AUGUST 16, 2018, JERUSALEM – Ah, summer in Jerusalem. While much of the country along the coast is sweltering in oppressive humidity, the dry yet pounding heat of Israel’s capital during July and August invariably makes way for delicious evenings.
The breeze picks up, the temperatures drop under 80, and the cool Jerusalem nights revive the body and spirit.
The “dog days” here in Israel certainly have a different feel than the ones I grew up with in New England. There, the freezing but refreshing ocean, bountiful lakes, streams, and creeks provided respite from the heavy, mosquito-laden air.
In landlocked Jerusalem, there are a few natural springs scattered around the outskirts, but they’re usually so tiny and filled with people that it’s nearly impossible to see the water.
Depending on the day, it seems summer in Jerusalem is like living in a small, sleepy town. It feels like half the city empties out. Israelis travel abroad at a higher frequency than just about any other nationality and – even with a considerable influx of summer tourists from the US and elsewhere – you feel the difference on the streets, and on the buses and trains.
Of course, that’s not what my taxi driver Ahmed from East Jerusalem said this week when he was driving me across town to pick up my car after a tune-up at the garage.
“Nah, there’s still just as much traffic,” he said. “I’ll tell you why. All of the yeshivot go on break and all these young Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] rent cars and come to Jerusalem. And they don’t know how to drive.”
That may sound like a generalization, but Ahmed certainly had a point. During our 15-minute journey, we passed at least a half-dozen cars containing dangerously large quantities of black-clad, peyos-swinging passengers, either recklessly speeding or moving at a crawl with little regard for the fellow motorists around them.
Many of them were probably headed for one of those jam-packed natural springs. But for those who live in Jerusalem, summer means a plethora of cultural events almost every night of the week: the Jerusalem Film Festival; the Old City lights display; the Mekudeshet music festival; and a week of food trucks in the Hinnom Valley manned by some of Jerusalem’s top restaurants.
Last Friday afternoon, the downtown triangle of Jerusalem containing the famed Ben Yehuda Street was packed – not with Jerusalem residents – but with tourists, mostly young Americans on Birthright, in yeshiva, or in gap-year programs chowing down on falafel or pizza. They probably spent the previous night partying a couple of blocks away on Nahalat Shiv’a or in the Mahane Yehuda Market, which has turned into a bustling magnet for nightlife.
A couple blocks away on trendy Bezalel Street, local craftspeople displayed their ceramic and wood wares as the Jerusalem hipster community sipped iced coffee and munched shakshuka (an egg dish) under umbrella-covered tables at the overpriced outdoor cafes.
It was one of those perfect Jerusalem days: temperatures in the mid-80s, some clouds in the sky, no traffic jams on the roads. Nobody would have imagined the clash of cultures that engulfed the city only 24 hours earlier. It was the day of the annual Pride march in Jerusalem, a more understated affair than Tel Aviv’s blowout, but still an impressive gathering for what is essentially a conservative, religious city.
There have been clashes and even a death resulting from ultra-Orthodox opposition to the parade, but on this day, a few hours before it was about to begin, hundreds of Haredim gathered near the entrance to the city to protest something else. An 18-year-old man had been arrested for repeatedly not appearing at the Israeli army’s induction office, and his community decided to express its displeasure by blocking one of the main Jerusalem thoroughfares.
Locking arms, they resisted and ignored police on foot and on horses who tried to disperse them, even using a spray weapon called ‘skunk water’ that turned the area into a putrid mess. A total of 46 protesters were dragged away and arrested, and the rest eventually dispersed.
By contrast, the Pride march passed peacefully, with close to 30,000 people taking to the streets to support diversity and choice.
It just goes to show that, in Jerusalem, it indeed does depend on the day. You never know what or who you’re going to encounter. It It may not offer an ocean or lake close at hand, but experiences? By the bucketful. And if it gets too hot, just wait till the sun sets and you’ll be reaching for the windbreaker as you get in the cab with Ahmed and head into the unexpected night that awaits in the wondrous city.
David Brinn is a journalist based in Jerusalem.