May 1, 2003
On the Road
Here's what you miss when you go on an organized mission to Israel: You miss the closed-top market in Rosh Ayin, where sellers out-shout each other over megaphones, "Underwear, girls' underwear, three for 10 shekels."
If you participate in an "emergency weeklong mission" -- where you eat in your hotel and other tourist spots -- you might miss the fresh souk limonana (a thick, icy, Slurpee lemonade with grated spearmint) and the toasted cheese and tomato sandwich cobbled together on fake kosher-for-Passover "bread" made from matzah meal, and the guy who sells them to you while making fun of your Hebrew -- which has somehow deteriorated to your first-grade teacher's bad American accent.
"Are you a new immigrant?" he asks, and you're amazed at his chuzpah-like optimism, his complete faith that even at times like these he believes -- perhaps correctly? -- someone would still move to Israel in its perpetual state of war. You want to tell him you're a tourist, because you hope it would make him feel almost as good to know that at least people are still visiting Israel, but it's more complicated than that.
"I used to live here, but now I live in Los Angeles."
"You lived here? What happened to your Hebrew?"
"It will come back soon," you tell him, and hope that like your sleeping pattern, somehow, your language will adjust.
If you went on a "solidarity" mission to visit terror victims/Hebron/Ramallah -- depending on which political group you'd like to bolster -- you might miss the sandwich guy's friend, who takes you by the elbow and steers you to the bitan ha'lo ye'uman (the unbelievable stand) of cloths from India. He has gauzy, colorful curtains, tablecloths, napkins and runners embroidered in gold and silver, which sell for $100 at Pottery Barn in the United States, but are on sale today for 20 shekels ($5). You quickly buy the last red ones before the Israeli woman does, and convince the busy merchant (who's eyeing the two teenage girls on Pesach vacation) to sell you the blue-and-gold pillowcase without the bulky pillow.
"But it's my last one," he says.
"Exactly, then why do you need a floor sample?" you think is what you said in Hebrew.
You hand him the 30 shekels even though you're positive he's ripping you off; despite what Eric Idle says to Graham Chapman in "The Life of Brian," Middle Easterners don't like to bargain all that much. But you have to leave the incredible booth before your house will look like Calcutta, and because you have to catch the train to Tel Aviv since you promised people at home you wouldn't take buses.
If you were on a tight security mission to Israel to meet with mayors and ministers and hear the speeches of the particular group that sponsored you, you might miss the experience of trying to tremp (hitchhike) from the gas station where your friend drops you at instead of leaving you at the deserted train station. You might not know that rush of excitement at the possibility of getting a free ride with a cool couple or family and learning the secret of what Israelis talk about these days. But you wouldn't miss much because the only people stopping are skeezy Israeli men who ask as their car slows, "Where do you want to go?" because they'd probably go out of their way to take the American girl in the short dress even if it wasn't en route. No thanks, you tell the third guy and flag a cab.
If you spent your week in Israel visiting tourist sites in a van, you would definitely miss the Yemenite cab driver in Rosh Ayin who tells you he has 10 children -- eight daughters and two sons - and 21 grandchildren, who all came to his big house (four bedrooms!) for Pesach, where he had his yearly custom of slaughtering a sheep for the seder.
"The sheep costs 400 shekels ($85) and it's worth it," he explains at your exclamation of horror as he discusses the different parts of the sheep. "I give the head to the slaughterer, as a reward," he tells you, adding that for himself he keeps the innards -- kidneys, liver, etc.
He came to Israel from Yemen with his parents ("May they rest in peace") when he was 6, and moved to Rosh Ayin, which was mostly Yemenite, until foreigners started moving in some 10 years ago. "At first there were big conflicts," he explains to you, dangerously taking his eyes and hands off the wheel to turn around and gesture the clasped hands sign of confrontation, "because they always think they know better than us, but in the end we learned to live together."
The kippah-wearing driver doesn't talk about politics with you except to say that some of his kids are religious, some aren't, but he doesn't care, "as long as they're happy." Maybe he would have talked politics, if you hadn't already arrived in Tel Aviv.
If you went on one of the many missions to Israel, it wouldn't be a bad thing, though you'd probably miss out on actually experiencing Israel -- but I guess it would certainly be better than not going at all.