Lucky I had my Levi’s jacket on, because there was a cool wind meandering its way among the dimly lit tables in the outdoor café on Frish Street in the Jewish city that never sleeps, Tel Aviv.
The young American girl opposite me was lovely, and blew doors on the shiksa I had left behind in Washington less than a week before. This girl had dark, shoulder-length, chestnut brown hair that fluttered in the chilly gusts that blew in from the beachfront a few blocks away.
“So you’re going to – Jerusalem”, she asked, stirring her drink. “Be careful, it can be dangerous there. What are your plans?”
“Well”, I answered, “I’m actually going to study in a yeshiva (religious seminary).”
She put her drink down and looked at me. “A yeshiva?”
“Yeah. But it’s not in Jerusalem. It’s in a place called Elazar, somewhere in the West Bank.”
Her green eyes opened wide, and she gave me a look that on a warmer day might have burned a hole through my shirt.
“Oh, I see.”
Under her breath, she must have muttered: “Next.”
The next day, at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, I looked for the 161 bus. “The station is right over there,” motioned an old lady with a flower-print head shawl tied loosely beneath her third chin. “Where are you going?”
“Hmmm. Be careful. It can be dangerous there.”
When I got to Elazar, I found myself rooming with Moshe. He was younger than I, and was marrying a fellow American expat, Tsipporah, in three weeks.
A few days after the wedding, a sheva brachot (wedding feast) was scheduled to take place at the home of one of the Yeshiva rabbis. As I boarded the bus from Elazar at nightfall, the South-African born guard at the gate asked me, “Where is the sheva brachot?”
“Hevron,” I replied.
“Whoa,” said the guard, his eyebrows going up. “Be careful. It might be dangerous there.”
The bus snaked its way southward, down the main road into Hevron, past decrepit, abandoned stone buildings that appeared ready to crumble on the spot. The bus driver let me off a few meters from the Ma’arat HaMachpalah (Cave of the Patriarchs), the world’s oldest standing prayer structure still in use and the place where the biblical fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation were laid to rest more than 3,000 years ago. For more than a thousand years, until 1967, Jewish people were prevented by the Islamic authorities from going beyond the seventh step of the staircase that climbed up to the building entrance.
“Hey!” barked a voice. “What are you doing here?”
I turned to see a soldier dressed in riot gear, a heavy American M16 rifle slung over his shoulder, motioning to me to step forward. “I’m visiting the graves of my ancestors. Do you have a problem with that?” I replied.
“Listen, this is not an hour to be wandering out here all alone. Where are you going?”
“To a sheva brachot - near Beit Hadassah”.
“Hey, you better be careful. It could be dangerous. I’m going to make a foot patrol and walk you there.”
“WHAT?” I shouted into the face of the soldier. “I have waited 2,000 years to come and visit the Tomb of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. This is Hevron, which we conquered from Jordan in the Six Day War. Israel controls this place – and I can’t just walk around freely here? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?”
I walked in silence with the soldier to the rabbi’s house. The building was infamous for being the place in 1929 where men, women and children of the Hebron Jewish community had huddled together, waiting for their Arab neighbors armed with knives, axes and hammers to arrive. It is said that the when the mob was finally sated from its frenzy, the high ceilings of the long and narrow building were completely covered by the splattered blood of the victims.
Just before the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after the Meal), the young rabbi who lived with his family in the house asked me, “So – what are your plans for the summer?”
“I’m returning to Washington so I can pack up my apartment and make aliyah.”
“I’m glad to hear you are coming to live in Israel,” he smiled. But then his forehead wrinkled up, and a frown crossed his face.
“Hey. You better be careful in Washington. I hear it can be very dangerous there.”