Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Conversation, Part 1


I noticed a photograph a few weeks ago in one of the local newspapers of the train station in Jerusalem. Not The Old Train Station no longer in use, a relic from British Mandate, covered with murals of what it might have looked like in its glory days; nor the new train station, still an enormous hole in the ground opposite the Central Bus Station, which along with the accompanying train line going to and from Tel Aviv should be operational in time for your unborn grandson's bar mitzvah. I mean the existing train station near the Malcha mall, the one currently in use, except, as on the day when the photograph was taken, when there's a strike, which happens with alarming frequency in The Land and nothing's moving. But looking at this image of the station completely deserted, I thought to myself, "That's exactly how it looked the day we were there." And why were we there? A tale which will be told.

Barbara and I had been invited to the wedding of the son of some dear friends of ours, which was to take place in a hotel in Acco, the old community just north of Haifa. How do you get there (if you don't have a car, that is)? Take the train. Normally we would have taken the bus from Jerusalem to Arlazaroff, the bus depot adjacent to one of the train stations in Tel Aviv and make a connection there. But Barbara was in the mood for an adventure and suggested that we take the train all the way from Jerusalem. People tend not to take the train to Tel Aviv because it takes a lot of time, wending its way hither and yon through the Israeli countryside; but you get a much different view of things that way. Plus, if we were heading up to Acco for a wedding in the evening, we had all day to get there. So why not?

There are a few bus lines -- all of which pass by the Central Bus Station -- which go to the train station. We figured that we would have no trouble finding our way to the train; just follow the crowd. However, when the bus we were on stopped at the Malcha Mall, everyone got off. We were the only ones in the middle of the morning going to the train station. We wandered around for a few minutes before we figured out how to get inside. No they weren't on strike; there was somebody on duty at the ticket window. Otherwise, the station was as busy as a salt-water taffy stand in the middle of the Gobi desert. One or two families did show up just before departure time, but that was the least crowded train I have ever been on -- at least until Beit Shemesh when the train started to fill up.

I can understand why constant commuters get in a tizzy about their ride. If you're trying to get to work and the blankety-blank train is late -- again; or if it's a Sunday morning and there are four hundred soldiers in your car all trying to get back to their base, that can fray your nerves faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But for the two of us who are taking the train on an excursion somewhere, it's just fine. The cars are set up with facing seats separated by a small table -- plenty of room for us to eat our lunch or spread out a newspaper, or, like some of our car-mates, to set up a laptop (there is even a plan to equip all the trains with Wi-Fi; although like a lot of plans in The Land, I'll believe it when I see it). So when was held up along the way for some reason or other, enough for us to miss the connection we needed in Tel Aviv........;OK, we'll get to the hotel later than we planned, but no great tragedy. Of course now we had to reconfigure what train to take, trying to decipher the color-coded chart that listed all the schedules of every train on every line (hint: check the color selection carefully; some of the trains seem to run every second Thursday in November).

Our original plan was to arrive in Acco by the early afternoon, giving us time to check in to the hotel and either wander around the Old City or to stay in the hotel and take a swim or hop into the hot tub. But by the time we got off the first train in Tel Aviv, switched to another train which got us most of the way, then figured out which train actually stopped in Acco, it was more like late afternoon. We had been led to believe that The Palm Beach Hotel was within walking distance of the train stop, but like much information in The Land, turned out to be somewhat fanciful. Barbara asked the young chayelet at the security counter for directions; whereupon she immediately whipped out her cell phone and called us a cab (there's nothing that says a young soldier checking baggage has to to that, but people can be very nice to one another here in The Land) which got us lickety-split to the hotel, which stood in splendid isolation right by the bay which separates Haifa from Acco. Even if we had arrived when we planned to, we were miles away from the Old City and so we were not going to go on a walking tour. By this time of the afternoon, I was in sore need of a caffeinated beverage, so, after checking in and bringing our stuff to the room, we repaired to the little cafe in the lobby, to order an hafuk and watch the world go by.

It didn't take long for our hosts to show up in the lobby. They had arrived earlier and had availed themselves of some of the hotel's first rate amenities. Our little spot in the lobby was a perfect vantage place for them to greet their guests as they entered the hotel so they joined us for some refreshments. At their urging, Barbara went up to change and seek out the hot tub. I was more than happy just to chill out and get ready for the wedding.

Although it violates my core principles of frugality, staying overnight at the hotel where the wedding is being held has some very obvious advantages. You don't have to worry about whom you're going with or whether you will make it on time to partake in the pre-nuptual food fest. At the appropriate time, Barbara and I left our room and made the three minute journey down the hallway to the elevator, down to the lobby, and over to the proper banquet hall (there being several similar events going on that evening). Sticking rigorously to my "see-food" diet, I stuffed my face accordingly, sidling every so often over to the bar for some appropriate libations, more than enough to whet my whistle and gladden my spirits.

Unlike other wedding halls where you move from one room to another first for the smörgåsbord, then the ceremony itself, and finally for the main course and dancing, here everything was in one large room; you needn't leave your ringside seat -- and we didn't. At a certain point, the signal was given: the show is about to start. After the ceremony, I asked our friends where they had found the rabbi. Apparently, they had been to some other affair in which he had officiated, and they decided on the spot that this was the man for the job.

Let me explain it this way; the bride's family and assorted guests were weighted heavily on the chilloni (non-religious) side. They would normally have less contact with a rabbi than with their dental hygienist and would be just as eager to see one as the other (although the typical secular Israeli family, having been at enough of them, understands full well what is going on at a Jewish wedding). Yet the moment this rabbi started the ceremony, singing through most of it, something wonderful happened. He exuded a combination of warmth, that this would be the happiest moment in this couple's lives, and seriousness, that getting married in this way would be the most significant moment in their lives. Everyone was swept away by his enthusiasm; everyone felt a participant in the simcha, not just a spectator. You get a few more rabbis like this guy and, you never know, huge sections of the Israeli population might even get to feel more comfortable with their religion! Wouldn't that be something.?

The ceremony over, the dancing and the fressing resumed. Within a few minutes, our waitress came over to tell us what was on the menu. When she asked me what I wanted, I replied -- as I often do at these affairs -- "Nothing." Shum davar. As far as I can tell, there is no person on this earth more flummoxed than a server at a sumptuous affair who has just been told that a patron wants nothing to eat. You have now removed the reason for the server's existence, or at least his livelihood. In my case (and I think in Barbara's), it wasn't that I didn't want; I already had. Half an hour before I had ingested enough food to keep a village in Botswana going for a week. My digestive tract was now in a state of rebellion, and at a certain stage in life, you start listening to your body's urgent directives. At most events, we would have to sit and watch everyone else continue to stuff their collective faces until the meal was over. Barbara can usually be counted on for perhaps three minutes on the dance floor, which is precisely three minutes longer than I usually can be counted on. So at most affairs we are left in the category of captive audience for the better part of two or three more hours. But that's the best part of being at a wedding at the hotel where you're staying. You can get up and leave whenever you're ready. In the twinkling of an eye, I recited the bircat hamazon, and was on my way, only slightly the worse for wear, back to the comfort of my room, ready for a good night's sleep, having no idea about the conversation we would have the next morning.