It’s Passover. Every year we celebrate the Jewish holiday as hosts or guests. Now into our third year in Israel, my wife and I, and my twin teenage daughters, decided to celebrate the Passover dinner in Jerusalem. Hotels hike the prices to the max during the holiday season; typically they double the nightly rate. And since there’s four of us (2 hotel rooms), it means that we would not be “free” but rather “slaves” once again, to our credit card.
The other option is to book an apartment in Jerusalem. From strangers. For 2 nights. So that’s how the travel website AIRBNB came to the rescue. Since I booked the apartment two months ahead of time, and since the owners wanted to rent their place, we were able to secure a daily rate of about $100.
What a deal!
This is not the first time we stay at other people’s home for a fee. We routinely travel from Galilee to Tel Aviv, see the town, catch a show, stroll the beach, dine at cafes, and a night or two later, we trek back home. The apartments come fully furnished, the kitchen comes fully stocked with utensils, dishes, coffee maker, fridge, stove top. The bed linens are clean, the towels are a little rough and worn. The “artwork” on the walls is mostly posters of young couples holding umbrellas in the rain, or wild horses grazing in green meadows. But for $150 a night in Tel Aviv, it’s considered a bargain. The Tel Aviv apartments are devoid of the owners’ personal belongings. You get a stripped-down apartment, much like a time-share.
But not in Jerusalem.
During Passover we stayed at Beit Kerem, a secular neighborhood in the center of Jerusalem, quaint, quiet, and close to the Light Rail that takes you to the Old City. The hosts, a young man and woman, greet us at the curb. We introduce ourselves and a minute later we climb up the stairwell to the second level. From behind each door there’s the smell of matzo-ball soup, roasted chicken, and whatever your imagination can conjure up. The front door opens to a living room with modular furniture, a reclining chair, rug on the floor,big stereo speakers attached to the wall. The couple gives us the tour: “Here’s the kitchen. One of your daughters can sleep on the couch, the second daughter on a roll-away bed over here. And here’s the bedroom for both of you.” We nod and follow them in. Folded towels sit on an IKEA-type double-bed. The one bathroom is full with their stuff: toothpaste, mouthwash, make-up, deodorants. They then show us the kitchen, how to operate the small appliances. “And as we stated on our website,” they continue, “we have a cat that strolls in and out. Just fill the bowls with cat food and water.” They write their phone numbers with a whiteboard marker on thekitchen tile, hand us the keys, and close the door behind them.
We stand there, in the middle of the living room, with our suitcases, in someone else’s house. For a $100.
For someone who’d spent decades in the U.S., personal space is almost a God-given right. Here, in Israel, in God’s country, and in God’s town – Jerusalem – personal space is much less personal. Typical Israelis don’t give personal space and they don’t expect personal space, either. They don’t seem bothered with limited space. They aren’t bothered much when their opinion is cut short, interrupted. They just return the favor. If you don’t speak out, if you don’t speak loud enough, your voice will be drowned by someone else’s words, music, noise.
Speak up, or be silenced.
Grab the beach chair, the restaurant chair, or remain standing.
Take up space, or have it taken away from you.
Park your car in impossible spaces, or circle the parking lot until sundown.
Tailgate the car ahead of you, or have some other driver sit on your bumper.
It’s a small country, buddy.
It’s midnight. We just returned from Passover Seder. Our heads are full of wine, and our stomachs are full of matzahs and chicken. My wife and I floss our teeth in our hosts’ Jerusalem bathroom, shower in their tub, use their conditioner and shampoo, use their towels. We climb into bed. Their bed. Their pillows.
In the morning, we use their skillet to make eggs, use their coffee-maker. A cat meows in the yard below. I lounge on the living room sofa, sort through their LP collection from the sixties: Beatles, The Who.
Such memories the songs bring.
I take a seat on a padded-chair in their small, flower-potted balcony.
It’s my personal space.
At least until check-out time.