Jul 172017

I wrote the following after a trip to Israel, Germany, and the Balkans 7/24/04-8/08/04.

Everything is connected to everything else. On a plane the year before I’d met my friend Jon. He and I stayed in touch, and when earlier this summer he said to me, “My girlfriend and I are going to Israel, would you like to come?” I naturally said “Sure!”

It was yet another trip booked with frequent flier miles, 75,000 of them. The plan was to fly Lufthansa from Washington to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt. (The Star Alliance is indeed a handy thing.) The ticket permitted a stopover in the transfer city, so I booked a weeklong layover in Frankfurt on the return from Israel. I figured I could always find something to do in Europe for a week, even if it was just going to France and hanging out on the beach, practicing my French.

The trip began somewhat hectically. My roommate took me to Dulles Airport via a Target so I could buy a flashlight to take with me to use on night trains, just in case I should need to. Still, even with the detour I got to the airport in time to standby on an earlier flight to Kennedy Airport, which was good because I was nervous about making my connection. It turned out, however, that the earlier flight was so delayed that my actual flight ended up departing before it did, but once at Kennedy I nevertheless made my connection to Germany without a problem and ended up in Frankfurt with a few hours to spare before my next flight.

By now I had planned the European part of my trip for the return. My sister, it turned out, would be spending the summer in Kosovo on an internship. I decided to go visit her there. It seemed at the time that it would be most economical, if not particularly quick, to get there by train, so I’d bought a Eurail Pass. With my few hours to spare in Frankfurt I left the airport, “entered” Germany, and went to the train station to validate the pass and book my first few trains since I suspected I would be pressed for time after coming back from Israel.

Back at the airport I went through two levels of security: the normal one everyone goes through, and then a second one that certain flights out of the C terminal seem to require. I’m not sure which flights require it, maybe only those to sensitive areas. Like Israel and, as I noted on my return, apparently also the United States.

I noted with some irony that I was leaving Germany to head to a Jewish state. Most people on board seemed to be Jewish, but the meal was not kosher by default. Nor were any of the announcements in Hebrew. This flight did represent the beginning of what came to be a trend of finding other people already sitting in my seat. I had to convince an insistent man, with whom there was no common language, that “k” was the window seat and he was not supposed to be in seat “k”.

Meanwhile Jon and his girlfriend Laura were transiting through Milan on Alitalia, to arrive shortly after my flight. Both his flight and mine were delayed, but it turned out that theirs landed just a few minutes before mine (in fact, as we were taxiing I watched the Alitalia flight disembark.) In Israel the planes park on the tarmac and then you take a shuttle bus to the terminal, entering a big hall where you must pass through immigration before doing anything. I found Jon and Laura right there in the hall, which meant that already this trip was coming together much better than the one I took to Cambodia, where the friend I was to meet didn’t show up there until three days later.

The three of us then took a taxi into Jerusalem and went to the place where Laura’s sister Kate works. I’m not entirely sure what kind of complex it is, but it seems to have some sort of dormitory facility. I was able to rent a tiny room for the week for $27. It had a bed and a desk, with the bathroom down the hall. It was perfect for my needs, except for the neighborhood rooster that liked to crow at inconvenient hours. I got settled and later caught up with Jon, Laura, Kate and her family (including her husband and 10 month old baby girl) for take out Yemeni food for dinner.

The next day in the morning Jon, Laura, and I walked around the Old City. It was my first taste of it and its particular atmosphere. I had the idea that I wanted to buy a Hanukkah menorah from one of the many merchants, which became its own adventure as I shopped around for one I liked and then had to negotiate for a non-exorbitant price. I did get a decent one for a not-so-ridiculous amount, but on retrospect I think I still paid too much. Still, at least I got the experience out of it as much as I got the actual thing.

We continued walking and, after stopping for lunch in the Jewish Quarter where I had some tolerable pizza, continued almost to the Kotel, the Western Wall. I didn’t have a lot of time to linger though because I needed to get to the bus station to go to Haifa. To get there I took the #1 local bus from the Western Wall. As soon as I boarded I felt incredibly out of place. The front half of the bus was filled with ultra religious Jews, the kind who wear the black coats and hats, and all of them men. There was a seat or two vacant, but one look gave me the distinct impression that I wouldn’t be welcome to sit there. So I sat in the back in the one remaining seat, where an annoying woman refused to either move to the window or get up so I could get myself and my heavy backpack into it. I think I nearly dropped the backpack on the head of the woman in the next row in the process of trying to crawl over the recalcitrant woman. It was a fairly intimidating and unpleasant experience, and it didn’t warm me to Israel. It prompted a continuation of the unpleasant feeling I’d had on arrival when our taxi from the airport passed a massive protest demanding that the Arabs be scraped off of the Gaza Strip so it could become part of Israel proper. If all this was what Israel was, I didn’t feel I belonged there, nor did I care to. (It should be noted here though that this bus ride took place the day before the holiday Tisha B’av, a day which commemorates many ancient sad moments in Jewish history, including the razing of the Temples at that very spot. Therefore the religious presence in the city that day may very well have been more poignant, and perhaps indignant, than normal, I suppose.)

The central bus station is a new complex that’s somewhat usable for a non-Hebrew speaker (like me). I found the right bus and then boarded it for Haifa. Why I was going to Haifa is this:

My great-grandmother grew up, with her siblings, in Russia. Eventually she immigrated to America. But at least one of her brothers went in the other direction and settled in China. There he stayed and he and his family flourished until the Communists came and they had to flee to Israel. The family ended up in Haifa, and I was off to see them.

It turns out that I’d actually met one of the cousins, Dahlia, a long time ago. And she and her family, ironically, have temporarily moved to New Jersey. But I didn’t see them there, and she and her daughter were back in Israel for a vacation at the same time I was there, so I went to see them in Haifa where the rest of their immediate family was as well.

After they managed to find me at the bus station (which was one of those maneuvers not nearly as simple as one might have hoped), they took me to the house of her sister Tsippi. Tsippi lives outside of Haifa in a semi-rural community of Yemeni Jews, which her husband is. I spent the afternoon with them, sitting on their patio, where they “made” me try all sorts of local Israeli fruits. Her husband and I had an interesting dynamic. He has that certain kind of confident personality that would challenge me on things I said. I rose to the challenge and challenged him back. It was maybe awkward at first while we sort of felt each other out, but the more I asserted myself the better the chemistry. Tsippi and I talked more about the family history and looked at old pictures. She’d met some of the American part of the family before when they’d been to Israel but she’d never been to the US and met the rest. Along with Hebrew she spoke English and also Russian because that’s what her grandfather (my great-grandmother’s brother) had spoken with her. But because she had never formally studied it she couldn’t read it. I, on the other hand, could read Cyrillic, but I didn’t know what the words meant. So we made an interesting team, reading the backs of the old pictures. I’d sound out the Cyrillic writing on them, and she’d tell me what I just said.

I stayed for dinner with them, with Dahlia and her daughter Ariel and Tsippi’s two young sons joining us. The boys didn’t really speak English but the younger one would tend to spontaneously shout out various words he happened to know. He also wanted to sing me the one song he knew in English. I sat back waiting to hear what it was, which somewhat unexpectedly turned out to be the chorus to “YMCA.”

After dinner Dahlia took me home to the temporary apartment she and Ariel were renting in Haifa, and the next day they showed me bits of the town. First we went to the Baha’i Gardens, a beautifully terraced and landscaped garden complex built on a hillside. We then ran various errands, which resulted in me seeing various Haifa malls. This was fine with me: Ariel is 12, so these are the things that are important to her and I was happy to see a snapshot of her Israeli life. The malls were interesting;  they looked essentially like American malls but all the shops had mezuzahs hanging outside each boutique. The Hebrew word for mall happens to be “canyon,” which leads to interesting puns when the largest is essentially named “The Grand Canyon.” It also happens to be built in a canyon, and I have to wonder if there isn’t some other significance to calling malls the equivalent of “deep wasteland.” (Yeah, yeah, I know… apparently the etymology originates from something else).

In the afternoon they took me to Dahlia’s mother’s house. Leah was my grandmother’s first cousin, and the two kept in touch regularly. They’d also met a few times when my grandmother had visited Israel, and I think also when Leah had come to the US. Even though they were cousins, they had an almost sisterly connection. This visit was a highlight of the trip for a couple of reasons. I picked Leah’s brain about the family history, which I always like learning about. And when we came in, she sat us down at the table and plied us with cookies and cake and soda, like any good grandma would. Mine died a few years ago, but seeing Leah and how she reminded me of my grandma sort of gave me an extra moment with her. I told Ariel, who, while 18 years younger than I am is of the same generation, that even though we are separated by years and geography and culture, our connections to our respective grandmothers was something that we shared.

After gorging ourselves on cake (or maybe that was just me…) we went to the beach. It was shortly before sunset so it wasn’t too hot. I went into the water but Dahlia warned me to beware of stinging jellyfish. Apparently the shore is infested with them, which makes swimming impossible. But I thought I’d be careful, watching every step. All was well until I wandered further out to a sandbar and then a wave suddenly rushed in. “Ow,” I thought to myself, “That wave hurt!” But I was too embarrassed to say anything. I’d been warned, after all. Eventually concern for my condition overtook my wounded dignity and I told Dahlia I’d probably been stung. She recommended rubbing it with sand and then rinsing it off in the salt water. Later that evening I also rinsed it with vinegar. These remedies seemed adequate and the sting soon gave way, but a red mark on my ankle persisted for well over a week.

The next day I left them and went by train up to Akko. Akko is north of Haifa on the coast and has ruins of the old city that was used by the Crusaders as a base in the Middle East. Lots of people attacked it and the city was frequently rebuilt on top of its ruins, although Napoleon was one such attacker who didn’t succeed. The old town was a little difficult to find from the train station, though. There weren’t any signs, at least not in English, and it was a bit of a walk away so it was easy to get lost and disoriented. (Maybe this is what stymied Napoleon?) It was also very hot and dry, and I was carrying my heavy backpack with the things I needed to stay in Haifa, so when I eventually found the tourist office in the old part of the city and entered its garden oasis in the courtyard I was very relieved.

As a tourist destination old Akko is a little hit or miss. The beginning part seems very well done, with lots of signs and information. But while there are three significant sights to see in old Akko, after the first one you suddenly end up in the middle of the residential old city with no signs – not even street signs – for where to go next. Not in English, and not even in Hebrew as it’s an Arab neighborhood.

I was a little too hot, tired, and cranky to thoroughly enjoy the experience. When I finally made it back to the tourist office I’d decided to splurge for a cab back to the train. I asked the woman in an information booth about how I should go about getting one. It didn’t start off well. “If you want to speak English,” she managed to say, I should go ask in the other office. “Russian?” I queried, to see if we could try that language, since I was too tired to try to find another person. “Francais.” Oh well, bien sur! I could handle that no problem! So in French she offered to call me the cab, although that plan failed when the cab company didn’t answer the phone. She told me to just go hail one. “How much should it cost?” I asked, which was important since in Israel nearly everything gets haggled over. Ten shekels, she said in French. “Pas plus!”

A cab ride, train ride, and bus ride later I was back in Jerusalem and hungry. So I went to the McDonalds in the bus station. It was very good, best McNuggets I’ve ever had. It’s amazing what the kosher dietary requirement does to the McDonalds meat supply. The McDonalds also sells shakes and ice cream, but because of the kosher dietary rules it has a separate booth walled-off from the main restaurant where you can buy the dairy products.

Thursday I spent with Jon. First we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. In a sense it was disappointing: I’ve seen better (more profound, more informative) Holocaust museums. There was a tour guide who took us around the museum, and although we liked her as a person, we thought she needlessly over-embellished the explanations. I remember in front of a relatively well-known picture of a boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, with his hands up as a German soldier pointed a gun at his back, her connecting the description of what was happening to her discussion of the ghetto resistance, saying he was resisting with all he had left: his dignity. That sounds very dramatic, but there was no resistance. The boy was terrified. And that’s a dramatic enough story on its own. Jon and I agreed: there was no need to say anything more.

The other memorials at the complex were appropriately dramatic though. A cattle car on tracks that ended over a ravine, for example. In another area were pillars with the names of all the Jewish communities in Europe carved into them. I found the name of the town where the Gellis family came from in Europe. The information booth said that before the Holocaust there were around 5400 Jews there. Today I don’t think there are any.

We left there and headed back into downtown Jerusalem. I was on a quest to find a new “chai” necklace. I’d had one my grandparents had brought back from Israel when I was small, but unfortunately I lost it at some point. I’d decided I could only replace it with one from Israel so here was my chance to do so. We walked all around the Ben Yehuda shopping area checking in every single jewelry store before I finally picked one I liked. I was very thorough…

But before that we were hungry and in the area of the Shuq, a main open-air market. There were two falafel/shawarma places next to each other by the entrance. Normally when you buy such a sandwich they open a pita for either the meat or the falafel and then point to all sorts of condiments they can add. One of the shops had the customers add the condiments themselves. I decided I had hygienic concerns about this arrangement so we went to the other one next door. At first we thought it odd that there were two identical shops next to each other but then it became clear why: the first one was the Jewish shop. The second, the one we chose, was the Arab one. The vendors there were perfectly genial and polite and served us nicely, but they seemed a little surprised that we, obviously American and probably just as obviously Jewish, had picked their shop.

Nuts are common snacks in Israel, and I particularly liked the honey roasted pecans. So we went into the Shuq where there were a lot of nut vendors. I picked one that seemed to have nicer wares. Once again, this happened to be an Arab vendor. He was also very nice, and seemingly just as surprised to see us there as the falafel shopkeepers. He put my nuts in the bag, then asked if I spoke any Arabic. I got embarrassed because I’d been reading my phrase book the night before, saw that there were Arabic words, but had neglected to memorize any. I said, “No, but you can teach me one.” Then he got embarrassed because he couldn’t think of a good one. “What’s ‘thank you’?” I asked. “Shukran.” “Well, then, ‘shukran,'” I said as I took my nuts, smiled, and said good-bye.

It was the day for languages, as by Thursday I’d finally started to figure out how to read Hebrew. It’s a tough language because it doesn’t behave phonetically like any European language I know of. And my efforts were further stymied by my phrase book neglecting to include the character for the letter “y” in its guide to the alphabet. Hebrew makes no more sense than English does without that letter. It’s a handy one to be able to read, so I might advise the editors of the Lonely Planet Hebrew phrase book to consider including it in future editions.

That evening at Kate’s place Jon and I talked about our day and the experience at the Shuq. I found it to be one of the most rewarding moments of my entire trip to Israel. It was a moment of great connection, person to person, bridging all sorts of differences that so often get in the way. Earlier in the week when my cousin was dropping me off at the train to Akko she asked me why I seemed to be very sympathetic to the Palestinians. “It’s not a Jewish question. It’s not an Arab question. It’s a human question,” I began to explain. Then the train came and the conversation had to end.

But I understand that for Israelis it’s hard to stand back and see the problem so clinically. The night I spent at Tsippi’s fighter aircraft boomed overhead. Every bus station, train station, restaurant, and other public place was staffed with security personnel to search bags and/or check ID. In Haifa, which has seen less violence than some other places, Dahlia pointed out the sites of two bombings. There was where a bus had blown up, killing kids her son knew. Then there was the Maxim restaurant, at a beautiful spot on the beach, where a bomber had killed the entire family (parents, husband, children) of a woman they knew, leaving her an amputee, alone, and half-blinded.

And then I thought about Leah’s story, of how she left China with nothing and started over in the new land of Israel, living in a tent and being one of the pioneers to build the country.

Part of my mental struggle is that it’s hard for me to see the wisdom of a state so tightly connected to theology. It ends up seeming so exclusionary, where citizenship is so dependent on faith. Even I, as someone who identifies with being Jewish, didn’t feel like I could belong. I wasn’t welcome on that Jerusalem bus, with my secular modern dress and demeanor. And my secular needs. In the old city, where many faiths reside, I looked at the temple mount, with its mosque on top and sacred (for Jews) Western Wall below. And I thought to myself, this is good enough for me. I didn’t relate to the propaganda I often saw, with posters hypothesizing the razing of the mosque and the reconstruction of the Temple. I just felt it was so unnecessary, so arrogant. I don’t see why the place can’t be shared among all who love it.

Part of the problem is that Israeli politics, and the modern Jewish reality, seems to come down to an all or nothing proposition. Either there’s a Jewish state, or Jews will forever be at the mercy of the majority religious hegemony of the country where they reside. Religion and citizenship are so often merged – it’s not just in Israel where that tension exists. It’s existed everywhere and always. In the second week of my trip I went to countries in Europe where the Jewish population has been completely destroyed. Those places make the necessity of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state so much more apparent.

On the other hand, Israel has to be more than just a haven. People like my cousins built the country. It’s theirs like the US is mine and they have a national pride in it like I do in America. It was interesting to meet my Israeli relatives because we have so much in common: ancestry, certainly, and we even look a little alike. Chased out of the part of the world where we came from we went to different places and built different homes, different communities, and different futures. So as much I want those to be good and peaceful for me and my American kin, I can’t begrudge them wanting the same things for theirs. It’s just so frustrating because the peaceful future I want them to have is currently so complicated to extricate.

When I left Kate’s home Thursday evening I was drawn to the music at Ben Yehuda, where a band was playing to a crowd in the plaza. I ate kosher Chinese food and hung out to listen. It’s the kind of place that makes a tempting target for bombers, but the Israelis were there anyway on a Thursday night, reclaiming some normalcy in their lives. Well, to the extent that barrier gates and security checks ever permit normalcy.

Friday was the last full day I had in Israel. I started out in the old city, visiting the Kotel this time up close. I went up and touched it. This was probably my most spiritual moment in Israel, but maybe not so much out of a sense of being connected to God but of being connected to a common history. You can leave prayers in between the stones. I wrote two one-word “prayers,” one for peace and one for a friend who’s been fending off a bunch of unpleasant things the universe has been throwing at her lately. I also gave a dollar to a beggar, who gave me a red string in return. The string’s significance is connected to the Kabbala, so, yes, I know look like Britney Spears and Madonna with it tied around my wrist, but that wasn’t why I did it. For me it was just the spiritual souvenir of my mitzvah at the Wall.

Later I connected with Jon and Laura and that evening we went to Kate’s for a Shabbat dinner. Most of Jerusalem shuts down in late afternoon, as so many people are Sabbath-observant, and the city gets very quiet. No buses run or anything. But some secular establishments remain open and after dinner we went to one for a parting drink before I flew out the next day.

Because of Shabbat getting to the airport on Saturday was particularly complicated. I couldn’t take a bus because they didn’t run, but fortunately there was an airport shuttle that found me and got me there in plenty of time. The security inquisition was fairly intense, with an interviewer asking all sorts of questions. The woman behind me was German and didn’t speak much English, let alone Hebrew. The security woman spoke English, but perhaps not with the ability to understand its subtleties. It was a bit of a train wreck, their conversation, with neither really understanding the other nor picking up on where the breakdown was. The interviewer, frustrated, at one point exclaimed, “If you come to Israel you must know English!” I think if that were true, they should post a sign somewhere.

I eventually got on the plane, where once again people were in my seat, and took off from Israel for Frankfurt and Phase II of my journey.

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