A Short Distance Apart, Yet Worlds Away

The Mahane Yehuda Market, colloquially referred to as the Shuk, bustles on Friday morning. Customers jostle with each other while fighting the clock. As bubbies (grandparents) elbow their way towards the best challah for their precious kinderlach (children), young adults crowd the many bars, and children beg their parents for candy and juice, it’s hard to imagine that by 3:00 p.m., the hustle will have died. As Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, approaches, the franticness increases. Vendors try to get rid of their last pita, veggies, and fruits. They shout over each other. The exclamations of shome (eight), tesha (nine), and esser (10) serve as a reminder of the numbers I’d learned in class the day before.

Numbers play an important role in Israeli society. Whether religious, such as Shabbat, the day of rest and seventh day of the week, or historical, such as (19)48, when the State of Israel was established, numbers tell a story, just as much as they help sell produce and goods.

I’ve been grappling with the number 70 since arriving in Jerusalem. That’s the distance, in kilometers, between here, and, Amman, Jordan, where I spent my fall semester. For perspective, Washington, D.C., is about 56 km (35 miles) from Baltimore. While it takes about an hour to travel between the two cities when there isn’t traffic on the Beltway, a journey from Jerusalem to Amman takes anywhere between four to eight hours. The reverse journey, from Amman to Jerusalem, can take even longer and, for some, is impossible due to the difficulties of receiving travel papers, passports, and visas. 

I’ve been able to travel overland between the two cities three times now. The distance is disorienting. Though the two cities are close, they are divided by politics, competing narratives, and history. Familiar foods receive different names and recipes shift to comply with the preferred religious dietary laws (kosher or halal). Yet even the differences have similarities. Hebrew, and Arabic, after all, are both Semitic languages. The abundance of near-cognates remind me of the common Semitic origin. Such word pairs include the words for sun (شمس/שמש), milk (جبنة/גבינה), and boy (ولد/ילד). 

In this manner, it’s the familiar taking on a different veneer that has been the hardest to adjust to. That, and the shifting perception of identity, ethnicity, and nationality based on looks. As white American with dark, thick hair, I blended in enough in Amman. Plenty of Jordanians, especially those of Circassian background, have a similar appearance. As long as I dressed conservatively, I could pass enough to not constantly be asked, “Where are you from?” or “What brought you to Jordan?” by random people on the street. Once I was even in a shared cab where the driver and other passenger started to debate whether one of my parents was European and the other Arab, or if both of my parents were just very light-skinned Arabs. To their surprise, I jumped into the conversation and started to speak to them in colloquial Arabic. They quickly stopped talking about me and moved on to a more interesting topic: the weather. 

Here in West Jerusalem, however, there is little debate around my place in Israeli society. With thick, wavy brown hair, blue-grey eyes, and white skin, I’m just another Ashkenaz in the crowd full of Sephardim, Mizrahim, Ethiopian Jews, and Ashkenazim. Whether grocery shopping, going out with friends, or exploring new neighborhoods, an assumption about me is made based on my appearance. From the lady at the supermarket who asked me in Hebrew to help her reach a can, to the fruit-stand worker who asked me the price he just quoted, I go through my daily life as another face in the crowd. I have the luxury of anonymity here. 

I remember that when I’m working my way through the Shuk on a Friday morning, repeating slicha (sorry) as I navigate my way to my favorite vendors. As I pay for my fruit, I switch from my limited Hebrew to my more limber Arabic, and the Palestinian worker asks where I studied Arabic. “In Jordan,” I tell him. “Jordan, eh,” he remarks. “I have family there, but I’ve never been.”

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