“Let her go,” the doctor told my mom over the phone. “It’s a virus; it’ll pass. By the time she gets to Israel, it’ll probably be gone. A trip to Israel may not come along so fast again though.” They were talking about an 11-day tour of Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Congress.
So my father and I flew from Baltimore/Washington International Airport to Kennedy Airport on a small commuter flight that made my dad turn green, which is hard to do to a former U.S. marine. I watched him try to get the airline’s mini pretzels to his lips as the plane rattled and jerked like a surfboard on Hawaii’s famous Banzai pipeline. My dad said we were hitting a lot of turbulence because we were flying low. I didn’t care about the turbulence or the snacks since I had a fever of 101 without Tylenol. I only wanted a bed.
I remember waiting for endless hours before we boarded the El Al flight since they always kept departure time on a need-to-know basis in order to fend off any acts of terrorism. I tried to sleep in the airport waiting area. I must have slept on the plane because I remember opening my eyes, looking around the cabin, remembering where I was and falling back into my slumber. In my opinion, neither a seat in an airport waiting area nor on a 747 was a comfortable place for the infirmed.
My dad surprised me by kissing the ground when we arrived in Israel. He had always told me it is our homeland. I was happy when we got to our adjoining hotel rooms in Tel Aviv so I could collapse into bed. We ordered lots of consommé from room service since that was the closest thing to chicken broth available and about the only thing I could stomach.
My dad and I stayed in our rooms and missed some of the tour. He didn’t want to leave me alone. But when the group was leaving on a bus and because we weren’t returning to Tel Aviv, we had to go. I felt so poorly that, as I later discovered, I’d left my nightgown hanging on the back of the bathroom door.
In some unknown city, I don’t recall which, our tour group disembarked so everyone could get falafel. I could barely look at the food and I didn’t like falafel so I was happy to remain on the bus. It may have been on the way to Tiberias or when we were in Jaffa that the tour guide told us there was an artists’ colony and shopping opportunities. I had to be pretty sick to miss a chance to shop and peruse arts and crafts. I also remember some talk of oranges, but I was starting to ignore any conversations about food.
I vaguely remember, when we got to Jerusalem, walking a little around the Old City and viewing the Western Wall from a distance. I didn’t put a note inside it. I didn’t ride a camel.
When we got to Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, the tour guide strongly recommended I stay on the bus since I was sick. My dad and I readily agreed. I didn’t mind because I didn’t see what the big deal was about a hospital. That was a real shame because today I am a life member of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which supports the medical center, and my great aunt was president of Hadassah’s Baltimore chapter in the 1940s. I never got to tour this world-famous hospital that I keep hearing about.
In Jerusalem, I ran out of Tylenol so my dad said he’d find a pharmacy. When he returned, he was the one who needed medication. He told me he had taken a taxi to a pharmacist who didn’t speak English and had no idea what Tylenol or a pain reliever was. My dad couldn’t figure out how to communicate, but he returned with a bottle. When he handed it to me and I examined it closely, I realized it was cough medicine! I suffered without more Tylenol.
I was able to view the Dome of the Rock and visit Rachel’s Tomb. There wasn’t a lot of walking involved.
When we arrived at the Dead Sea, everyone jumped out of the bus to go float in the salty water. It was a bright, sunny day and I had always loved the beach. But I sat alone on the bus. I was too weak to even try to see out the window and I didn’t want to see what I was missing anyway. I snoozed again.
Finally, toward the end of the trip, I was feeling better. My dad and I took the cable car to the top of Masada. I wanted to trudge up those steep, dirt steps despite my weakness, but my father said he couldn’t. My fear of heights kicked in as the cable car lifted off the ground. I had to bear the short ride (that to me seemed like hours) in a swinging tram, where I imagined all the ways I could plunge to my death. The James Bond movie Moonraker came to mind, specifically, the scene where the cable car comes to a complete stop, dangling at a high altitude before the villain jumps on board. Fortunately, we made it to the top of Masada unscathed (and without the character “Jaws” making an appearance) and our tour guide led us around. I had to endure the cable ride back down, though. Like my dad at the airport, I wanted to kiss the ground when we got off.
Since our trip was during Passover, we joined the tour group’s seder in the ballroom of the King David Hotel. By this time, large scabs had appeared all over my body and prominently on my face from the virus I was hosting. “That looks like chicken pox,” a tour member told my father. My dad and I looked at each other. The thought had never occurred to us. At this point, there wasn’t much we could do about it. When we took a group photo before the seder, nobody wanted to stand next to me. I still have that photograph (and won’t share it with you)!
When I finally felt well enough to talk with people, there was one little girl who was friendly to me in spite of my leprous appearance. She was younger (which meant innocent and naïve) and sat next to me at the back of the tour bus, to which I’d been relegated, for the last several days. (I believe she was with her grandma who, strangely, did not oppose this new alliance). The girl’s mother called my mother a week after we returned home to say the little girl had contracted chicken pox. They just wanted us to know I was contagious. I had been diagnosed after a doctor’s visit so we had figured that out. (I guess the others were justified in their attempts to avoid contact with me throughout the trip.)
My trip to Israel was memorable in a different way than most people’s. And while I didn’t get the opportunity to see and experience all that there was, I was able to set foot in the Holy Land. At least I can say that I went. (I try not to think about how many people I may have unintentionally infected along the way.)
Now two of my children are off to “the land of milk and honey” for the summer. When they discuss what they’ve seen, I may not be familiar with everything since I missed so much of my trip. But I hope they return with the sense of Zionism that my dad imparted to me. And I hope they can appreciate that they were able to go on the special occasion of Israel’s 75th birthday.
Next year in Jerusalem!
Diane Gensler is a member of Hadassah Educators Council.