This chapter recounts the historic first few days of my arrival in Israel in the mid 1980’s – the start of my stay in Israel, to study in yeshiva as a teenager for 2 years.
We flew on the EL-AL sochnut flight, the one chartered exclusively for Yeshiva students by the Jewish Agency (though now I’m told this flight doesn’t exist anymore; everyone comes however it’s cheapest). Almost every yeshiva was represented -- Har Etzion, Shaalvim, Kerem B’Yavneh, Shilo, Beit-El, Brisk, Mir, Hevron, Toras Moshe, Itri (and it’s numerous split-offs, split-three, etc.), Brovenders, HaKotel, Shappels, Ohr Sameach, Nir-Kiryat Arba and many others I had never heard of.
Almost the entire plane was dressed in nice yeshivish clothes; dark pants, button-down shirts, shoes, some wore jackets & hats, most wore black suede kippot – there were a few knitted kippot sprinkled throughout the crowd. I honestly don’t think that anyone was wearing jeans, even though many normally would – if even just to fly in comfortable clothes.
Our plane touched down in mid-August, mid-1980’s, at 6:00 AM at Ben-Gurion Airport. Wearing our nice clothes we didn't count on Israel being in the middle of a brutal chamsin heat wave. Forget the ultra-modern Terminal 3 of today -- back then, there was no fancy terminal 3, or even an arrivals lounge in Terminal 2...you exited straight from the meches/duty-tax lines to a passage along the wall.
On the other side of the narrow exit passage, facing the outside was a metal fence -- everyone from outside was hanging on, smushed against it hoping to get a view of those lucky people coming back from an airplane flight.
The unexpected heat and humidity was overwhelming...within a minute beads of sweat were dropping down off our foreheads...the nicely pressed yeshivish shirts didn’t look so fine anymore.
All the yeshivot had buses waiting for them...except for us. For us, for our yeshiva, there was no bus...no representative, no one waiting...not a soul.
As all our friends and co-passengers left the airport in their buses, our stomachs started growling. The appetizing and hearty ELAL bagel breakfast from a few hours ago was long forgotten, and we started hunting around the airport for something to eat. We found the airport makolet -- but to buy anything we needed to change money from dollars...to Old Shekels. (or just "Shekels"...no one knew at the time they would be replaced so soon.)
I changed $10...and became an instant millionaire -- 15,000 shekels! Was this a joke or a jackpot? Fifteen Thousand shekels for only ten dollars? Whooping for joy as only naive American yeshiva students know how to...I walked over to buy a Coke and a Kit Kat chocolate bar. Reality set in quickly enough -- 1,500 shekels for a coke and a chocolate bar. We would need to earn our fortunes another way.
So there we were, 70-something American yeshiva guys wandering around the airport in "yeshiva" clothes, melting in the unbearably hot, humid Ben-Gurion sun...waiting...waiting….
After close to 2 hours, someone purchased some "asimonim" (phone tokens from yester-year) and courageously called our yeshiva to find out why we were dying from the heat at the aiport, while all the other yeshivot picked up their students.
The yeshiva was in shock – apparently, they hadn't been expecting us!
This was an organized flight!
Turns out that since it was Wednesday morning, and rosh chodesh Elul would be the upcoming Sunday, they only expected us on Sunday.
I guess someone there did some rather quick thinking and realized it would be a bad political move to keep 70 students from chutz la'aretz stranded at the airport, and quickly dispatched two ancient buses to pick us up.
Close to 2 hours later when the buses arrived, we were totally soaked, uncomfortable, exhausted, and antsy.
We had to load the bus with all our duffle bags and suitcases - pushing and shoving them into the bus, almost collapsing from overpowering humidity.
Finally, with everything aboard we took off in the direction of our yeshiva. These were old buses…rickety…no air conditioning…and the windows didn’t open either. Totally disregarding safety rules – I think the driver kept the bus door open for there to be some ventilation. We didn’t care as long as some air flowed into the bus.
Pulling up to our yeshiva's campus after noon, we were all rather self-conscious of how bad we looked. We had planned on showing up neat and yeshivish, presenting a good first impression. Instead, we arrived looking like we had just run up and down Masada a few times (maybe carrying some cinder blocks for good measure as well.)
The yeshiva’s "minahel" met us as we tumbled out of the bus, and he greeted us warmly. He smiled broadly when he informed us,
That would have been a great time for a group photo of 70 dumbstruck guys. Most of us had no clue what to do now...we were exhausted, starving, and confused. Someone mentioned to the minahel that we hadn't eaten since the flight, and he arranged "lunch" for us.
Everyone in a 3 meter radius got soaked with grainy milk (no Homogination back then either – you had to shake bags of milk to keep the grains evenly spread throughout all the milk…yuck.)
After some experimentation, someone figured out that cutting off the top corner would be the easiest way to coax the milk out of the bag into the orange yeshiva-standard-issue hard plastic cups. But this was lunch? Where was the food?! Americans need real food! What sort of yeshiva was this? (Years later, I look back in horror at our behavior and expectations, but that’s a different chapter)
As panic slowly washed over our group, I took 2 friends aside, and told them that whatever plan I would come up with, they were welcome to join me. Not that I had any real idea for a plan but it sounded convincing to them…(and most importantly, I wouldn’t be left alone!)
Deciding that Jerusalem sounded like a friendlier place than Tel-Aviv, we headed off towards the Jerusalem-bound bus stop, along with about half our group. More of our shekel fortune now disappeared as we forked over our fares to the bus driver. We slept on the bus...not very restfully...but it was some much needed sleep. We were jarred awake by the side to side swaying of the bus as it climbed up the windy road along the Jerusalem mountainside.
We found out later that they did manage to make it to the Jewish Quarter...and knocked on random doors: "Hi, we're a bunch of American yeshiva students in Israel for the year, and our yeshiva is closed. Can we stay with you for a few days?" After only 3 or 4 doors, they all found somewhere to stay…
I took out a handwritten list from my parents -- a list of their friends who made aliya -- I has been instructed to call them during the year and send them regards.
Taking out the list, we did the fateful, "eenie meenie miney moe" – choosing a family at random. I put an asimon into a payphone, dialed the number, and then in my best possible Hebrew said, "Shalom! My name is Jameel...I just landed in Israel this morning…"
A pleasant sounding girl replied, "It’s OK, you can speak in English"
I was shocked and crestfallen, "What?! How did you know I wasn't Israeli?"
She laughed back at me, "Well, you certainly don't sound Israeli on the phone."
Trying to regain my wounded pride, I restarted the conversation, "Well, Hi! My name is Jameel, and I'm studying in Yeshiva this year..."
"...and you want to come for Shabbat?" the girl interrupted me.
"How did you know I was going to ask that!?" This girl was waaaay too psychic for me. Heh, I'd show her:
"Well, actually, yes, I'd love to come for Shabbat, but its ALSO from now till Sunday, and with 2 of my friends!" (Let’s see if you can match that.).
Pausing for a second, she said, "Well, it should be ok...my mom's not home, but we'll manage."
She gave me directions to her home by bus, my asimon dropped and our conversation abruptly ended.
Assuring my friends that everything would work out, we found the right bus in the right direction, got off at the wrong stop but still managed to find the apartment.
Greeting us warmly at the door, a teenage girl invited us in. Shuffling into the apartment, we looked around -- 70’s furniture…a black and white TV…a couch…books on the shelves…everything seemed normal enough. She offered us some food, but we were all too sleepy to eat. Thanking her for her hospitality, we just wanted to sleep…sleep…sleep….and we dozed off on the couch
Sometime during the night, (evening, night, day, I had lost track of time), I sensed a face close to mine…examining me.
Next thing I knew the bright morning Jerusalem sunlight streamed through the window and the door opened with a bang. In marched a scruffy looking IDF soldier (our host's son), schlepping a huge green duffle bag, and an even scarier looking rifle of some sort. When he saw me, he broke out into a huge grin and said in perfect English, “Hey – Good Morning! Looks like you’re one of those American Yeshiva guys just off the boat, right?” (How the heck did people keep figuring that out so fast?!)
Our newfound soldier-friend took us around Jerusalem, explaining the bus routes, the little ins-and-outs of the city, places to get good food in the center of town – our own personal tour guide and contemporary (plus, he was Israeli AND American). He also had twin sisters in 12th grade which made our stay there friendly – and it helped break the ice for us 3 yeshiva guys showing up there unexpectedly.
I’ll never forget the discussion I had with our host over Shabbat.
Host: So….this stay in Israel, learning in yeshiva for you…it’s a precursor for your aliya, right?
Jameel: Excuse me?
Host: Well, you do think about aliya, right?
Jameel: [laughing] I’m just here for the year to learn. After that, I’m going back to the US, study at YU, build my life there. Why would I want to live here in Israel?
Host: Well…maybe you’ll end up loving the land here.
Jameel: I doubt it…I don’t see myself living here.
Host: I fell in love with the land, the country…its more than just love, it’s a passion…
Jameel: [feeling a bit uncomfortable] Well, I don’t have any plans to stay...
(switching back to the present)
That conversation was a long time ago…and now I find myself having similar ones with American Yeshiva people, with the roles reversed as I encourage them to move here as well.
I’ll have to post many more chapters of this ongoing saga to paint all the hues and colors of my decision to move here and build my life in Israel.
Sometimes the brush strokes are bold – with definitive, strong feelings of ideology, a passion to settle the land and help make this great country even better.
Oh, so how does this chapter end?
One of my 2 friends who came for that Shabbat ended up marrying one of the twin daughters.
Chag Sameach! (And read about out the Shabbat Parasha difference between Israel and Chutz La'Aretz if you haven't done so already: Synchronicity Lost)
And everywhere I may be, this blog will always turn towards Eretz Yisrael.