‘In your own words’ – 3 evacuation stories

This is a long read. If you don’t have time or patience, you could pass over my thoughts on how we recount the exodus from Egypt and skip straight to ‘Annapurna,’ Micha Price’s retelling of a dramatic Himalayan rescue story, and ‘Sheikh Jarrah,’ a sad Jerusalem story soon to be retold.    

Story 1: Evacuation from Egypt

Question: Why did God bring us out of Egypt with a strong arm and an outstretched hand? Answer: So that we could tell the story of how God brought us out of Egypt with a strong arm and an outstretched hand.

That makes no sense, you might be thinking. Maybe not, but the book of Exodus gives us plenty of reasons to take it seriously.

Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Partly to impress the Egyptians and Israelites who witnessed the signs, that is, the plagues, first-hand. But partly so that the Israelites could ‘recount in the hearing of their children and their children’s children’ how God made a mockery of the Egyptians (Exodus 10:1-2).

This is one of several occasions on which God invokes Israel’s future descendants, not with poetic imagery such as stars in the skies or sand on the shore, but as flesh and blood children who will ask the questions kids ask. Lamah? Why are you killing that baby lamb and smearing its blood on our front door (Exodus 12:26)? Why are we taking all our bagels out of the freezer at once (Exodus 13:8)? Why are they paying that man for my new baby cousin (Exodus 13:14)? Why can’t I eat those hot-dogs (Deuteronomy 6:20)?

Another question: Why did God tell the Israelites to eat the Passover offering ‘hurriedly’ with their ‘loins girded’, sandals on their feet, and staffs in their hands, even though their last meal in Egypt was planned weeks in advance and took place at twilight, hours before they were due to leave (Exodus 12:11)? Perhaps because he wanted us to ‘remember’ that inspiring, picturesque scene, instead of inferring from our own experience what it must hace been like : little kids wailing that their feet hurt; older kids weeping over the shocking death of the boy next door; grandparents insisting they were too old or infirm to make the journey; couples quarreling about what to pack; nay-sayers warning that leaving Egypt is a terrible mistake.

The Passover Haggadah follows the Bible’s lead in creating a dramatic story out of a messy event; it is inclined to pass over details that hint at doubt, dissent or complexity.

The book of Exodus begins with Joseph, the Israelite who rose from slavery in Egypt to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man and married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. The Haggadah speaks neither of Joseph nor of a time when life was good in Egypt, but opens with a typology of persecution starting with Jacob’s father-in-law Laban.

The Haggadah doesn’t mention the blood on the doorposts, a time for opting in, but also for opting out. It does mention the Red Sea crossing, but only briefly as a site of intense divine intervention, not, as it is in Exodus, as a deterrent for Israelites who wanted to go back to Egypt (Exodus 13:18). Indeed, the Haggadah, unlike the Bible, has no time for Israelites who complained, criticized and yearned for return.

In part, perhaps, because there’s no story to back it up, the Haggadah has surprisingly little to say about the negative prohibition against eating hametz, leaven, a central component of Pesach. The positive commandment to eat matza, by contrast, was reinforced by the biblical story of how the Israelites left Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time for the dough to rise. Matza plays a central role in the Haggadah and, of course, at the Seder itself.

My husband Chaim had been reading a book about the Haggadah written by a colleague in Bar Ilan University’s Talmud Department, and at our Seder he shared some observations that reflect on the role of storytelling. A well-known episode in the Haggadah tells of five rabbis in Bene Brak who spent all night recounting the exodus from Egypt, stopping only when their students came to tell them that it was time to say the morning Shema. A rabbinic text elsewhere records a similar episode in which Rabban Gamaliel and the elders spend all night in Lod learning the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, rising to go to the House of Study only when the cock crowed.

There seem to have been two traditions about how to spend the Seder night, one favoring telling the story and one favoring studying the laws. Clearly (and thankfully for us), our Haggadah preferred the first option. But it occurred to me that it may have retained tantalizing traces of this makhloket, disagreement.

Hacham, the first of the Haggadah’s Four Sons, asks a question about the statutes and ordinances. He is answered according to the laws of Pesach. Hacham means wise, and is usually understood here as a clever son, but the same word designates a rabbinic sage.

Tam, the third son, seems to ask a question about something he sees in front of him, what is this? He is answered with a summary of the story: ‘With a strong hand God brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’. Tam is usually understood here as an unintelligent son, but it might also apply to an uneducated Jew.

In other words, the Haggadah’s Four Sons may signal two possible kinds of Seder, one for the rabbinic elite, who would learn the laws of the Pesach offering, and one for the masses, who would recount the story of the exodus from Egypt.

But these options, if they ever existed, didn’t remain long on the Seder table. The Bene Brak rabbis and the Four Sons are continuations of, even proof-texts for, a resounding rejection of the possibility that the elite would learn laws: ‘Even if all of us are wise (hachamim, sages), all of us are intelligent, all of us are elders, all of know the Torah, we are obliged to recount the exodus from Egypt …’  We must all tell the story — ideally in our own words: ‘Whoever elaborates/expands/tells at length the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy’.

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Collection, The National Library of Israel (view the whole Haggadah here)

Story 2: A Himalayan evacuation  

On Shabbat HaGadol, a week before Pesach, we were having lunch with our friends Naomi and Jonathan, Micha and David. Micha had recently returned from the far east, and we wanted to hear about his travels. Well, I rode around Vietnam on a motorbike, said Micha, and he produced a book of stunning photographs of motorbikes in Vietnam, each picture worth a thousand words.

Hans Kemp, Bikes of Burden (review article and more images here)

Later at the table, we asked to hear more. Tell them what happened at Annapurna, Naomi said. Micha didn’t just tell us what happened, he told us a story. Here it is, just as Micha told it to us — in his own words. (Thank you, Micha!)

Annapurna, by Micha Price

I had been discharged from the army at the end of October after a long period of nearly 5 years, as an officer.

On October 11th, I handed in my army equipment. By October 14th I was with my mother on a plane due east to Nepal with an incredible delegation of 15 people raising money for Tevel b’Tzedek – an Israeli NGO based in Nepal that works with local communities to strengthen rural villages as part of a Tikkun Olam vision.

Micha and Naomi with Everest in the background

We spent an unforgettable two weeks in Kathmandu, the Everest national park, and the Katmandu valley [see Zaki Djemal’s account here]. When they left, I stayed in Nepal with two and a half months left on my visa and an open ticket.

The following week I regained my strength, managed to forget how cold the Everest trek was, and met a nice group of people planning to do the Annapurna circuit.

By the 4th day of hiking another group of Israelis and ourselves had gravitated towards each other and we were an unofficial group of 8. That 4th day was planned to be a leisurely 5-hour hike that would end in a small village called ‘Upper Pisang’. About an hour before reaching our destination, we stopped at a small village and drank an afternoon beer. Noticing a small commotion outside the hut where we were sitting, we walked out to snoop and see what was going on.

Eight people were huddled around a woman who was lying on a blanket on the ground, partly unconscious, her face caked in blood. It turns out that she had blacked out temporarily just as she was walking down steps. (perhaps due to drinking at high altitude and her body disagreeing with her). An American nurse called Laura who happened to be trekking there pulled out a pair of medical latex gloves and took control of the situation. She thought there was a danger of partial brain damage and spinal injury. Laura locked her hands around the neck of the woman – a German woman called Janet – to make sure no further damage could occur.

Now we were eight people holding the edges of a blanket carrying Janet to a location where a helicopter could potentially land. An entourage of about ten people had formed around us. Once we reached the landing site, an open field near a small clearing of trees, we laid Janet down and waited for the helicopter to come. Of the almost 20 people who had escorted Janet so far. we decided that only 8 were needed to make sure she is easily and securely placed on the helicopter, so we decided to stick around.

When we heard the helicopter rotors, somebody asked if anyone knew how to land a helicopter from the ground. My army training does qualify me to do so, however I was never trained to land a helicopter without radio contact with the pilot, and I was definitely not trained to do so in the Himalayas, where the accepted aviation signals could be different. Nonetheless, I improvised a landing pad by tying a bright red scarf I had with me to my hiking poles and started signaling to the helicopter. Despite my efforts, the helicopter pilot was apparently unsure that he would be able to take off from the clearing once he’d landed so he turned around and left.

At this point, we didn’t know what was going on. The only person in contact with the helicopter was the local Sherpa (porter); he was talking to the control center in Kathmandu, and they were communicating with the pilot. In his limited English he explained that he thinks he knows where the helicopter landed and we needed to take Janet there.

He pointed to a location on the map that was two and half kilometers away from where we were, through Himalayan terrain.

How on earth do 8 people take a wounded woman with potential brain damage and spinal injury to a helicopter two and half kilometers away in the Himalayas?

My friend and I looked at each other and smiled. We understood that we were about to do something crazy. We decided that somehow we are going to build a stretcher and transport Janet army-style. Our first thought was to rig up a stretcher by tying together all our hiking poles. It made sense – poles are lightweight, strong, and straight. But a glance at the number of poles we had, and a sense of what would happen if one of them snapped mid-march made us decide against it.

My friend Sagi noticed there was an old wooden cattle fence nearby and suggested we use some of the planks as a base for the stretcher. We ran and got a whole bunch of planks and picked the six that seemed most reliable. We placed two planks horizontally and the remaining four perpendicularly on top the first two. Janet’s porter untied his load and we used the ropes he was carrying to tie the rigged stretcher at crucial points that would give it as much structural integrity as possible. At this point we were four Israelis putting together the stretcher and there were about 15 by-standers and potential helpers watching us work from the sidelines and asking what needs to be done.

The stretcher was ready, and we had tested it on the heaviest person there. Janet was covered in Benny’s sleeping bag and two thermal blankets, and I made a few quick announcements:

  1. The first step is to lift the stretcher on the count of three to waist height and only then we lift it to shoulder height on the count of three.
  2. If anyone needs to be relieved, he is to raise his hand and someone will come.
  3. Find a partner your same height. When someone is relieved, both sides need to be switched to maintain balance.

We wanted to make sure that Janet was securely tied to the stretcher, so Benny and Sagi used their scarves to tie her head and feet and I pulled my long elastic underwear out of my backpack and fastened her to the stretcher around her waist.

And then we walked. An American couple (Laura and Alex) who were both nurses, monitored her neck and consciousness; two German guys; a Russian traveling on his own; a German doctor who had been found and joined us; the Nepali porter, a Canadian; and eight Israelis. We walked for about an hour and half, stopping every few minutes to straighten Janet’s head (Since I am 6’4, I was assigned to the task of straightening her head when needed).

We crossed a very questionable bridge, and went up a few comically steep hills.

And finally we saw the helicopter chilling in an open field at a plateau on the ridge.

When we saw the helicopter, our hearts sank. Helicopter evacuations in Nepal are predominantly for altitude sickness and fever. They are NOT designed to carry somebody lying prone, let alone on a stretcher. The helicopter was a tiny five-seater with room for a pilot and co-pilot in the front and three seated passengers in the back.

Yoav and Shir (two of the guys who were with us) climbed in and tried to fold up the back seats, but the mechanism to lock the seats in an upright position was broken. Reluctantly, we took Janet off the stretcher, took it apart and used the Sherpa’s ropes to tie the seats in an upright position. Since the helicopter was so narrow, we ended up sliding Janet in, turning her diagonally to fit most of her body into the helicopter and folding her knees before shutting the door. After shutting the helicopter door, we remembered that Benny’s sleeping bag was covering her. We opened the helicopter, took the sleeping bag, rummaged through the bag with Janet’s personal belongings and threw everything warm we could find on her.

FINALLY, we shut the helicopter door, watched it take off, took a group picture and continued our journey to the guesthouse where we played guitar, shared a few beers and settled down for the night.

A week later we were notified that Janet woke up in the hospital with no brain damage, no spinal injury, and no recollection of the whole ordeal.

The story spread like wildfire among the many young Israelis like us hiking the Annapurna trail. Most of the details were pretty spot on but some rumors that I heard were the fruit of storytellers’ imagination. We had performed CPR (false), only Israelis were there (majority- but false), and we had walked for a whole day with a stretcher (about two hours – but close). People throughout my trip were disbelieving when they found out I was there (that was you!!?? what really happened?! show me pictures!)

I must admit I was proud and moved to see how my friends and I rose to the occasion, and guided the “mission” in calm, semi-professional fashion. We set the tone, tried to keep everyone calm and in my opinion, were responsible for making the evacuation successful and relatively smooth.  All of us had experienced this type of activity countless times during our army service but we never imagined that we would take part in a stretcher rescue mission in our post army trip in the Himalayas.

Story 3: The evacuation of Sheikh Jarrah

Evacuation has two meanings. The first is to remove someone from a place of danger to a place of safety. It is in this sense of evacuation that the Israelites were brought out of slavery in Egypt and Janet was air-lifted from the Annapurna circuit. The second meaning of evacuation is to empty out, and it’s in this sense that I’m using it now.

Israeli Jewish organizations such as Aryeh King’s Israel Land Fund and Ateret Cohanim, funded by foreign donations and investments, have been working for years to evacuate East Jerusalem (including the Old City’s Muslim Quarter) of its Palestinian residents. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, located near the American Colony Hotel, is especially vulnerable.

I’ve written about Sheikh Jarrah in other blog posts headed Eviction (Parts 1-5), and in those posts, if you’re interested, you can find links to other articles. I’m not going to repeat these sad stories now. Instead, in the spirit of Pesach – its emphasis on storytelling and empathy (‘you were strangers in Egypt’) – I invite you to come if you can to hear Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah tell their own stories — in their own words. Thank you to Eyal Raz and to Ilana, Shaiya and Jessica of Shaalu Shalom Yerushalayim (Seek Peace Jerusalem) for their roles in this event.  

SHEIKH JARRAH — STORIES FROM A VULNERABLE NEIGHBORHOOD

Come and hear stories of Sheikh Jarrah from the residents themselves.

5pm, Isru Chag Shabbat April 27th, The Mesilah Reading Station (corner of Masaryk and Harakevet in Jerusalem’s German Colony).

All welcome!

The event will be in Hebrew (simultaneous translation available) and unplugged.

A Purim visit to Sheikh Jarrah organized by Shaalu Shalom Yerushalayim
About the Author
Before coming to Israel in 2011, Diana Lipton was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). Here in Israel, she's lectured on Bible at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and, currently, in the Bible Department at Tel Aviv University. She's the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Chaim. Her latest book, 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah' (Urim Publications) is available on Amazon; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank.
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