28 February 2012

Ramat Beit Shemesh

I spent Shabbos in Ramat Beit Shemesh. I think it's considered a suburb of Jerusalem, though it's a good hour away by bus, through some lovely (and uncommonly diverse) woods.

You know how when you drive down the highway in America and see a mall, you wonder whether anyone actually lives behind it, or if it is just a mall in the middle of nowhere? I discovered a few years ago that there are suburbs behind such malls: block after block of square houses on square green lawns, all of the same vintage. The houses look like children's drawings of houses: triangular roofs, a door between two downstairs windows. Thus far, the American suburb.

Ramat Beit Shemesh does not look like an American suburb: it is row after winding row of short, red-roofed apartment buildings sheathed in limestone. The streets are all named after rivers and it is an apt analogy: they are really like dark rivers flowing through a limestone landscape. There are trees and shrubs - enough to make the place look alive - but no lawns.

Ramat Beit Shemesh is surrounded by green hills (at least at this time of year) with olive trees, shrubs, and the ruins of ancient terraces tumbling down their sides. At least two of these hills are already slated to become Ramat Beit Shemesh C -- before you mourn the development, you have to understand that practically every hill in Israel is covered with shrubs, olive trees, and the ruins of ancient terraces; and remember that the development comes about because the cute little babies in Jerusalem grow up and get married, mazel tov, mazel tov. Taking a walk around RBS on a weekday will bring you to wilderness where you can pick up shards of ancient pottery.

We visited a few young couples and it is surprising to me how seeing that a young lady is in the command of an apartment with high ceilings makes me think of her as more mature than her counterparts back in my neighborhood with low ceilings... until I stop to realize that it is the ceilings conveying this impression. There is something magic about high ceilings. I think my sense of aesthetics froze a hundred years ago, when books were wide & short, and rooms (and their windows) were narrow & tall; since then in popular culture the two have swapped shapes.

What really surprised me in Ramat Beit Shemesh is the quiet: on a Shabbos afternoon in Jerusalem the streets are empty of cars but packed full of children jumping rope and playing tag. In Ramat Beit Shemesh I saw a few tag games, but nothing like Jerusalem. Perhaps I was just out at the wrong time, or perhaps there are not that many seven-year-olds in RBS.

On the whole, Ramat Beit Shemesh reminded me of this insight: One of my teachers was once approached by a gentleman who had spent several years working on an intensive and grand project. Now that the man's project was finished, he was ready to move on to another impressive project -- and none was forthcoming. He felt the lull keenly. "I don't know what to do next," he said. "Life for the past few years has been one thrill after another. Now that I have finally reached my goal, I am bored."
"When life gets boring, make yourself interesting," my teacher told him. You can work on a grand scale, doing astounding things that affect or at least impress the public. And sometimes what is necessary is to become a deeper person -- which is a different kind of thrill.

Ramat Beit Shemesh, unlike a large city, cannot really be said to offer interest of its own: it is new, it is tidy, it is hospitable and welcome; but it is hardly a tourist attraction. I don't think it will last longer than a month as a substitute for living an interesting life. If you live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, you must make yourself interesting.
The people that we visited in Ramat Beit Shemesh have done that: they are all very nice, very thoughtful, very mature (and it's not just the high ceilings).

A nice Shabbos.


  1. Re: High ceilings. I know for a fact that your earliest perceptions of the world took place in an apartment with 15-foot ceilings; and that this early imprint was reinforced by living under more 15-foot ceilings in adolescence.
    Construction materials in America are rooted on a 4-foot module (evenly divisible by stud spacing of 16- or 24-inches). Thus, sheets of plywood and drywall are 4-feet by-8-feet and thus you get 8-foot-ceilings pretty uniformly unless there is an architect or someone who aspires to daylight or grandeur in the family.

  2. As a resident of RBS-A, I can tell you that there are definitely 7 year-olds that live here and scads of them. Obviously, you were walking around when people were eating. By 2 o'clock on Shabbos afternoon, there are kids and lots of them. No, there are not a lot of "things" to do in Ramat Beit Shemesh and, yes, you have to make your own life with friends, family and visitors. It is a Torah community and if you isolate any Torah community anywhere else, you will find the same thing. The emphasis is on living a Torah life. I hope you did enjoy yourself.