20.12.2020. I’m traveling from Israel to Johannesburg for the wedding of a much-loved niece from London. The plan is to arrive as close to the wedding date as possible, and to return home straight after. With all direct flights between Israel and South Africa having been put on hold, I have booked with Ethiopian Airlines to fly via Addis Ababa. The shortest possible stay means leaving from Ben Gurion Airport at 00:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, and returning from Johannesburg on Wednesday, the day after the wedding.
The email Wednesday morning does not bode well: Dear valued Book Depository Customer, We are sorry to inform you that we have temporarily ceased shipping to your country due to travel restrictions…
Things are again shutting down. There is a new strain of the Covid virus, deemed more infectious although not more fatal, in the UK. It had also emerged in South Africa. The two other family members who had made it to the wedding from the UK, board the last direct flight from Johannesburg to London. As of 10 p.m. tonight all Israelis returning from abroad are legally bound to quarantine in hotels.
In Johannesburg the airport is swamped with people. Lots of people. Lots of queues. Lots of forms. Each person stands at a polite social distance. Each official that I have to deal with is calm, courteous and helpful. Such a thankless task to deal with a continuous stream of anonymous public passing through; and, as with security checks, also a serious responsibility. In transit in Addis Ababa they are helpful too. It surprises me. In my experience, in airports in Europe and North America, it isn’t unusual to come across a snarling official – and that was before the pressures of Covid.
I have seen scathing reports in the Israeli press about these quarantine hotels. My flight from Addis Ababa arrives at Ben Gurion Airport at 03:10 Thursday morning. The place is like a ghost town. A well-meaning girl in uniform, with a ponytail, greets me and gingerly says: You know about the quarantine hotels, right?
Yes, I’d rather be home where I have plenty of room to safely quarantine. Yes, I have things to do. Yes, I have responsibilities. But extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. I decide to go with the flow.
More officials are waiting. More uniforms. More ponytails. More forms. More questions. Asking the same things over and over from behind a Perspex screen. Where have you come from? Passport number? ID number? Age? Phone number?
Perhaps it’s my inner Brit, or maybe it’s just a throwback to the twentieth century – when I suspect most of the uniforms weren’t yet born – but I always introduce myself. Hello, I’m Judith. Who are you? I think that it was Ilan who puts a sticker with an orange stripe on my passport. I later learn that this is code for a destination in Jerusalem. Eventually I find my way to the right bus, mercifully the number of people on board is limited to a socially-distanced eight. As we board, we are each invited to take a bottle of water and sandwich from a cardboard box.
We arrive in Jerusalem forty-five minutes later at the Leonardo Hotel. I’m still trying to work out which Leonardo Hotel we are at, as we form a queue at reception. Each of us seems to have come from a different country. Sonia, the woman behind me, has flown in from Argentina. The woman behind her from Nigeria is sans suitcase. More questions. Communication is hampered by layers of masks and Perspex. Most of us have been travelling for almost 24 hours and are pretty weary. It seems strange that what must be nine people at reception, are all trying to get down details from one person. At one point it appears that they have each been delegated to remember a separate number for the phone details of the person in front of me. The scene is so bizarre that should Basil Fawlty himself pop out from behind the Perspex none of us would be surprised.
Having had to forfeit my pre-booked 4:30 a.m. slot for a Covid test at the airport, I ask about testing at the hotel. Yes, yes. Tomorrow. Or maybe, the day after. Don’t worry!
Remember those days pre-Waze? When in Israel you would ask street directions, and people would tell you anything rather than not be able to offer up some sort of response, however unreliable it might be? At last someone from Pikud HaOref (The Home Guard) tells me that he doesn’t actually know when it is that we will get a test, and I finally feel that I have found someone reliable.
Sometime before 6 a.m. I get to my room. It’s a pleasant room on the sixth floor with one of those large arched windows at the far end suggesting a promising view. The room comes with all the facilities that one would expect from a four-star hotel, an immaculate ensuite, a desk, an armchair, a TV, a fridge and kettle etc. Coffee and tea are provided as well as two large bottles of mineral water. Mei Eden. Paradise.
I scan the ‘Information Sheets for Hotel Guests’ that we have been given, a combined missive from the Ministry of Health and Pikud HaOref. A bunch of legal stuff. Key contact numbers. A ‘no leaving the room’ instruction, closely followed by a reminder of close circuit TV lurking in the corridor.
Three meals a day will be placed outside our door at set times. Rubbish, to be placed and sealed in the plastic bags provided, will be collected from outside the room three times a day. Fresh towels to be provided on Sundays and Wednesdays. Fresh bed linen on Wednesdays. Any packages can be left for us between 10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. at reception; they should be clearly marked with name, room number and mobile number. No alcohol, weapons or drugs! No packages allowed out.
Page three addresses mental health: Three sentences of empathy on the challenges of dealing with uncertainty are followed by a dozen suggested resources for support from various organisations, either online or by phone. This includes a number of sessions of one-on-one counselling and the promise of a virtual ‘group hug’ for families, courtesy of Schneider Children’s Hospital, in Petach Tikvah. As far as I can see, this is all available free of charge.
Sometime after seven I finally fall asleep, to be woken at 9:00 a.m. by a knock at the door. The corridor is empty and breakfast is at my feet. The package includes fresh baby cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and other vegetables, a roll, a slice of cheese, a boiled egg, a yoghurt and an apple. Lunch and dinner arrive later that day at the appointed times. Each meal is either chicken or fish together with cooked vegetables and rice, accompanied by three different salads and fresh fruit for desert; disposable cutlery is provided; all is immaculately packed.
During the day I get to see the view from the window which overlooks East Jerusalem towards the Old City. The Church of St George boasting four turrets, looms to my right, and I also understand that the tomb of the saintly-sounding Simon the Just is straight ahead. Thursday night. Finally, I get a good night’s sleep.
Friday morning. A flurry of WhatsApp’s – on the wedding, the trip, the situation – is interrupted by a knock at the door. Breakfast. Meanwhile, my pal Lila is circling Jerusalem, with husband Eugene at the wheel, to bring a supply of much-needed milk for my morning coffee, together with a newspaper. Took us a while to work out which Leonardo Hotel I’m actually in…. but, success at last.
I get a phone call from reception to come and collect the package; they don’t deliver to the room. I clarify that this isn’t actually a ‘Corona Hotel’ to where confirmed cases of Covid in Israel have previously been sent, and where occupants freely mingle. I calmly explain – I imagine that I was calm, but can’t really be certain – that we are here to quarantine and that we need to stay in our rooms. There is little logic, I continue, to me getting in a lift that has frequently ferried many an open-mouthed traveler recently arrived from Africa, the UK and other choice ever-more-contagious-Covid hotspots. Equally, I reason, it’s possible that I have picked up the virus in Johannesburg or Addis Ababa, and certainly wouldn’t want to pass it on to others. And… maybe a measly mask is not enough to keep this new Covid-cousin-strain at bay.
Eventually, knock at the door, Ivan has come up to the sixth floor, and is bearing the much-prized package.
Knock at the door. Lunch: meat and salads all fresh and neatly packaged. I’m tucking into said lunch when there’s another knock at the door. I open it to a sea of hooded snowmen wafting along the corridor, at which point I remember the date: 25th December. Christmas. The snowmen wear gloves, masks, and vizors; their white apparel bears the emblem of Magen David Adom. My snowman is called Wachta. They are each armed with swabs to test us for Covid. Breath Row, quips one of the other inmates along the corridor, and retreats to his room.
Friday afternoon. Phone call from reception. A new package has arrived. Ivan the Adorable brings it straight to my door. It contains battery powered Shabbat lights and a clock; under advisement, hadn’t taken that expensive watch to South Africa, and my other timekeeping devices are electronic, and so can’t be used on Shabbat. Although the impressive tower of St George’s opposite regularly emits chimes, no sign of a clock face.
Later Friday afternoon. Some woman is screaming down below through a loudspeaker, assuring us that we have been kidnapped against our will, imprisoned illegally and that she is in discussion with a Government Minister about this. The rant is eventually reinforced by some bloke, and the noise it beginning to grate. Eventually some police arrive and things appear to calm down.
Friday evening. Shabbat at last. My prayers are punctuated by a firework display over East Jerusalem, presumably in honour of Christmas. On the building adjacent to St George’s, Santa on his sleigh is up in lights, commandeering three reindeer. Friday night dinner is a lavish affair: goulash, kugel, the works.
Shabbat and Sunday pass uneventfully. It’s now Monday afternoon. More ranting down below from the woman from Friday, who is again aided and abetted by the bloke and the microphone. They are now serenaded by a handful of, how to describe them? They don’t have the gravitas to qualify as ‘angry young men’. Perhaps an adequate description would be ‘raucous louts’. Yes, a handful of raucous louts. Though not quite the handful suggested in the media. And certainly not the ‘dozens’ reported, later in the day, to be ‘clashing with officials’ at this hotel by the Times of Israel.
The year 2020 hasn’t been easy for anyone. And as noted on page 3 of our accompanying ‘Information Sheets for Hotel Guests’, dealing with uncertainty is difficult. We need certainty. We rely on it. We take it for granted that whatever it is that we need to know: How to get to some place? Whether or not the sun will shine tomorrow? The name of that thing? It’s all just a google away.
And Covid has been a plague of unknowns. Will there be a closure? Will schools stay open? When will our kids be able to see their grandparents? How is it at all possible to juggle education by zoom? Will the business survive? Will there be other employment opportunities? Will that medical procedure have to be put off yet again? How Much Longer?
The world over, health and social services have been challenged as never before, while this pandemic has crashed in on lives in progress: wellness, illness, work, studies, and the full constellation of life events. (Even that literary lifeline, the beloved Book Depository – with its treasured free shipping worldwide – has recoiled.)
In such circumstances anything tenuous wobbles. Anything already wobbling topples. And anything unstable from the start is bound to unravel and usher in unhappiness as varied as that suggested in the first sentence of Anna Karenina. As a result, people’s lives have been impacted in unprecedented ways: personal, private and unseen.
Also unseen, are those who keep things going. Stocking the shelves. Working in the labs. Tracking. Tracing. Organising. Making the phone calls.
There are thousands of us now quarantined. My experience is nothing like those reported in the media. Of course, everyone’s experience is different. And many don’t see why this is even necessary. Maybe other isolation hotels aren’t as nice as this one; maybe they get Ivan the Terrible, instead of the Adorable. For some individuals, with particularly acute personal circumstances, following everything else endured this year, quarantine is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. So maybe some of the whingeing is justified.
And yet, where else do you get quarantined in a four-star hotel with three meals a day? Where else in the world do the powers that be value the public health enough to put you quarantine in the first place? Not forgetting that in other countries, such as Australia and South Africa, people pay for the pleasure of detention in a government-controlled isolation unit, in surroundings far less agreeable.
Okay, so the organisational side isn’t altogether shipshape. Certain sensitivities are off the radar. Mistakes are made. But with constantly changing parameters, and stresses of the past year on all systems, truth-be-told, all in all it’s pretty impressive. The ponytailed girls in uniform at the airport. The nine bumbling officials behind the Perspex. All of them cogs in a bureaucratic wheel turning us forward, more-or-less in the right direction. Unseen hands delivering the food and removing the rubbish. Each person doing their bit. Mostly doing their best. The Ilans, Wachtas and Ivans. They are Israel’s future. And how refreshingly, unspoiled they seem compared with their counterparts abroad. (Hopefully democracy will eventually muddle through so that they will one day get a government that we all deserve.)
When we first arrived at the hotel, Sonia who had flown in from Argentina, told me that the government there had sent a plane to Russia to stock up on the Sputnik 5 vaccine, much to the chagrin of Argentinian doctors who – reliability of Russian research results aside – protested that the vaccine hasn’t been through the required Phase III of clinical trials. She said that the government ordered 30,000 units of the vaccine; apparently as much as they could afford. N.B. The population of Argentina is almost 45 million. We don’t have such worries in Israel. And it’s easy to think of many a country where a knock on the door doesn’t herald a delivery schnitzel and rice. It is rather more sinister.
Looking out through the arched window, I finally realise who Simon the Just is. The mediaeval sounding moniker threw me. Of course! It’s Shimon Hatzadik. He, of Ethics of the Fathers. Chapter 1. Verse 2: ‘On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.’ No wobbling here.
It’s a week since the wedding Johannesburg. So happy that I was able to get there. (And get back) And here’s the thing: In uncertain times, what could be more certain? What could seem more sure? What stronger expression of faith in the future could there be, than when – as the world grapples with an unprecedented threat bringing it to its knees – a young bride and groom stand smiling under the Chuppah, and pledge themselves to one another.
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.