Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

The Historic Blizzard of Yerushalayim: An Eyewitness Account

Zuz! Maher! The irate taxi driver stuck his head out the side window, clenching his fists at the row of cars piling up on Rechov Malchei Yisroel, slipping and sliding in the snowdrifts. “Yashar! Yashar!” he shouted. “Nu! Zuz!” I stood on what was once the curb, stranded in a knee-high pile of slush, shivering with cold yet drinking it all in. The scene was surreal, historic. For the past fifty years (some old-timers claim it was longer), there has never been a blizzard of such magnitude in Eretz Yisroel. It had snowed intermittently for three days straight, from Thursday morning until Shabbos afternoon, and not one inch of snow had been cleared. In fact, it didn't seem as if the city owned even a single snowplow. Egged had been on vacation for three days, taxis were stranded in the middle of the kvish, and little children pranced about, plastic bags tied to their shoes, playing with the snowballs. Tens of thousands of families lost their power on Erev Shabbos and spent a snowy, frigid Shabbos without light or heat.

And I had chosen this week, of all weeks, to be in Yerushalayim, literally trapped in my cousin’s apartment, waiting for the city to go back to normal so I could enjoy my vacation.


Call it Murphy’s Law. I am not a frequent traveler and have only been in the Holy Land a handful of times, mostly during the beautiful spring season. I’d been planning this trip to Eretz Yisroel for months to dance at the wedding of a close friend’s son, meet some dear fellow writers, and of course go to the mekomos hakedoshim, the holy sites, to daven. I’d confirmed my itinerary two weeks ago, when the weather in Yerushalayim was a balmy seventy degrees. Two days before my flight, my cousins and gracious hosts told me that the weather was still pleasant, though getting a little nippy. In an abundance of caution, I added one warm robe, two sweaters and a pair of boots to my pile of luggage. It was these items that I’d rely on the most.


In fact, as I type these words, I am dressed in multiple layers, like a true Yerushalmi in the winter, but my fingers are ice-cold. The homes are well-ventilated and built from stone, which means you rarely need air conditioning during the summer. But when it turns cold, it isn’t the ordinary New York kind of frost. This is the type of cold that seeps into the bones, turning one’s veins into ice.


After an uneventful flight, I landed at Lod, found my luggage, and stepped out into the cool evening. A sheirut was already waiting and I was the eighth passenger. Unfortunately, our driver refused to leave until there were ten – a pity to waste the two potential fares! After a half-hour wait, during which there were a lot of heated back-and-forth arguments and offers to pay the difference, we were blessed with two more passengers and were on our way.


The sun was setting as we drove into Yerushalayim, the most beautiful city in the world. The chein on the faces of the pure, sweet children, the grit and geshmak that you encounter in complete strangers, who are all eager to help one another, and the lack of materialism were uniquely appealing.


Just to give you an example: The average Israeli family of ten lives in a four-room apartment, with no dryer (clothes are sun-dried or strung up across the room) and a hot water heater that must be turned on an hour in advance of taking a bath or washing dishes. The groceries and bakeries are mostly no-frills affairs, with very little prepared food or the conveniences we Americans can’t live without. And of course, milk still comes in plastic bags, salt and sugar are packaged in identical paper bags (necessitating unfortunate mix-ups), and sunflower seeds are the snack of choice. One caveat, though: Even in the winter, the fruits and vegetables, and especially the dates, are mouth-watering.


My introduction to the unique flavor of the Yerushalmi lifestyle and struggles began early on.


On the first night of my arrival, on my way to visit my aunt, I suddenly found myself hemmed in at Kikar Shabbos, where thousands had turned out to take part in a spirited protest against the drafting of yeshiva bochurim to the army and the incarceration of those who didn’t respond to enlistment orders. The speakers, in an impassioned mixture of Lashon Hakodesh and Yiddish, expressed their sorrow and pain, as the audience alternately cried and booed. It was powerful, poignant, brutally honest and all-too real. There was nothing fake or contrived about this gathering. One could actually sense the pain.


Every time there were rumors that the police had arrived, the crowd began to surge forward, fleeing from the inevitable arrests. Fortunately, the mishtarah never showed up; they were busy quelling even more massive protests on Rechov Bar Ilan. I later heard that several American bochurim were arrested. Someone told me that a couple of weeks ago, the police brutally knocked on their door before dawn, almost breaking the door down, dragging them out of bed to arrest their two yeshiva-age boys.


The following day, a Wednesday, I was fortunate to daven at Kever Rochel, despite the inclement weather and blinding rain. At Mama Rochel’skever, one doesn’t have to exert oneself to cry and show emotion. The tears at the Mamma’skever spring forth, even without any effort at all.


I had made plans to go to Meron, Tzefas and Amukah on Thursday with Hoffman Tours, whose daily trips are incredibly organized and professionally conducted. At that point, we were still unaware of the scope of the snowstorm awaiting us.


The snow began early on Thursday morning, coating the Yerushalmi streets and enchanting alleys with a fine powder. Naturally, school was canceled, and the streets were filled with children enjoying the rare sight. Inclement weather, though unusual, doesn’t scare off the average Israeli, yet it did scare Egged, which grounded their buses for nearly four days. (It is now Motzoei Shabbos and I have not seen a bus since Wednesday afternoon.)


As the day wore on, visibility decreased and it became difficult to traverse the streets. Yet, I had come to Yerushalayim with a long to-do list and I wasn’t going to let the weather hamper my plans. First on my list: visiting my great-uncle in Neve Simcha, an old-age home in Mattersdorf. If there were no buses, I would have to use the oldest method of transportation: putting one foot in front of the other. I borrowed a pair of boots, donned two sweaters and a coat, and slipped on some gloves I had bought in the bazaar near Kikar Shabbos for ten shekel. Ready, set, go!


Just getting out of my cousin’s home on Rechov Ezra in Geulah proved a formidable challenge. The outdoor patio was comprised of authentic Yerushalmi tile, now covered with buckets of slush. By holding onto the outer walls of the house, I gingerly made my way to the ramp that lined the street and crossed over to Rechov Malachi. The street was almost impassible, as visibility was only ten percent, yet I bravely forged onward. The walk to Mattersdorf took nearly an hour, as I slogged through piles of snow, dodging the errant cars and snow-drenched passersby, slipping and sliding on the kvish.


My great-uncle was thrilled to see me, joking that I’d brought the inclement weather along as a gift. It was a refrain I’d hear, numerous times, during the next few days.


When I groused that the snow was ruining all my plans, this hardy Holocaust survivor, who lost thirteen of his sixteen siblings during the war, put things into perspective. “Think of how beautiful the snow is, and how badly we needed the moisture. It’s such a bracha.” And indeed it was.


After a hot bowl of soup and chatting at the home of a writer-friend, I slogged my way up the steps to Kiryas Belz and trudged, head bowed, all the way back to Geulah. The weather had deteriorated, snow mixed with blinding sleet and fierce winds, and I blindly felt my way “home.” I had a hard time believing that the temperature had been a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Chanukah, only a week earlier.


There was one unanticipated benefit to the weather, though: I was homebound relatively early and had plenty of time to write. As this was a working vacation, I had brought a laptop along and was able to meet most of my deadlines during the storm.


On Friday morning, the sun came out for a bit, but then the snow continued to fall. By 10 a.m. I was suffering from cabin fever and suited up for the weather, heading to the famed Machane Yehudahshuk. I passed Rechov Tachkimoni, which was quite a sight. There was a line of stalled cars, wheels spinning in every direction, and an army of young men with “elbow grease” trying to push them through the snowdrifts. Excited cries and shouts of support echoed through the streets. In Yerushalayim, one driver’s problem is everyone’s problem.


I was fascinated by the average Yerushalmi’s choice of footgear: heavy-duty plastic bags over one’s shoes, tightly tied to protect their wearers. Fashion statement notwithstanding, I thought it was very clever and resourceful.


Though most of the stores in Geulah were shuttered, the actual shuk was open, with about a quarter of the stalls “making” a subdued business. There were some delicious kiwis, tangerines, and dozens of exotic, fragrant spices lined up. My sole (excuse the pun) purchase? Five pairs of warm socks for eighteen shekel. If they’d have sold earmuffs, I would have bought that, too.


After exploring Machane Yehudah, I crossed onto Rechov Agripas and meandered through the beautiful, historic Talpiot and Yemin Moshe neighborhoods. The quaint, snow-covered courtyards and alleyways, which ironically had beautiful flowers blooming, transported me back in time to the Yerushalayim of yore, at the turn of the century. I arrived home soaking wet, with a camera full of beautiful pictures and unforgettable memories.


On Friday afternoon, we received unexpected guests: several bochurim stranded by the snow, which continued to fall at a rapid pace. The old-timers were saying that this was historic. They hadn’t seen such an accumulation in their entire lives. There were families stuck on the highway leading to Yerushalayim. Some had to be accommodated in the outlying neighborhoods of Ramot , Pisgat Ze’ev or Gilo in the south. One new father, stuck in Yerushalayim, missed his son’s bris in Bnei Brak!


On Friday night, the first reports trickled in about the thousands of cars stuck on the highway to Yerushalayim. Many people had been stuck on the roads for over ten hours, since Thursday night. My aunt’s neighbor related that her married daughter, with her husband and two small children, left Bnei Brak on Thursday night to spend Shabbos with her parents. Having been reassured by the transportation department that the roads were clear, they, and many others, set out on their journey. When they arrived at the entrance to Yerushalayim, it was obvious that they were going nowhere. The snow had begun to fall heavily and the roads were blocked. Soon the highway became a parking lot. Young families were trapped in cars for hours on end. Their frantic calls for help went unanswered.


Zaka and other emergency agencies wanted to help, but the Israeli government had closed the roads and the police refused to let Zaka pass. They reportedly wanted the roads clear so that John Kerry could return to the United States after his disastrous visit. And so, for ten endless hours, tens of thousands of families were trapped on the highway in the bitter cold and swirling snow, with no food or bathrooms for their little children. Finally, after an excruciating night and day, the army stepped in and provided shelter in Binyanei Ha’umah for 2,500 stranded travelers. There were reports of at least twenty births there, from mothers who were unable to get to the hospital in time.


The Chareidi olam refused to go to Binyanei Ha’umah, spending Shabbos in a stadium without food or accommodations. Many StolinerChassidim and other stranded Yidden went to Ramat Givat Ze’ev and other outlying areas. With their typical arrogance, the left-wing media ignored the entire story. In fact, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu got on the radio and boasted about how “they” had saved the day. The media also turned the stranded travelers into scapegoats, saying that they should have known not to travel (even if the highway department told them it was safe). It was only on Sunday that the truth began to emerge and even the secular media admitted that the situation had been mishandled.


Fifteen minutes before the zeman, the electricity blew, which meant no lights, no steam, and no refrigerators (although, in such biting cold, who needed refrigerators?). By some fluke, one bathroom light and one steam in the dining room continued to work. We enjoyed a genuine, homey meal by candlelight, with beautiful singing, inspiring divrei Torah, and plates of papites (sunflower seeds) to keep us occupied. Though most of the groceries were closed, as there had been no deliveries, my cousins managed to find one small makolet that still had some food for sale on Friday.


After the meal, all the children bunked down in the dining room, as the rest of the apartment was as cold as the outdoors. I didn’t want to give up on one of the highlights of my other trips; going tish-hopping. When we stepped into the swirling snow, I was surprised to see the streets, normally teeming with life, nearly empty. Where were the families normally walking to and from their parents for the meal? And then we realized: The Yerushalmi eruv, which has been around for decades, was down in some places. They had announced that no one should rely on it.


The walk to Toldos Aharon at the end of Meah Shearim took twice as long as usual, but it was well worth it. Watching the Toldos AharonChassidim, young boys dressed in the traditional gold caftan and wide belt, with a thin shtreimel on their heads, swaying in song; observing the adorable little boys with their half-pants and white pointy yarmulkas; and watching the Rebbe distribute fruits from the massive tray, was truly an experience. On our way home, we stopped by the ezras noshim of the Shomrei Emunim shul, accessible only via an ice-coated flight of outdoor stairs, to enjoy the heavenly singing of this jewel in Meah Shearim. By the time we arrived home, my cousins and I were thoroughly frostbitten, yet our hearts were warm.


Shabbos morning brought another avalanche of snow, but I wouldn’t give up a Shacharis in Belz for a bit of a slog. And so, after another memorable walk, dodging a pile of stuck cars abandoned in the roads, I arrived at the majestic empire of Belz. The beauty and grandeur of the massive shul, and the memorable davening (you can literally hear every sound, thanks to an excellent acoustic system), defy description. The “chazak chazak” at the end of Parshas Vayechi, the gabbai’s unusual stick and pillow system that he pounds to induce silence, the memorable Birchas Kohanim at Mussaf, and the Rebbe’s special “gut Shabbos” to every chossid as they pass, single file, after davening made a powerful impression.


The afternoon meal brought another few unexpected guests, but in typical Yerushalmi fashion, our generous hosts made room at the table and we had a wonderful time. During the afternoon, the temperature dropped and it was too cold to fall asleep. Instead, I took my young cousins to the Nadvorna tish on Rechov Ezra. For over an hour, the Chassidim sat in the darkness, surrounding their Rebbe, singing soul-stirring melodies. How I wished I could bottle it up and take it home with me!


On Motzoei Shabbos, there was still no light and heat. I was getting antsy, since I needed to work, and so I relocated to my aunt’s house with my laptop. The ten-minute walk took nearly an hour, as the streets were a complete balagan. Some of the snow had frozen into a layer of fine ice, while the rest was a pile of muddy slush. There were no snowplows to be seen in all of Yerushlayaim, and the buses were on “chofesh,” probably until Sunday evening.


Once again, an army of volunteers was directing traffic, pushing the stranded cars to the side of the road as impatient taxi drivers honked. We were forced to walk on the street, between the cars, dodging lively snowball fights, accompanied by cries of delight. While the adults were shivering and toughing it out, the children, off from school for three days, were in gan eden.


I spent most of Motzoei Shabbos working, hoping to get my deadlines out of the way so that when the snow clears (if it doesn’t snow again), I’ll actually be able to accomplish some of what I came for. I know I need to realistically pare down my list. The meeting with the writers in Beitarprobably won’t take place, and I can’t imagine that Hoffman will go to Meron for another few days.


Do I regret being stuck by the storm? The answer would be both yes and no, or yo.


My children, manning the fort back home, felt terrible for me, freezing across the ocean when I could be warm and cozy at home. Yet, I assured them that I was having a wonderful time, and I truly meant it. I was living it up with my long-distance relatives, becoming acquainted with the hardy and resourceful Yerushalmis, learning how to tough it like a native, and looking forward to the wedding in Netanyaon Tuesday. Though it wasn’t quite the vacation I had envisioned, it is memorable and exotic all the same.


Coming next week: the aftermath of the storm, and the second leg of my trip.


Update: It is now Sunday morning, the skies are clear and blue, the snow is melting, and Hoffman Tours is up and running. Hooray!



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