Jewish World Review / March 16, 1998 / 18 Adar, 5758

Israel Diarist

Radio daze

IT WAS THE Fast of Esther. We waited together on Arlasoroff Street opposite the Train/Egged Bus Depot, in north Tel Aviv, for Dan Bus #20 to Ramat Ha-chaiyal. It was the usual long wait, maybe 25 minutes, so I got a good look at him: a thoroughly nondescript, bald, middle-aged man wearing an aqua-blue pullover sweatshirt and navy blue work pants.

I got on the bus before he did, so it hit me first. The bus radio busride was on, as it almost always is. But instead of blasting pop music, a soccer game, or grating Israeli rap (sad to say there is such a thing), the radio was tuned rather loudly, with plenty of static, to a station that was broadcasting a prayer chant in the traditional Sephardic sing-song. Equally unusual for Tel Aviv, the bearded driver was Orthodox wearing a black felt yalmulke.

The man sat down toward the front of the bus. An instant later he got up, even before the rest of the passengers had finished boarding, and asked the driver to turn down the radio's volume. The driver did so but not enough to placate this fellow who then called out to the driver: "This is not a synagogue; turn it down." The driver made the volume yet lower but, again, not low enough to please the passenger. So a few moments into the ride, the man in the aqua-blue pullover walked to the front of the bus and demanded to take the name and identification number of the bus driver. Typically, a passenger who has the temerity to challenge a bus driver is more likely to be harangued and brow-beaten than get his way. But in this instance Tel Aviv Rules applied: the religious Dan #20 driver told the grumbling passenger that it would not be necessary to file a formal complaint; and shut the radio. We drove down Abba Hillel Silver Street in uncustomary silence.

LIVING IN JERUSALEM and working in Tel Aviv, I spend a lot of time on buses --- too much time actually. It's from bus time that I've come to generalize about the differences between the two populations: Jerusalem is a Jewish town. People who live here, regardless of their level of religious observance tend, I sense, to identify themselves by their Jewishness. Tel Avivians think of themselves, it seems to me, as Hebrew-speaking Mediterraneans.

Several of the bright, young, secular, and upwardly mobile computer programmers I work with in my new Tel Aviv job, individuals whose parents live in Jerusalem, told me they could't wait to escape from the capital. Tel Aviv is cosmopolitan (read: un-Jewish). Tel Aviv has everything (to help you forget you are in Eretz Israel). In Tel Aviv, you can delude yourself into thinking that the "West Bank" is somewhere far away; that the Arab-Israel conflict is quite a terrible, costly, and pointless nuisance when Tel Aviv has made it plain that it wants "Peace Now."

Tel Aviv is a hotbed of secular intolerance. Back at work, Henrietta, the technical writer I was hired to replace, seeing that I sported a knitted kipa, welcomed me with the exclamation: "Oh, youčre religious (meaning Orthodox)." Not quite I explained, "I'm Masorti [Conservative]." "But then how can you stand living in Jersualem with THEM?!" And in the next few days before she went off to Thailand for a year, maintained a steady-stream of anti-religious bigotry. Another Tel Avivian I met, pointed out that my office was located abutting a neighborhood that was formerly crime-ridden. "Now the ultra-Orthodox heredi are moving in. The Forces of Darkness. I think we might have been better off before the neighborhood changed."

The mass-circulation daily, Yediot Ahranonot, recently carried a story about a fervently-Orthodox community that required a man to divorce his wife after she told him she had been raped by a group of foreign workers. Demonstrations against ultra-Orthodox "medievalism" were quickly organized. The story, picked up by the wire services and reported in the United States, turns out to be a complete fabrication. Its author was subsequently fired. But the story underscored the secular perception that the "Religious" are, indeed, the Forces of Darkness. And make no mistake about it, secular intolerance of the "Religious" extends beyond the "ultra-Orthodox" world, as the recent remarks by Shlomo Gazit, former head of IDF Intelligence, comparing the kipa to Nazi insignia demonstrates.

As for me, I am working up the courage to tell the next bus driver I encounter whose radio is blasting rap music to turn it down!

--- Elliot Jager

New JWR contributor, Elliot Jager, is an American who recently moved to Israel.


©1998, Elliot Jager, courtesy of The Connecticut Jewish Ledger