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April 19, 2014 | 19th Nisan 5774

Laughter

Galilee Diary #470, December 16, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

Thus said the Lord: Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined, without man or beast - in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man, without inhabitants, without beast - the sound of mirth and gladness... -Jeremiah 33:10-11

So there I was on the train from Tel Aviv, coming home to the Galilee, on a Tuesday evening after rush hour. The train was nevertheless full - I had to walk through two cars to find a seat. The passengers on these late trains seem to be characterized by their tiredness - it has been a long day. Many people doze and/or listen to their ipods, some read books (they read the tabloid on the way to work - there's nothing left to read in it by evening), more and more work on their laptops. There are always a few passengers travelling with a friend or acquaintance or coworker, who actually converse during the ride; a much larger number are conversing with someone far away, by cell phone - you can hear them all - the soldier breaking up with her boyfriend, the teenager arguing with his mother, the foreman barking work instructions, the mother guiding her kid through dinner preparations. Conversations in Hebrew and Russian and Arabic and English and occasionally Amharic. Seems like the harder you try not to listen, the more you hear. I've noticed, too, that many who are not talking on their cell phones are nevertheless busy with them, texting or playing games or exploring "features."

The train ridership is pretty heterogeneous: yuppies and hippies, lots of soldiers and police (who ride free), college students, families on outings, tourists from the airport, Arabs and Jews, Orthodox and not, old and young, rich and poor.

And as we dozed and chatted our way through the darkness, speeding north along the coast, somewhere before Haifa a young woman with a Russian accent, sitting with a friend near the center of the car, broke out into a fit of hysterical laughter. It was a nice laugh, not annoying, real and happy and a little musical. But after the first outburst, she got trapped in a feedback loop and couldn't stop. Her peals of laughter filled the car - there was no way you could ignore them. Some people stood up or craned their necks to see what was going on. And ultimately, just about everyone found him/herself smiling or even laughing out loud. Strangers sitting side by side commented to each other with a smile, enjoying the shared experience. For about ten minutes all of us were lifted out of our tired, hungry, bored, anxious-to-be-somewhere-else, lonely reality and brought together by an experience of shared joy. We all knew it was silly, and meaningless, and yet we were all laughing in spite of ourselves, and feeling permitted to do so by the fact that the strangers sitting around us were laughing too.

Mass behavior - or shared humanity?

Put us in a sealed train, cut us off from our ethnic, class, religious, and ideological identities, and it turns out we can, now and then, find and recognize and even enjoy the underlying human elements that we all have in common.

Finally the laugher's friends managed to calm her down, and the ambient noise of train sounds and cell-phone cacophony took over again, and the train stopped at Haifa and started to empty out, and we all went back to how and what we had been before. Or did we?

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