should stick to the stuff he knows and stay out of politics, you know?"
Ben changed the subject. "Why would anyone want to go to Paris? Get out of Paris, that place sucks. They replaced the peace loving Jews of Europe with rotten Muslims. Good job, Europe!"
A few new guys arrived. Finally, Ben had some like-minded friends to share his thoughts with.
"Do we have a Palestinian flag? Wouldn't be hilarious to take a picture with it and put it on Facebook?"
"That'd be hilarious."
"No, we burned it."
"Oh yeah, haha."
I wondered, should I engage with them? Should I yell at them or try to reproach them reasonably? I left the room and went back to the roof. I returned an hour later to hear that the tone of the conversation had not changed.
"They should send a missile to the White House. Fuck Obama. Exercise restraint my ass!"
One of the new guys kvetched about lefties. He was from Kentucky and he had yellow chiclets for teeth.
"Obama wants to provide lawyers for illegal immigrants! Screw that!" The Kentuckian, who drank from his own personal 1.5 liter bottle of warm, flat Coca Cola, said. He then abruptly changed the topic.
"What's the house rules about, um, alcohol?"
"No rules, bro," Jake answered proudly.
"Sweet. What about girls?" The Kentuckian smirked.
"No girls in the bedrooms," Jake sighed.
"Damn!" He slammed the table. He started to talk about a girl he met on birthright. Jake asked him what happened. The Kentuckian turned to his friend.
"Tell them about her. Tell them about her, dude."
"How long did you get to hold her hand?" I asked.
"Oh, we did more than hold hands," the Kentuckian giggled.
"Oh, bro!" Jake shouted. "Check this out...KABOOM! Hahaha!" Several walked over to Jake's computer. He was watching videos of "stupid Arabs" getting blown up.
These are the meek, hateful little men of the world. I'd had enough and walked out of the hostel.
I sat in the shade of a broad archway watching an Asian tourist group wander through a courtyard. One of the other Americans staying in the hostel walked toward me and sat down next to my left.
"Hey," I said reluctantly.
"I saw you in the Heritage House earlier. My name is Marco." He stuck out his hand. He looked like he went to a lot of music festivals. He had dirty blonde curls under a trucker hat, a striped tank top and a stoned, smiling face. He immediately started talking about weed. I immediately blew him off as a fool and looked for a way out of the conversation. Some Argentinians walked by and I saw it as a chance to escape. I spoke in Spanish to try to alienate Marco.
Vas a apoyar Holanda esta noche?
The Argentinians laughed and responded. Then, to my surprise, Marco spoke fluent Spanish. Turns out that he speaks five languages: English, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and French, all perfectly. I realized I had assumed too early.
Marco is the kind of guy who genuinely believes that love will solve the world's problems. And not in the "I don't have an answer to anything so I'll just fill in the blank with the L word," but in the "honest to God, L-O-V-E is all we need" way. And cynicism pained him. Whenever I felt compelled to detail the many ways in which we are misled, Marco's expression was like that of a child who was hearing for the first time that Santa Claus was not real. He truly believed. I was envious.
"What are you doing tonight?"
Playing some basketball.
"Cool, can I come too?"
I didn't really want him to come. I thought he might cramp my style. But Marco's narcotic smile would not be denied.
Sure. Let's go.
Shlomo recommend I check out Sacher Park, where I would find ultra Orthodox Jews playing pick-up.
On the way Marco told me about a girl he was sweet on. He read me their text messages and ask that I interpret them. I told him to be cool and funny and show no desperation. To Marco, I seemed like Casanova, but really I was just giving myself advice.
"I got my rabbinical test on Friday," Marco said.
What happens if you pass?
"I'll be a rabbi."
How old are you?
This kid was full of surprises. It also turns out that his family is not Jewish, but Jewish converts.
We arrived at Sacher around eight. The park was large and the many fields and courts were set up along rolling hills of cut grass. There were a few young kids wearing kippas and tzitzit (those frayed-looking tassels worn at the hip) and shooting around. Within moments we started playing three-on-three. Marco and I were on the same team, along with this tiny bearded kid who must have weighed 85 pounds. Marco happened to be a pretty decent baller. He hustled like a madman.
The competition was subpar and we won six games in a row. I think the locals started to resent our dominance. I don't blame them. And so the games got a bit testy. Fouls were flagrant and calls started to go against our favor. At one point, a tussle between Marco and an opposing player started. The other player, an overweight man wearing black pants and a white button down shirt, let go of the ball and said it was his team's possession.
What? I asked. How does that work?
"That's how we play here in Israel," he responded.
The next possession, that same player set a pick by hip checking me out of the play. They scored.
"So I have a question," I said. "In Israel, are you allowed to run into people to set screens?"
"No," my new nemesis responded. "That's a moving screen."
"OK," I said. "So you're not allowed to move when you set a screen?"
"Not here in Israel, right?"
He didn't seem to understand the point I was trying to make. And he didn't stop fouling and setting moving screens on me. But that all made it so much sweeter to beat them.
On three separate occasions, I was accused of having my foot on the line when I shot a three pointer. One instance happened to be a game winning three. Marco also happened to be recording the game (he had had his fill for the night). The opposing players immediately disputed the three so as to require one more point by my team. They looked over the footage, but it was inconclusive. Still, they were adamant that I had crossed the line:
"Isn't it funny," I asked. "That you guys keep accusing me of trespassing over some line of demarcation? I mean, that's a little ironic, right?"
I just got blank stares. Apparently, I was the only one to make a connection between the territorial disputes of Israel and a three-point line.
Marco and I finished up and walked back towards the Old City. We rehashed games and attitudes. I told him I thought it was both odd and impressive that most of the guys we played against wore yarmulkas that didn't fall off.
"I just don't understand why they wear them," I said.
"They are supposed to show modesty," Marco answered. "As a reminder that there is something greater above you."
A diamond in the rough.
"I always thought different. I just figured they were just an excuse to cover up bald spots. That's why only men wear them. They made up the humility part later."
Marco smiled. I think he was beginning to appreciate my cynicism as much as I appreciated his earnestness.
We arrived back at the House around two in the morning after a couple of beers downtown. I was reluctant to sleep on the roof again and Marco knew the story about the bed bellower.
"Hey, man. The bunk above me is open. Come sleep in my room."
We went to the room together, eschewing a shower until the morning.
"That was so great tonight. You're a real baller man."
"Thanks, Marco. You've got some moves, you know."
"Not as good as you though! Anyway, sweet dreams, homie!"