I know exactly where I was on July 4, 1975. It was not at a Fourth of July picnic. It wasn’t at a celebration at all. That day our two older daughters, ages 11 and 9, were wandering with me in the Old City, Jerusalem’s Ir Atika. None of us can remember why we chose that day. It was just a day like any other. And our plans could have been changed easily. But they weren’t and luckily for us we survived. Clearly, none of us can see into the future. Had we known what was coming we would have done our tiyul (trip) another day. We did not..
The Old City is a maze of ancient structures surrounding winding narrow streets and alleys, covered in centuries of footsteps and grime. It’s easy to wander off the path because something has caught your eye. Or, perhaps, you’ve never been to a certain quarter of the city and you think that this day would be opportune to ferret out some long buried treasures at that very exotic place, or merely, you think, it would be fascinating to witness the way local inhabitants lead their ordinary lives.
As a destination the Old City is mercifully cool on a typical hot summer day. Its thick stone walls provide shade and insulation which make it ideal for walking. The newer parts of the city, beyond the majestic walls, are suffocatingly hot and humid in July, and always hilly. Thus, eager to have an experience that we would remember, and be cool and comfortable at the same time, we chose that particular day, July 4, 1975, to wander. We are wandering Jews after all.
The old time-worn pathways were packed with mammals of many species, donkeys, dogs, cats and even a camel; and humans of every stripe and costume from Jews dressed as if they were in 18th century Poland to Arab Christians and Muslims of shades from dark brown to fair with blue eyes. Religious leaders of numerous faiths and denominations ignored store-keepers who were hawking their goods, all mixed with the countless tourists from all over the world, often in their own native garb. It was densely crowded that day and since we were frequent visitors we decided to be a bit more adventurous than we typically would have been.
Thus, we headed with deliberation to the Muslim Quarter and Herod’s Gate. We knew well Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate and Dung Gate and the Kotel. The Jewish Quarter felt like home. We would never have been lost in those places. And, for sure, we had no desire to be lost. We merely wanted to see a living city, and escape the humdrum of the tourist mecca. We wanted to feel the pulse of life, to see children at play and little neighborhood shops filled with the stuff of daily living and not the “shmatas” hanging on display for the free spending visitors. No more tiles and brass ornaments. No more olive wood trinkets bearing the word Jerusalem We yearned to see how normal people were leading their lives. And we did!
Led by me, the adult in our little group, the adult with absolutely no sense of direction, we passed the known in pursuit of the unknown. Big mistake? Maybe not. Maybe serendipity. Maybe we are alive today because of my own incompetence. Life is never predictable even though we treat it as if it is. We put dates on our calendars and buy tickets for shows and travel. We get into our cars. We make all sorts of arrangements, assuming that life can run on a schedule. It can’t. At least not always!
On July 4, 1975, our schedule was disrupted, fortunately for us.
We got good and lost! In those days WAZE was probably not even a dream on some genius’s horizon. For me, my resource was an overused glossy paper map which, somehow, neglected to name small lanes and tiny dead-ends. The creases on the worn-out document often obfuscated more than informed. I finally admitted to the girls what I had known for quite a few minutes, that I didn’t know how to return to the start of our journey, the Jaffa Gate.
Bravely we trudged on, never knowing if we were or weren’t heading the right way. We did ask for help and it came, either by malice or forethought, in incorrect directions, sending us further into the depths of the neighborhood. No one at all wanted to be helpful.
Our cellphone had yet to be invented. Our map didn’t help. And my senses were as always useless. My father always said of my mother that a wise person would ask her for directions and then go the opposite way. I inherited those same genes!
After what seemed like days, but was probably less than an hour, we saw them, our heroes, a small group of chayalim (Israeli soldiers). One of the girls ran towards them and explained our panic. We were not really in danger but we were lost and needed to be found. They sent us safely on our way and I remember eventually walking out the Jaffa Gate and breathing a giant sigh of relief. Now we could continue up the hill to Downtown Jerusalem for a well earned lunch at Cafe Atara. Hot choco for the girls and soothing tea for me! A rich creamy dessert would go far to calm us as well.
And then we heard screaming sirens, heading up the hill towards King George. Police. Ambulances. Panic. A catastrophe obviously.
And it was. Had we not been lost, we would have been in the thick of it. This was the tragic event where 15 innocents died and 77 were injured when a terrorist planted a bomb in an innocuous innocent looking refrigerator which, without warning, exploded. Devastation.
I learned a lesson that day. So did my girls. Safety is a mere perception. Never a guarantee. We were actually safe as we neared Herod’s Gate in search of the ordinary. We may have felt threatened but the only harm that befell us was the frustration of being misdirected. Paradoxically the danger was when we felt safe, en route to the lovely cafe. We never made it. Luckily.
Getting lost saved us from being among the victims of the infamous terrorist attack at Kikar Tzion, Zion Square.