The prophetic taxi driver is a not-uncommon sub-genre of the broader “only in Israel” category of storytelling. Related versions include wise Egged bus drivers, who are on strike as I write this, but who have been known to cite Maimonides in heated arguments with passengers, and to drive dumb American girls to their destinations when they are lost and missed their stops, but only after berating them for their incompetence; we are all family here. A Palestinian cab driver wishes me heartily a Shabbat Shalom as I rush home on Friday afternoon, and for just a moment I imagine this as a step toward coexistence and Semitic harmony. I am aware of what a cliche think-piece sort of thought this is as I’m having it. I laugh at my own trite narrations. I cringe at my self-righteousness.
I don’t buy into the “only in Israel” trope, at least not completely. Beautiful things happen everywhere, and Uber drivers have also inspired me plenty. A few weeks ago, I had a most heartwarming encounter with an older man and his twin four year-old sons on the New York City subway; they were coming from the boys’ first karate lesson, and reading together the “student’s creed,” which is all about emotional strength, resilience, compassion, perseverance – what I would describe as “really dope values.” One of the twins asks me why I am reading a book, and I tell him I love to read. He asks what all the words are on the page and I tell him they tell a story. He asks what the story is about and I struggle to describe 1984 to a toddler. I smile for the rest of the day, having lived yet another of my personal Humans of New York moments.
Still, I don’t completely reject the “OII” (Only In Israel) narrative; this place is so special, and you can’t convince me otherwise. Problematic, yes. But also, sitting in this same cafe for hours feels sacred just because it is in Jerusalem and I’m okay with that not computing with mathematical logic. Sometimes it’s all about returning to your favorite cafe, with your punch-card from last time in hand, ordering your mushroom quiche in a slightly-improved accent. I’ve finished strangers’ half-drunk hafuchim (cappuccinos), because coffee is a terrible thing to waste, and my sensitivity to germs doesn’t apply here in the same way. It only feels right to sip those last, cooled-down drops from the same people who offer unsolicited advice and hand-rolled cigarettes.
There is a cafe a few steps away from the one where I am sitting, the mistress to my usual place. My loyalty is split between the two – one is more of a daytime scene, and the other is one where “closing time” is just a construct, and the owner just hangs out with his friends and cooks soup on a plugged-in stove top with two burners, and makes me hot cider with rum and doesn’t judge me for crying because sometimes it just comes out when you haven’t let it emerge all semester. I cried here four years ago too, and the kind owner offered me dark chocolate and asked no questions. The owner is a French man I met years ago when I was studying in Jerusalem; I have his number in my phone but have to feign unfamiliarity for the sake of niceties. Back in the day, he used to own a secondhand clothing store down the same block, where there often was no one monitoring the place, and it was all on the honors system. At one point, I tried on an ostentatious orange dress I named “the Quinceanera dress,” and he obliged my vanity and served as my short-term paparazzi as I strutted down Aza Street, and we both knew I would return the dress to its hanger and return years later perhaps, but for something else. This time, when we reunite, I remind him of that day, and apologize for my eighteen year-old self-absorption. He tells me to stop apologizing, and asks to see the photographs again. He is impressed with his work, which I do not admit I’ve enhanced with many Instagram filters. He pours me more cider with ginger. He and I vibe so hard, because we both hate money and love this street. This is not about business for him, just friends and strangers and a menu of whatever soup he feels like concocting.
When I sit down this time, a late and moody Sunday night with no plans, I accidentally join a small group learning Likutei Moharan on the weekly Torah portion. My heart is so warm. The leader, a soft-spoken, older Mizrachi man, maps out the sefirot and tries to gloss over the embedded misogyny to keep things simple. We discuss Joseph’s journey, and the concept that everyone must, at times, be her own Messiah. We talk about the hair’s-breadth threshold between moments, between catastrophe and calm, and what it takes to stay grounded. I linger afterward, listening to a middle-aged French woman, the owner’s best friend, narrate her saga with depression and the salvation that comes with hanging on from one moment to the next, passing over that threshold. She sees pain in my eyes, and understanding. We talk for hours, but mostly we are just raw. Before she leaves, we hug for several minutes, and she tells me: “Don’t get lost in the finding; in trying too hard to find things, we can also get lost,” and it feels like exactly what I need to hear right then. I am tempted to attribute my extra sentimentality to my exhaustion, and perhaps the rum cider, but I try to stay raw, without explanation or inference.
I’ve come to believe that the magic of these strangers – the ones I meet in cafes and obsess over in unnecessarily lengthy retellings to friends who are too kind, or too resigned, to stop me, the ones I’ve unsubtly photographed and hung on my walls – is not so much in who they are, but in them showing up at the right moments. I know they aren’t there for me, just as I did not come here for them; I came here to write before my deadline passes, and to drink all the hafuchim I can, in an effort to fill yet another punch-card. I cannot imagine having been that stranger for anyone else; I eavesdrop while blatantly staring, and I scroll needlessly through my phone and take out my copy of Kerouac mainly for the artsy photographs. But these people are there somehow, getting their coffee and fresh artisan breads, shushing and soothing their cooing babies, coughing and complaining, returning phone calls to their in-laws, reading newspapers about things on which they already have set opinions. Somehow or another, they are there when I need them, just living their lives in the presence of mine. They have no idea. But I am so glad they are here.