Haifa, Habibi.

Spontaneity is key. Like a well timed Snickers bar, it can slay a bad mood and banish the dark clouds that gather over you.

I was suffocating.

For all of Jerusalem’s appeal, with its dynamic embrace and endearing quirks, at times, it can be hard to breathe in when your star role is lonely immigrant.

The sentences run away from you when you’re right at the edge of engaging in roller coster fast Hebrew.

The bills suddenly become cryptic.

The phone calls to phone providers/government agencies/doctor’s offices are scraping away at you.

Nine hour work days become unbearable.

Adulting in another language becomes a slow hurdle.

All you want to do is get sleep, turn off and stop the spinning, like a washing cycle that’s been on for too long (I know, I know, wah wah #firstworldproblems).

I decided it was time to get away.

Yom Kippur landed in the middle of the work week this year. Sunday dragged on and I didn’t want to go home to my apartment to face the day of Judgement alone.

“Are you guys home for Yom Kippur?” I texted my best friend in Haifa.

“Yes. Want to join?”

I almost cried with joy. Clearly I needed to get out. Clearly I was over the fact that she moved hours away from the merkaz a month before I relocated to this country.

Apparently (besides my sister’s moshav) Haifa was my new home away from home. (I know, right?)

It was Sunday when I texted her. I’d have to travel after work on Monday, because unlike the rest of the holidays observed in Jewish ritualism, this was the one day everyone seemed to agree on. Every Israeli, or at least every Israeli municipality decided that Yom Kippur was the most hallowed  of all of them and so, every city closes in honour of it. Imagine an entire nation halting. No transport. No office buildings. No recreation. No restaurants. Nothing but emergency services.

My best friend and I had been trying to plan a weekend together for ages but something always came up. Her baby was sick. She was sick. I was interviewing for jobs.

This time around, spur of the moment was the right ingredient.  With only a few hours notice, we managed to make it happen.

I ran home, hoping to catch the first evening 960 bus to Haifa, in order to ensure I didn’t miss the last city bus to my friend’s neighbourhood when I got in (unlike the big guys like Jeru and TA, Haifa goes to sleep by 10.)

With impressive packing skills, I shoved everything I needed into a beach tote, grabbed my back pack and was running towards the tachanah in my beloved new Zara hunter green bomber jacket.

I knew the drill. In through the second floor entrance, passed the food court(with a quick stop at the bakery for doughnuts- a surprise for my bestie. Matana of a free one when I gave the clerk a dirty look after hearing the price for half a dozen), on to the third floor to the bus depot which was laden with the luggage, anxieties and the standard issue army packs of the various travellers.

I ran to the platform at the far right end and could see that most people had boarded.

Old Gila would have stopped.

Old Gila would have been nervous for no good reason other than her social anxieties would have convinced her to be terrified of pushing through the crowd and daring to be the last person to board (and possibly hold up departure).

I ran through the glass door instead, aware that I was anxiety free and determined.

Though the bus was pretty full, a middle aged woman and a soldier were still waiting to get on. The bus was set to leave in two minutes.

“יש מקום לשבת?”

Is there room to sit?  I asked the soldier in front of me. Blonde. Skinny. A 19 year old impressionist painting of Paul Newman.

He had the decency to walk along the side of the lit bus to see if there were potential empty seats at the back.

“כנראה, יש”

If he was confident there was space to sit, I was assured. Like the Ethiopian girl who came to stand beside me, I wasn’t willing to stand in the middle row for some 2+ hours and was going to make it known to everyone around me if need be.

I double checked  by asking the bus driver when I finally got on to pay.

“Betach, yesh, yesh. Achorah.”

I looked up. Buses north always did this to me. They were diverse and colourful and irreligious and swathed in patches of olive green.

Amongst the groups of Russians, Arabs and one or two Chabadniks, there were soldiers everywhere.

A familiar pang of guilt and shame coursed through me. Maybe longing and humour too.

I found an empty seat next to a girl, quite near the front.

The next three rows in front of me were full of soldiers from the same unit. They were doing some version of bus seat musical chairs. They sprawled out. They played games on their smartphones. They threw bags of bugles  to each other (!צביגיש ,אפרופו) .

They badgered the bus driver with an overfamiliarity that they often adopt in the army. It’s that attitude that gets them through long rides and long distances and the long emotional treks they need to take from being a normal teenager to a quasi responsible person with a gun who is secretly trembling under the constant overhanging shadow of conflict.

“Nahag, when will we get there?

He answered them with the same brash familial camaraderie, at ease at the wheel and comfortable enough with the idea of indulging the teenage boys who seemed like ok guys, if tired and a bit spread out over the seats.

One had a kippah on. It was of the white knit variety, large with loose stitches (even the size of those stitches place you. It means something here).

They kept bugging poor Tzvigish. We can still go out, they said. Tzvigish come! 

What about this one,(Tzigish pointed to white kippah) he probably wants to do slichot?

So, after. Yesh lechah makom lishon. Yesh lechah shivim v’chamesh mekomot b’ezor. Ani, v’haben dodim shell v’chuleh. 

That was Yuval, laughing at his own joke about Sephardi networking. He had a hint of a  lisp and a slightly arabic twang to his chets. Yuval’s self deprecation made me smile and turn to watch the sky through the window as we raced expertly down highway six (our driver was very good.)

They didn’t wait for Tzvigish to answer. His earphones were in, probably his escape from a suffocation I could understand. He moved his fingers as if to conduct the music piping into his ears.

They kept planning above his head.

And even though they started discussing his movements (“Tzvigish yavoh iti-“), he held his own. In a passive-aggressive, way that is.

“Lo batuach!”

I wondered if anyone else was entertained, but when I looked back, no one seemed to notice.

Being attuned to the uniform, to the choppy young sentences they uttered, to the gaffs and jokes, was definitely a me thing. It came from that place of torment and guilt and fomo. It came from that untaken right of passage, that overlooked service to something greater, that missed chance to share annoyance at being forced into something demanding and exhausting and abnormal.

I closed my eyes, and waited to pass places like Yoqneam, which I had no knowledge of whatsoever. Exotic industrial town, maybe? Someone got off. A soldier.

Haifa would be coming up soon.

For the first time in a year I would be excited to get there.

I laid back and waited, thinking how a year ago I was riddled with nerves, three weeks into my aliyah, full of insecurities and recovering from a flu that could only have been concocted in the very depths of hell.

A year ago I resented  my best friend/surrogate sister moving so far away.

A year ago I wouldn’t have spoken a word, meek as a mouse.

This time, Haifa was my safe haven from the avalanche of responsibility and the constant struggle to move forward.

This time, Haifa was easy.

This time it was amusing.

It had new charm.

So when the bus pulled in to the depot at Merkaz Hamifratz in the city that was my new crush, I was happy and liberated.

Haifa? Haifa, you ask?

Haifa’s hills are steeper than Jerusalem’s, its streets narrower and impossible to navigate. It hugs the coast of the Mediterranean and you can see the water from almost every point in the city. Cars don’t park they pile on top of each other.

There is so much green.

The buildings are old and stubborn.

The diversity is calming and motivating.

It’s the city you wish represented the country as a whole.

It is peaceful, moderate and secular, whilst still respecting religion. On the way to the charedi community in Geula, I sat in front of a girl with a wicked top knot, amazing skin and the cutest jean to graphic-T combo I had seen in a while.

She spoke to her friend with the hacked peroxide blonde bob in Arabic.

A Russian woman in her thirties helped a charedi mom calm her baby.

That’s the thing about Haifa. Religious people are the minority and sometimes, that’s ok.

Everyone seems a little calmer and less entitled. Everyone seems to coexist instead of pretending to be oblivious to each others differences (I’m looking at you Tel-Aviv), or segregated because of the powers that be.

Maybe it’s the water. It could be the excitement at Bat Galim beach. Or the Bahai gardens. Maybe that effects the air and lulls its residents into believing that harmony is more important than anything else. Maybe its the fact that my hosts wear black kippahs but also work important jobs in the tech world.

Maybe it’s the innovation of the Technion or the industry which docks at the port each day on container ships.

It could be the fact that some of it seems untouched. It is one of the four most precious and ancient cities in Judaism.

It has seen invaders pounds its waves with purpose and refugees jump into the depths of the sea in desperation.

It’s been ages since the Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks and Brits gave it any thought and left some sort of mark.

And yet, somewhere in the deep corners of the slanty and rickety hills, there is a whispering voice that bears the weight of them and chooses to forget. It is not Jerusalem, it must be content to forget and live on.

Maybe it’s that.

Or, maybe, it’s Mount Carmel on one side and Caesarea’s ancient ruins on the other.

I’m not an expert on its sites and monuments and old glories of architecture. I’m not able to fully embrace it yet. Not until it is explored.

But the journey had made me my smile, had given my body the chance to slide into calm.

I had been spontaneous,and moved quickly, without fear and that feeling of being alone in a crowd of strangers.

The ride was my deep breath.

Haifa allowed me to breathe.

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