1/16/2008

The Joys of Public Transportation

Think about all of those great stories which record conversations that various gedolim had with maskilim, freethinkers, of other erstwhile evildoers. There's a common denominator; they inevitably take place on some form of public transportation - a train, an airplane, etc. Why? I think it's because that would be the most likely venue for such a conversation to take place on equal footing, if at all. Where else would Reb Chaim be conversing with a Christian missionary, or Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky with an evolutionary biologist? You simply don't experience a small cross-section of society in an environment that is conducive to conversation, except under rare circumstances. Public transportation is such a circumstance. There's really nothing like it.

I often ride the #32 bus in Jerusalem. This bus originates in Gilo, where I work, and runs through the center of town before continuing to Ramot. I sometimes ride that bus from beginning to end, because it's often easier to catch a bus to Modiin from Ramot. The clientele of this bus shifts as it travels through the various neighborhoods. Gilo is largely traditional Sephardic, the center of town is a complete mixed bag, and Ramot is heavily Chareidi. Since it goes pretty much directly from the Central Bus Station to Ramot, it gets pretty full during peak hours - rush hour and when schools let out. Since I'm on the bus from the beginning of the route, I always get a seat.

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I was sitting on the #32, with a seat open next to me and 2 seats open across from me. At some point, 2 chareidi women, I'd estimate their ages to be about 45 for the one and 60 for the other, occupied the adjacent seat and one of the opposing seats. They began conversing in English. The older one began to complain that she wished she could relax in front of the TV that evening, but that there was nothing good on. At this point, I piped up that, in fact, it was Week 17 of the NFL and there would be some games with playoff implications beginning at 8pm, Israel Time. She countered that she's not much of a football fan, and would much prefer to watch basketball. She said that football was too violent for her - she had no interest in watching very large men beat each other up. I sympathized.

At this point, another woman, clearly chareidi, jumped into the conversation. She had been standing in the aisle, wearing a blonde sheitl and looking very pregnant. She offered that she would love to watch a football game as she was a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was floored. I said that I didn;t think I had ever met anyone from Green Bay; in fact, I had no idea that there were any Jews in Green Bay, or any people, for that matter. After all, there are not even enough Green Bay residents to fill Lambeau Field (though they have no problem filling it with 'out-of-towners'). She had been to Lambeau in the winter, in the frigid climate that makes it one of the toughest places for a visiting team (at the New York Giants will probably find out this Sunday). Who'd have guessed.

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of how things had changed in Israel over the years - my 15 years being here on and off (I've been here for 9 of the last 15 years) being no match for their 25 and 35 years, respectively. We actually even discussed the phenomenon of separate-seating buses, agreeing that it's generally superfluous. They liked my story about my sister who, 8 months pregnant, refused to give up her seat on a Superbus in Kiryat Sefer to a man, and my subsequent dubbing her as 'the chareidi Rosa Parks'.

Indeed, if all buses were separate, how would some chareidi youngster have been able to offer his apple to a scantily clad young woman? How would the Chofetz Chaim have taught us not to speak leshon ho-ra about ourselves? Most importantly, how would I have known that a chareidi mother in Ramot will, this weekend, be trading her blonde sheitl in for a hat shaped like a block of cheese as she cheers on Brett Favre?

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