“I am going to Israel for my 40th birthday,” I proudly announced, quietly to my wife, and to our rebbetzin, who were seated in the back of the sanctuary during a Shabbat service. “Knock yourself out,” my wife said, unmoved by my bold proclamation. For my wife was used to my boasts and predictions, but usually as they applied to sports. “Jets are going to win the super bowl this year,” I have predicated every year since I discovered Joe Namath. “No, I’m not kidding this time, they are going all the way.”
I had never been to Israel before 2005. Growing up in a suburb of New York City, and attending a conservative shul, to me, Israel was for the wealthy and/or observant. It wasn’t for people like me. But now, at this juncture of my life, instead of having a midlife crisis, an affair, or buying a sports car, I decided that I would mark this traditional milestone like a bar mitzah of sorts. “I’m really going to go,” I recall saying, just as confidently as I pick football games every Sunday during the fall. Our rebbetzin looked on approvingly since she had spent much time in Israel as a young person, a portion of every summer there since I met her, and speaks Hebrew like a sabra. “You do that, pumpkin,” my wife said, still nonplused.
Fate intervened. Not long after my catharsis in synagogue, I learned of a continuing legal education (CLE) trip through a California law school, to Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv for two weeks. Perfect. Trip to Israel, and a legitimate business expense. Obviously god wanted me to go to Israel.
I had heard about the grilling travelers receive by Israeli boarding agents at the airport. More excited than nervous, I convinced them that two weeks really was enough time to study law (at least for me it was). The flight was relatively uneventful until it was time for morning prayer. Nobody told me that I had to wrap my tefelin and pray at 30,000 feet. At that altitude, my arm was much more like a tourniquet than a ritual reminder of observance. But I loved it. I was surrounded by Jews even though they looked religious and I looked like a tourist.
I arrived at my hotel in Tel Aviv midmorning on a Friday. I had done it. Here I was, gorgeous view of the beach and all. Dropping my bags and text books on the floor, I decided to go exploring. My first law class wasn’t until Sunday, so I had some time to enjoy. With an almost nonexistent grasp of Hebrew, I took to the streets of Tel Aviv. Reflexively, I compare every city to New York. I lived in Manhattan, worked in Manhattan and grew up 50 miles from City, so it’s an unavoidable component of my DNA. But when I walk the streets of Midtown, I don’t usually find myself searching the faces of other pedestrians for signs of terrorism. At least I didn’t before 9/11. Perhaps I should. However, as I first traversed the street parallel to the Tel Aviv beach, to me, everyone was a potential threat. I was on high alert. What exactly had I gotten myself into? I was afraid to open my mouth.
So I walked. And looked. And sweated. Anyone who has ever hoofed around Tel Aviv in July knows how humid it is. And not like Florida humidity. That’s the minor leagues. This is real humidity. Israeli humidity. It has an attitude, and a smile. But after a while, I was soaked. And starving.
I had never been a falafel guy. Of course, Israeli pita sandwiches were legendary. Finding a stand on the beach across the street from my non-descript hotel, I grabbed a falafel and brought it safely up to my room where I could eat in peace, blast the air conditioner and conceal from the world my lack of Hebrew.
But I had now discovered a gastronomic delight I had been denied my whole life. Chickpeas, French fries AND pickles? It was more than I could handle.
The next day, was Shabbos in Tel Aviv. I had a list of conservative/masorti congregations and a map of the city. I was told that “real” Israelis almost never wear a suit to shul, but I wanted to show the appropriate level of respect of a visitor, especially an American. So I grabbed my tallit bag, donned my kippa and took to the humid streets once again wearing much more clothing than the weather suggested.
Within minutes, I was soaked and lost. Watching my window of opportunity to daven at an Israeli Shabbos torah service slam shut, I was growing frustrated. But as I scanned the neighborhood, instinctively comparing it to NY again, I noticed the doorposts. I was home. Even though I had no clue where I was, I was home. I was surrounded and safe. As I stood there, an older woman approached me. “Shul,” she queried. “Ah, can,” I muttered, almost apologetically. She pointed. It wasn’t one of my “approved” synagogues, but it was wonderful. My first torah service in Israel. And a bar mitzvah for me that only I knew about. Now maybe the Jets would win a super bowl too.