Flights of Faith

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Suspicion or the Jerusalem Tango

I’ve had my share of awkward encounters but this one was different. See, everyone else had a reason to chit chat. Standing in line together, taking my order, checking my bag. Just some casual conversation to keep things moving.

But when you slow down to talk.
My red flag starts-a-waving.

Done with my research for the day, I take out my iPod and get connected. I shuffle in and out of a few songs, finally settling on one. Things seem pretty normal. After crossing the street, I notice a biker moving way too slowly. I inch my neck back for another quick look. Medium build, no apparent disability, no religious identifiers. He should be moving faster. By location only, I guess that he’s Jewish and my immediate hunch is that he’s an undercover policeman. I place my iPod in my right hand away from him and spin the volume down before putting it in my pocket. Still walking forward, I notice he’s walking his bicycle now on the street. A man comes between us, and I hear exchanges in Hebrew. Hoping the words are for the middle man, I continue forward “music blasting.” After speeding up a bit, middle man tugs at my shoulder. I turn around with a blank expression on my face and then remember to take off my earphones. The middle man just points to the man on the bike and continues walking. I get my first look at bicycle man.

I don’t like his eyes. There’s something very shifty about them. Maybe it’s the dark hair that falls unto his face almost masking his darker eyebrows that rest above those dark eyes of his. Contrasted with his olive skin, staring into his face is a dizzying effect. Trying not to stare at his raccoon-like features, I wait for the interrogation to begin.

“Do you speak Hebrew?” His voice is strange. It’s accented. I automatically want to categorize it as Australian, but it’s not. I settle that it is from somewhere in the British commonwealth though. Possibly, South Africa?
“No, English.” I’m gonna play this one short and unfriendly, I thought.
“Oh ok. I thought you were someone from my synagogue.”
“No.” I wonder if he would have asked if I wasn’t wearing my hat (possibly concealing a yarmulke). Then, I realize again he’s not wearing a head covering. This doesn’t break down his story. Just strange.
“You look almost identical to him.” I assume that he is an Ethiopian Jew.
“It’s just my synagogue is pretty Anglo-Saxon, so I thought it was you.”
Wait a minute. Who says Anglo-Saxon? Besides backing up my commonwealth assumption, I also wonder why white wasn’t used. Rebelling against a false racial classification in order to preserve Jewish as a race? If so, the fact that he had to separate himself and the Ethiopian member with another classification is telling.
“It’s on Litikum St near Katamon. Do you know that area”
“I know-“
At this point, his features become effusive and he exclaims, “You do know it!”
I continue. “the Katamon area but not the street.”
He doesn’t correct his assumption.
“So, where are you from?”
I decide just to say the country.
Let’s see if he knows where this oasis is: “Iowa.”
“Ahh. And what are you doing here? Vacation?”
At this point, I realize I’m revealing way too much information about myself but I continue my short responses.
“I’m doing research.”
“Oh, nice.”
Silence. I begin to think I’m off the hook. However, when his face shifts quizzically I realize the questioning isn’t over.
“On what?”
“Ethiopian Immigrants.”
“Oh wow. So are you teaching then? At which university?”
For a moment, I settle on the thought of my summer appearance. My beard must be making look older because everyone has been shocked at my true age. I wonder whether to cut it or not before Yale then return to the line of fire.
“I’m just a student doing research through a fellowship. I go to Yale.” I laugh to myself at the last sentence. I mention some of the libraries I’m working at in Jerusalem. “That’s what I’m doing this summer.” My tone suddenly revealed my exasperation.
He didn’t notice. “What’s your name?”
I hesitate. “Josh”
“Josh what?”
A longer hesitation. “[Last name]”
Wondering if I’ve said too much, I take delight in my common name. Then, the entire conversation pricks me.
Google. Josh + [Last name] + Yale + Iowa. Enough to locate me.
Now, there are three reasons he asked for my last name.
1) A social nicety 2) Security reasons 3) To see if I had a Jewish surname

I’m pretty confident it was the third given our “conversation.”

He fails to offer his name.
I do no ask for it.
“Good luck.”

He gets on his bike riding slowly at first but soon my eyes cannot even locate him in the distance.


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