To Live in Jerusalem, Have Sharp Elbows

A few days before we left beloved Madrid, I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop attempting to order a filter coffee. I knew this place didn’t sell filter/drip/pour-over coffee, but still I liked to ask because how else will they know there’s a demand for something other than bitter espresso drinks? A guy sitting next to me said “Good luck finding that here” I told him I knew that; I had been living in Madrid for nearly two years. Sadly, I was leaving the following day. He asked where to, and I told him I was moving to Jerusalem.

“I’m Israeli!” he said. “You’re leaving Spain to move there?” (He had just done the reverse).

I told him I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but on the upside, I expected I’d like the food in Jerusalem much more than the often bland, hammy, and fried Spanish fare. After we chatted for a while longer he asked if he could give me a piece of advice for living in Israel.

“You seem nice,” he said. “So people there will walk all over you. You need to have sharp elbows.”

I assured him that despite being a Midwesterner at heart, I had plenty of big city experience – including New York City – and I was capable of throwing some ‘bows, if needed.

After more than two years in Jerusalem, I think of this guy’s advice often. Like, pretty much any time I leave my house. People in Jerusalem can be a lot like people in New York – friendly enough if you dig deep, but they’d probably have no trouble running over your foot with their motorized bicycle if you don’t get out of their way fast enough.

Sharp elbows have come in handy…

  • …at the grocery store. If someone has fewer items than you at the grocery store check out, it’s not uncommon for them to just go in front of you, often without asking. I can maybe let one person just cut in front of me, but dude, the grocery store isn’t the most pleasant place and I’m not about to let six or seven people scan their packs of gum while I just wait there like a chump over my piles of eggplant, apples, and assorted cheeses. I’ve been known to loudly state “I’m in line. Obviously!” in English several times during single grocery store trip.
  • …on the light rail: Jerusalem has a nice city train system and I enjoy it a great deal. Riding the light rail is a good chance to see all sorts of people in one place – the elderly, students, little kids traveling alone, soldiers, families of nine wearing matching outfits, tourists, nuns, just about everyone. But I can’t help hoping all these folks would take a visit to Washington DC’s orderly (albeit broken down) Metro system just to learn that you wait until people get off the car and THEN you get on, and you don’t stand right in front of the door. When those doors opens on the Jerusalem light rail, it’s every man for himself, and generally that means people just push on and stand where they land. Right in front of the doorway. Leaning their crotches into the little card swipey thing. I’m not going to be stuck standing on the platform because some person can’t take three steps to the middle of the train car. I’ve literally pushed my way on, and have also been known to make a loud “Move to the middle of the train” announcement. Again, in English. Falls on deaf ears. Makes me feel better, though.
  • …at the gym. The gym, oh the gym. Next to the grocery store, it’s the place I often feel the most foreign in a new country, despite being a frequenter of gyms for nearly two decades. In Yemen, the gym was all heavy weights and jacked Marines blaring death metal. In Spain it was fancy schmancy, no one broke a sweat, but everyone lived in fear of bare feet. In Jerusalem, the gym is a place where everyone adheres to a set of arbitrary rules and gleefully dresses you down when you missed the memo. One day Mr. Em in Jerusalem and I ran into the gym to lift weights after playing tennis. We did not bring in our towels, and good lord, what a mistake that was. We got a real talking to from a group of old man bullies, and then the two Russian trainers joined in on the verbal assault. “I will use that spray bottle and paper towel to wipe this bench down,” I assured them. “That is not the point. It is disgusting that you don’t have a towel,” said a guy whose towel was more of a washcloth and is it really cleaner to sit your damp butt on a tiny damp square of fabric instead of wiping it down with spray and a paper towel? Pariahs, I tell you, that’s what we were.  Similar things happened when I stepped onto a bench with my foot, when Mr. Em in Jerusalem used a weight in non-weights area, the list goes on. And then there’s the gym pool, where people think it’s fine to do a basic survival float in the fast lane, propelling themselves forward with a mere flipper of the hands and an occasional fart.  It’s near impossible to get a good workout and me announcing “I guess there’s no fast lane!” seems to hardly do anything. I once swam under a guy who pushed off the wall in front of me only to flip over and become stationary. How’s that for sharp elbows?
  • …in restaurants. Restaurants here are pretty much the same as in Spain, where you’ll get ignored for long periods, because no one is in a rush. (Unlike in the U.S. where tips are a good portion of a server’s take home pay and there’s much more incentive to provide great service, and to turn over tables). You have to get used to yelling “slee-hah” (excuse me) many times to get a table, order, get your check, etc. But the food is really good, so it’s worth it.
  • …on the roads: It’s a favorite subject of expats here to ask how is it that everyone is such a bad driver when the roads are one-third student drivers? Driving schools are a big business here, but those lessons must not stick. On the roads, it’s a game of chicken where the fastest most confident driver with the loudest horn often gets where he’s going first (or at least thinks he deserves to). If you don’t step on the gas 1.2 seconds before the light turns green, you will be serenaded with a cacophony of horn blaring. This causes a blood pressure spike in every newcomer here, but I tell you if you look at the face the person who cut you off/beeped at you/cut in front of you in line, he or she is just as calm as could be, not rageful at all. It’s just the way of the road. To tell you the truth, I’ve come to accept the assertive driving here. I mean, at least there are clearly marked lanes, working traffic signals, and people do, in general, follow the rules of the road. I’ll just end it there, because I bring up that asshole motorcyclist who kicked my car and called me the C-word (in chilled-out Tel Aviv of all places) I’ll just get too worked up. (What did I yell at him, you ask?: “You have some SERIOUS anger issues! Might want to see someone about that.”)

I’m not entirely down on the every-man-for-himself vibe of Jerusalem, although it was an adjustment at first. In fact, I dare say after a few years here, I’ve grown rather accustom to it. I’ve learned that despite being raised a friendly Midwesterner, I don’t actually need or want to chat with every person in a mile radius, or to have multiple people offer to carry my bags, or to help me locate the cottage cheese in a sea of Hebrew-lettered dairy products.

If that Israeli guy from Madrid is reading this: Your advice was spot on – having sharp elbows in Jerusalem is a must. (And the food really is better here. The coffee? That’s a wash).

To sharp ‘bows,

Em in Jerusalem


  1. I’m spending a month in Madrid and found your blog, then happily spent an hour reading through your archives. Next time you’re here, definitely check out Hola Coffee and its sister space Mision — they offer filter, pour over, and aeropress coffee as good as (and sometimes better than) Intelligentsia, Fuglen, or Fondation or Fragments in Paris. I’ll seriously miss it when I leave!

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