Category Archives: Travel
Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
There are times where my mind seems to have no choice but to drift back to Ithaca. When the days are hard and the weight of life seems too difficult to bear, our thoughts travel to the places where things were easier to face. And my mind goes back to that upstate New York town again and again.
I think of beautiful fields with tall grasses and wildflowers of different colors. Back then I imagined being a part of magazine spreads of white clothes on perfect young lovers, littered with dreams of being kissed by someone who loved me on a picnic blanket, looking up at a bright blue sky from the earth below. The colors seemed richer there: The bricks an earthier red, wood a deep chocolate brown, the green grasses painting the land emerald green in the humid summer sun. Or maybe my memory wants to think all those things were true, just to comfort me.
There were those old buildings and homes that were there for hundreds of years as the university shone on top of the hill. I never visited it, nor its gorges, but know well enough never to say, “Ithaca is gorges,” to anyone who ever lived in the town, no matter how much they did or didn’t enjoy their time there.
I think of my black sundress and fake daisy-topped shoes and a black trash bag filled with pillows and linens that I slept on the night before, covering a black leather couch. There was a giant green suitcase on loan and a gold band around my left ring finger. All these things rolled confidently into the Ithaca bus station as the Honda Accord sped away.
I didn’t look back. I should have looked back.
A little less than 24 hours of my 32 years of existence was spent in Ithaca, but it became a part of me. It merged into my soul and its death grip hasn’t let me go. It’s like a vortex in my brain, pulling me into the depths but yet at the same time providing a life raft when the world isn’t as kind as it used to be.
The years have passed and the details have grown into images while sleeping, occasional flashbacks in daydreams and words shining back at me on a computer screen. Very little has remained the same from that time. The gold band is gone, as is the suitcase. I shrunk out of that black sundress. And that Honda Accord has driven far out of my sight, and I have no hope in it coming back to me.
When I walk alone through Culver City, I’ll sometimes stare at the earth red brick on some of the buildings downtown and my body somehow shifts me back. I crawl into the memory, warm like a womb that cradles me to remind me that this glorious point in my life existed. In the green hills and the humid air as new students navigated the streets, there was innocence left inside of me, with the taint of the world barely touching my skin. And the day after I left, crying in a polka-dot dress in a random, gray field in Albany, I knew how much I already missed Ithaca and how life wouldn’t be the same.
Since that time, I have made many decisions about my life. Some were the best decisions that I had ever made. A few were the worst, and somehow no matter how strong the best decisions were, the bad ones remain more vivid. But no matter what happened, I kept sailing through the ocean of my life, not unlike Odysseus in search of his own Ithaca.
There are days where I feel so much closer to Ithaca, like sunny days with the Rolling Stones blasting through the sound system of my car. Those come alongside the moments where I have cried over a too-hungry stomach, felt the anxiety of the real world trying to put me in a chokehold, and hugged my mother tightly and felt against me what she referred to as the “grotesque shape her body” that her illness has created. It’s those places where Ithaca feels so far away that there is no mental pathway to take me back.
I travelled since my journey to Ithaca and found beautiful places along the way. There was the lush beauty of the Napa Valley, the eccentric and the eclectic meeting up in New York City and standing on the sands of the Mediterranean, the sea of my ancestors. Even as I drive along in my car, each street feels like another current to travel on an endless journey. Yet even when my heart’s dearest desire came true and my feet once again roamed the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, I felt that missing piece roaming around inside of me. And like the ancient captain Odysseus, my heart was calling for Ithaca over and over again.
But unlike Odysseus, Ithaca was not my home. It wasn’t even close to it. I was born here in Los Angeles, where my family is from. My return almost three years ago came in my time of crisis, with the realization that I needed to come back to my birthplace. I adapted, creating a new family for myself and trying to kick start a new life among the palm trees. But in the depths of my mind there are fields filled with wildflowers and dreams of making love on a blanket in the midst of them. No matter how good the days are sometimes, the feelings of being lost on an open sea were accumulating in the back of my mind.
Several years back, there was an article talking about how archeologists were trying to find Odysseus’ beloved Ithaca, and how some of them think that they were close to finding the golden shores that the hero craved throughout Homer’s epic. They talked about looking for the place where his one true love, Penelope, waited for him. Where he called out for 20 years on the rough ocean. The place that he called home.
When Odysseus returned to Penelope, she didn’t believe it was him after 20 years, no matter how many times he said it, and asked him to prove it with something only he would know. And he did by talking to her alone in the room with their marital bed, showing her where one of its posts was built from a living olive tree and the tree still stood. He showed where his roots were as a human being, in the place he had invested his very soul.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter if Ithaca is or was a place. It’s not why it’s in the text of Homer’s epic. Ithaca is simply home. It’s not necessarily a location, but the feeling of putting your heart somewhere and knowing that it would be safe until you returned for it.
And maybe that’s what I attach to Ithaca. There was the risk I took to get there and the freedom it allowed me to just be a part of the universe as opposed to fighting it. It was where I was exposed to the first time to real truth, to the path that leads towards intimate conversations driving in the dead of night and honest declarations and soft smiles as my eyes opened in the morning. It was where I was all bravery and true beauty, not just a band on my finger that was unknowingly weighing on me like a chain.
I was my best self in that small minute of my life, and in a world where you forget how to do it anymore, it’s when the mind returns to the place where it remembered that. It takes away the trauma, the darkness and the horrible decisions that cost you more than you care to write down, replacing it with sun and wildflowers. And sometimes that’s the energy you need to keep moving forward in the darkest of times.
The days of Ithaca are gone now, but the sweet and lovely memories that help comfort won’t go away, which deep down is beautiful. I’m not sure if I could ever bring them back exactly how it was then. But there has to be another form of Ithaca out there, a place to rest my heart and take back like Odysseus did. And I will keep sailing on, no matter how long it takes to get there.
“Are you a Zionist?”
The question came completely from left field. The Hollywood bar was packed with people, dark wooden tables and pitchers of beer, all primed for the World Cup final. We were wearing out colors — my blue and white for Argentina, his black for Germany, flags of each country across our cheeks in face paint.
I had been making jokes the entire time with our group while we drank how I couldn’t support Germany in the match since I am Jewish. As the shots of Jager were passed around the tables and we began goofing around, people passed it off as a part of the fun. But this guy was very serious as I asked him to clarify what he thought Zionist meant. I wanted him to get to the point of what he wanted me to say.
He shook his bald head and touched my hands slightly. “I know you’re Jewish, but what kind of Jew are you?” he asked me. What kind of Jew am I? A human one?
I didn’t know how to answer, and his questioning made me uncomfortable. It was only five minutes before that we were hugging each other and taking funny pictures of the flags on our faces, with him even hitting on me a bit. Now he wanted to know my politics, something personal about me, not mention get it out of me when I clearly had too much to drink.
He kept telling me to Google Zionist, as if I didn’t know what it meant. I know what he thought it meant — apartheid, hateful, vengeful — when really its definition is simple: A Zionist believes the Jewish people should have a state. No more, no less. It has been the definition of the word since Theodore Herzl coined it back in the early 20th century, before Israel even existed. There’s not even the term Palestinian in that basic definition. Like feminism, this word has become what everyone else has attached to it.
I wanted to scream that he didn’t know anything about me, my people or the hell that my soul has been through this past week. But luckily, when I’m drunk I know how to control my words better sometimes than when I’m sober.
“As far as I’m concerned, both sides are right, both sides are wrong, and I just want to forget it and say, ‘Let’s eat,’” I replied, and excused myself to the bathroom.
My face felt flushed under the air conditioning as I began fiddling with the hamsa around my neck — a symbol that predates religion, traditional of the Middle East, which is supposed to bring peace to a person or home.
All week while wearing it, I felt no peace at all. Not after the pictures of rockets bursting over my cousin Jacob’s head. Not where he told us where he hid from the blasts. I sat in the car and cried for about 20 minutes thinking of him, my friends Lauren and Avi and their newborn daughter, Inbar, Dana… all the people who I saw four months ago on my visit to Israel. All the people I love.
Meanwhile, this week was a bombardment of righteous anger on all sides. The pro-Israel side who thought they were right, the pro-Palestinian side who thought they were and all the misinformation in between. And everyone was so convinced that they were right in their stance, that they had all the facts. And no one honestly does.
It hit a head multiple times: My pro-Palestinian friends posting a picture of a hill in Sderot where Israelis were watching rockets fire into Gaza. A hill I had walked on, but they’ve never known. And they said of people they never met, “Look at those savages!” When in truth I knew the real facts behind the picture: That the most extraordinary thing about the picture wasn’t the fact they were watching rocket blasts. It’s the fact that, in a town of people with PTSD, that had over 3,000 rockets fired at them over the past 10 years and had bomb shelters with every bus station, its residents were able to sit outdoors.
Then there are pro-Israel friends who would lambast Palestinians for not being a real people, for Arabs being savages and dogs. In truth there are so many Arabs speaking out against Hamas, the real enemy. They understand that supporting people by giving them good living conditions and not turning their hospitals and schools into rocket launching grounds is a basic human right. That not building your leaders the huge villas I saw with binoculars looking over a hillside into Gaza while your people sometimes don’t have running water is something that should be a natural understanding. These are a people who are given nothing, and deserve more than not having rockets fired at them, but also not being told that terror and death is the only way out.
Watching this ball kick back and forth for so many years just hurts. As I posted my heavy heart on Facebook in the most civil way possible, I watched as my friend Eve brought up issues in the debate, and my other friends began to attack her. My heart was breaking as I watched one of the most important people in my life, who always tells me she loves me before she hangs up the phone and who held my hand the first time I saw Jerusalem, being called a self-hating Jew, when in truth she called herself a Zionist (which, if she believes Israel has the right to exist, she is). Then I had to witness those friends disrespect her on their friends’ Facebook accounts.
Eve and Jacob, two of the people I love more than anything: Whether in Israel or here, they were being attacked. And now here I was at a bar, trying to watch a soccer match and finding myself in a barrage of anger as he asked again if I was a Zionist when I returned from the bathroom. Like Eve, I felt disrespected, backed into a corner. But I will always find a way out.
So I responded with a question for him: Where are you from?
“Lebanon,” he said. “And you won’t believe what I have seen.”
I nodded and decided to turn my attention back to the game as Germany scored their goal. Because I know what I have seen, and even if I told him he would tell me I was a liar. When someone is so determined in their belief, nothing you can do can really make them sway, no matter how many facts that you present them. I would never change the hate he brought to the word Zionist.
As the game concluded and the group all hugged each other, I decided to let go of his question and embrace him. He asked me what kind of Jew I was, and I had always known even though I wouldn’t tell him: It was one that respected others even when they were disrespected, who would rather hug their neighbor rather than see the enemy in them, and wants to work to build a safer Israel for her people as well as prospering homelands for those who want them.
Call this whatever you want. And if it’s Zionist? Well, so be it.
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.
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.
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.