Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Day #1 in Israel (October 16th, 2006)

Please don't mind the writing errors, I was pretty out of it when I wrote this.

Okay, so it hasn't been exactly a day, but come 2 PM on the 16th (Israel time) and 24 hours would have passed since I set foot in Israel.

Leaving the Tucson airport on Jet Blue, for whom my first friend in Tucson, Sam Potts, works, we said our goodbyes and I got on the plane. Right before lift-off he came on the plane, we spoke for a bit, then he had to go back to work.

After flying to New York, in which I had a thirteen hour layover, I looked for the nearest shul (synagogue). I had been in NY before this but never went around, now that I had thirteen hours, I would explore a bit of what I could. The first thing I decided to do was to see Crown Heights, but the driver, a Lebanese Maronite Christian named Eid Ghassani was more familiar with Williamsburg, and that's where he took me.

Upon arrival I saw chassidim (chassidic men and women) everywhere, I felt like I was somewhere back in Europe, but no, this is America and we live here now. So the neighborhoods had a real tight-knit feel to them and suffice it to say that this was something entirely foreign to me as far as Jewishness goes - I was raised in Tucson, Arizona and the "extent" of my Jewish experiences have been, practically speaking only, there. This was a whole new world for me here and I guess this is the world of which I had heard many people speaking before but now was seeing. I asked a chassidic gentelman if he could tell me where the nearest shul was and as we walked he told me that there was one, not this block and not the next, but the one after that. Half smiling I asked him if there was a nearer one and he told me that there was a Satmar shul right here and a restaurant across the street. We made a small comment about hasghacha pratit (Divine providence) and I went into the shul to davin (pray).

Now most of you know that Satmars have an entirely different pronunciation of Hebrew than most Jews, so I was just barely able to keep up in the davining. I eventually trained myself to respond "amen" when I heard "brich Hi," which in most pronunciations is "baruch Hu" and means "blessed is He," at least their consistent in their difference. With the wonderful Satmars, "amen" becomes "umayn." They also speak almost entirely Yiddish, so walking around the Satmar quarter of New York I also heard alot of Yiddish conversation between young bachurim (guys) and bachurot (ladies), and I think a bit of German too.

After leaving the very large shul, by my experience, I went across the street to the restaurant where a young bachur worked. I got a bagette with tuna fish, egg salad, tomatoes, and spicy olives, said netilat yada'im (a religious practice of washing the hands and saying a blessing) and ate, and it was good. After benching (a prayer said after eating bread) it was time to explore the Yiddin (Jews in Yiddish) of Williamsburg, so I walked around basically aimlessly for a bit just absorbing in the visions. I must say that I felt a bit estranged most of the time, not having come from a background such as many of the people here, but nevertheless, several chassidishe (chassidic) menches (nice people) volunteered the question, "Do you need some help?finding something?" With that as my method I managed finding most of what I came to see.

A note about the neighborhoods; most of what I saw was set up as shtetls (small communities also translated as 'ghettos') of Jews and then, in close proximity, areas of other ethnicities, the major one I saw being black Americans and some Jamaicans too. As I walked around I got the impression that I was not being watched as I would have been in Tucson had I walked into a black neighborhood; it seems that the blacks and the Jews in this area are quite used to seeing each other. I finally decided to get on a bus and go to Crown Heights, and a frum (religious) Jewish lady told me how to get there. When the bus passed St. John's (which I think was a street), I got off, walked a few blocks back, took a right, walked another few blocks (where I was now seeing chassidim again, but these were all Lubavitchers, and then arrived at 770, which were the Chabad headquarters when the Lubavitcher Rebbe (z"l) was alive. I saw young bachurim and bachurot, a few Teymani (Yemenite) Lubavitchers (chassidim adherent to the Lubavitcher teachings) as well. I went down the stairs into 770 where I saw a huge amount of people davining, and there were apparently several minyanim (a group of at least ten men, a required number for men to say certain blessings) wrapping t'fillin (the commandment to bind the Name of G-d on the arm and head) - a buzz of davining had filled the entire place, I walked around a bit and then went outside again. As I was sitting on a step and thinking of what to do next, a familiar face walked by me. I dismissed it thinking that it must have been a person similar in appearance to one that I knew, but after he was about thirty feet away I ran up after him and said, "Ya'akov," and surely enough it was Ya'akov Menaker, a very special Jew that I met in Tucson at Rabbi Shemtov's house.

Ya'akov Menaker is a good person, a zisele (sweet) Yid, one whom I like and respect very much. He calmly said, "no way," as did I, and I explained to him what I was doing here. His brother went to the house where Ya'akov lives and he and I went back into 770 and Ya'akov showed me around. We went to the back of the shul where Ya'akov pointed up to a balcony where the Rebbe (the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Scheerson) would sit, in proximity to the womens' section (men and women sit in seperated areas in Orthodox shuls). Then we went to the far right corner where the Rebbe would sit. As Ya'akov explained it to me, after the passing of the Rebbe, who was a great and beloved leader to Lubavitcher chassidim (and did a lot of good for Jews as a whole as well), that people tend to try to keep the memory alive, as do people when any beloved one dies. His shtender (where he placed his siddur, prayer book) is in tact there covered with a plastic covering bag and a rug is rolled up. Then Ya'akov told me something that I was not entirely prepared to hear but was not entirely shocked either. There is an amount of Lubavitch chassidim, I have no clue how many, whom believe that the Rebbe was the Mashiach (Messiah). Nothing I say here is dematory towards Chabad, which is a group that I respect. Suffice it to say, because many people have a hard time with this, that most chassidim believe that their rebbe is the Messiah. Nevertheless, as Ya'akov told me, every morning at 10 o'clock people there roll out the rug with the expectation of the return of the Rebbe. There was not much to discuss for me because I was aware of the nature of the belief about the Rebbe, and we left shortly after this.

We went to Menaker's house, which was very very near at chit chatted about Israel and other things. I met his wife, Rayza, as they have been married for a few months. About an hour later they wanted to go Central Park with me, but after seeing on a map how far it was from the train station I realized that it would be a stupid risk to go that far if I wanted to make it to the airport on time, where I had put my bags in storage. Also seeing that I wasn't at all familiar with the NY train system, I figured it was a bad idea, so we took a train to a place of which I now forget the name. There we parted and Ya'akov told me not to get lost and I believe I said that I wouldn't. On the train I eventually had to ask someone how to get to the next spot because it wasn't clear how to know which was the right train, and the information lady told me to get on the train labeled "Far Rockaway." When that train came I boarded it and it took me back to the airport. I helped a German girl who asked me to help her with her bag, got off at the Terminal Four exit, and she continued to Seven. Upon arrival I went to Terminal Four, got my bags, and found a fairly secluded place to davin Mincha (the second prayer of the day).

It was around three PM and the plane was scheduled to arrive at 8:20 PM. I love the way flights to Israel are always full of Jews, I think Terminal Four was probably all Jews just sittin' around waiting to fly to their Holy Land. At around six, it must have been, a gentleman in a black hat went up to me and asked, "Ma'ariv," which is third prayer of the day, at evening, and last. I responded, "Yes," took my siddur, and a minyan of us davined there in the airport. A while later the plane arrived and we boarded - I could not believe I was on the way to Israel.

I had basically last minute decided to go to study in a yeshiva in Israel, of which my dad was fully supportive, and now, three weeks later, I was on my way to Israel after four years of not being there, fulfilling a dream. If things work out, G-d willing, I'll stay here forever.

The sun moved around the globe of the Earth and come 7 AM, or so, a bachur on the plane started wrapping t'fillin (which men do in the morning prayers). He must have acted as the rooster because soon several people were, including myself, and eventually we all huddled in the back of the plane davining. Some women were davining in their seats as well. The Israeli flight attendant got upset that we were taking up so much room, (hehe) but we finished our obligation to G-d taking up as little room as possible and sat back down. It was my first time davining twice in an airport and once on a plane.

Upon landing, which had arrived in Tel-Aviv at around 2 PM and not 12:50 as scheduled, I knew that my uncle Yossi, who was supposed to pick me up, had probably had to leave. Therefore, I didn't particularly hurry in checking in my bags. After around half an hour I had both of them and called my aunt Miriam's house, the only number I had (apparently I didn't bring Yossi's with me). My young cousin, Tal, answered, and told me that nobody was there. I knew I had to take a bus or cab now, so I went outside and found a cab to Jerusalem, which is an address that I had. On the way I realized that it was the wrong address so I called my sister using another passenger's phone, an American Jewish kid who was in Israel to help Israeli's in the north. I told her what was going on and thank G-d I was in the same area in Jerusalem in which she studied for nine months, so she told me to go to the bus station there.

After arriving there, and having to drag my two suitcases everywhere and getting help from people around me, mostly Israeli bachurim, one who even gave me some money, I managed to get on a bus to Be'er Sheva. An young bachura also paid a fare for me since I was out of shkalim (shekels, the Israeli currency) - some big time chessed going on there. The bus was full of younger kids, I think high school age, so I stood. A quarter of the way I sat down on the floor near the exit and from the sheer tiredness, I began dozing off sporadically and my head lolled up and down. Everytime the bus hit a bump or swerved (because it was an Israeli driver) I awoke with a violent spasm of my entire body. In order to stay awake, I stood up, but apparently that didn't keep me from falling into deep levels of sleep for about ten seconds at a time, and the deeper the sleep the more grossly violent was the spasm which awoke me, and the more of my body which it included - I'm sure it was quite a sight.

Not much later the bus arrived at the station, I called my sister, and then my mom (who lives in Omer, a suburb of Be'er Sheva) and I took a cab to her house. Upon arrival there, which is the same neighborhood as my aunt Tzila's, I met my mom and we took my bags to her house. We chit-chatted a bit but I was ready to sleep, and did so at my aunt and uncle's (Chayim and Tzila), a three-or-so-minute walk. So far I had had an eventful twenty four hours of absolute time; davining with Satmars, seeing 770, hanging with Ya'akov, floundering in the streets of NY, taking a train of obscurity, davining twice in airport and once on a plain, getting lost in Jerusalem's bus system (entirely my fault), and finally arriving in Omer, "home sweet home" but somehow home sweet home (for many reasons, once because it's Israel) and seeing my mom. My mom bought me some food (pita bread, plain yogurt, and milky, which is like this pudding with frosting that I always ate as a child here) which was very, very nice. Then we walked to my aunt's house where I saw her three kids (Nir, Ori, and Michal, 15, 16, 17), and Nir, who is buff now, beat me in arm wrestling. I made my bed and went to sleep.

At six in the morning I awoke (not as violently as I did on the bus) after a deep sleep, got my t'fillin and siddur and went to davin in the synagogue behind the house, which I never cared to see. I spoke with my uncle Chayim a bit, who is a very nice person and we always got along. I became an observant Jew during the last four years in Tucson and the last time I was in Israel I was not, and there was no reason for any of my family to think that I would become. Now that they suddenly see this bearded kippah-wearing dude, it's kind of new to them; I felt that Chayim was acting a bit accomodating, which he always has, but I hope it's not because I'm observant now - regardless of the decision I'm still the same person. Seeing my family's reaction to my decision is something which I have been eager for and anticipated, but now that the time has come, I realize that the responses might be a bit more dynamic than expected. Nevertheless, it's all good, I don't really mind and I know things will be find. Chayim showed me where all the food was, and then went to the Chabad synagogue behind the house, where I davined and wrapped t'fillin for the first time in Israel. There two men there, one of which I learned was the rabbi there. After finishing I went to the rabbi's house right next door, the door of which read "Rav Ginsburg" in Hebrew, and told him that I was finished so he could lock it, as he asked me. Then on the way back to my mom's house I saw her, got some pita bread and borecas, met some of her friends who work in the stores, and came back here to write all of this down right here.

Right now, Doris, an Egyptian Israel and my mom's downstairs landlord, is speaking with the Bedouin man who has come to fix the roof.

Until later, this is all I have now.

Peace, Yaniv...

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