Does my bus stop en route to Mesopotamia?

Jerusalem, 1967

I’ve come back to this city where names
are given to distances as if to human beings
and the numbers are not of bus routes
but: 70 After, 1917, 500
B.C., Forty eight. These are the lines
You really travel on.

Yehuda Amichai, Poems of Jerusalem

Like New York, Paris, or Rome, Jerusalem is the type of city where two realities exist: the one you see out the windows of your tour bus, and the one you see from within the crowded confines of a public bus.

Last week as I rode bus #74 to school, I was sandwiched between a young kippah-wearing soldier with an M16, an elderly hijab-wearing Muslim woman, and a older French man with a lit cigarette in his mouth. This is the true Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alahthe heavenly Jerusalem.


It was recently pointed out to me that the bus routes in Jerusalem aren’t arbitrarily given. They don’t go in any geographical/numerical order. Like the Zohar, they contain a secret code. Hiding in plain sight, they actually have great meaning.

Bus route numbers in Jerusalem correspond to important dates and gematria-related concepts. I take either the 71, 72, 74, or 75 buses to school. And since nothing in Jerusalem is light or easy, this means I actually take the following buses:

  • The “Destruction of the Second Temple” bus (71)
  • The “Siege of Masada” bus (72)
  • The “Fall of Masada” bus (74)

(I’m having trouble tracking down what happened in the year 75 (BCE or CE). It could be either the birth of Hillel, the authorship of Josephus’s The Wars of the Jews, or maybe the Sinai Interim Agreement of 1975 CE… or something entirely different.)

Of course, you could also take the “Babylonian Exile” bus (586), the “Reunification of Jerusalem” bus (67) or the “Chai” bus (18).

This is how we travel in Jerusalem. Nothing in the city is without hidden or deeper meaning. Yehuda Amichai would caution – poetically – against imbuing inanimate objects with meaning at the exclusion of human beings, but there is something to be said about how a culture sanctifies ordinary and everyday things – like riding a crowded bus – with elements from a sacred and holy past.

“When the situation gets shitty, take a shit!”

On a winding alleyway in the streets of Jerusalem, that’s the slogan that was emblazoned in blue spray-paint on a wall, just steps from a Orthodox synagogue.

This evening, I went on a Graffiti Tour of Jerusalem, run by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah is an organization of rabbis from all streams of Judaism that advocates for human rights in Israel and North America. You can learn more about them on their site.

The walking tour this evening brought me face-to-face with much of the graffiti that I’ve often ignored while walking to Burgers Bar or Aroma during my previous stays in Israel. As T’ruah puts it, graffiti culture in Israel “combines humor, politics, poetry, current events, Jewish tradition and more in multiple languages.”

While on previous walks through Jerusalem’s streets, I probably would have just laughed at the iconography of the man squatting to relieve himself, today I gleaned a fascinating new message. The Hebrew word for situation – “matzav” is the word often used to describe the current political state of affairs vis a vis the Occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UPDATE (6.4.2013): An Israeli friend has just informed me that this slogan and the icon of the man pooping are from a Shalom Achshav/Peace Now campaign in support of the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. See the original graphic here.

We saw a lot of street art on the tour  – there will most definitely be a second blog post with more shots. For now, here are some of my favorite pieces of graffiti from our tour:


The image is of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. In English, the Hebrew text accompanying the image should read: “Those who believe aren’t afraid” – a lyric from an Israeli song by Eyal Golan. But in the word for “aren’t,” one of the letters has been swapped, giving the phrase a new meaning: “Those who believe in him are afraid.” As our tour guide put it, Israeli graffiti is most-often associated with the political left, as the right-wing political establishment is considerably more well funded. So it’s no surprise to see this cheeky poke at the current (right-wing) government showing up in graffiti form.


The red graffiti on the left reads: “Firing Zone 918,” referring to a military firing zone in the southern West Bank. This is a fairly new piece of graffiti that has appeared in Jerusalem; it is a direct response to the Israeli army imposing a test-firing zone on an area where some 1,000 Palestinians live in the South Hebron Hills. This is a very current situation here, with developments taking place as recently as last week. You can read some more about the situation at The Daily Beast. The graffiti – in it’s harsh, militaristic typography – is attempting to draw attention to an aspect of Israeli society that very few Jerusalemites ever consider, let alone see with their own eyes.

In an almost Talmudic-style commentary on the red graffiti, the black writing to its right reads: “War Crimes.” While these were likely left by two separate artists, the relationship between the two is fascinating and creates its own meta-statement on the situation.


While this looks like an artistic variation of an Israeli flag, it’s a deeply provocative piece of art that is itself a “dialogue” between two seemingly oppositional parties. The diagonal white stripes have been painted over the first piece, attempting to cover up the original artist’s intended message. The Jewish Stars beneath the white-washing originally included Hindu “Om” icons, Christian crosses, and Muslim Stars & Crescents. Ostensibly, the original artist intended to present a message of coexistence, which was seemingly anathema to whoever came along and painted over them.

Luckily, as we rounded the corner, we came across an unaltered version of the same piece:


To round things off, it is worth stating that while Israel at large and Jerusalem in particular remain highly charged political environments, not all graffiti is so heavy-handed. Sometimes, someone just comes along and shares a simple, yet easily understandable message; one that may or may not have already been shared by some pretty powerful religious figures 46 years ago:


More photos from the tour coming soon… Thanks to T’ruah, and our incredible guide, Marisa, for taking us on a literally eye-opening tour.

Late night thoughts from Jerusalem

  1. Clearly, my body does not respond well to time zone changes. I’m still falling asleep around 3 in the afternoon, and staying up until the early hours of the morning. Need to find a way to make myself more productive during this transition. Solution for tonight: finally finish unpacking. Solution for tomorrow night: try to take over the world.
  2. The way-cool new cultural center of Jerusalem – the rejuvenated Ottoman-era Train Station – is a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. En-route, the new promenade (built along the old train rails, with new running and bike trails) is exactly 3 kilometers. Very convenient for timing my runs!
  3. Stumbled upon this house today, while walking through Baka (the next neighborhood across the street from me). Check out the cool art adorning the sides:


  4. Walking through the streets of my neighborhood, I’ve heard more English and French than Hebrew. I’ve actually heard more English on the streets here than when I lived in Queens. It’s familiar and comforting, but still feels a little bit off… like the city is having an identity crisis. Or is that just me?
  5. Thanks to the “availability” of Netflix in Israel, I just finished Season 4 of Breaking Bad. WOW. No spoilers here, but it was certainly explosive.

President Obama wants to…

a) Do his job
b) Eat a cookie
c) Give you a hug
d) Ignore the truth, forget history, and destroy Jerusalem

(the answer is D…)

At least it is, according to B’nai Brith Canada (yes… Canada), who has taken the time to inform us that President Obama (whose President? Oh right… a different country’s) has “plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel.”

Here we go again with B’nai Brith. They always seem to pop up at the most interesting times to add an element of confusion to whatever is going on.

Just in time for Tisha b’Av, this ominous email, titled “President Obama wants to…” arrived in my inbox yesterday morning:

In response to U.S. President Obama’s plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel, B’nai Brith Canada launched a national ad campaign that reveals the truth about Jerusalem.

B’nai Brith Canada, a self-funded advocacy organization, requires your help in the fight for truth.

Written in the tone of a conspiracy theorist, the email suggests that there are secret machinations afoot to subvert the so-called “truths about Jerusalem,” in an attempt to cut off Jews from the city. You can see the full advertisement here. I’m not even sure where to start on this one, so how about the following simple points:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has proposed the notion that there are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that will not be part of Israel as part of a final border agreement. Most Israelis accept this, and talk about it openly as if it is just a matter of time until the details are ironed out. So why is B’nai Brith making it look like this is an evil, liberal American agenda? The conservative government of Israel is on the same page…

2. Why is a self-proclaimed Canadian “Jewish human rights organization” running a national campaign in Canada to oppose the American president’s viewpoint which happens to be relatively in line with the Israeli government’s viewpoint? I’m having trouble connecting the dots here…

3. Take a look at the full ad. B’nai Brith has framed this all within the context of Tisha b’Av, as if to suggest that President Obama is bringing calamity upon the Jewish people on par with the destruction of the Temples. This is a misappropriation of our religious tradition to further one organization’s own political agenda, and is wholly inappropriate.

4. The ad argues that “only under Israel’s jurisdiction, did all faiths regain the right to worship” in Jerusalem. B’nai Brith seems to forget that even under Israeli jurisdiction, not everyone has the right to worship in Jerusalem. Perhaps as a Jewish human rights organization, they should spend some time focusing on the rights of Jews to pray in Jerusalem…

While the historical facts B’nai Brith uses in their ad are indeed true, there’s just one problem: they’re just that… historical. B’nai Brith conveniently ignores present facts and present truths. This ad is divorced from current realities. It doesn’t recognize the widely accepted reality that any viable two-state solution will include negotiations regarding Jerusalem (again – something that Netanyahu himself speaks of).

As a human rights organization that is supposedly concerned with Jerusalem, perhaps B’nai Brith should focus on some real human rights issues, and confront some of the current truths and realities about Jerusalem instead of trying to advance a weak political agenda. Here are two simple suggestions:

1. Poverty in Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem’s non-Jewish children live below the poverty line, and the city’s poverty rate is twice the national average.

2. Religious Pluralism. As the New Israel Fund eloquently notes, “one would think that, having finally achieved a Jewish homeland in Israel, Jews could practice their religion – or not – untroubled by government interference.” Of course, anyone with their eye on Israeli news knows this isn’t the case.

So what’s up, B’nai Brith? Will you continue to languish in the ashes of the destroyed Temples, or will you rise up and acknowledge the realities of 21st century Israel?

Worth Repeating: To the Westerner who “understands” the terrorist

To the Westerner who “understands” the terrorist:
By Bradley Burston

Spare us the explanations.

Spare us the learned, sociology-drenched justifications.

Spare us the reasons why you “get” Palestinians when they gun Jews down in cold blood.

Spare us the chapter and verse on how the plight of the Palestinians is at the root of Islamic terrorism the world over, and if the Palestinians were to receive full justice, Islamic terrorism would pass from the world.

Spare us.

You may well believe, with the blind faith of the hopeful and the fear-stricken, that when these people are through with the Jews, they won’t come for you.

Think again.

Spare us the post-modernism and the radical chic and the guff.

Open your eyes.

When a gunman walks into a Jewish religious seminary at the main entrance to that part of Jerusalem which has been Jewish since 1948, and which was stolen from no one, pay attention.

When he opens fire on religious students hunched over books in a library, firing and firing until blood soaks holy book bindings and open pages of Talmud and the whole of the floor, pay close attention to the reactions of the self-styled people of faith who run Hamas.

Spare us the conclusion that the only reason Hamas kills Jews, and that its underlying motive for encouraging others to do the same, is to force Israel to agree to a cease-fire.

Spare us the “Israel’s policies are responsible for the bloodshed” and “the seminary is, after all, an ideological bastion and symbol of the religious right” and all the other scholarly, arrogant, condescending and amoral ways of saying “they had it coming to them.”

Spare us the understanding for the motivations of the mass murderer who kills with God on his lips. Spare us the understanding of the words of the Hamas official who says that after all the Israeli killings of Palestinians, the Jerusalem killings are “our only joy.”

Spare us the sight of the thanksgiving prayers for the great victory, prayers that began in Gaza City mosques just after the slaughter of the Jews. Spare us the sight of the sweets being handed out by little children to motorists in passing cars in the Strip, sweets to celebrate the young Jews dead on the floor, the young Jews dead at their desks, the Jews killed for the crime of being Jews in that place of study and worship.

Spare us the righteousness of those who condemned Baruch Goldstein for entering a holy place with an assault rifle and murdering Palestinians, but who can understand why a Palestinian might do the very same thing,

Open your eyes.

Last week, when Israeli forces drove into Gaza, and some 120 Palestinians were killed, many of them were gunmen, but with children making up another sixth of the total, one grieving father spoke with quiet eloquence, saying “Other places in the world, when this happens, there is a great outcry. When this happens here, the world is silent. No one cares.”

He’s right. The world has grown content to let Palestinians die. The reason is not simple callousness. And it is not, as Hamas proclaims to its followers in Gaza, that the Jews control the world media and world finance, and thus Western government as well.

The reason is terrorism.

The world has grown weary of the Islamist’s creed, that only the armed struggle can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the only proper resolution is the end of Israel.

Even the Israeli left, which for decades championed the Palestinian with courage and determination, has, in large part, had it with the Palestinians. The reason is terrorism. The reason is murder. The reason is that the rulers of Gaza are people who see an intrinsic value in the killing of Jews for the sake of increasing the number of dead Jews in the world.

The rulers of Gaza cannot bring themselves to accept the concept of sharing the Holy Land with the Jews.

The best that the rulers of Gaza can do, is to bring an end to hope among their own people and ours as well.

They believe that the Jewish state is temporary, and that they Jews will soon abandon it to Islamic rule.

After all this time, you’d think they’d know the Jews a little better.