When I was offered the opportunity to go on this trip to Israel, I was really psyched about it. I mean, it’s not every day that you get the chance to travel to one of the most important places in the world. Israel, and Jerusalem specifically, has been the direction of prayer for Jews for thousands of years. For some Christians in some periods it has also served as a direction of prayer. The same can be said for Muslims. During the initial years of Islam, Jerusalem was the qibla, or direction of prayer, before it was switched to Mecca to create a distinction between Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage for all three faiths. Millions and millions of people have turned their thoughts, hopes and dreams toward that city. And, I got the chance to go for free. I’m still not entirely sure why. The Jewish Studies program director said it’s just because of who I am. I suppose he means personality and academic achievement, but no matter the reason, I am exceedingly grateful because it was an amazing experience. Life changing in some ways. And, while we didn’t all become the best of friends, we all bonded with each other to varying degrees. How couldn’t we?
But, that came later. Before heading to the airport, we all met up at our professor’s apartment in Manhattan. She had arranged transportation from there to the airport so we could arrive organized, as a group. It was less stressful for her to do things that way and reduced the chances of someone missing the flight.
Security was less aggressive than I expected. I suppose I had built up the interrogation process in my mind and the actual process was sort of a let down. I suppose that sounds sort of odd, but being battered with questions is part of the Israel experience now, for good or bad. I was asked about my identity, who I was traveling with, how long I’d known them, if I’d packed my bags and had my bags in my possession the whole time, and whether or not anyone had tried to give me anything to take to Israel. I was also asked who was in charge of the group and how long I’d known her. I think the process of trying to explain to them that we were all traveling as a group from a school was more complicated and tiresome than answering the questions and Professor Kornfeld handled that part of it anyway.
We wandered around the airport for a while before we headed to the boarding area. I bought a neck pillow. I figured I would need it and got a firm memory foam pillow. It came in handy, especially on the flight back. I thought about how long the week was going to be. Besides Professor Kornfeld, I was the only married person on the trip. I was also the only guy on the trip. That made things interesting, but not in a bad way. But, what I mean is that I was wondering how well things were going to go with my wife being alone for a week with the dog and cats.
When we got to the gate, we went ahead and got in line to board. We stood near the velvet cords that are removed when the staff is going to allow passengers to board. There were people standing by the windows praying. I’m not sure if they were doing evening prayers, praying for a safe flight, or both.
As the time to board came closer, a lot of the Chassidic people decided we weren’t important enough to be at the front of the line, or perhaps that they were too holy to be second, and walked in front of us and squeezed us out of our spot in the line. We had to start telling people the line actually starts at the back, not the front, or I think we would have found everyone bunched in front of us in a huge cluster of stupid.
The El Al staff wasn’t much better. The woman that checked my ticket and passport before letting pass through onto the boarding walkway even made a “psst” noise through her teeth as she handed back my identification. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it then, or perhaps I was too excited to be getting on the plane, but I can’t understand how these people can be so rude to customers and still have their jobs. The flight crew made up for it. They were extremely pleasant.
The plane itself was not impressive. It looked old. The screens on the backs of the chairs were discolored, flickered, or were dim. There was no on-demand video. There was a screen at the front of our section of the cabin that was just set to show what was on one of the available channels. It was worse than most domestic Delta flights I’ve taken. It didn’t hold a candle to Singapore Airlines. Those guys even give out slippers, tooth brushes and tooth paste. Complimentary champagne too, in economy class. El Al wouldn’t even agree to provide vegetarian meals for people in our group who don’t eat meat. But, at least it was safe.
I had a surprise on the plane. When I looked to my left I saw a guy I recognized and after a while I realized he attends the same synagogue I do. When I caught his eye he smiled and waved and I found out he was heading to Israel for a wedding. I bumped into him again at the customs/border control area.
Arriving in Israel, we discovered that there is no immigration stamp anymore. Because the Arab countries behave like children and won’t allow anyone in that has an Israeli visa stamp in their passport, Israel has had to change the way they issue visas. Now, they provide you with a printed card that looks sort of like an ID, with a photo and an entry number. You get another one as you leave the country. I was disappointed. Even though not having that stamp is probably best if I want to do more traveling in the region, it would have been cool to have. And, do I really want to visit and spend money in countries that behave like that anyway?
We left New York City at about midnight and arrived in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion airport at about 4 PM. The drive to Jerusalem wasn’t that long at all. Before we knew it we were dropping our things off at the hotel. We were staying at the Eldan, across the street from the King David Hotel. I can’t remember if we showered. I’m sure I brushed my teeth at least, but before long we were back in the van and heading out for dinner.
To be continued…