Israel. The Holy Land. Historical and eternal home of the Jews. The land of milk and honey. A place where “slicha,” Hebrew for ‘excuse me,’ was only begrudgingly included in the lexicon.
In the old days I tried to visit every year, but with young kids in the picture and responsibilities galore, dropping everything for a week to 10 days just isn’t realistic. Instead, I’ve had to live with abbreviated trips every couple years or so to attend the b’nei mitzvah celebrations of my numerous Israeli nieces and nephews. I’m only just back from such an excursion, having arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday afternoon and then flying out of Ben-Gurion last Wednesday night.
My mindset during these abridged trips has been to try to enjoy each waking moment and take in all that Israel has to offer — the historical sights, the restaurants, the shopping, the religious locations — in the short time I’m there. Ride the adrenaline rush and deal with the jetlag when I get home.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as well this time around.
Let’s start at the beginning, or even earlier. I started packing on Friday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours until I would have to leave for the airport, diligently grabbing my passport before doing anything else. However, upon glancing at the first page, I saw that it expires in June. This posed a potential catastrophic predicament, as several countries, wary of tourists overstaying their welcome, will refuse entry if your passport expires in less than six months. The website for Israel’s ministry of tourism, and many others I checked, was ambiguous as to whether this six-month anti-grace period applied, but when I called El Al customer service, a representative confidently said that I would not be allowed to board the plane. Multiple same-day passport offices sympathized, but said there was no way I could get a replacement until after the weekend. Shabbat was just a couple hours away.
All I could do was sweat it out for the duration of Shabbat, go to the airport, and pray that they would let me on the flight. El Al, of course, is known for its rigorous security procedures, but no one said a word about my passport and I’ve never been happier to settle into a middle seat.
While the flight was fine, it wasn’t quite smooth sailing the rest of the way. My previous two trips to Israel were in March and June, and I had forgotten that January in the Holy Land is cold. Though I had the heavy coat I had worn to the airport and a couple of sweatshirts, most of my inventory was inadequate to fight off the cold. Not only did it rain on two of my three days there, but we were also treated to snow and hail the size of mancala marbles. Moreover, the insulation in Israel is severely lacking — I’ve long suspected it has to do with the Jerusalem Stone that adorns most of the buildings — and it’s hard to warm up, even indoors.
Besides going to the bat mitzvah, my other priority was to get to the Kotel. Regardless of the weather, it would have been heartbreaking to miss an opportunity to visit Judaism’s holiest site, which was cruelly inaccessible to Jews for thousands of years. The day I went was blessedly clear. My mind, on the other hand, was not, and I inadvertently took a wrong turn entering the Old City. I realized this when I looked up and saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As I was not looking for this type of religious experience, I immediately retraced my steps, but couldn’t get around a large group of tourists and priests, clearly on a Christian mission. When we emerged from the tight walls surrounding the Christian Quarter, I caught the eye of a few ‘lantzmen,’ obviously confused as to why I was hanging out with this set of worshippers.
A more sobering experience followed. Despite my determination to fight off the jetlag, I couldn’t keep my eyes open on the ride from Jerusalem to my brother’s home in Ramat Beit Shemesh, at least until we slowed down, with the traffic building. To our right, I saw a line of cars stopped on a small road. The cars were parked, the Arab drivers resigned to the long wait to pass through Israeli checkpoints and re-enter Palestinian territory. Fully aware that these security measures are necessary to protect Israeli citizens, I really felt for those whose trip was that much longer than mine.
As always, I was thrilled to spend time with my extended family, but shortly after the bat mitzvah festivities, it was time to go. Cold, sleepy, missing my wife and kids, and a little nervous that my slightly outdated passport would cause me trouble on the way back to the states, I was still so sad to leave.
Because that’s the thing about Israel: Even when it’s not at its best, it’s still better than anywhere else. That said, considering their technological prowess, would it be so hard for them to install a couple of extra heaters?
Gabe Kahn can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
or Twitter: @sgabekahn.