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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Riding the Rails

Galilee Diary #563, February 1, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.  That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil--this is the gift of God.
-Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

Coming back from an outing to Tel Aviv, we got on the9:22to Acco.  It was a Thursday night, so the train was packed, and the prospects of finding seats looked grim.  However, making our way toward the front car we came across an area with fold-down seats, of which several were blocked by a mass of large suitcases.  The luggage belonged to two couples obviously returning from the airport, and with a little rearrangement we succeeded in folding down two seats for us and one for a grandmotherly Orthodox woman also looking for a place.

The couples were Arabs from a village in our area, forty-ish, middle class, the men in polo shirts and the women in headscarves.  They were on their way home from a vacation inTurkey(without the kids), where they had had a wonderful time, and all four were very happy and eager to talk about our common neighborhood and to compare notes about trips toTurkey(our last was ten years ago).  Sharing with us (and with the Orthodox grandmother) the snacks they had been issued on the plane, they made fun of their own inexperience in dealing with Israel's unique duty-free shopping system (you shop in the duty free stores at the airport while waiting to board your flight out, but you don't take your purchases with you – you have them held until you return from your vacation and then pick them up before you clear customs on the way home); they had unwittingly cleared customs without claiming their purchases, and then had had to spend an hour and a half negotiating with the bureaucracy until they were finally permitted to get their stuff.  They thought the whole thing was pretty funny (I don't think I would have).  It seems this had been their first trip abroad.  InTurkey, by the way, they had had to get along in English, though here and there they found Arabic speakers (immigrants from Arab countries).  When we first went toTurkeyin the mid 90s it was very cheap; no longer – they complained of the high prices of everything – but those suitcases were full of gifts for the kids.

The various communities, Jewish and Arab, have informal "reputations" which may or may not be based on facts.  Their village is known as relatively religious and backward, a farming village.  So we were struck by their openness, by the easy feeling of equality between the men and their wives (one woman is a student at the Open University).  They seemed just like us.  And don't forget that Orthodox grandmother, who was very sweet.

We have lived here long enough to know that the above description is perfectly mundane and trivial.  What's the big deal about making small-talk on the train with people who are different from you?  And yet, somehow, we were both struck by the remarkableness of the unremarkableness of the experience. On the train, at night, all you see when you look at the window is your own reflection.  We couldn't see the crisis du jour being played out in demonstrations over the ultra-Orthodox exclusion of women from the public sphere; or the daily dose of new legislation from nationalist parties aimed at the exclusion of Arabs; or my neighbors building bomb-shelter additions to their homes; or the gradual fading away of the proposals for change that emerged from the social justice protests of the summer.  All we could see was ourselves and each other and we looked, well, unremarkable.  Not only the world outside but even we here tend to see Israel through the lens of the headlines, as a fraught place where Big Worries and Big Issues and Historic Conflict dominate consciousness.  But on the train at night, when all the newspapers had already been trashed for the day, it was comforting to be reminded how ordinary we are.

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