The first time I was in Jerusalem for New Year’s Eve, it was 2011/2012 during my college winter break. When the clock struck midnight, a homeless-looking man danced up to me with a big half-toothed smile, open arms, and tried to kiss me. That was the last time I went to that area of town, which is known to be particularly young and touristy.
Last week was my second New Year’s Eve in Jerusalem, and understandably, I was skeptical. The last time I had been here, my group counted down until the New Year on a street filled with bars, but the whole thing was quite anti-climactic compared to what it had been in the States. Back in Seattle, we always went to a New Year’s Eve party, ate fancy appetizers, watched the ball drop, and brought in the New Year with fancy drinks.
So this year, I thought about going to Tel Aviv for New Year’s, but if (when) the night ends late, then I would have to sleep over in Tel Aviv, adding another layer of complexity. So I decided to stay in Jerusalem with my friends, this time lowering my expectations.
Unfortunately, it was pouring rain the entire night. We walked to the Machane Yehuda Market, also known as “the shuk”—one of my personal favorite places in Jerusalem. Trying not to get too soaked, we huddled under an umbrella, dodging the remnants of the day’s leftover food and boxes in the streets until we reached our destination.
For our New Year’s Eve dinner, my friend chose Jacko’s Street—a celebrity restaurant considered higher-end by Israeli standards. The dinner was great, but the company was even better. One of my friends invited a young high school teacher who was visiting from Australia. Originally from Hong Kong, he was here in Israel for three weeks, taking a course at Yad Vashem on how to teach about the Holocaust. We had a great conversation about what he thought about Israel before he came and what he has seen so far. He said the only negatives he saw were related to customer service. “What customer service?!” I responded sarcastically, and we all giggled.
After dinner, we faced the downpour yet again and went back to my apartment where we had wine and popcorn. After a couple of hours, we realized the diversity of our friend group—three Brazilians, two Americans, one New Zealander, one Australian, and a Turk. As another #ThisIsIsrael moment was recognized, we hung out until 11:15 p.m. when we decided to check out the party scene in downtown Jerusalem. We went to Mike’s Place, an American bar that I thought would be swarming with tourists. Much to my surprise, the bar was filled with Israelis and a live band was playing. We ordered drinks and “chips” (french fries) and some friends from ulpan (the five-month immersive Hebrew course) joined us. I hadn’t seen them for a while (OK, it’s only been three weeks) and it felt like a grand reunion.
When midnight struck, we continued to dance, party, and laugh together in a big circle, all smiling from ear to ear. To be with new and old friends in one place was simply magical.
Thanks to this New Year’s in Jerusalem, I realized that what makes a great moment is not the fancy bar at which you sit, the rating of the restaurant you reserve, or even the country in which you reside. Having an amazing New Year’s is all about the people with whom you spend it.
Over the course of the night, I learned about Israel from a visitor’s perspective, laughed over wine and popcorn, and reunited with ulpan friends. I spent the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 smiling and laughing with the people who were at my side during one of my most memorable years, and will still be at my side for the amazing years that are sure to follow.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.