With the ongoing and unusual cold snap of a Jerusalem winter, distinct cultural differences emerge among residents of the Holy City. Those from the former Soviet Union stroll about oblivious to the cold, wrapped in the bulky coats, fur lined hats and heavy boots they brought with them from the old country. In contrast, the slight, frail figures of recently arrived Ethiopians stand shivering at the bustops, vainly trying to escape the cold wind by wrapping their white shawls tighter around their shoulders.
Israel's Defense Forces don't seem to take the winter very seriously. On a recent rare cold and rainy Sunday morning at the North Tel Aviv bus station, I waited for the bus back to Yerushalayim under a dripping shelter, together with platoons of soldiers returning from their Shabbat respite. Only two or three of the youngsters were wearing regulation army jackets--the others were standing around in their regular shirtsleeves as the rain transformed their uniforms from khaki to dark green with each passing minute.
Americans here dress appropriately enough for the weather, but complain about the heating in their apartments. Long discussions ensue on the English-speaking immigrants Internet newslist about how to keep warm. The basic problem is that since the wintry season is relatively short, and the summer heat so intense, buildings here are constructed with summer comfort in mind. Stone floors are the norm. Minimal insulation and windows meant for opening wide, create drafty conditions in most apartments.
Almost every building has a Vaad Bayit--a house committee, whose job it is to determine at what hours of the day the heat will be turned on. Each apartment owner or renter pays a monthly fee to the Vaad for heat and usually for general upkeep of the communal stairwell and garden. In my building of 6 units, the Vaad Bayit has sky-rocketed to 750 shekel per month in the winter months, thanks to the hike in oil prices. At my place, the powers that be have determined that we don't need heat during the day until 5pm. Then the radiators are on full blast until about 10 p.m, so electric space heaters are de rigueur for those who like to get out of bed in the morning without donning multiple layers of clothing.
Hot water conditions vary from apartment to apartment. I'm lucky--my hot water is linked to the boiler which heats the radiators. So (a) you're guaranteed plenty of hot water at night and first thing in the morning since the water, unlike the radiators, stays warm all night; and (b) there's no extra bill for electricity to heat the water. In the summer we switch to the solar water heater--another freebie that provides constant hot water.
Some of my fellow immigrants are not so fortunate-- they either have to pay the electricity bill for their hot water if the tank isn't linked to the heating system, or they don't have any central heating and make do with plug-in electric radiators, an expensive and unwieldy proposition.
But unlike winter weather in the States, Jerusalem winter days don't seem gray and endless. There's the sweet sight and smell of citrus trees laden with bright yellow and orange fruit to chase away the blues. And while we might have a day or two of cold winds and heavy rain, the next few days will be bright and sunny. In the park over Shabbat, kids were playing without coats under blue skies, and many of the sidewalk cafes leave their tables stacked up outside ready to pull out as soon as the sun emerges.
This year we're waiting with less and less patience for the clouds to form and the rain to fall. Israel is facing severe drought conditions as the Kinneret, our main reservoir, falls below the red danger line with each passing dry day. Bring on the real winter!