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Jewish Journal

Advice and Reality Face a Moment of Truth in Israel

by Susan Freudenheim

July 13, 2006 | 8:00 pm

"Just don't take the bus."

As I left on a trip to Israel a couple months ago, this was the advice I got from everyone. Even then, a time of relative peace, the ersatz front-page pictures of terror-torn Israeli commuter buses surrounded by wounded people being moved to ambulances were still too fresh. Suicide bombers, not rockets, were foremost in our minds. And we all know that suicide bombers target buses and cafes -- public places where innocent people gather.

So as I took off in late spring, leaving behind my young daughter and husband, I thought about this simple panacea -- "Avoiding buses and cafes, how hard is that?" Did I expect to see buses blowing up all around me as I stayed safely on the sidewalks? Not really. But traveling to a land that has been beset by terrorists carries with it added anxieties, so why take chances?

Then I arrived in Jerusalem.

My first instinct in any new city is to mingle. I like to walk the streets, stop into ordinary shops -- grocery stores and electronic shops, not just the Judaica stores or Dead Sea skin care outlets for tourists. I like to take public transportation.

My instincts set in. I wanted to see what it is like to live in Jerusalem. So first thing, instead of a taxi, I took a shared cab from the airport to my hotel -- an amazing ride where everyone made friends during our 40 minutes together. A psychologist from San Diego was chatting with an ecologist who split her time among Israel, the United States and Latin America. The clearly religious were giving advice to the traveling bohemians. Lively chatter among complete strangers filled the minivan, and when I arrived at my hotel without the exact fare -- upsetting the cab driver -- someone I'd never met before paid my part without a question.

"Just being in Israel replenishes my soul," the woman who'd just spent $10 on me told me as I took off gratefully with her card so I could send her money back. It was dusk, and darkness was falling over the city. I asked at the hotel's front desk whether it was all right to walk in the neighborhood to find a place to eat; the manager assured me it was. Out I went, jet-lagged but invigorated, into the heart of Jerusalem. And even at 9 p.m., many many people -- young and old -- were walking everywhere. I was especially struck by the women alone on the streets. I'm used to Los Angeles, where first, no one walks, and second, no one walks alone. At night, Jerusalem seemed so safe.

I saw buses drive by filled with commuters. I wondered.

A mini town square, Ben Yehuda lies at the heart of the tourist district and at the heart of where young Israelis hang out. In the course of the 10 days I was in Israel, I went there many times -- for a falafel on my first night, to shop for souvenirs on another, for a late-night dinner after Shabbat. For several blocks the street is cordoned off from cars, like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, so vendors and performers fill the public spaces.

It was an easy walk from my hotel.

The question of the bus came up really only on my third day in Israel. I'd made a commitment to meet a friend in Tel Aviv, and I was not about to pay $60 to $70 each way to take a taxi there. I rose early on Sunday morning, a regular workday in Israel, and set off for the bus station, where I'd been told I could catch a gesher -- a shared cab or minivan available to all, much like the one I'd taken from the airport. I walked to the bus station, a longer hike than I'd expected, because I wanted to get a glimpse of a different part of Jerusalem, particularly the regular, working-class neighborhoods.

Getting where you want to go is easy, because everyone helps anyone asking directions, even when you speak only English. However, having misjudged the distance, I made my way to the bus station with little time to spare. And then I couldn't find where the geshers were stationed. And no one knew enough English to know what I was asking about. I was really in Israel now. Suddenly, I was in line to go through the metal detectors to enter the terminal, and once inside, even with my limited Hebrew, I could easily see that a bus was leaving for Tel Aviv in just a few moments.

I stepped up to the ticket line. Flashes of my daughter went through my mind. I pushed away thoughts of the final blackout scene in the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film "Paradise Now." I accused myself of being ridiculous and went up and bought my ticket -- $3.50 for a ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the bus. Door 15 the ticket seller told me.

I was taking the bus.

Not so easy, I soon saw. So was everyone else. The bus hadn't arrived and dozens -- maybe even a hundred -- Israelis were pushing toward the doorway to be first in line. The danger now, I realized, was getting crushed. My New York bus instincts began to take over. My Los Angeles freeway driver gusto came into play, too. I was going to get on that bus.

As it turned out, I did. One of the last to get a seat, I sat next to a gun-toting soldier returning to his base who had two cellphones ringing constantly, which he could only answer after removing his iPod earphones, which were already projecting loud enough for me to share his music. In the aisle next to us, a mother with her two young girls sat on the floor. The bus was packed with what looked like workaday commuters. We arrived in Tel Aviv on time and without incident.

When I was returning to Jerusalem later that day, my friend escorted me to the gesher, and I sort of regretted getting the help. I e-mailed my husband that night that I'd done exactly what everyone told me not to do and was none the worse for wear. He was shocked. I was proud. It was such a simple thing.

Maybe, sometimes, overcoming your fears and joining in is an accomplishment. I say this as many of my friends are considering whether to travel to Israel right now. Maybe it's important to go, now more than ever. To be with the Israelis who are continuing their daily lives there, despite the threats. Maybe sometimes taking the bus is the best way to go.

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