My parents were always a little out of the ordinary, out-of-the-box, in their own quiet way. I’m certain that they were the only Jewish square dancers in the Bronx. They were not the only Jewish hikers in the area (there was after all at least one Jewish hiking club, The New York Ramblers, in which my father was a charter member) but they were in a distinct minority. They travelled all over the tri-state area (NY, NJ, and CN) occasionally through the kindness of others, but mostly by public transportation. In short, they never drove and never owned a car. This put me at a distinct disadvantage in the late 1950’s. All of us were in college, and all my friends were getting their driving licenses and getting cars of their own. Even my fraternal twin brother Frank got his license. (I distinctly remember the series of old cars – usually Pontiacs -- he bought, all of which he was still paying for long after each of them had found its final resting place in automotive heaven.) But I could never get it together to get a license. A number of years later when I was working, I finally made the effort. And let me tell you, getting a drivers license in New York City was definitely an effort, trying to overcome enormous bureaucratic inertia. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that they were doing you a favor by granting you a license. After you had spent the time to get your learner’s permit and the money for driving lessons, you would be confronted with a grim-faced motor vehicle inspector who would take you out for your test drive. He had a scorecard on which he silently deducted points for everything you did wrong. A week or ten days later, you would receive the results in the mail with cryptic comments like “poor motor control.” You may assume – correctly – that I failed the test several times until I gave up in disgust. It seemed I was destined for permanent pedestrian status.
Years later, when Barbara and I got married, it was a package deal: I brought to the marriage three cats (Bonnie, Clyde, and Lulubelle), while she had a car, having obtained a drivers license in “grad school” in Minnesota. After driving me around for several months, Barbara informed me that our ketubah did not include her being my chauffeur for life. So, once again, I was back to driving lessons. At least this time I had a car in which to practice driving and the encouragement of a loving wife. Finally, I had my driver’s license – first from New York and then from New Jersey.
Let’s fast-forward this reverie to October 2007, at which time Fred, Barbara, and Natania were now A Little Bit East of Yerushalayim and were ready to get Israeli driving licenses. Understand that a) you can drive here for one full year with your American license, and b) we’re not planning to get a car anytime soon, so it was just one more thing we were doing to get it done and out of the way. I’ll spare you the boring details of all the steps required in this process: from going to the Jerusalem (Malka) Mall in the southern part of the city to get our eyes checked, to our visits to various offices and post offices to process our paper work. What you need to know is that if you have a foreign driver’s license, you must take a mandatory forty minute lesson, reviewing the rules of the road, before you are permitted to take your driving test – even if you had spent thirty years as a cabbie in New York City. What you need is an instructor who will give you the lesson and arrange for you to take your test in his car on the same day. We got a recommendation from our friend Steve Leichman, called the teacher, and were given a date for our lesson and test. I should also add that this is not a solitary venture: both the lesson and the test are done with three “students” in the car. This arrangement worked for the Leichmans, and since we are three, it worked for us. So on a Tuesday, our man picked us up at our Ulpan in “downtown” Jerusalem, and we drove down to the Talpiot neighborhood where we would take our lessons and our tests.
One more thing to mention: in all the time that the three of us have been in Israel, none of us has ever driven a car here. Like my parents, we have always gotten around either through the kindness of others or by taking buses all over the place. Nor had we given the slightest thought to how the road signs look or where they are placed, or how traffic flows – with all the traffic circles and two-way streets becoming one way, very different from driving in NJ. The fact that we had no idea how one drives in Israel was painfully obvious during our lesson, as we all failed to notice road signs in plain sight.
Finally, we were ready for our tests. I drove into the parking lot of the motor vehicle bureau. Our instructor got out of the car, and the inspector got in. Unlike the instructors of my youth, she had no scorecard, nor did she appear to be especially menacing. Fortunately, she did speak English, so we didn’t have to process and respond to “smola” and “yamina” while driving on our best behavior. Nonetheless, we all did poorly. I was the first to go. My problem was that our instructor’s car had brakes that were ultra-tight, so that every time I slowed down for a speed bump, I was braking much too hard – something which the lady tester noticed and told me in no uncertain terms that I could cause an accident. One down. Natania was next, and driving on a two lane one-way street, never signaled when she changed lane, something you have to do on a road test. Again, our tester complained to Natania. Two down. Barbara was doing quite well until she rounded a turn and hit the curb, visibly flustering our inspector. When Barbara drove back to the parking lot, the inspector got out, and we could see her haranguing our teacher. Noticeably upset, he expressed his frustration to us. He told Barbara to call him at 5PM, and he would give us the results. As if we needed to know.
We were only a few blocks from the Hadar Mall, so we walked over and ordered some coffee from Aroma, something desperately needed to soothe our wounds. In all the several months we had been here, I had never felt so down, so completely decimated, totally wiped out. The three of us had just flunked our road test. We would have to do it again at considerable expense. If any of us flunked a second time, it would mean starting from aleph, as if we were an eighteen year old Israeli kid who would have to take twenty two lessons before taking a road test. This is when you wonder why you’re here. If we were still in the Great 48, we could move to any state, read the driving manual, (something which I don’t think they have here – certainly not in English) pass the written test, and get a new license. Even if I didn’t care about getting an Israeli license, my New Jersey one will expire the end of 2008, meaning that starting in 2009 I would have no license, so I couldn’t even rent a car when we came back to visit. We finished our coffee, and Barbara wanted to get a few items at The Home Center before we went home. There were a few things I wanted to get, but I was too depressed to think about it. When Barbara was done, we got back on the bus heading to the center of town. It was now 5PM. I would have waited until we got home to get the bad news, but Barbara promptly called our instructor. I heard her let out a gasp. “We all passed,” she said.
The next day, Wednesday, we went and got our temporary drivers licenses at an office near our Ulpan in Jerusalem and then went home to rest. Our community aliyah liaison, Shelley Brinn, (a wonderful lady!) had organized a little trip that evening for the recent olim, and forty of us had signed up to go. So at 4PM, we showed up at the parking lot in front of the Maale Adumim City Hall and boarded the bus, which actually left on time (very unusual!)
Usually when we take a bus from our town we are heading to Jerusalem, which means that we start on the main road, and then the bus takes a clover leaf to the road through the tunnel, past the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, and into the City. Today, our bus stayed on the first road, which goes to Jericho and down to the Dead Sea. We had been on this road only one time before, when we went to Rami Levi, the big supermarket in a neighboring industrial area. Now we kept going, into the Judean desert, on one of those winding roads where one false move and you’re over a cliff (no guard rails here!) We began to pass Bedouin encampments – a few families with as many goats and sheep – with no electricity in their shacks and, I assume, no running water. (It’s as if you were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and you stopped, say, at the Richard Stockton rest stop, and you pulled out, but instead of going left back on the Turnpike, you inadvertently went right, and there you were at a campsite of Oakies, right out of “The Grapes of Wrath.”) For a moment, I thought I was in a time warp, going back at least a century. But then we passed a flock of sheep grazing under an electric grid on the top of a mountain, all this as the sun was setting through the clouds. We arrived at our destination: Eretz B’reshit or Genesis Land, depending on which language you are using, and I realized that our whole journey from the parking lot next to the Maale Adumim mall to the middle of nowhere took less than fifteen minutes.
I try not to get too carried away with myself when writing this journal. I could paint a picture of this “theme park” as something special, the equivalent of Great Adventures. The truth is that for most people this place would barely make it if it were located on State Road 37 in Arkansas. We were ushered into a small building (a combination orientation center and gift shop) where we met “Eliezer,” the faithful servant of the patriarch Abraham. “Eliezer” gave us a brief presentation about the life of his master, and, to get us in the mood, offered us the use of some tacky smocks (period costumes!) to put over our clothes – which I graciously declined. We were then ready to set forth to meet “Avraham Avinu.” We could either walk the 100 yards or ride one of the ten camels waiting outside. Now if you know Barbara and me, you know which one of us wanted to ride, and which one would have been just as happy to walk. Have you ever ridden a camel? It’s not like a pony ride at the Central Park Zoo. A rather large animal was basically squatting on the ground, held down by two assistants to make certain that it didn’t get up prematurely. The larger person (me) was in the rear, and the smaller person (Barbara) was in the front. The camel was then urged to get up, which it did in sections, first the hind legs, then the front legs, at which point I screamed to no one in particular, “I’m only doing this because I love her” (My wife that is, not the camel.)
When everyone was mounted, the procession of walkers and riders began, and I soon realized why camels are called “ships of the desert.” Seasickness was fast approaching as our “boat” lurched down the path. It also occurred to me why there are usually two spaces on a camel’s back: one for you, and one for your chiropractor. None too soon, we arrived at our destination, the headquarters of our host, “Avraham Avinu,” whom we gathered had begun his journey to Eretz Yisrael from Australia. He ushered us into his “tent,” and after a few words of welcome and introduction served us a delicious meal, which we ate surrounded by old and new friends. (We could of course quibble over the fact that most of the food: tomatoes, cucumbers, hummus, potatoes, or coffee would have been known in the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, but I never believe in sweating the details.)
After the meal, Barbara, Natania, and I stood in the dark, looking out over the desert, facing due east towards Jericho and further away to Jordan. It was mostly dark, with a few lights indicating the existence of several “settlements,” and our problematic “neighbor.” “Avraham” came over and joined us, and we began speaking about the animals – gazelles, foxes, sheep, goats, and birds – which live in what would seem to be a land inhospitable to wildlife – except that when the rains come (and they do even in Judea) out of nowhere the barren hills are filled with vegetation, enough to feed the animals for several years. “Avraham” has lived in The Land with his wife (not Sarah!) for twenty years, and, if it were up to him, they would live permanently in the authentic desolation of “Eretz B’reishit,” not just when the place was open for visitors, but his wife was not quite ready for that!
Here’s the point: someone with an entrepreneurial spirit could try to recreate “Genesis Land” on a few hundred acres of land off Route 37 in Arkansas, complete with animal rides, actors in period costumes, roller coasters, 3-D movies, you name it. But something would be missing. Standing at night under the stars on a hilltop, overlooking the real Judean hills – even without the assistance of computer animation or light shows -- is an experience which cannot be duplicated, even by a Disney or a George Lucas. One can imagine – in a tackier world – a large, flashing neon sign, saying “Avraham Avinu slept here.” Because he probably did at least walk on that hilltop, or on one very close by, in his journey to the land which he, his son, his grandson, and his descendents throughout the generations was promised. And that is why “Genesis Land,” however modest in scope, was there: to give a context and a connection to people from Tel Aviv to Toledo (Spain or Ohio, take your pick.)
How did the real Avraham get here, let alone his self-styled wannabe? How did we get here? My journey had begun sixty-six years ago a little bit east (one block!) of Moshulu Parkway in The Bronx, and I had spent the last batch of years on the West Bank…of the Hudson River in New Jersey. Now I could get on one of these cantankerous camels and be at The River Jordan in less than one day. Such a strange journey!
It was time to board the bus back to Maale Adumim. Because the camels were all bedded down for the night, we all walked the hundred yards or so back to the Orientation Building, being careful to avoid the camel droppings on the way. The gift shop was now open, and I browsed around, eventually buying some date honey. I noticed that Barbara was dealing with “Avraham” at the sales counter, and when we boarded the bus, she showed me her prize: we had two official (?) “Camel driving licenses” signed by “Avraham” himself! It was Barbara who figured it out: on the same day in Israel we got our licenses to drive a car and to drive a camel. Only in The Land!