I now have two weeks of Ulpan (pronounced ool’pahn, intensive Hebrew study) under my belt. I still can’t speak Hebrew but I have a small list of words at my command that I can use incorrectly in almost any situation. My language school, Ulpan Morasha, is on Shivtei Israel, a street that runs north from Yaffo Street near the Jaffa Gate and the old city. Classes begin at 8:30 AM Sunday through Thursday. We get 30 minutes off at 10:30 then back to class until 12:45. This beginners’ class will last, if I can make it, 5 months. The school is about 200 yards beyond the marker shown immediately below, just across from a former prison. This is no accident.
I walk past this commemorative marker every day including this past Tuesday, Israeli Independence Day. Its mentions of “teenage volunteers” in battle is not hard to imagine. Most of the soldiers we see on the streets, though carrying automatic weapons, seem to be in their teens. Many of the soldiers struggle at growing beards.
Since we’ve been here I had wondered why we saw more and more Israeli flags. Flags on cars…
and draped on railings almost everywhere.
The flags were, of course, for Independence Day. The celebration and activities are much like what we do in the US on the Fourth of July; picnics, outdoor grilling, games, activities in the parks; it differs when we add commemorative sirens and tears.
The holiday begins with the sounding of sirens. Our Ulpan class took a short walk to King Solomon Street near the Mamilla Hotel in the Jerusalem city-center, an always crowded intersection–horns honking, bumper to bumper traffic–and at 11:00 o’clock, the sirens went off and everything stopped. Drivers got out of their cars and stood at attention on the street, paying their respects to some 23,000 war dead and terror-victims.
When we returned to class, one of the instructors who took us on our little field trip had lit a candle and left it on the front desk. In a subdued voice she said something like, “Of course it is hard to study now after what we just saw–but we have work to do and we will do it.”
Jerusalem is a 5,000 year old city of stone and dust. Stone buildings, stone facades, stone steps, stone walls… and dust that seems to form from nothing, every day, and deposit itself on everything. How is this place different from what we knew? I would start there. People are not too quick to smile here. There is soberness, an abiding undercurrent of tension, reminders everywhere of the distant and recent violent past. But the buses run, the shops open and Jerusalem strains about her business every day except for the remarkable calm of the Sabbath.
They have work to do and they will do it.
In Search of the Western Wall (video):