Holy Garbage

A Visitor to Eretz Yisrael Has a Revelation

Trash isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Yerushalayim.

But it was, I must admit, one of the first things I noticed on a recent, wonderful visit to Eretz Yisrael.

I suppose I have a bit of the neat freak in me. I try, with varying levels of success, to keep things in my life organized. My desk may not always show it, but I do try. So maybe I was too sensitive to the litter I saw along the streets and walkways of Sanhedria HaMurchevet, where we stayed. But the trash was ubiquitous and plentiful, and I’d be lying to say that it didn’t bother me. At least at first.

My wife and I were privileged to spend a week and a bit in Yerushalayim for the bris of a new einekel and for Shavuos. It was the first time in 14 years I had been in Eretz Yisrael (previous hiatus: 28 years), and we had never been there together.

It was an exalting, memorable week.  There is much I could rhapsodize about, and much to recount — like meeting Eliyahu Hanavi on Har Hamenuchos (it’s a long story). But that will have to remain for, perhaps, some other day.

The neighborhood was deeply endearing. It wasn’t one of Yerushalayim’s posher places; the residents seemed mostly simple people, our kind of people. Our son and daughter-in-law, the parents of the new little Shafran who received the name Moshe (well, the bris was on Erev Shavuos) live in a small apartment, eleven flights up (no elevator). The climbs were not easy, but it took no effort at all for this long-time suburbanite to feel totally at home in the surroundings.

The shuls were wonders, their tefillos unhurried and heartfelt. Birds glided gracefully through the open windows, making me feel that I was davening in the sky, the bright blue Yerushalayim sky.  People were warm and helpful, and, throughout both the bustle of the weekdays and the ethereal calm of Shabbos and Yom Tov, holiness hovered in the air. And the children, ah, the children. There were many, bli ayin hara. They streamed to their chadarim during the week and filled the streets on the holy days, playing joyfully, gaggles of little girls here, posses of little boys there, hiding and seeking, throwing and catching, walking bicycles and scooters up the hill, riding them down. And each little face seemed to shine.

It amazed me that, over the course of many hours of seeing them at play, I didn’t witness a single argument, or child crying.  All I heard was laughing and singing. I was in awe of the youngsters, even knowing that in a few years they would no longer be children, that the challenges of adulthood would confront them soon enough. For now, though, they were radiant packages of potential, and their incandescence dazzled.

We hadn’t made the trip to tour, only to help our children a bit. (Well, that would be my wife; my assistance consisted of staying out of the way, and holding and dancing with Moshe here and there.) And to absorb some of Yerushalayim’s kedushah. We left our host neighborhood only to go to the Kosel, visit some friends in the Old City, walk through Meah Shearim and seek a kever in Har Hamenuchos (in which quest the aforementioned Eliyahu Hanavi played a pivotal role).

Some things, I noticed, had changed since I first experienced the city as a yeshivah bachur in the 1970s. The traffic is much worse. (In fact, had I ever been to Calcutta, it probably would have reminded me of there.) Construction was ubiquitous and striking. Everywhere, it seemed, were cranes and building crews.  Neighborhoods that had barely existed back when I was a teen (including the one where we were staying) were populous and thriving.

Meah Shearim, though, for all the decades’ passage, looked and felt much the same. The homes and shops seemed unchanged; Yerushalmi men and women still glided along its streets in the same traditional clothing, although the cellphones many of them held to their ears as they walked were clearly something new.

But back to the trash. No one seemed to pay it much attention. I saw a street-sweeping vehicle clear much of it from the main streets one day, but elsewhere it lay in peace. After trying unsuccessfully to not see it, I decided to confront it. No, not by trying to pick it up; that would have been a Sisyphean task. Rather, by analyzing it.

What I discovered was that the garbage was very different from what one might find in, say the Bronx, or even lower Manhattan, no liquor bottles, cigarette packages or pages from magazines. The Sanhedria detritus was comprised, almost exclusively, of candy wrappers, snack packaging and similar evidence of sweet teeth.

It wasn’t, in other words, the product of callous citizens unconcerned with the cleanliness that neighbors G-dliness, but, rather, the inevitable byproduct of a society whose most cherished possession is the mass of beatific little people whose play and demeanor had ­ ­ so impressed me, its beautiful, holy children.

It was, I realized, holy garbage.