Thursday, November 8, 2012

When the Imperfect Plan Met the Perfect Storm

It seemed at the time to be the best of all possible plans.  Barbara was going back to The States last week for her mother’s unveiling. (An aside: Why is it referred to as “her mother’s unveiling?”  Gwen Cole was not going to be ‘unveiled.’) As she (my wife, not her mother) would be gone for a week, why shouldn’t both Natania and I skip out of town – at least for Shabbat?  We, in fact, had received an invitation to join our good friends the Glazers in their new spacious accommodations in Elazar, a community of about 500 families in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem; and, if nothing else, I was curious to check out their new digs.  Plus, as both Natania and I are busy Friday mornings – she is working for the local vet and I am involved in set-painting for the forthcoming Encore! production of The Gondoliers – it would be just as easy to throw a few things into a suitcase as it would be to throw a chicken or two into the oven at the last minute. 

From the timing of this literary effort, anyone could deduce that Barbara didn’t get to go anywhere.  Actually, she did get to go from Tina and David’s apartment in Givataim to Ben Gurion airport, where she was told the equivalent of, “fuhhgedabowdit.” She would have been able to complete the first leg of her journey, from here to London’s Heathrow airport, but no farther. There seemed to be some kind of a problem on the other side of The Pond and the airports were shut down.  So I received a phone call at 7:30 Tuesday morning.  “Guess who’s on her way back to Ma’ale Adumim?”

A plan is a plan; an invitation is an invitation – at least as far as I’m concerned.  So e-mails went out to both June and Jeff advising that their guest list would be increased by one.  As I expected, no problem. On Thursday, Natania decided to spend Shabbat with a dear friend in Jerusalem.  Guest list back to two.  No problem. (It turned out to be providential that Natania stayed with her friend, as she wound up taking the friend to an emergency treatment center at 2AM Shabbat morning.)

Barbara wound up spending the entire week on the phone, in order to reschedule her flights and all her arrangements to meet people for the following week, so that she would be flying out of here on the American election today.  The ‘unveiling’ was being rescheduled for that Thursday.  (The rabbi would be available then; needless to say, Barbara’s mom would be too.)  After having packed and unpacked, Barbara was not highly motivated to fill another suitcase with stuff for Shabbat, but, like a trooper, she did it anyway.  I took the bottle of wine with me; she carried her home-made desserts.  I spent Friday morning “set-painting,” although I am often asked to do tackle assignments that would be too boring for anybody else – in this case, gluing pieces of canvas together. 

As pre-arranged, the two of us met up at the Central Bus Station about 1:30, so that we would have time to have lunch before we got on the bus.  Our first order of business was trying to locate a place to sit in the food court, which at that time on a Friday was like finding a parking spot at a shopping mall in New Jersey the day after Thanksgiving.  So, it was awhile before I sidled up to the counter at Holy Bagel to place our order.

Now there are those who intimate that my level of functional Hebrew leaves something to be desired.  The fact is, for something really important like ordering a meal, I can do just fine.  “Two bagels with ‘tuna light with celery’ with lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers on both, and olives on one – but definitely not the other.  And two ice cafés.” No problem for me in Ivrit. But I was at Holy Bagel, where I was the only customer even making the effort.  The collection of kids ahead of me assumed – quite correctly – that their American will be understood. Who else but Americans goes to Holy Bagel?  The stack of bagels, originally placed neatly in separate bins by type, was vanishing in front of my eyes faster than a new model iPhone on Day 1.  Again, it’s Friday afternoon at the Central Bus Station!  Barbara didn’t get her ‘everything’ bagel, but she did get something before there was nothing left.  Ten minutes later and Holy Bagel, along with many of the other establishments, was closing up shop.

It was time to go up to the third floor and get on what passes for a line to board the #160 bus, heading down through the Gush to Hebron.  If you know when to press the button, the bus will stop along the way to let you off.  We, of course, had only a vague idea.  “Press the button as soon as you get to Neve Daniel.” But the #160 doesn’t stop in Neve Daniel, so you’d better keep your eyes peeled to the road signs directing the traveler to Efrat, Hebron, Be’er Sheva, and even Beit Shemesh – every place in in The Land except where we needed to get off.

We did somehow manage to get off at the right place, at the stop by the entrance to Elazar.  We walked through the security gate, made a left, walked part of the way, and met June, who took us to their house.  I knew that they had moved from their small apartment in a great location in Jerusalem to much larger quarters, which they are sharing with their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.  But you don’t necessarily consider just how big something is until you get to see it with your own eyes. When the community of Elazar was founded as a moshav in 1975, the first few houses put up were tiny stucco cubes, three or four rooms, all exactly alike.  And over the years, each owner added this here and that there – sort of like Levittown on Long Island.   The house that June and Jeff are renting is one of those original structures – with a little tinkering along the way.  Their kitchen is now as large as ours – if you throw our living room and dining room. The one bathroom has been replaced with three and a half. The two bedrooms have become seven, with a few extra rooms for good measure.  You get the idea.

There is a reason why Elazar is called by some “The Beverly Hills of the Gush.”  The houses are larger and the streets cleaner than in most places; there are no stray cats foraging for non-existent garbage.  There is a startling homogeneity of the residents, all of whom seem to be part of the National Religious crowd, something typical of many of the communities in the Gush Etzion bloc, which one can either find refreshing or disturbing, depending on your outlook.  When Shabbat rolls in over the hills, there is absolute and total quiet.  (You know the old expression, so thick you can cut it with a knife.)  Elazar is far enough away from the highway that there’s no sound of an occasional car speeding by.  Where we were there are no cell phones going off, no flickering of a TV screen in anybody’s house.  All you can hear is the murmur of people talking as they walk to a neighbor’s house or to shul.  (During the day it’s just the opposite: the place is filled with kids, who are rarely quiet.  Jeff says it’s like being at camp.)  Some of what you hear will be Ivrit, but there will be a lot of English, perhaps because where June and Jeff are located is the heart of the Anglos neighborhood.

I don’t imagine it would surprise you to learn that a lot of the Anglos present have connections to Northern New Jersey or Long Island.  And so on this perfect Shabbat, weather-wise, the temperature just right, not a cloud in the sky anywhere in Gush Etzion, the conversation invariably reverted to friends and family living in The Exile who were being seriously inconvenienced or, worse, wiped out completely by this interloper named Sandy.  The fellow in shul who read the Torah Shabbat morning told us that his company, a jewelry concern on Long Island, lost two million dollars in inventory and their whole holiday season.  Needless to say, their insurance companies will find every possible excuse to limit the compensation they offer.  What else would you expect?  But there was something bizarre about this situation.  Here we were in a community guarded ‘round the clock, many of whose residents walk around with pistols – or M-16’s if they are soldiers, a place we reached in an armored bus.  We were in a place most American Jews would consider almost as dangerous as Sderot, worse than certain inner-city neighborhoods back where they live; yet there we were Shabbat morning at a Kiddush, without a care in the world, nibbling our way through a platter of fish, tossing back a few shots of Single Malt, yet worrying about the well-being of our brethren back in The Exile, where everyone knows it’s perfectly safe.

Most weeks, the Ashkenzi shul has its own Kiddush, which they set up, for want of any other place to have it, on the little street outside the premises.  This week was something different. In honor of a number of occasions, one of the congregants, in fact a retired rabbi from Chicago, was doing the honors at his house, and so all manner of people walked the few blocks there – nothing in Elazar is more than a few blocks from anything else.  Probably close to a hundred people showed up at one point or another, and all of us fit comfortably in his yard.  A number of us noticed the same thing, with the obvious question:  Why did the table with all the desserts on it have a mehitzah in the middle? Oh, of course.  It’s a ping-pong table!

The same rabbi would be speaking at the shul later in the afternoon.  Just enough time after lunch and the requisite nap to take a little stroll around town before heading back to hear the rabbi speak.  I especially wanted to take a gander at the other shuls in town – there being a total of four, including the new one, which is being used even though it’s still being built.  The original plan was to have one large, well-appointed shul for the entire community.  They had a vote: should they daven Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard, or real Sefard?  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry.  It’s not crucial to your life.)  The winner was Nusach Sefard, and for many years, this really impressive synagogue was the only game in town.  A few years ago, the authentic Sefardim decided they wanted to have their own place to daven, so they created their own beit knesset, not as large as the main one, but nothing to sneeze at.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  If the Sefardim could do it, why not the guys who want to daven Nusach Ashkenaz?  The town wasn’t too keen on finding a space for another shul, and the town rabbinate was opposed to the idea.  But to their eternal credit, the guys stuck to their guns, and now if, like me, you want to daven Ashkenaz, you’re in luck. Even though it’s the least imposing of the three, the guys still managed to furnish it with the standard Kibbutz Lavi benches (these are the kind with comfortable, upholstered seats, similar to what you’d expect in a theater, and with  a little shelf in front to put your stuff – made to order at Kibbutz Lavi, here in The Land). I couldn’t but help feel a little jealous; the mismatched chairs we have at Musar Avicha look like they were borrowed from a homeless shelter.  I guess if there’s no will, there’s no way. 

We even had time to get over to the new shul, which, as I said, is being used even though it’s far from finished.  Do they really need a fourth place to daven as there are only 500 families in the community?  There is actually a new neighborhood, mostly finished and lived in, but with a few homes still being built.  It’s at least ten minutes – maybe fifteen, tops – from there to the center of town where the other shuls are clustered.  Who wants to walk that far?

If you’re getting the impression as you’re reading along that Elazar is no more than a few hops, skips, and jumps in any direction, you’re on the right track.  There is one grocery store in town, and the mail is delivered; but if you’re in need of a postage stamp or you want a slice of pizza, or you have to do some serious grocery shopping, then you’d better get in your car.  The problem is, June and Jeff don’t own one; their kids do, but most of the time, that’s not much help.  The good thing is, that they’re in The Gush, where hitchhiking will get you most anywhere you need to go.  Six mornings a week, Jeff assumes his position at the side of the road just inside the guard station.  He has never failed to get to his destination, the learning group he goes to in Efrat.  And he has always made it back to Elazar without a search party going out to rescue him.  If we had any doubts about how easy it is to get around by sticking out two fingers (that’s what you do in The Land instead of waving your thumb), they were dispelled when we left the Yishuv after Shabbat.  June and Jeff walked us down to the bus stop across the highway where we would get the #160 back to Jerusalem.  Except that before the bus could arrive, several cars stopped without our even asking.  One guy was going right by the bus station, so we hopped in, and voilà, we were on our way. Traffic ground to a halt a ways down the road; I looked up and said to myself, “Oh, we’re at a toll booth.”  Then I remembered where we were. “That’s not a toll booth, that’s a checkpoint.”  Remember, we’re in The Land – in The Gush – and we all know what it’s like here.

POSTSCRIPT: Barbara did arrive safely in Baltimore, where she will be joined by a few friends and family members at the gravesite of her mother, of blessed memory.  She (again, my wife, not her mother) left here with these words from Natania, “Don’t come back until you’ve actually gone somewhere.”  Good advice.