Monthly Archives: March 2014
When I came to Israel at 17, one of my most distinctive memories was doing drama exercises in the Negev hostel we were staying at. However, this wasn’t just any room; it was a bomb shelter. It was underground, and the only evidence of it existing above was a white steel crate with steps that carried you down below. There was a tiny little window with steel bars covering it that gave a slight view to the outside, but only just quite.
The first Friday morning that I was in Israel, I had slept over at Lauren and Avi’s house in Ma’alot. Their guest bedroom had the most comfortable bed I had slept on, but the door was made of heavy steel and couldn’t be closed fully. I didn’t really put two and two together until I looked out the window and realized there were steel plates that could cover it.
I walked out that morning dressed in my PJs and asked the dumb question: “Did I just sleep in a bomb shelter?”
“Yep,” Lauren replied. She went into some of the specific things in the room, known to most Israelis here as a safe room, about the water and food supplies and filtration systems. However, the casualness of the conversation brought the truth into relief: I was in Israel, a country surrounded by enemies. And there was always the chance that a bomb might go off or rockets would be fired while I was here.
Mind you, it’s not as dangerous throughout the country as the news makes it out to be sometimes. The best example was when I spoke to my dad two days after I arrived at Inbar’s, and there had been rockets fired from Gaza into the country.
“I want you to be very careful, Reina,” he said.
“Of course, dad,” I said.
“Promise me you won’t go anywhere near there.”
“Why would I want to go anywhere near there?”
“All right, dad! Calm down! I promise I won’t go anywhere near Gaza.”
When I said this, Inbar’s laughter rang out from the kitchen across her white tile. In fact, any Israeli who I told about this conversation laughed their head off, as if an American like me could get anywhere near Gaza. But Americans get a little nerve wracked.
As I traveled across the country, though, it was a thought that crossed my mind regularly. What if that bag left over there was a bomb? What if someone came in with a device strapped to their chest? How would I respond if I were by myself and injured during a difficult time?
It’s almost as if it’s a part of our cultural narrative as Jews in the United States. For as long as I can remember, there have been issues between Israel and almost all the different countries and territories surrounding it. This tiny little country, about the size of New Jersey, is constantly under a state of threat. Even as we purchase our Israeli chocolates and borekas and drink hot water with mint in local cafes, there is still that underlying thought that this innocence is something that can be thrown off as soon as someone barges in with an agenda to kill as many people as possible. In America, this is a frightening thought.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have seemed to accept it like it’s nothing. Almost every Israeli citizen knows how to operate a gun here, and they are carried out in the open by soldiers. Every major train station and mall has intense security check points, even in suburban areas like Ranana. As I was going onto trains, I had my passport checked, and it made complete sense that before I got on the El Al flight I was asked a lot about my Jewish identity.
For me, who had been a Jew my whole life and active in this community, this was a no-brainer. But for Julianna, my roommate in Tsfat (more about her later), this brought a whole different bag of worries, her green eyes wide.
“They took me and two other people into a room,” she said. “And I’m just trying to rediscover my faith, I barely know anything about being Jewish. I had Passover once, and they were trying to question me about what we had during the seder. I said… ‘Matzah?’”
I laughed, but it would only be funny to someone who isn’t from Israel. Security is a big deal here, especially during holidays. If TSA in the United States is no laughing matter, the Israeli Defense Forces is ten times sourer. It’s in the very culture — hence, the shelters in every home used to protect its residents.
It’s a strange thing to see people risk so much to be a part of something like this. Not all choose to stay; some would rather live in America where the idea of having to hear sirens is something of the past, or there are more opportunities for life. Either way, I dream of a time where the idea of a bomb shelter in a home here is something of antiquity, not of necessity.
Being a nonnative to Israel, it’s been hard to navigate. I’m not a sabra, or born in this land. Although I’ve had some magnificent guides in my friends, they haven’t always been around to help me. Many times I have to do things on my own. And sometimes, that can get tricky.
Wednesday morning, Inbar left me at the local mall, which was fantastic because there was an Aroma Café to work on my computer and have a cup of coffee at. Aroma is a huge chain of coffee shops throughout the country, and although we have our own version back in Los Angeles, this was the real deal.
I felt pretty confident in my ordering abilities as I moved to the coffee bar under the black, red and white sign.
“Café, b’vakasha,” I said. That means, “Coffee, please.”
And then he started talking to me, and my mind drew a blank.
“Lo Ivrit,” I replied. That means, “No Hebrew.” He pointed to the coffee cups, and I motioned for the bigger one.
“13 Shekel,” he said. Clearly, my cover was blown as a clueless American as I fished through my coin purse for the appropriate coins. He handed me my receipt and nodded.
“Toda raba,” I replied.
“B’vakasha,” he replied. That means, “You’re welcome.”
There are about 20 or so words and expressions in my arsenal, although I have added a few since I’ve arrived. Even though most people speak English, not all of them do or do it well. I’ve been at dinners where either the older generation doesn’t speak English — typically more secular families — or the younger generation can’t — usually more religious ones.
For me, a big part of traveling is not bringing attention to myself. Although I do like hitting some of the touristy locations, I prefer to live the way the natives do for a while. That means hitting all the local hot spots and adapting to all elements of the culture, such as public transit or local festivities. For me, it’s like trying on a new costume and walking around for a while. It means really seeing a place, not just looking at the highlights.
It’s not always possible when you have a nasty little language barrier. Although I know how to read Hebrew from years of Sunday school education, it’s completely different when it’s taken from prayer language to conversational communication. Trying to get directions is difficult when you’re not familiar with the very city you’re in. Traveling on a bus where every stop is written in a different language, even in an alphabet you know makes it difficult to figure out how to navigate. Trying to haggle with a sabra in the shuk for a good price on halvah is a little tricky when you don’t know any numbers beyond seven.
And yet, I wanted to be a part of this culture for the short time I was there. I wanted anywhere I went — especially Israel, which is supposed to be my homeland as a Jew — to become a sort of home to me.
When I went up to Ma’alot to visit Lauren, we went to go pick up her husband Avi and head to grab dinner. We pulled into a small town with a hole in the wall burger joint on a dirt road, bundling up as we stepped into the night.
We walked into a small room with a counter for the cash register. There was writing all over the walls with a giant Pink Floyd album cover in the middle of it and the speakers were playing “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. The owner was tall with a pot belly and a kind face, standing over the stovetop where the burgers were cooking. He turned and greeted Lauren and Avi with a giant grin.
“He makes the best burgers in the world,” Avi said. The man nodded and asked me where I was from. When I told him Los Angeles, he laughed with a giant twinkle in his eye and then asked what I wanted to take away.
As he prepared it, I looked around this tiny restaurant and smiled. Here was the group of local kids who were starting to wear their costumes for Purim. Then there was the group of three guys who were sitting in the corner having beer and a good conversation together. Then there were the three of us.
As he handed me pens to write on the wall, I realized this could have been anywhere. Being a sabra was not necessarily about knowing the language or being able to haggle. It was simply being, carrying on and living a normal existence in any part of the world you live in. It was finding your spot in the universe and taking full charge of it, making your mark on that small little spot on the wall about how thankful you are to come home again.
Anyone who has visited Israel, whether they love or hate it, will probably say this about it: The food is amazing. There’s a lot of it. And no one will stop trying to feed you.
On Wednesday night while visiting Inbar, we went to her family’s house for a yahtzeit, or anniversary of a death. Her entire father’s side of the family, all Iraqi Jews, crowded under the fluorescent lights of the tiny apartment in the walkup. The men prayed, and although not many people spoke English, I felt very welcome as I was kissed, smiled at and had my cheeks patted by her aunts and several cousins. And before I knew it, out came the food.
As the plates were passed Inbar walked away for about five seconds, and suddenly I was handed a giant plate with the most amazing food imaginable: two kinds of kuba (stuffed semolina with meat), schnitzel (pounded flat fried chicken — very common in Israel), grilled chicken, hummus, salads and more. The plate was so heavy I was shocked I could hold it with one hand. I looked at Inbar with my mouth wide.
“You think I can eat all this?” I asked her.
“I wanted to give you a little bit of everything,” she said nonchalantly. And suddenly I was becoming full of the most amazing food imaginable with relatives all around me encouraging me to eat in a language I can barely understand.
Israel has a very distinctive eating style. There are many different kinds of vegetables, including anise, onion, cucumber and tomato. Salads are served at every meal. Hummus and babaganoush reign supreme, and visits to the bakery happen on almost a daily basis. Very salty things like feta cheese, pickles and olives are served frequently. And, of course, there is hot water with mint leaves and honey — a traditional Israeli hot beverage served alongside coffee.
As most of Israel is some form of kosher (despite the fact I have heard of places here that serve cheeseburgers, pork and shellfish here, I dare you to try to find any of them), you will not be able to get certain things here or the recipes will be varied. Skittles, which are unkosher in the U.S., are kosher in Israel. Cokes are made with real sugar here, not artificial corn syrup. And certain varieties of cheeses, like brie and mozzarella, are either rare or nowhere to be found.
During the majority of my travel time, I was surviving on snacks I bought at Trader Joe’s back home. So when my first evening in Jerusalem came, Brad took me out of the city down Ben Yehuda Street for a meal.
“What do you want?” he asked. “Schwarma?”
I nodded gleefully as we went into a shop. One of the guys was standing out front with a bowl and a pair of tongs.
“Falafel?” he asked. I immediately took it at popped it in my mouth. In Los Angeles, falafel balls are these dried spicy ping-pong balls that you try to eat without choking on. But if you have ever had falafel made by an Israeli, as these were, you know they are warm and crunchy on the outside but just melt on the inside and makes you heart weak at its nonexistent knees.
Brad stepped outside for a minute as I made my falafel laffah wrap. When he walked back in, he looked at me shocked.
“I thought you were getting schwarma!” he said.
“Well, I get easily distracted by good falafel,” I replied.
This pattern of delicious meals continued even after this writing. Whether it was the burgers near Lauren and Avi’s house in the north that were piled with roasted garlic, lettuce and onion with Cajun fries, the Hamburgreg at Greg café with chewy fried mushrooms instead of the burger or the savory Jerusalem mix over barley at a counter in the shuk in Tel Aviv, it was all delicious. It never felt heavy like American food, and it was always satisfying to the core.
As I settled into Shabbat lunch in Tsfat and began helping myself to the dips, salads and cholent, I remembered the guy I was dating briefly in the states before I left. The last date we had was two months before this point. He had gone to Israel a month previously, and all he did was complain about it.
“It’s like a third-world country,” he said. “Everything is so old and run-down. What kind of people live like that?”
As I sat there at a raucous lunch filled with food and spirit that can’t be found in the United States, I thought about how much he couldn’t see, which is part of the reason why I stopped seeing him. Then I thought about Inbar and her family, who even though they didn’t speak English did their best to make me feel like I was at home. It was very clear they weren’t wealthy in money. But their hearts were open to a stranger in their country who showed up on their doorstep. I couldn’t imagine something like that happening in America, even with the Jews who live there.
Is this country perfect? Not even close, and neither are the people. But I’d rather be in a decrepit home filled with love and delicious dishes rather than a beautiful house with silent hostility. After all, the love we have is often reflected into the food we ingest, and we don’t only eat for the body, but for the spirit.
The sun was shining brightly in Tel Aviv as I cursed numerous taxi drivers who were desperately trying to take my bag in broken Hebrew strewn with American swear words. But when I saw her get out of her car, her beauty was unmistakable: Her light chocolate skin gleaming, her hair stylishly cut and her smile from ear to ear. This was Inbar, and we embraced as old friends only can.
Inbar and I knew each other in Long Beach when she ran Gesher City, the young adults group through the Federation there. When we met, we were both married. Now we both were divorced and living on opposite ends of the world: Her in a town north of Tel Aviv, me in sunny bright Los Angeles. They were the respective corners in the universe we were from, but now we were back together in Israel.
As I loaded that heavy pink suitcase in the back, she remarked how good I looked (I had taken off quite a bit of weight since we last saw each other) and we began talking. I then noticed her outfit. It was a long-sleeved burgundy dress that went down to her ankles. This is not how she used to dress.
“Inbar, are you becoming religious?” I asked.
“I’m in transition,” she said in a sweetly shy manner. She was now keeping Shabbat and dressing in tznius (modesty). Clearly, we had some serious catching up to do.
As we wandered through the shuk and we continued our conversation, we sat at lunch and seemed to talk nonstop. And she looked at me with a question.
“How long has it been since we’ve seen each other?” she asked.
“When did you leave Long Beach?” I asked.
“About three years ago.”
“Yeah, probably around then.”
“And it’s like no time has passed.”
As our day continued and we didn’t seem to stop talking, I wondered about that. How could so much time drift between two people it can feel like nothing has changed?
The same question continued as we were joined by our friend Dana later in the day, drinking coffee and eating French pastries in a Tel Aviv café. Then the idea came up again a few days later as I visited my college best friend Lauren in the north. Dana probably brought it up best when we started talking about our friends and their different life stages, which were mostly engagements, marriages and babies. Dana, Inbar and I seemed to be rare exceptions: Inbar’s transition to religiousness, my divorce and Dana’s aaliyah, or move to Israel.
“I sometimes feel so out of the loop,” Dana said drinking her coffee under the tinted orange light of the heater. “My friends are getting engaged or married and producing babies,” she said. “And here I am… just not.”
“Yeah, I hear ya,” I said. “My friends are getting married while I’m single and still looking.”
“I didn’t really date while I was in school. Now I’ve got my doctorate and I’m trying to learn again.”
“You’re telling me! I didn’t date between 22 and 29. When I had my first official date after the divorce, I had to call someone because I had never really had anything like that. I didn’t even know how to go on a dinner date.”
Dana opened up a packet of cigarettes and lit one, blowing the smoke upwards making clouds in the light. “I don’t know. Life just moves on, and sometimes we don’t know how to keep up.”
As I drank my hot water with mint, I seriously thought about her words. I thought about two years ago when my life was in crisis mode, ten years ago when I almost died, fifteen years ago when I was last here and experienced the pain of true loss. So much had changed, and I was running to catch up. And some of my friends were left behind in that struggle to keep moving forward and accept my life as it came.
Two days after that coffee, I went to see Lauren in Ma’alot. She had changed a lot since we knew each other, her head covered now that she was more religious (although she said she was more modern orthodox than actually orthodox). As I made her laugh and we talked about our past and respective pasts that we missed, she looked at me and smiled.
“You know, I feel like you’re back,” she said, her face breaking out in that unmistakable grin as she was driving us around the mountains in her Mazda. “You were gone for so long when you were married, and now you’re here. And it’s amazing.”
Even though this isn’t the first time I heard these words (that would go to my best friend), I smiled back at her as only old friends can. We hadn’t really seen each other in six years, and here we were together again. And intrinsically, we were the same. She was still the girl whose bed I sat next to while she was recovering from having her tonsils removed, and I was the girl who made her laugh no matter the circumstances. Nothing could change that.
It didn’t matter what her head was covered with or how I no longer had a wedding ring on my finger. We knew each other, and there was no denying that those we love will find a way back to us one way or another. And when they return, all we have to do is just sit back and enjoy the sweetness.
After I left the Heritage House, I called Brad almost as a formality. It didn’t matter where he was because I knew where I wanted to go. It was like a little kid who was so happy to be at the fair and found their favorite ride and never wanted to leave. For me, mine was the Kotel. It would probably always be that way.
I walked down the steps again, went through security and headed to the women’s section. Almost as if it were fate, a piece of candy landed right in front of me. It was in a bright pink wrapper, and it seemed strange to be here in such a holy place.
Suddenly, I turned my head and saw the women, their heads peaking over the divider and their tongues undulating in that Persian yelp of joy as they were reaching into the bags. I approached them and they offered me candy pieces and began speaking to me in Hebrew.
“Sorry, I speak English,” I said. Like most Israelis, they switched almost immediately for me.
“We’re throwing candy at the bar mitzvah boy,” one said in a thick accent to me as another piece of candy fell at my feet. I picked it up and tried to hand it to her, but she shook her head.
“You should eat it,” she said. “It’s good luck to eat candy like this. Brings sweetness.”
I pulled the bright pink one out of my pocket and showed it to her, acknowledging it was thrown over the barrier into my path. She nodded and encouraged me to keep it. As I thanked her, walked away and let the strawberry flavor melt on my tongue, it seemed so normal, so easy. Like every day I could be here and see something simple like this, where G-d brought an interesting turn to my day.
So far there have been three visits in my life to the Kotel, and two of them were in a 24-hour period. This third one was particularly special to me, because it was the first one where it was just normal. There was no desperate goodbye, no crying return. Just a simple, “Hello G-d, hope you’re doing well, I’m happy to be here.”
It was like a dream — sleeping three minutes away from this place, coming up and down the stairs as I pleased to simply just offer a prayer, a check-in, my own personal thanks. It was a great relief sweeping over me.
Although I knew this wouldn’t be a permanent part of my life, it felt so perfect in my world right now. I was a stranger in a strange place, watching the kids run through the streets and the singing men as they accompanied kindergarteners to the Western Wall to the sounds of drums. Yet as the yamulke salesman recognized my face from when Brad introduced me to him, as Chaya gave me her number so if I had any questions she would answer them, as I wandered through the Judaica shops, I was intrinsically a part of it all.
Brad eventually came out of his room and we didn’t have much time before I had to pick up my luggage and catch a bus to Tel Aviv.
“There’s somewhere I want to take you,” he said. “I want to take you to Aish HaTorah.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed in there,” I said. Many of these places were for men only.
“No, of course you are,” he said. “Let me.”
As we walked down the streets and approached the building, he explained to the doorman about how he was a student there, I had just gotten here and he wanted to take me to the rooftop. The man cocked his head towards the staircase and we began to climb.
“I just saved you five shekel,” he said. “That’s usually how much it costs to come up.”
As we climbed the stairs, I wondered how any rooftop could be so great, and wondered how many stairs I could climb through the whole city, not knowing that it wasn’t the stairs but the roof that would take my breath away.
Suddenly, I was on top of Jerusalem, overlooking the Mount of Olives, Kotel, Dome of the Rock — everything. Every little detail, stacked like little bricks, greeted my eyes and played the strings of my heart like a lute. My mouth was open and tears were coming to my eyes.
“Reina, tell me what happened to you here,” Brad asked softly. He didn’t know, and I let it out to him, to the world, to G-d almighty. I spoke the horrible things that the experience taught me to do which put people in precarious positions later and about the man who betrayed me. But yet without it the Kotel would have never been so sweet. I would have never gotten to now – beautiful, blissful now.
Suddenly, I heard a melodic voice cut through the air and echo off the bricks, like it was calling from the walls.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s the Muslim call to prayer,” Brad said, pointing to the Dome of the Rock. “From over there.”
I heard it like a siren, playing in my ears and watching as it was unconsciously being danced to by the swaying bodies below it. A few minutes after it ended, a chorus of men echoed singing “Od Davenu Chai,” rhythmically as if there were thumping of footsteps alongside them. This was followed by church bells ringing through the stones, as if there was a wedding about to occur. It made realize this city, the depth of it all: I stood in the middle of three beautiful faiths that came together in this place, where the modern world seemed to begin.
Brad walked away for a little bit as he left me to have some privacy on the rooftop. I spread my arms wide as if trying to embrace the wind and the glory. My soul was part of the Kotel now, somehow a part of this city. And although I was leaving for a little while, there was a home for me to come back to. And the best part of it all is there was no longer the fear that I never would return.
Morning at the Heritage House in the Old City is a special kind of bliss. The kitchen area is small but cozy, hinting at the age underneath the peach cream orange and gray paint. Everyone seems to congregate here before the hostel closes at 9 am, including Chaya, the overall matron of the house. When I came down the stairs, I was stuck in the awe that I woke up with that morning, and how all I could think about was, I’m here.
Heritage House is a hostel located about three minutes from the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. For 20 shekels a night on weekdays (about $6), any young Jewish person could stay there. It’s a more religious house, but warm and welcoming. I was told about it a month previously at a Shabbat dinner in Los Angeles, so I looked it up. And sure enough, here I was.
The amazement started the night before. After a full evening in Jerusalem with falafel and the shuk, I was delirious with jet lag. At 8 pm, Brad walked me back to the Heritage House where I was staying in the Old City. It was an all-women’s hostel, hidden behind a blue gate near a courtyard with bright purple leaves.
When we first approached it, Brad was shocked by the gate and the buzzer. “Why is there such a strong gate? This isn’t at the men’s Heritage House.”
“We need protection from you evil men,” I joked. But as we said goodnight and I lowered my head to walk in, I was greeted by the sounds of laughing girls. I turned the corner into the tiny kitchen, where several of them were sitting with cups and bowls.
“Hi,” I waved. “I’m Reina.”
The girls introduced themselves enthusiastically one by one, and they seemed to be from all over the place: France, Australia and one girl who was actually from down the street from where I live in Los Angeles.
“Do you want orange soup?” one asked.
Orange? Really? And then they laughed and told me it was just the color of the soup, not actual orange flavor. I sat down as I grabbed a Chinese-style bowl and was encouraged to scoop out the carrot-flavored soup with just the bowl, as there was no ladle for it. As I joined the girls in that kitchen with the old stone and new steel kitchen appliances, I knew I was in a place like no other.
As I sat there and James Morrison sang about “Broken Strings” to the room, we talked about our lives. One of the girls chatted me up about my story as the Madracha (house mother) began making chocolate rice crispy treats with dark chocolate and honey. The intoxicating smell of chocolate filled the air as I began to open up.
I didn’t expect anything from this place, really. When I met Chaya earlier that day, her warmth of how I was going to have an awesome time with new sisters was strange to me. I was passing through, a ghost in this world absorbing everything that the Old City had to offer while staying quiet. I didn’t believe her. Then came this night, and this was different for me. I felt a sense of peace here.
I hadn’t really lived with girls since my very early college days, and although I had female friends, it was never like this. We were together, but not like this where I was wearing my pink Supergirl pajamas and talking as if it was with my roommate Zack from back home. We laughed and smiled at each other. We shared our stories. And even though after a while I was sent directly to bed due to my yawning fits, I didn’t want to. I could have stayed with them all night, enveloped in a tremendous sisterhood. For some odd reason, Heritage House was almost like it could have been down the street from my house in Los Angeles. Or at least it should be.
The next morning, I woke up and the sun was shining brightly. I joined everyone in the kitchen, including Chaya, and made myself a cup of oatmeal with one of the other girls. We sat and we chatted as each girl touched up, got herself ready and left the house to go greet the day in the Old City. Sitting at the table, I was invited to a wedding — a shock for a girl who arrived less than 24 hours before in Jerusalem.
“Really?” I asked. “I don’t know them.”
“Hush,” Chaya said with a warm smile and a wink. “We’re relatives.”
The girls left one by one as it was now down to me and Chaya, and I got to find out a little bit about her. She didn’t start out religious. She was from America, and decided to come to Israel to see if there was any validity to Judaism. She was amazed and eventually found her way to become more religious. She now had five children and a husband she really loved who ran the men’s house. The fact that I was sitting before her, being who I was, didn’t seem to matter. She was just happy to have me.
I looked at Chaya and smiled. “Chaya, this is truly an amazing place,” I said to her. “Less than 24 hours ago, I didn’t have anybody. Now, I have everybody.”
She grinned brightly and hugged me tightly as I went off to the Kotel, looking forward to my last Shabbat in Israel where I would return to the Heritage House. Even though I was leaving for Tel Aviv that day to meet Inbar, I was already going to miss this place. Halfway around the world in the Old City, somehow I found home.
My arrival into Tel Aviv was supposed to go something like this: Get off the plane in glorious joy, collect my bag as graceful as could be and get through customs. Once I got out, my friend Ron would be waiting for me with a big smile on his face and a cell phone for me to put a SIM card in, and together we would ride the sheirut (or transport) to Jerusalem, where I would go to the kotel for the first time in almost 15 years.
Yeah, that would have been nice. Here’s how it actually went.
My plane touched down in Tel Aviv after a semi-comfortable El Al flight (and a cattle-car style one on Virgin America to JFK from LAX). As I walked through the sleek airport architecture mixed with that traditional tan stone that seems to be only found in Jerusalem, I was whiny and tired from a lack of sleep and the air pressure change. Not to mention my TED hose were getting to me, bunching up behind my knees as they had been doing for hours. After almost 20 hours of wear, I was getting restless. Before I could do anything else, I stopped on a random corner and immediately pulled down the ugly white hose. I got a look of weird looks from passersby, but I didn’t really care. If they weren’t wearing the ultimate in ugly stockingwear, they had no reason to give me the eye.
After the passport line I went to the baggage claim. As my bright pink patterned suitcase came down the ramp, I yelped in glee as it landed on top of someone else’s case. The joy of my suitcase making it all the way couldn’t be stopped — not even when I tried to reach for it and it was so heavy I ended up landing facefirst on the pile of bags and started moving with them. Instead of taking a joyride on the baggage carousel, I fell. Wise move on my part, as the man down the light watched and then grabbed it for me.
I wasn’t going to let this deter me as I headed out to the lobby, triumphant from 20-some odd hours of travel time. I wheeled out to the throngs of people with signs, flowers and balloons, looking for Ron, the guy who had been bugging me practically every day for the past three years to show up and who was supposed to pick me up.
Frustrated, I turned on the wifi on my phone, wondering how long it would take. When it finally activated, I found a message waiting for me from Ron: He wouldn’t be there. He had a cold. I was on my own. Sorry.
I was arriving with the assumption that someone would come and help me. I didn’t have the first idea of where to go. Plus he had the most important linchpin of this plan: A cell phone. I simply couldn’t travel without one.
As I approached the cell phone counter, I was flush with anger: Here was a person for three years talked such a game about all he wanted to do when I got there and begging me to come and how he was so alone. Yet the minute I needed him, there was nothing. It reminded me too much of the past.
Negotiating a deal with the girl at the counter for a makeshift Nokia phone, the bright fluorescent lights got to me. As she went through the rental agreements and mintues, my brain started to shift, wondering if there was time to ball up and cry. The girl sensed this as my eyes darted around.
“You want a glass of water?” she asked nicely.
It was simple, sweet, yet the kindest thing I was experiencing at this moment. I said yes, relieved as she poured me a glass and I downed it like a shot of vodka. She laughed.
“You want more?” she said. I nodded again and she laughed harder. “Just call me the bartender!”
“So do you know how I get to Jerusalem from here?” I asked. I was too reliant on Ron to know how that I didn’t have a clue.
“Just take the Sheirut. It’s right outside. Go out and turn right.”
I messaged all the others in my group with my cell phone number and decided not all was lost. Instead, I called my friend Brad, who I wasn’t supposed to see until Friday when we headed towards Tsfat. He was just as flabbergasted as I was.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “What kind of friend would do that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I just need help getting to the hostel. I’m going to take a Sheirut to the Old City. Can you meet me at the hostel?”
“Sure! What hostel?”
“The Heritage House, women’s side.”
“Not a problem. See you soon.”
I closed my flip phone and then headed out the sliding glass doors of the aiport, approaching the the Sheirut.
“How do I get to the Old City?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
He shook his head, and I almost lost it until the nice Orthodox lady next to me said softly, “Jaffa Gate is probably the best way in.” Her husband, with a snowy white beard, nodded. I pulled my luggage to the back of the van and thanked them all for their help.
As I sat down on the bus, I began to cry. How could he leave me by myself? It wasn’t like I had been in Israel recently and knew exactly what to do. However, I had to accept that with traveling alone came certain ramifications — including how to deal with a situation and keep moving. Within that hour of finding out Ron wouldn’t be there, I seemed to go through all the five stages of acceptance in order, and decided to celebrate this by plugging into my music.
As the Sheirut began making its stops, almost like a miracle I saw it. There was no fanfare, unlike the last time I was here. All I saw was that Dome of the Rock shining in the sun, that indicator of my arrival in Israel,after 15 years of absence. As it disappeared from my sight, it was like being exposed to an intoxicating smell and then being removed. My eyes were hungry for it.
As I got off at Jaffa Gate, I hadn’t realized how I far I had to drag this heavy suitcase. It was bad enough in Los Angeles, but now it was ridiculous. I moved down the walkway, watching the Israelis try to corner me so I could go with them (and not trusting them), eyeing a cart with tasty breads walking through the gate. Still mystified, I pulled into the Ministry of Tourism, desperately trying to figure out where to go, and called Brad again.
“Did you pass by the guy with the bread cart?” he asked. Only in Jerusalem would this be a discernable marker as to where to go.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Just keep going straight. I’m going to come meet you.”
As I kept moving forward, another Israeli tried to pull me over. As I was dealing with a heavy suitcase going uphill, I couldn’t outrun him as he was trying to get me to come into his shop.
“No, come, sit, meet my brother,” he said. “We’re not going to pressure you to buy anything.” (I learned later this means, “We are SO going to pressure you to buy something.”)
Just as if it was a saving grace came Brad, wearing his tzit-tzit and new yalmulke. As if to ward off the shopkeepers, I gave him a giant hug.
“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to hug,” he said. Shomer negiah, or the practice of more religious men and women not touching one another, didn’t matter to me at that moment. I was no longer alone, and that meant everything.
He grabbed my suitcase as I took my carry-on bag and purse and went in search of the hostel. We wandered through the tan archways as he told me about all the different places we were passing and where his friends lived. So imagine my surprise when we got to the hostel and it was closed for another two hours.
“Not to worry!” Brad said. “I have this friend. We can drop off your bags there.”
“How long have you known him?” I asked.
“About a week.”
“You have to understand something. Things operate… differently here in the Old City. Here, watch.”
He ran up the stains and knocked asking for the man of the house. Brad greeted him and two of his daughters and explained the predicament. The man, cleanshaven but wearing a black felt yamulke, nodded his head. I pulled my suitcase up the stairs.
“I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to come in,” I said.
“His wife is here,” Brad said. “It’s okay.”
As we walked in, I warmly greeted the man and his wife, who was wearing a long black skirt and a turquoise head shawl, and thanked them profusely for their help in leaving my bags there until the hostel opened.
“It’s nothing,” the wife said warmly. “Don’t worry.”
As we left, Brad looked at his watch. “I don’t want to abandon you, but I made an appointment with this man about his yeshiva,” he said. “I know you want to go to the Kotel…”
“Brad, you’ve done more than enough,” I replied. “Just point to me where it is.”
He led me towards the steps and we agreed he would call me when he was done so he could continue to tour me around Jerusalem. As I approached, I felt this overwhelming sense of dread. And as I got to the stairs overlooking the square, my body seemed to be in disbelief. It didn’t want to feel it, but it was true. After over 7,000 miles, I finally came home.
The view of the Kotel was incredible, the sky as blue as any that had come over Los Angeles. As I approached, I placed my friends’ notes in the wall, making sure their prayers got answered first, before it came to my turn. My hands touched it and it was as smooth as I remembered it. It smelled of earth and age. And as I pressed my lips to it and shed the tears I needed to cry, it was like my soul was finally at rest.
I stood there for what seemed like forever, praying for my family and friends, falling in love all over again. All problems, home or here, seemed to fall away. My past was done for this moment. And as I sat and looked at the wall and that deep blue sky where it had been raining only 24 hours earlier, I realized my arrival to Jerusalem was far from perfect. However, it found its own beauty along the way, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.
At 5:30 in the morning, my clotting factor had its first exposure to the TSA’s new body scanner. After loading three trays worth of stuff to go through the x-ray machines and stripping through a black hooded sweatshirt and leather jacket, I walked into the body scanner and lifted my arms.
“I hope you’re appreciating the view of my armpits,” I joked, even though the last place I should probably crack wise is in the middle of airport security. I walked through, and the body scanner tracked yellow warmth in my legs.
It made sense; after all, I had been wearing the ugly anti-embolism stockings that would hopefully keep me clot-free through the next 24 hours of travel. But they were still skeptical, and the lady wearing the bright blue TSA button down asked to look at my legs.
“Like this?” I asked, lifting my skirt as if I were some sexy pinup, although I can’t think of anything less sexy that these bright white stockings. The lady in the red shirt in front of me began to laugh as the TSA agent shook her head, squatted down and began patting down my legs. She then instructed me to turn around and patted down the backsides.
“I hope you are enjoying feeling up my TED hose,” I joked again, and the lady in red burst into more giggles. Not bad for 5:30 in the morning.
They pushed me aside to wait and I grew concerned as my boxes of stuff began to pile up. They patted down my stockings; were they going to question me about my blood thinning injections?
I haven’t traveled internationally since I had my blood clots at 21. The most I ever did was fly to New York and back. So needless to say, I had been worried half of this journey simply to the airport. Did I have the alcohol swabs? Would I be able to lift my shirt in the bathroom to give myself the injection? Were all the doctor’s notes and prescriptions in place in case I got questioned in security?
Most people don’t know of my genetic disposition for my blood to try to kill me through clots. Most of the time I live a normal life, taking an aspirin regimen and making sure I get my circulation flowing regularly by walking. There are only two instances that you would know: One is if I’m traveling, and the other if there is ever a conversation about my having children, because I’m unsure if I would be able to sustain a pregnancy with such an active clotting factor.
As I walked around the terminal at LAX, feeling the stockings against the back of my knees, I felt strangely out of place with the people who seemed to be able to travel without any problems, casually reading books or lying with neck pillows. Sure, there were discomforts, but they were ones we all experience, like bag weights and slipping off our shoes. I wished for a way that I could travel with just normal discomfort, not this feeling of being a medical patient.
However, as I saw the people pile into the terminal, it was almost like my subconscious was nudging at me, reminding me we all were traveling somewhere, and our travels were all for different reasons. Some were for pleasure and redemption like mine, but others carried emotional pain or a discomfort that couldn’t be measured by an outward appearance. My struggle with clotting, although awkward-looking and questioned by TSA, was not the only issue in that Virgin America terminal. We all fought battles to get here. Some of us are still fighting and will never stop. And some wars finally were about to end.
So I sat in the terminal listening to the music on my iPhone as Debbie Friedman came in as if by fate, singing in her sweet voice “L’chi Lach” while the sky outside began turning from black to inky blue, as I was left remembering Eve’s head on my shoulder. It was the memory I attached to that song. And now, it was about to begin again.
Sure, I don’t travel the same as I did at 17. It’s uncomfortable and leaves a lot to be desired, particularly in the stocking department. But I have been kept alive for this moment. And that is bliss.
He didn’t understand it. I didn’t expect him too, really. Sitting at dinner that Monday night in April, his murky brown eyes staring at me from across the table when I made an unusual proclamation: That when it came time for me to go back to Israel, I wanted to be traveling alone.
My odd quirks post-divorce did tend to puzzle him; maybe it’s one of the numerous reasons we aren’t friends anymore. But the truth was that sometimes we know what we need better than the world around us does. Sometimes it doesn’t fit in the conventional box of what society tells us to do. And for me, I needed to return to Israel alone, without anyone accompanying me on the journey. I knew it then, and I know it now as I am leaving for my greatest adventure up to this point.
The Israel experience I had at 17 changed my life, although not in a good way. Up until my divorce, it was the painful and most traumatic thing that had happened to me, being torn away against my will from the motherland that I developed a deep and emotional bond with. Despite the fact that I wasn’t alone that day (to which I will always thank Eve for), my experience was individual and unusual. Even on the way home, although I had escorts throughout the journey, I was really alone, not talking to them unless it was something that had to be said.
As if that wasn’t enough, I had to sit and watch all my friends fly back and forth to Israel over the past 15 years as if it was around the corner, traveling and telling stories about all the things I never got to see: Dancing the night away in Tel Aviv, slathering mud on each other at the Dead Sea, climbing Masada as the sun rose over the desert, even shopping in the Shuk. The closest I got was my 45 minutes in Jerusalem. I was happy for them, but inside it was killing me — and none of them knew that.
For most of my life (up until the past few days), few people actually knew the depth and severity of what happened to me. And that man who sat across the table from me at dinner on that April night in Long Beach was one of the few that did.
He should have never known. But that night in St. Louis as he and I were driving through, Eve encouraged me to tell him by showing him that funny picture book I made for her as a gift. When he read it, he genuinely smiled, allowing it to touch those brown eyes. He’s a person that I knew so well that I was completely aware of when he was faking his joy for the cameras and when he was truly happy and peaceful. That moment was as real as anything I ever saw from him.
Maybe he was offended at the idea that I didn’t want anyone to come with me to Israel — not even him, who knew me better than most people in the world claim to and who gave me my life’s other great travel adventure of driving cross country. Perhaps I just came off as my normal eccentric self and he was disturbed as he never saw that side of me before. I will never know.
As we walked back to his car that April night, my hands deep in my black coat pockets and enjoying the quiet that settled over us, he broke the silence with his deep baritone.
“You know, Reina, you don’t have to hide,” he said. “You don’t have to put on a show.”
At the time, I was confused as the weather seemed to change between us. Maybe he wanted me to say what I was feeling towards him, which three months after my divorce had no real words to explain all of it; my very body was incapable of describing every detail attached . Maybe he wanted to me to let go of all the selfish coping mechanisms that I put in place to keep me composed throughout the divorce process, which at the time were probably not the best choices I could make for myself. All I knew was something told me deep inside knew that I was about to lose this important person in my life, and as my feelings for him were in flux this was a scary thought. In my fear, I tried to kiss him, although failing and going for a second hug instead. It didn’t stop the inevitable, though.
It’s been almost two years since that night. I don’t believe either of us were prepared for the tangle of emotions that would happen over the next several months. It was the intensity, despair, confusion and changing circumstances that made us into shattered glass, unable to be put back together again. There were days that I was confined to my bed on account of the heartbreak of losing such an amazing human being in my existence. The honest truth is I still miss him everyday. Although I have reclaimed my happiness and have moved on in so many ways, a part of the joy will always be missing because he is no longer with me.
At that same time, my life was in a perennial state of traveling along a roller coaster: Financial crises that made my very core shake, intense therapy sessions and tears on a fluffy green couch, a tremendous move to a place that was home and yet not. Divorce broke my life, but unlike the glass that was him and me, it was a jigsaw puzzle to form back into pretty pictures with all its special pieces: the embrace of friends, a home to call my own, a very life to claim as mine. It was up to me to do it, an individual process that couldn’t have been done with someone like him around who knew me so intimately, sometimes better than I knew myself. To make a life, you should always know yourself better than anyone in the world.
When I got the call in November that invited me to return to Israel, I cried deeply in gratitude, lying on the bed in my room by myself. As I announced it, there were people cheering both here and in Israel, wanting desperately to take me to lunch, dinner or coffee and offering to let me sleep on their couches. Although they were joyful, just as most of my recent struggles had been by myself, this great sparkling moment was also mine alone, separate from them.
As I was planning to leave I wanted to make sure to extend my trip either on the front end of the trip or afterwards. But as I looked up at the bright blue sky of California January while talking to the travel agent, it was like my very core knew what had to be done: I had to fly alone. I would return with the rest of the group I would be joining halfway through. Even that night back in April two years, I knew that my trip to Israel would be an emotional journey when it would occur; my own journey that others could never own, just like the divorce and rebuilding afterwards. And to do it right meant to do it alone.
My 17-hour flight to Israel was not meant to be with someone. It was meant to be with me. It was writing the words that would express the joy. Meditating about the meaning of this journey in the course of my existence. Letting go of the pain of the past. Remembering the notes of those I love I’m carrying with me in my purse. Thinking of the cute boys I’m going to kiss — because yes, these past two years of being single have made me boy-crazy and somehow I have been able to convince myself that I’ll be ready to settle down after I return from a stream of flirtations halfway across the world. But this is a facet of me, for better or worse, until I find the right one.
If we were still talking, I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be happier about me going to Israel than him. Would he have understood this concept now of traveling by myself now after everything I had gone through? To this day, I’m not entirely sure. But I never expected him too, nor anyone else to really get it. After all, sometimes we have to do what’s right for you, not them. And sometimes that path is meant to be walked by yourself.
About two months ago, I decided to write a letter to the man who caused my 15-year absence from Israel. After much debate within myself (and researching him), I decided to not deliver it. However, I did want to share it before I let it go as a new memory is about to take its place.
This letter has been almost 15 years in the making. You have probably since forgotten about that summer, about me and about the sins that you committed against four teenagers, where you exploited their weaknesses and used them to your advantage. I cannot forget. In order to save your own skin, you set mine on fire. And I am still burned so many years later.
On July 16, 1999, you exiled me from the Holy Land by kicking us off your Israel program. Don’t pretend you didn’t, because there were plenty of witnesses who saw that you had no reason other than the fact that I was considered to be “difficult.” I know exactly why you did it, and it was downright sickening and wrong. I wasn’t the only one in that weekend. There were three others: Zev, Heather and Eve. Their stories were different than mine: A clown of a boy who no one would look at twice at if he were kicked out, a girl suffering from anorexia and another whose grandmother was dying. Then there was me, who opened my mouth and stood up to you, seeing through your lies about what happened. We were so easy to pick off, and you took advantage of this.
As I came home, I found out the truth from the people who knew you: Your program was in serious debt and you hadn’t budgeted correctly. It made sense looking at the time we were kicked out: We had spent almost two weeks in the desert, cheaply stocked away in a place that probably didn’t cost much. The rest of the schedule was expensive; one of my friends who was on my trip actually calculated the cost and realized how over budget you were — about $3,000 per kid.
You evaded your responsibility in this incident. In your cowardice, you fled the United States and now live in a land that I have been striving to get back to for 15 years. Due to potential legal ramifications, I couldn’t reveal publicly what you did; I spent years having pretend that my Israel trip was 100 percent meaningful when it truth it was packed full of your falsities and my heartache. I lied, and hated myself for it.
Because of your actions, my exile was much longer than it should have been. In college, I was not able to qualify to go on Birthright, and no matter how much I pled to the organization, there was no forgiveness for me for your sins. My friends told me to lie and said I had never been in order to return. I refused; lies forced me away from Israel and I wouldn’t use them to get back in. That is one of the numerous differences between you and I.
We know your evils, but there is a lot that has happened in the 15 years since I left. For better or worse, you made me into a woman and the person I am today.
Eleven months to the day after I left, I delivered my high school graduation speech to a standing ovation, with 3,000 people witnessing my triumph. When it was time to go to college, I didn’t slack off but rather buckled down and worked hard. I received multiple awards for my journalism work, lived in Washington D.C. as an intern and have worked for American magazines and media companies. My projects have been featured on the Huffington Post and other major media sites.
My road has not always been smooth sailing. At 21 I almost died from five blood clots, three of which were in my right lung. At 29 I fled an abusive marriage. I have gone hungry several times and the economy has been rough on my industry. Life is never easy, and with many of the things I have been through, I’m amazed that I am still alive and somewhat sane (well, as sane as someone like me could ever be).
But in my difficulties lies the differences between you and me: In my struggles, I climbed mountains, but instead of stepping on the other hikers and putting them in jeopardy to get to the top, I focused on my own climb and would never give up until I reached the summit. I wouldn’t cheat to get there, wouldn’t take the easy way and would never stop fighting nor back down from anything that was thrown at me. I cried numerous times, but kept moving forward and remain confident in my decisions.
For years, I have been harboring the utmost anger towards you. It doesn’t seem right or natural to hold on to it for this long, but let’s face it: You took advantage of children who were supposed to trust you (despite the fact we were very close to adulthood and may not have looked it, we were still technically children). You were a thief and a trickster. You took away my innocence and any naivete I had about people having good intentions. Instead of facing your problems like a man, you ran and moved halfway across the world. You got to have Israel completely while when I would try to go, I kept hearing, “No.” The futility I faced was enraging, and you were one of the causes of it.
You may have the Holy Land, but I have something better. On that fateful day I left, I got a beautiful gift: Eve and I are still friends after all these years. In the weeks after she came back to the states, we talked day in and day out. We sang together and were at each other’s weddings. While driving cross-country almost four years ago, my friend and I stayed at her house in Missouri. I spoke with her last week and put her note into the Kotel immediately after I arrived. In all the years we have been friends, she taught me to say, “I love you.” I could have remained so jaded because of you, but Eve made sure to keep my heart open. I received pure love to heal the wounds you left. There is no greater medicine.
I don’t want to excuse your sins; you did awful things and you should remember that. But I don’t know if I would be the person who I would be today had what you done never happened. You made me become a more ethical human being, a woman who understands that standing up for the right thing often comes with a huge ticket price, but you come through it and life moves forward. My emotional strength increased and I was inspired to become a better person because I never wanted to be like you.
I love and admire the woman I have become — a woman who faced domestic violence and instead of pretending it never happened, poured herself into an organization like NA’AMAT USA to help others; a woman who was supposed to die at a young age, yet keeps breathing in rebellion; a woman who should have grown to hate Israel from your actions, yet still loves this country. It took 15 years to become this person, but it started at a source. It started here, and it started with you.
Over the next two weeks, I am visiting my friends throughout the country, from Haifa to Tel Aviv. I am going to Yad V’Shem, seeing the mystics in Tsfat, hugging those I love tightly and making new friends along the way. I am reclaiming what you stole. You no longer have power over me.
One of the lame excuses you used to send me away was, “You can take care of yourself, but we can’t take care of you.” Now, 15 years later, I see that’s entirely right; you could never take care of me. After all, why would you entrust a fool with the sun? He would lose it, and then in turn miss seeing it sparkle and shine and give light to the world around it. That is what I have the opportunity to do. And I will never stop.
Consider this your reminder and my peace. I’m trying my best to forgive you, but I will never forget your spinelessness. You are not absolved, but at least now I have found a way out of my exile and am stepping into the light without you dogging my steps. Just thought you should know.