JFK International Airport, New York
Preceding my departure, my mom had given me an immaculately organized manila folder, which included everything from a copy of my birth certificate and hotel reservations to a comprehensive list of addresses and pin numbers which intricately tracked my journey from Copperopolis to New York to Jerusalem and back. Each document in the stack had the important parts highlighted and instructions scribbled in the margins, often reading: DO NOT LOSE.
My mom was worried about me, and rightfully so. Despite my assurances that Jerusalem was the ‘safest country in the Middle East’, it wasn’t much comfort to her; the only exposure she had to the Middle East was when it came on the TV in grisly images of beheadings and shell-shocked cities. To be honest, I felt much the same, but I repeated to her and myself that my school would not allow me to go there if it wasn’t safe. And, after all, a semester abroad was meant to broaden my mind and shatter my preconceptions.
Though I knew they would have much preferred that I travel to a more conventional destination like Spain or France, I was surprised at how little she and my dad protested. “It’s your decision,” they resigned, and my mom stated that she would be almost equally concerned if I were travelling to either of their preferred places. You see, I am sad to admit that am a person who took twenty years to memorize my social security number, who is self-proclaimed ‘formaphobe’ (def. the fear of filling out forms), and who consistently walks the wrong way down the hallway when exiting hotel rooms.
All this considered, my mom would later admit that she was unsure if I’d even make it to Jerusalem when she had hugged me tightly at San Francisco International Airport and let me go, heavily laden with hot pink luggage and that priceless packet of information which could so easily be left on a bench or in a bathroom stall. ‘Have fun. Be safe. We love you!’ were her final words, holding back many more. ‘Watch out for hamas!’ were my father’s.
Now, at JFK Airport after a night in a New York hotel, I felt rather accomplished after navigating a big city which seemed as foreign to me as I assumed Jerusalem would be, with perhaps even less English-speakers. The Packet, so far, had served me well. However, the second I stepped into the giant El-Al line with my giant suitcases, I knew I had now travelled beyond the realm of its expertise….
I was immediately singled out by one of the airline employees, maybe because of my outrageous luggage, or maybe because I was the only non-Jew in a crowd of a hundred. She and her sidekick began to question me regarding my destination and purpose, but were quickly deemed unqualified to handle a threat of my caliber after I mentioned I was going to study Arabic. The task was taken over by a very large security employee who looked like he had likely killed someone at some point. He proceeded to grill me very rapidly for thirty minutes, requesting my life story and my future plans, never breaking eye contact as the other two employees stared intently. Finally, he finished with a wink and a word of advice: "You should learn Persian instead." I laughed nervously and was left feeling that my whole life was a lie. I just felt guilty. Throughout the interrogation, I was asked to whip out certain documents from the trusty Packet to support my story. With each neatly labeled page, I was reminded of my love for my mother.
After this, I was escorted by the two ladies, one in front and one behind, through the entire TSA security line. I didn't know why, but I didn't ask. A small part of me wondered if they were taking me somewhere less pleasant.
We arrived at my gate, and they told me a man would come to check my backpack again before I got on the plane. I was left alone for a while until, sure enough, another man who looked like he'd killed someone arrived to take my bag into a private screening room. He let me keep my money, but that was it. He was in there for about an hour, probably reading my diary, I thought. Thus, I had an hour to sit and try to remember everything I had ever written. I couldn't think of anything incriminating, but then I realized that Israeli Security Man now knew me and my deepest, angsty feelings better than anyone else. All of my sad crushes and my miserable wallowing in middle school.... good God. The plane was now boarding, so he was forced to tear his eyes away from the bittersweet pages of my life and give me my damn bag back. But before he did, he ushered me into the screening room, closed the door, and ran some sort of scanner over my palms to check if I had been working with any explosive elements lately. He seemed almost disappointed when the test came up negative. I'm sure he was itching to take me into that interrogation room behind the curtain and rough me up a bit. Though, after reading my diary, I couldn’t blame him.
"Can I go now?" I asked, feeling very prickly.
"Wait," he said. He handed me my bag (immaculately re-packed, to his credit), and escorted me to the front of the boarding line.
So, here I was on the plane. I was one of the very first to board and all set up with a cozy window seat that my mom had requested for me. I sat in silent celebration of all that I had overcome to get here and relished releasing the fear that I might not even make it on this flight. Now, all I had to do was watch the sky pass by and sleep.
"Excuse me!" erupted a loud voice. I took out my earbuds and looked at a middle-aged woman and an older version of her sitting beside me. "Yes. My daughter, see? She is sitting over there." She pointed at a girl about my age who was wedged between two old people in the center aisle. "She is separated from us and would like to sit with me and her grandmother, here. Would it be possible for you to change seats with her?" She asked very sweetly in her heavy accent, yet, somehow I knew if I said ‘no’ I would be trapped with two seething Jewish mothers for the next eleven hours.
"Uh, yeah...Sure." Even as I said these words, I knew I had made a grave mistake. The seat change was immediate and irrevocable, and the only person I hated more than the woman at that moment was myself. The daughter was so very pleased with the new arrangement that I tried to feel happy for her, but I simply could not as I squeezed between the armrests that the old people had unapologetically claimed and stared at the seat in front of me. The plane hadn't even moved yet, and I had no clue how I was going to survive eleven hours....
About three hours into the flight with no sleep, the old lady beside me began complaining about faulty light switches on the arm rests. There was clearly some sort of issue with the wiring, but she told the flight attendant to fix it. "What kind of plane is this?" she asked me in broken English.
"Terrible," I replied. "It's a terrible plane." Much to everyone's surprise but my own, the attendant returned to inform us that she, in fact, could not fix it.
"What do you mean you can't fix it?” the lady croaked. “It's broken! It doesn't work! Look!" She and the old couple sitting on my other side began pressing all of the buttons - "Look! This one is 'on'! This one is 'off'! It doesn't work!" - for about five minutes while the attendant repeated tiredly that they were not listening to her and she still could not fix it. I wasn't exactly sure what was happening, but I pressed some buttons in solidarity. I figured it was best to stay on good terms with the people I was wedged between. She left and we all shrugged at each other, cursing the service once more before finally settling down for the remainder of the trip.
A few more hours went by and I still couldn't sleep. I watched the agonizingly slow flight path on a screen that could only have been put there to torment me. I finally got up to walk around for the sake of my sanity. I wasn't tired for some reason, and although I was surrounded by sleeping people, I felt very alone. I had barely conversed with anyone for twenty-four hours.
I ended up standing at the base of the stairs next to the bathroom with my forehead against the wall. “How’s it going?” a voice asked. It was a young man sitting in one of the backwards-facing ride-along seats.
“How does it look?” I replied. He laughed.
“Want to sit down?” Normally, I would never have granted his request for fear of a mortifying experience. But I was lonely, and he had a kind, easy smile.
I passed the remaining hours with this man, Daniel. He was well-traveled and liked talking about the differences between Israeli and American culture. We spoke of everything from politics to Disneyland. “You see that guy over there?” he asked suddenly, pointing at a long-haired, gangly man waiting for the toilet. “That’s Matisyahu.” I actually knew of him - the Hasidic reggae singer. If I had heard of him, he must be a legend in Israel. However, no one seemed phased, least of all Daniel, who said nothing more of the matter.
He had much to teach me in the short time we had. Like, for example, how to be straightforward. “You Americans are too polite,” he ranted. “You always say ‘interesting’ when you’re not interested. You need to stop that if you want to survive.” We both laughed, but I took his advice seriously. He was my first friend in Israel and I was no longer alone. For this, I was thankful. And I never would have met him if I hadn’t given up my seat.
Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv
Daniel found me at the baggage claim, combing the crowd for any other international students from the alleged “Group Flight” the program had organized, and looking lost. “You look lost,” he said.
The plan had been to locate fellow students from this “Group Flight” and figure out transportation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem together. However, I had the sinking feeling that either the whole arrangement had been a cruel joke, or I was the only schmuck who’d signed up for the most expensive flight available. Regardless, I was now the only foreigner in sight and had no plan. Thankfully, Daniel took pity and all but carried me to the taxi line (he carried my bag and determined the cab fee). I gave him a huge hug and promised to visit him in Tel Aviv if I ever managed to get my life together. And then he was gone.
I found myself in yet another mass of impatient Israelis, wondering vaguely where all the Palestinians were. I waited beside a jammy-clad Matisyahu and his Hasidic homies, praying that my cab driver would understand English. The air was thick and heavy, and everything began to feel surreal. I made a firm resolution that I would make it to my dorm if it killed me, and then sleep for days. This was now my sole purpose in life.
Growing fainter by the minute, I made it to the front of the line and met my cab driver, who looked like an old Robert DeNiro. To my horror, he did not understand a word of English. His face crumpled in confusion when I showed him the address, but nodded and started to drive. I decided to put all my faith in this man’s capabilities, partly because he looked like Robert DeNiro, but mostly because I didn’t have a choice. The morning traffic was terrible, though I didn’t mind. It gave me time to watch the rainy landscape while nodding off in intervals. DeNiro’s music genre of choice was a hybrid of Europop and Fiddler on the Roof. ‘Yibbi Dibbi Dai, I Wanna be your Disco Boy’ played as we rolled by a shepherd (yes, a shepherd) tending his sheep in an ancient olive grove; then, grimy apartments with Arabian horses tied up outside. DeNiro pointed at the apartments and yelled, “Phillistini!” Later on, he winked in the mirror and gave me some candy, so I decided everything was going to be alright.
As we pulled into the city, he became more talkative. We managed to establish that I was from Hollywood (meaning California) and that this was my first time here. We struggled like the blind leading the blind in finding the Hebrew University Student Village, so I tried speaking Arabic in an attempt to better communicate. He understood this better than English, but his eyes grew very wide and he was no longer talkative. To my great relief, I spotted two Asian students who looked lost and I told him to drop me off here. To his credit, he had made an effort not to leave me on a random corner, and he sent me off kindly, though he clearly did not know what to think of me.