JERUSALEM – Like Rip Van Winkle – waking up after a deep sleep during which the world around him had immeasurably changed – Jerusalem and the rest of Israel began to emerge from a two-month shutdown last week.
It was two months the likes of which the capital hadn’t ever seen, even when the city was under siege in 1948 or the target of rockets from Gaza in more recent years. From mid-March until last week, Jerusalem was a desolate ghost town, devoid of its usual traffic jams and blaring horns, and its cornucopia of Jewish and Arab pedestrians of every ilk.
Some of the saddest sights during the lockdown were the images of a shuttered Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City, the deserted Western Wall, and the empty alleys and closed stalls of the usually bustling Machane Yehuda market – the symbols of both the historic and modern thriving Jerusalem.
The starkness was due to the quick response by the government to the COVID-19 pandemic that closed the country’s borders, forced citizens inside, and kept them there. As a result, the attack of the coronavirus was held in check, with less than 300 fatalities, some 17,000 cases logged, and a steady decline in new cases from March to May.
Already two weeks ago, many began returning to their places of employment, public transportation returned in limited availability, restaurants and cafes expanded from offering only delivery service to on-site takeout, and Machane Yehuda reopened its fruit and vegetable market while limiting the number of people allowed to enter at any given time.
And masks. Everyone was wearing masks. And let’s not forget the observance of social distancing regulations. It took a pandemic to teach Israelis how to stand in a straight line with space between each person.
Israelis, often the most unruly, individualistic, and contrary of people, also can be very disciplined. We’re used to reacting to emergencies, whether it be a terror attack or a bomb or rocket threat. Wearing a mask outside didn’t seem like a lot to ask. But everyone was surprised that we were able to stand in orderly lines outside of supermarkets or malls without the scene dissolving into a parallelogram.
However, two weeks later – with the new virus cases still going down and with even more restrictions being lifted – that discipline is taking a back seat to unfettered freedom. Pools, beaches, and sit-down service at restaurants and bars are all back in full force, and so is Israeli abandon.
On Wednesday, the Machane Yehuda market was operating at about 75 percent, both in the number of shops and eateries open and the clientele. In a nonscientific survey, only about 60 percent of the shoppers and vendors were wearing masks, even though not wearing one is a fineable offense though no longer being enforced. As for social distancing? Let’s say we’re back to the old days of Israelis not really understanding the concept of personal space.
The vegetable hawkers were back to lustily barking out: “Tomatoes, 4 shekels a kilo, get them for Shavuot!” At a pita and kebab joint off the main thoroughfare, the proprietor, Motti, welcomed diners to seats for the first time since early March. “Here, have all the salad you want, and if you want more fries, it’s on me,” he said, laying out plates of mezze delicacies with vigor and relish.
We’re back to life after two months of darkness, a period that saw such iconic national events in the Israeli calendar as Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Independence Day pass privately, in the confines of the socially distanced nuclear family.
Grandparents are again able to see and hug their grandkids, work colleagues are holding meetings in person instead of on Zoom, and I think that I heard a horn blast on the street yesterday, a sure sign that the clogged Jerusalem traffic is heading back to normal.
But is it normal? If the experience of the grim two months can teach us anything, it’s that normal is relative. We can live and work in our homes, not see our family and friends, not eat in restaurants or go to movies or take walks outside, and we can get by.
Nobody knows if our sudden deep dive back to action will result in another outbreak of COVID-19, but it seems like most Jerusalemites are willing to risk that possibility for the taste of what life used to be like.
As for me, I savored the taste of that kebab in pita. But when I left the restaurant to head back into the shuk, I made sure to put my mask on. Because, even as we celebrate our newfangled freedom, we also have to remember how life could change again, with a heartbeat.
David Brinn grew up in Maine and is a journalist in Jerusalem.