Jerusalem — Tuesdays are ordinarily quiet at the Osher Ad supermarket in south Jerusalem, but forecasters’ predictions that the city would receive up to several inches of snow by Thursday and more over the weekend set off a midweek shopping frenzy.
“You’d think there was a war brewing,” an older shopper mumbled with exasperation as she gazed at the store’s 18 checkout lines, where anywhere from six to eight carts, most of them overflowing, reached all the way to the store’s shelves.
“When we opened this morning there were already 300 people waiting to come into the store,” said Tzali Karlinsky, Osher Ad’s clearly harried manager. “Today’s crowds are at least twice the size they are before a Shabbat.”
Memories of last winter’s mega-storm, which dumped up to two feet of snow in the country’s higher elevations and caused widespread flooding in low-lying areas, sent Israelis into “doing mode.” That wasn’t surprising given that last year hundreds of thousands of people lost their electricity for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, with many literally stranded in their homes for days on end.
At the Home Center branch next to Osher Ad, more than a dozen people calmly perused the many models of electric heaters, battery-operated lights and — a rarity in Jerusalem — portable generators.
“Traffic has been very high,” Itzhik, the manager of the Talpiot Home Center said in between helping customers. “People remember what happened last year and want to be prepared.”
No one prepared more than Israeli officials, who took the heat for the government’s relatively slow response to last year’s storm. Highly paid Electric Company workers were convening in balmy Eilat instead of repairing downed power lines, and Civil Defense and IDF troops were underutilized.
This time around, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat didn’t take any chances. Fearing that hundreds of motorists could once again be stranded on the two mountainous highways leading to and from Jerusalem, Barkat announced the highways would be closed when the first flakes fell.
Although few questioned Barkat’s decision, it forced tourists and the many Israelis who commute in and out of the city to scramble for accommodations outside Jerusalem or risk being trapped inside the city. Some tourists rescheduled their flights, according to local travel agents.
In Tel Aviv, officials created sand barriers in an attempt to keep the surging waves from hitting the promenade and waterfront businesses.
NGOs and social services departments handed out food packages to the poor and elderly, to ensure they could make it through the multi-day storm.
Even the Tel Aviv-based U.S. Embassy got into the act.
Unlike the U.S. State Department travel advisories for Israel and the Palestinian territories, which routinely advise Americans to steer clear of armed conflict (including much of Jerusalem during the recent terrorist attacks), the embassy’s alert focused on the snow predicted in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Galilee.
“We advise you to monitor the weather conditions, plan ahead, and prepare for any scheduled travel accordingly,” U.S. citizens were told in a Friday e-mail. “Similar weather conditions at this same time of year in 2014 resulted in the closure of major roadways, stranded and isolated motorists, and difficult/perilous travel conditions.”
The memo then advised motorists who must travel to fill up their gas tank and “pack warm winter clothing, boots, water, shovel, and emergency food supplies in the event you are stranded.”
The reference to food and especially winter boots elicited peels of appreciative laughter across the internet.
“This advisory sounds like it was written by a Jewish mother,” more than one American expat wrote on Facebook.
Soon afterward the embassy posted a light-hearted photo of its smiling staffers at the beach, dressed in winter clothing and holding umbrellas.
Many Israelis noted that while their compatriots manage to cope with war, they become flustered every time snowflakes are predicted.
Several Facebook users shared a post (source unknown) noting that “only in Israel could citizens literally sit outdoors in cafes admiring the white contrails of incoming missile attacks being intercepted above their heads, yet the entire nation is paralyzed by a tracing of snow that Minnesotans and most of Canada would refer to as Springtime.”
Jerusalem resident Idele Ross, a veteran radio journalist, told The Jewish Week that wicked weather frightens Israelis because it is so unpredictable.
“We have an army and weapons to fight man made rockets and missiles, but the extreme weather leaves us powerless and unable to control the outcome which could be floods, leaking roofs, days without power or heat. … It’s a scary reminder of 1948 when Jerusalem was cut off and food was rationed.”
Ruthie Blum, a columnist for the newspaper Israel Hayom, theorized that “because terrorism is something that Israelis live with all the time — and are prepared for — it is almost expected. Snow, on the other hand, is like a novelty.
“On the one hand, it’s fun and beautiful, and reminds everyone of countries abroad; on the other, it totally paralyzes the country, which is built more for warm weather than freezing temperatures. As a result, Israelis are both in awe of snow and afraid of it.”
Once they had filled their fridges and stocked up on emergency supplies, Jerusalemites seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief.
Leaving the Osher Ad supermarket, a young mother who gave her name as Batsheva looked back and took in the scene.
“Sometimes it’s nice to worry about something other than the security situation. Sometimes it’s nice to worry about the weather, just like people in other countries.”