Tamar Zaken in her Israeli army days
Tamar Zaken in her Israeli army days

At the bus stop, waiting for the messiah (or something like it)

A few years ago, my favorite Jerusalem bus line, the 17, was changed forever. Egged, Israel’s public bus company, reorganized many routes in Jerusalem and the 17 bus moved out of Ein Kerem, where I grew up.  It ceased to be the cool, angst-inflicted, wallflower-at-the-high-school-dance, hair-in-face bus line and became the popular religious-girl-with-a-humongous-rock-and-a-$3,000-wig bus line.

In other words, it was officially rerouted from Ein Kerem to the German Colony. It traded in its messianic, meditative qualities for Coca-Cola fame. It now runs frequently and arrives on time, and all the passengers on it are beautiful, happy and physically fit. It no longer serves the small, eclectic, downright funky village of Ein Kerem, where diverse populations met on it every morning.

Since I was a 12-year-old immigrant trudging sadly off to another learnless day in an Israeli high school, the 17 had stood by me, a steadfast rock in my shaky Jerusalem existence. This bus drove me home from birthday parties, escorted me safely to my army base and returned me home after multiple adventures around the world. There was a special kind of aura on that bus; it made you feel like the human race was not as bad as you thought. I can remember several bus drivers either by name or quirk (Yossi, white pretend-Rastafari-reggae-music-blasting driver; gray-hair guy who turned into black-hair guy overnight, Tzion, happy good-mood guy who greets everyone by name; mean old grumpy guy who always forgets my stop, Shmuel).

The irregularity of the 17 was part of its charm. I could wait for hours for this bus and every minute felt like an eternity, like waiting for a messiah who forgot to show up because he found something much better to do. It was a spiritual trial, as my religious friends called it, a nisayon, a test from God.  Then the 17 would arrive and all the bitter passengers, in the most unspiritual of ways, would complain to the driver about how unfair it was that their bus was late. Was it unfair that our bus never came, or were we undeserving, sinning, complaining passengers, being punished by an angry 17 bus deity?

The irregularity of the 17 was part of its charm.

After the 17 was rerouted out of Ein Kerem, I started to see it passing by all the time. What did this mean? What was this messiah of a bus trying to teach me?

Today, as Israel’s 70th birthday approaches and I think back over my time living there, that 17 bus remains in my thoughts. Why did I think that bus was so great? It made me late, it was uncomfortable, people were rude. I think it was because it reminded me that I was part of a community with all the good and bad that comes with it.

Now as I look back, I should have stood up for that community. I could have rallied with my fellow commuters for better service. I could have stepped in more to help to improve that 17 bus line.  Now that Israel is 70, I want to do the same. I want to have the courage to speak out so that the Israel I love will welcome refugees fleeing animosity in their home countries, pursue peace with neighbors within and without its borders, and talk about racism, discrimination and atrocities like the Yemenite Children’s Affair so that our country can heal. The 17 bus taught me about what it means to live in a community that is imperfect, where not everyone agrees on how to create a just, healthy space.

Maybe if I had realized this earlier on, the 17 wouldn’t have left Ein Kerem. Maybe I missed my chance with that bus. But I don’t want to miss my chance with Israel.

It’s a big one — 70 years of statehood. Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Tamar Zaken
Tamar Zaken

Tamar Zaken is an educator, organizer, and community worker who lives in the East Bay. In her spare time, Tamar translates Sephardic rabbinic texts to expose English-speaking audiences to their inspiring message of inclusion and justice.