Posted May 12th, 2010
By Max Samis, a participant on OTZMA. This is part of his “Krembo Experience” series, highlighting his “only in Israel” moments.
If you've ever been to Jerusalem, you know that Ben Yehuda St. is quite the interesting place. Less of a street than a strip mall, Ben Yehuda is right in the center of the city, and while often populated by Israelis, is a magnet for tourists looking for a souvenir. It can always be a fun (and sometimes frustrating) street to walk along, and since I started working at the Jewish Agency, I often find myself making the 2-minute walk over for lunch, a gift, or just to stroll around.
One of the defining characteristics of Ben Yehuda is that at any time, there are at least 3 or 4 street musicians serenading pedestrians in hopes of being tossed a couple of shekels. Mostly, they are your run-of-the-mill guitar players, but I've seen some pretty unusual musicians out there. Some examples include:
- A harpistA recorder player
- An accordian player
- A woman with a karaoke machine
- A man in full African tribal dress playing the drum (Sidebar: In case you were wondering, he was white.)
- A man in full Native American attire playing “Imagine” on the guitarand pan flute (Sidebar: Also white.)
- A full choir of about 20 Asians.
(Sidebar: That last one, for me, was when Ben Yehuda officially jumped the shark.)
On top of that, you can find any number of cheap “Israel” sovenirs, none of which you will ever see an actual Israel wear. (Sidebar: The single biggest giveaway that you're a tourist? Any IDF apparal. Just about every single person here actually served in the IDF, so none of them feel the need to buy a T-shirt.) Another popular item here are the novelty yamulkas (for the non-Jews in the house, that’s a circle of fabric worn by religious Jewish men at all times, and by many other Jews during services) that can be found anywhere. They range from your favorite sports team (no matter what it is) to popular TV shows like The Simpsons or South Park. My personal favorite would have to be the “Obama ’08″ one, because quite simply, no one in Israel is going to be wearing that one anytime soon.
Since Taglit-Birthright Israel showed up a few days ago, the normal eccentrism of Ben Yehuda St. seems to have gone overboard into full-on crazyness. Once the hoardes of American college students descended, every single ATM on the street was out of cash (not an exaggeration), prices seem to have mysteriously gone up despite all of the “Discount for Birthright!!!” signs in the windows, and even more wacky street musicians have appeared. (Sidebar: If anyone on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is reading this, remember how you heard them playing your favorite Israeli dancing songs from summer camp? Yeah, they don't do that normally.) Allie and I made the unfortunate decision of going to get dinner at our usual little restaurant on the same night that seemingly every Birthright group was on the street, subjecting us to huge crowds, oblivious 18-year-olds freaking out that they can buy a beer at the convienence store, and the occasional Birthrighter's attempt at speaking Hebrew that was even more pathetic than my own. (Sidebar: And that's saying something.) And of course, the various vendors and panhandlers on Ben Yehuda were just eating it all up.
At the end of the day, Ben Yehuda St. is a must-see, especially if it's your first time in Israel. After all, it was even one of the first places I took my family to last December to get a shawarma for lunch. Besides, you never know what you’ll find there – maybe you’ll get a personal serenade from a choir of Asians.