Israel: My First Walk Outdoors In Jerusalem In A Week

A column for Shifra Devorah Witt for Chabad that gets to the heart of what terrorism means for Israelis:
I’m taking a course at night, something I never do. Something that shouldn’t be a big deal—to walk outdoors, at night, at least not where I live in Jerusalem, which usually is a safe place. That’s one of the things I love about Jerusalem—that a woman can walk any hour alone, day or night, and feel safe. But in the last few weeks, things have changed. Now we have been advised not to take our children to parks or be out more than necessary.

So tonight I had no intention of walking home after class. But when I missed my train literally by three seconds (after deciding that running for a train wasn’t very lady-like), the wait was 15 minutes for the next one. And I was standing just a few meters from a place where there was a stabbing a week ago tonight, so I didn’t feel particularly safe hanging out for another 14 minutes.

I decided to walk home because there were no buses, because I was scared to stand at the bus stop, and because my kids were waiting for me at home and I wanted to kiss them good-night.

A few minutes into the walk my body started to relax, though I asked myself if that was even a good or safe thing to allow it to. A block later, I remembered what Jerusalem used to be like, less than a month ago—the smell of the air, the night sky—and then I realized what had changed in the city that I love, the city that I had longed for years before I ever moved here.

Now the benches at the train stops—the ones meant to be filled with children or the elderly or anyone else who just needs to sit down for a minute while waiting for the train—those seats have soldiers sitting on them. Soldiers in green fatigues with M16s slung over their shoulders and knife-proof vests attached to their chests. Now, soldiers are posted everywhere to keep us safe because there is no way to know who the enemy is.

That’s what I couldn’t explain to the woman I stepped away from earlier in the night when we were waiting for the light to change at a cross walk. I could see her discomfort as she noticed me, sizing her up to make sure the person standing next to me was someone nonthreatening. You can imagine my embarrassment when after climbing the five flights of stairs to the apartment where my class is being held, it was she who was already seated in the classroom. A new student, just my luck.

I didn’t even explain myself. There was nothing to say; there is nothing to say right now. No way to explain that I didn’t mean to be rude to her or, later in the night, to the woman who asked me for directions a few blocks away from my home. I was amazed at my own process, once I realized what she was asking. Me who loves to be helpful, who has embarrassed those I walk down city streets with countless times because I am always the one who stops when she sees a tourist and says, “Can I give you directions?”

So tonight, when a lady tried to ask me in broken Hebrew if I could help her, I almost didn’t stop. And then I did, but not without first sizing her up. She was wearing a wig and it was dark, so I checked to see if she was really a woman in wig for religious reasons; I actually checked to see if she was who she presented herself to be. If I was safe to stop and help her. If it was safe to stop and help a fellow Jew? Because these days, the terrorists are dressed in all different ways; 15-year-old girls have traded their innocence for knives and a wish to get famous by committing a terror attack, G‑d forbid.

I walked a few steps forwards and saw more police at the next train stop, and I mourned for Jerusalem—for the Jerusalem of today that is mourning for the torture she is going though, and the pain of her sister cities in Be’er Sheva and now Beit Shemesh, and every other city that has been affected by terror.

And I mourned for my own loss. Tonight I understood what terror was because tonight I couldn’t trust anyone I saw, and I couldn’t walk home feeling good about getting some exercise and I couldn’t trust my instincts. I felt like, G‑d forbid, the terrorists had taken away that beautiful idea of feeling safe when you walk down the street, feeling safe to offer directions and to smile at someone you don’t know. Tonight I felt terrorized because all those things I used to take for granted were now things I couldn’t relate to anymore.

Worst of all, I was suspicious of my fellow Jews. When I finally had the guts to admit that to my writing class this morning, one of my students piped up and said, “Don’t feel bad; that is what the police are recommending—that in this wave of terror there is no such thing as being too suspicious, and that you must go with your intuition.”

So now, my G‑d-given intuition must be used for protection, like saying the Shema or putting a kosher mezuzah on your door or giving tzedakah. Maybe that is the only real way to use your intuition in times like these. Maybe the goal is to use the things you do have control over, such as your thoughts, speech and deeds, to do good especially now, when there is so much evil to counteract.

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