Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Jameel’s Excellent Aliya Adventure. Part 73.

WestBankMama organized a great initiative of collecting stories from bloggers about their Israel experiences and why they made aliya. Instead of posting (today) about why I decided specificially to move to Israel, I’ll enclose chapter 73 from my upcoming book, Jameel’s Excellent Aliya Adventure.

I don’t think there was one singular event which made me decide, “That’s it – this where I belong, this is where I have to live,” rather it was the result of a long chain of events that transpired over the course of 2 years…

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 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 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 Old Shekels. (or just "Shekels" 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,
"What a surprise! We weren't expecting you till next week...But I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that the yeshiva is closed till Sunday. You can’t stay here at all. The bus stop to Jerusalem is that way, and to that direction.... The good news is that you can leave your suitcases and duffle bags – we’ll lock them up for you, so all you need to do is take out some clothes for a few days and Shabbat, put them in a knapsack and off you go!

Welcome to Israel!"


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.

Our first yeshiva lunch consisted of: cucumbers, tomatoes, fresh bread, and some bags of milk. Since we'd never seen bags of milk before, different groups went off creatively figuring out the best way to open them. One pair held the bag while a third stabbed the bag in the center with a knife.

Pow! Splat.

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.

At the central bus station 4 from our group announced they would try their luck in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Not that they actually knew anyone there, but the Old City sounded like a good place to meet a friendly family that would put up 4 yeshiva guys from Wednesday to Sunday, with no advance warning. Right? We wished them luck, hoping to see them again in one piece on Sunday.

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 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.

“Baby Jameel, is THAT you?? We haven’t seen you in ages – it’s been years since we made aliya...and now you show up -- what a nice surprise!”


I drifted back into a deep sleep.

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.

And sometimes the brush gently meanders along, filling in background details with the gentle, softer colors of the usual day to day Israel experiences.

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.

And unbeknownst to me, my future wife was also a high school classmate of those twins as well…

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.


westbankmama said...

Excellent Jameel - I am still chuckling about you guys stabbing the milk bag in the middle...

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Ah yes, the "so when are YOU making aliyá" conversation :-P . I had many of those over my time in yeshiva.

I can beat you, though — I went to a post-college program without dorms. I landed in Israel with the phone number of a guy in my program who could put me up for the night, and no idea where i was going to live for the year. After being homeless and mooching off of almost 10 different people for my first month, i finally found a place to live... for two and a half months. Then the process started all over again ;-) .

Todah La’Eil my second year i was much more experienced, and found an apt within 3 days of getting off the plane.

Now i just need a place to live this summer ;-) .

JoeSettler said...

(Years later, I look back in horror at our behavior and expectations, but that’s a different chapter)

Not sure why you would look back in horror at your behavior. I remember my first few dinners in Yeshiva with horror as I went to bed with a rumbling empty stomach that simply could not be filled up by French Fries as the main course. Until I found the local restaurants (that honored American credit cards) I found the Israeli dinner experience to be one be one worth forgetting.

Rafi G. said...

what a story!! I came in 89-90 and things were already much different! Though I do remember leaving the airport along a wall and they had all the stretch limo taxis waiting to round up people to go to Jerusalem..

Ezzie said...

That was awesome. :) Brings back so many memories of my own, from the aliya convos to the last-second Shabbos plans to the milk bags - and then watching as the people who came a year later learned the same. Great story, Jameel. [And so nice of them to have over a guy named Jameel!]

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

WBM: Thanks! We looked pretty silly busting the bag open that way...(but what did we know?)

Steg: OK, I'm glad you could beat my story - when are you moving here?! ;-)

Joe: I remember when the main course for dinner was a piece of cake. Many a night we to sleep hungry...but it didn't kill anyone.

Rafi: Thanks - glad you enjoyed it! I should have given you credit for the "tag" chapter I'll try to remember.

Ezzie: Actually - I started writing this 6 months ago, the day I finished writing the "JBlogosphere Anthropologist" posting. It was on a back burner till WBM asked for it. We'll have to see about the rest of the chapters...if I post EVERYTHING no one will buy the book though :-/

Jack: Mucho Gracias! When will we see more of your stories from your stay in Israel?

Shoshana said...

Great story - sounds like typical Israel, with the confusion and the wonderful hospitality. Can't wait to read more.

Scraps said...

That's an awesome story, Jameel. I can't wait for other installments!

The back of the hill said...

Awesome story.
When's the next chapter (tales of the yeshiva)?

Anonymous said...

They let you escape the airport security gauntlet. "Let me see your camera. This is the button to take a picture? (Points camera to me, and flash without warning). "Excellent. Now I know this camera is really a camera and not a gun disguised as a camera. Your overnight bag? Good. Why did you bring so much underwear." (Me: We're staying for a month.) "So do some washing while you're here." (Me, speechless while I digest the fact that he mistook my week's worth of underwear that I was going to wash each week for a full month.) And then to a bus about as old the one you took, but it was evening, and we had just flown thirteen hours plus a two hour connecting flight, so I slept. This was in 1973, I was fourteen, with a teen tour group, and our first week was spent at a moshav on the coast (Habonim), so my first view of Israel was a long line of trees in the twilight.

orthomom said...

Great story.

bec said...

what? no nutella on bread with a side of hard boiled eggs? how did you manage? :D

tafka PP said...

…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.

Since when were you limiting your campaign to American Yeshiva People?! The whole Blogosphere! Any Jew who has ever been online! Small farm animals!

Fab post.

Anonymous said...

Ten dollars exchanging for 15,000 shekalim?

At, I gather, a different point during the mid-80s, the rate was about three shekalim to the dollar.

Did the rates really fluctuate that extremely?

A good story, Jameel.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

trn: yes, the dollar/shekel did fluctuate to the point of insanity (which is why there was mandatory price freezing).

bec: it was the fresh bread that pulled us through :)

bari: being stuch in the middle of nowhere also helped.

shoshana, scraps, back of the hill and others: Don't worry, there are plenty more chapters coming up...

tafkapp: Forgot about the small farm animals indoctrination session, but meches stopped them cold in Terminal 3.

phish: I'm waiting to hear yours!

m04: thx!

jsmith: actually, they went very easy on us back then...don't know why we were lucky that day. Dont' worry, I'll post some other stories (such as when Eliyahu HaNavi arrived to save the day...)

JJ said...

One of your best posts EVAH, Jameel! I found myself practically shvitzing at your description of the heat and humidity, grimacing at the "grainy" milk (thank goodness we've advanced somewhat since then!) and laughing at the stabbing of the milk bag and the resulting spray!

Terrific post, just terrific! Oh, and "Baby Jameel"- LOL!!!

Sarah Likes Green said...

what a story! great post :)

and also brings back memories of milk in bags exploding over various hosts kitchens i stayed at and breakfasts of cucumber, tomato, cottage cheese and maybe some bread (if we were lucky!).

Toto said...

Love it! Thanks for sharing...

Jerusalemcop said...

great post Jameel.

Hope u enjoyed your shvuaot


Eliyahu said...

i am awaiting my autographed copy of your book version!

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