Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, September 22, 2008


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 25 June 2001

Although school is still in session until the end of the month (for elementary school kids), the usual signs of summer have already begun appearing on our landscape. My favorites are the watermelon stands that pop up along the roadsides. No simple folding table with beach umbrella - these open air markets often feature fluorescent lights and refrigerators run by generators. In addition to watermelon, you can often find peaches, apricots, plums and grapes - all of the sweet and juicy tastes of summer.

The hot weather also brings out all the beach bums. Many walk through our neighborhood to get to the beach, folding chairs or surfboards tucked under their arms. Local pools offer swimming lessons, sports, arts & crafts, and all kinds of fun activities for children.

Summer day camps always operate during the month of July. Young kids can be in a supervised program along the same daily schedule as they had in school. Even the simplest program offers special trips to zoos, public pools, and other places kids enjoy. For a little more money, you can put your child in a specialized camp such as riding camp, English camp, drama camp, and the like.

In August, many Israelis typically go on vacations, often abroad. Turkey, Greece, and Kenya are popular destinations, as is the United States. While they are gone, the highways are pleasantly empty, and lines everywhere in Israel are much shorter.

But one typical feature of summer in Israel will be missing this year. Normally, thousands of American teenagers flock to the country on exciting and educational tours run by various Jewish organizations. The kids seem to literally take over Jerusalem, where they spend much of their time. Large packs of teens wander the city, shopping and hanging out in cafes during their free time. Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare lined with trendy shops and cafes, is usually wall-to-wall people, with long waits for the desirable outdoor cafe tables. The intra-city buses are jammed with rowdy, happy teens enjoying a taste of freedom from parental supervision.

Although these kids can be noisy, and create long lines and pedestrian traffic jams wherever they go, they are regarded with affection by Israelis. Many of the teens are in Israel for the first time, and the experiences they have here will stay with them forever. Some may decide to return to Israel after completing college. Others may choose a particular career or path in life based on their summer in Israel. After all, sixteen is an impressionable age, and the tours are exceptionally well run.

But this summer, the kids are not coming to Israel. The vast majority of the programs run for these teens were cancelled by the organization that sponsors them.

And so today, Ben Yehuda Street is empty. There is no waiting at the sidewalk felafel* stands, and it isn't all that hard to find a seat on the bus. The museum at the excavated City of David, an ancient site within the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, may soon be forced to close its doors due to lack of visitors.

Indeed, there is a rather forlorn air about the city. After all the terrorist bombings, the drive-by shootings by Palestinians in the West Bank, the collapse of the wedding hall, and other tragedies, great and small, that have befallen us this year, the absence of those happy, enthusiastic teens is an abandonment crueler than anything Arafat could have dreamed up for us to endure. Bad enough to be weighed down with the unrelenting sadness the past year has brought; Israelis are tough, and used to taking such hits. They know from hard experience how to stand up and take it over and over again. But desertion by those we thought were our friends is a blow from which we may never recover fully.

* Felafel is a popular "street" food; it usually consists of deep fried balls made of crushed garbanzo beans and spices, which are tucked into a pita bread with tomatoes, cucumbers and techina (sesame seed paste).

(c) Amy Samin

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