My Arrival and Survival
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.