It's amazing what a little bit of white stuff can do to a holy city

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Jan. 31, 2002

JERUSALEM - There's nothing like the prospect of snow to get Jerusalem buzzing and people's minds off the weightier issues of the day. Earlier this month, the country's meteorological service announced that a winter storm would be hitting Israel in a few days time.

The country was divided into two main groups - those living in places high enough to get snow and those out of range. The weather folks were quite precise, saying that hilly areas in the north and other locations at least 800 meters above sea level were in for some serious white stuff. Translated locally, this means anything more than light flurries. In addition to the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee, Jerusalem was in the winner's circle of those likely to get snow.

As the storm approached, much of the country went into a tizzy. Judging from the coverage in the press and its prominence in casual conversations, the expected storm quickly became a Major Story - even if it was still a couple days away and no sure thing. But snow had to be on the horizon, people thought, given the sharp drop in temperatures.

In Jerusalem, the sense of anticipation was so intense one would have thought the capital had not seen snow in decades. As the big day neared, a mix of awe, concern and exuberance swept the city. Snow was all the rage even though not one flake had fallen.

Weather talk dominated the agenda. Would there be school or not? Would companies and government agencies open for business? And if so, how would employees get to work and back home if the streets were blocked? Would a snowstorm ensure at least a temporary lull in Palestinian violence? Free of worry were the city's children who knew that at the first sight of even a few frosty flakes, local school boards would cancel classes.

Admittedly, snow is not common in Israel, except on Mount Hermon. In Tel Aviv, it's virtually unheard of. In Jerusalem, a snowstorm hits the city once every few years and each time residents react as if it were an historic event.

With the countdown underway, TV newscasts showed footage of Greece and Turkey covered in white, proof positive the storm front was moving closer to Israel. Newspapers ran ads listing where, in case of snow, home subscribers could pick up their copies. The Israel Electric Company published notices that it was prepared for the storm but included a special emergency phone number. On the news, Jerusalem Municipality officials readied a fleet of snow-clearing tractors as if for a major military operation. Companies prepared contingency plans in case of snow. The city was on a virtual war footing.

On Sunday evening, city authorities and the meteorological service warned the public that the snow would finally hit overnight and that emergency measures were ready to keep the city moving.

School board officials announced that classes might be canceled depending on road conditions. Children went to bed trying to read the night sky for signs of impending snow, praying they would wake up to a winter paradise without school. Many people expected a day off allowing them to be at home with their kids building snowmen.

On Monday morning, Jerusalem awoke to what seemed the appropriate backdrop to snow. Extremely cold temperatures and a howling wind. But much to the consternation of younger residents, there was not a trace of snow - meaning it was school and business as usual. People felt cheated by the weatherman.

Later that afternoon, just after classes had finished for the day, snow finally began to fall - and even better - it was sticking to the ground. Stores and offices closed as many people left work early turning the city into one big chaotic traffic jam.

By dinnertime, Jerusalem was carpeted in white and snow was still falling. The first three reports on the evening news that day were related to the weather. All signs pointed to a substantial snowfall and the cancellation of normal life the next day. But it was not to be as the snow subsided by late evening and by morning the roads were all open.

Two days later, a similar scenario ensued but, in the end, rain erased the snow that had fallen earlier in the evening. All this weather activity made for a refreshing change to the usual reality. Instead of the forces of evil (such as Palestinian terrorism) capturing the headlines, it was the forces of nature that dominated the news. And it was a welcome relief, even if everyone knew it was only temporary. Alas, within days of the storm receding, the nation was back to grieving for victims killed in fresh terror attacks.

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