I am on my way to Jerusalem. I am heading to the Jerusalem Cinematheque on an invitation to attend a screening of a movie produced by a friend. I drive from Tel Aviv, and chose to leave a bit earlier for the trip. Three and a half hours early to be exact. That is a long time. Most days this drive takes about an hour. But this is holiday time, and I chose to play it safe. My early departure proves itself worthy as soon as I leave the neighborhood. Traffic is a nightmare all around. Swarms of cars congest every street, merging in a slow and tense crawl into intersections and struggling to exit them. When I finally make it onto Netivey Ayalon, the highway that crosses Tel Aviv, I find it too overcrowded with traffic. More than an hour of stop and go traffic passes before I get on Highway 1, the road to Jerusalem. The situation there does not fare better. Traffic is mostly a standstill. The logjam gives rise to road stress. Drivers cut in traffic, change lanes, and tailgate for the mere illusion of getting there faster, anywhere they might be heading.
The pilgrimage to the holy city is a ritual thousands of years old. From a time when the Holy Ark stood inside the Temple on Mount Moriah, and a succession of kings ruled Israel and Judah. Taken three times a year, during the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, the pilgrims went up to offer sacrifices to God, and tend to some stately matters such as paying taxes. In those times pilgrims from the port city of Jaffa area would travel several days to the city gates. Today, the only standing remain from the Holy Temple is a portion of its retaining wall. The Western Wall, the most sacred place for Jewish people, attracts thousands of daily visitors. Many come to visit or pray. Some leave notes of personal wishes between the massive stones. The times are modern, but the tradition of pilgrimage is popular as ever, and it is in full force tonight.
After another hour of a slow crawl I reach Sha’ar HaGai, the first uphill portion of the road. Traffic is at a standstill again. Blue lights appear behind, and a police car zooms by on the right shoulder, rushing to address whatever is blocking traffic ahead, or so I hope. Three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic climb the hill at a walking pace. Quiet music on the radio and red taillights for as long as the eye can see. Tall pine trees lean in from the hills on both sides of the road, hover like dark giants against the silk black sky. I look at them and my thoughts drift away.
During the war for independence in 1948, this path remained dangerous and bloody. Many supply and rescue missions to Jerusalem, the besieged city, were defeated by armed Arab gangs hiding in the hills. When I was a kid I loved this road. Every time I would put my nose to the window and look for the armored vehicles remains that sat here as monuments to the people who risked and gave their lives trying to reach the city. You still need to know where to look in order to catch a glimpse of those vehicles, but it is nearly impossible to see them in the dark.
News flash on the radio. I raise the volume to listen.
The time is a quarter to seven. Less than an hour to T-time, and I am still in Sha’ar HaGai. I begin to doubt I will ever get the Cinematheque on time. There are no exits off the highway anytime soon, no alternate routes to take. I am certain that even if there were any, they too would be crowded with traffic. I do not remember highway traffic this heavy ever, and wonder if this snarl could reach all the way to the Jerusalem. Cars on the opposite side are flying by downhill, perhaps looking at my side with pity and dismay. I could have taken the bus instead, resting in my seat the whole way. I rode busses all the time when I lived here, never realizing what owning a car meant. I gaze at the glare of tail lights in front of me, and wonder how many drivers here are nervous about their diminishing gas gages, hoping to make it to a gas station before their engines sputter to a halt. The Motza exit, the high point in the area is near. I hope the downhill drive from there will run faster.
In the autumn of third grade, my dad took me on an Israel Nature Society guided trek to this area. A passenger truck picked our group early Saturday morning from the central train station of Tel Aviv, and dropped us at a location I cannot pinpoint. We walked through dirt roads, wild fields and wooded areas for a few hours. Then, as we made our way through a quiet pine forest, a roar of speeding cars became gradually noticeable. In a few minutes, the road to Jerusalem appeared through the trees at the bottom of the hill. Our truck waited by the side of the road, right about where I am now. Following the setting sun on the way back to Tel Aviv, members of the group praised me for keeping up with the pace. I was the only kid on the trek that day. I woke up when we reached the train station. It was dark outside.
I pass the Bait Meir and Shoresh exit. The road is leveled, and traffic flows faster. I see no accidents or other issues that could explain the traffic back up. Must be the overwhelming number of pilgrims today. Heavy tractor trailers, busses, and countless passenger cars. The narrow lanes are tight with drivers competing to enter the city. It is the third night of Hanukkah. Hanukkiyot lights twinkle in the windows of homes in Neve Eliezer to the left. On the right, a dark canyon rests, like a giant pool of dark ink. I have passed the midpoint of my trip. I succumb to the probability that I may not reach my destination on time.
It is a few minutes past seven, and I enter the city. The traffic snake passes under the Chords Bridge, and by Binyanei Hauma – Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. I continue downhill through the festively lit neighborhoods. The Cinematheque is located a walking distance from the Old City walls and the Tower of David, across the city from where I am. I will need to find a parking spot in an area that sees tourist activity almost twenty-four hours a day. More red lights ahead and I decide to bypass the busy city center. I navigate by general direction and soon find myself in an unfamiliar area. I pull over and roll down my window. The first pedestrian apologizes for not being familiar with the area, but the next one is more helpful. He quickly suggests a route. I thank him and follow his advice, but after a few minutes a sinking feeling is growing inside me. I pull over again to ask for directions. A couple rolls their eyes politely at me and sends me back in the direction I came from. Their directions are solid, and in minutes I am near my destination. The Old City walls glow in the yellow night lights. A clear and cool December evening rests upon the beautiful city. People dressed in warm coats walk the scenic boardwalk. I find a parking spot almost immediately, and quickly descend the wide stairs toward the Cinematheque entrance. The theater is packed, and I sink myself into a seat in the middle of the auditorium just, as the director of the movie takes to the stage and taps the microphone. The movie is a documentary of a struggling dairy farm in the Negev, and can be interpreted as an analogy to life in the Israeli microcosms. I think of my afternoon, my three plus hour commute, and write down a few notes. I may write a story about it sometime.