Israel Journal - 12/29/08
The Delta terminal at JFK felt to me like a third world airport: doors closed due to construction, low ceilings, no signage, no clear lines, chaos, overheated, slow-moving disinterested ticket attendants, very poor security. We finished our water because liquids are not allowed past the security check. A young orthodox man was ahead of us carrying at least two car seats, a child-proofing gate, a huge stroller, and several other carry-ons, some of which could not fit through the x-ray machine. Once we were through security, we had planned to buy some dinner. It was 9:05pm and the food court was closed save for Sbarro’s, with dozens of people in line. We settled for snacks and my Diet Coke. I filled our water bottle at a water fountain. Then, at our gate, we had to go through security again. The same young Orthodox man cut in front of us, with the same results. Finally, as we approached the x-ray machine and metal detector, we learned that we could not bring that fresh bottle of water onto the plane, and that we had to show the receipt for my diet coke. I fortunately located the receipt crumpled in my pocket. I found this entire airport experience shocking, and a confirmation of Tom Friedman’s column the day before describing his contrasting experiences leaving Hong Kong’s ultra-modern airport and arriving back in the US. I couldn’t wait to get to the pleasant and aesthetically stunning Ben Gurion airport in Israel. Even the Delta 767 we flew on felt old.
Our apartment is delightful. It is located in the German Colony. The German Colony was so named because a group of German settlers built homes here beginning in 1878. They were known as Templars, a messianic group who came to the Holy Land in order to hasten the Second Coming. Apparently their charismatic founder had a change of heart some time after arrival, and instead adopted a humanistic philosophy dedicated to ameliorating poverty and suffering. They built their colony in an area known as Emek Refaim, the Valley of the Giants, so named from Biblical times. Settlement in Jerusalem was, with a few exceptions, entirely within the walls of the Old City, with gates that could be shut at night to prevent intruders. By 1878 a few new small neighborhoods had been built outside the city walls. The German settlers are long gone, their memory contained in the nearby cemetery and in the German phrases engraved above the entranceways of their lovely stone houses with red tile roofs. These houses give this little enclave it’s own lovely character. It has become the trendiest neighborhood in Jerusalem, with cafes and bookstores lining Emek Refaim Street. While our apartment is fortunately on a quiet side street, a very short walk puts us in proximity of everything from sushi to falafel, Ben and Jerry’s to gelato. After all my years of driving around Ulster County to get to anything, I am thrilled to be in a city neighborhood for a while!
Timed with our arrival, Israel began a huge military offensive in the Gaza Strip, after missiles fired by Hamas operatives from Gaza killed an Israeli civilian and wounded a number of others. I have always found it almost impossible to explain to Americans, but these horrible events do not directly impact my family here in Jerusalem. I have specifically refrained from talking about it with our 8-year-old daughter, who is busy discovering playgrounds in her new neighborhood. I am in no hurry to have her learn about the dark side of life here. Our teenager has already been initiated into current events, and wishes to absorb as much as she can of Israeli life and politics, so she is actively pursuing a full dose. For now I will leave the political commentary to the experts and pundits, and just describe my family’s experience. Maybe I’ll wade into those waters when I feel less jet-lagged!
While the newspaper headlines continued to blare the intense and distressing news from the Gaza area, our day’s highlight was attending an impressive flamenco performance at a theater called The Lab, which occupies a former industrial space near the old train station in Jerusalem. Such is the ongoing paradox of life within Israel that a major military offensive coexists with the pleasures of ongoing cultural life. The reason we went to the performance is that I have known the guitarist, Eliav Uval, since he was a baby. Eliav is the grandson of Paul and Lillian Steinfeld of Fleishmanns. Paul and Lillian have known me since I was a small child, and so these bonds go far back in our families.
We had dinner with Rabbi Miriam tonight, before the show. We were all thrilled to see her, and passed along all the greetings that people in Woodstock sent with us for her. She is busy with her fellowship, doing research, writing papers, and working on her educational project, which I will report on in the future, but we all intend to spend as much time together as possible. Rabbi Miriam is definitely enjoying being in Israel.
I’ll tell you a typical Israel story. This past Sunday evening we have arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and collected our bags. I am trying to acquire a cell phone at a store in the terminal. We have been traveling for at least 18 hours. I step away from the counter for a moment to discuss which plan to purchase with Ellen. When I step back towards the counter another customer berates me with biting sarcasm for cutting in line ahead of him: “Go ahead! We’re in Israel! Why should you be any different?” (Cutting in line in Israel is a national contact sport.) I parry with an equally sarcastic flourish and we glare at each other as I step to the counter. Fortunately, I cool down in time to go over to him and apologize and we laugh and say “Welcome to Israel!” Incident over. While having dinner in a restaurant with Rabbi Miriam this evening, she jumps out of her chair to give a big hug to someone…the guy I had words with in the airport! He is an old friend of hers, and he has come to Israel to attend a wedding. We recognize each other and smile and laugh, and Rabbi Miriam asks us how we know each other…
It turns out that Rabbi Miriam will be attending the same wedding, and she tells me that the bride is an old friend of WJC’s own Warren Soiffer. Jewish geography can be fun.
I will repeat that the disconnect between these joyful experiences and the realities of the suffering of so many Israelis and Palestinians nearby is as jarring and bizarre as it sounds. And yet at the same time it only varies in degree from the glaring contrasts of well being and suffering that describe the human situation in general, including in the United States. We also continue to enjoy life even as we become aware of our entire planet in peril. Somehow I try to live within that impossible tension, wobbling between various levels of denial and awareness, indignation and despair, walking Reb Nachman’s narrow bridge trying not to look down too often. I pray for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, tomorrow if not sooner.
To be continued,