A true face of Jerusalem: the hospital waiting room.

Today I spent quite a bit of time in a Jerusalem hospital waiting room; no emergency, I just needed an x-ray. In the past few months, I’ve actually frequented Jerusalem hospital waiting rooms and have been fascinated by the faces I see and the languages I hear.

I think the true face of any city is its hospital waiting room. Conflict or none, from Belfast to Beirut, do people have much of a choice but to face each other in this neutral, undisputed territory?

Honestly, I’m not sure about those two cities, but in Jerusalem, the waiting room hosts a rainbow of Charedi Jews to secular Jews, Ashkenaz to Mizrachi, French, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, international students and diplomats, religious and secular Arabs. You hear Hebrew spoken in so many accents, you wonder if it’s actually the same language.

Today I observed a couple of Arab women walk in with a small boy; one of the women was religious and one was not. The boy was young, maybe three, and clearly uncomfortable being there. He whined the way any child, no matter skin color nor religion, whines… The women accompanying him – the secular one seeming to be his mother – tried to hush him but to no avail.

Out of nowhere, an elderly woman came to him and started coaxing him Arabic-accented Hebrew to relax. She pulled from her bag the currency of which all children of every nation speak: crunchy snacks. She carefully poured the crackers into a cup for the boy and offered them to him: “Kach et ze, chamud. Ze b’seder. Tochel.”

Finally, the boy reached for the cup, and a chorus of Arabic flew from his mother and her companion: “Say thank you! Thank you! Shukran! Say shukran!” The older woman, who I realized was Mizrachi, spoke softly to the boy: “Yofee… Tochel, yeled tov. Tagid todah. To-dah. Tagid todah…”

This chorus of shukrans and todahs was not stopping, and soon I found that the Arab women were telling the boy to “Tagid todah,” while the Jewish woman was encouraging him to say “shukran!”

Language, faces, hospitals, kids, snacks. All undisputed territory when they work together.