Follow the twists and lurches of Highway 395 from the Charedi outpost of Beit Shemesh through some of Israel's most densely forested mountains toward greater Jerusalem, and you'll come to a fence made of rainbow stakes on the south side of the road.
A wooden sign with a child's drawing of a farm will mark the entrance to Ramat Razi'el, a tiny moshav (agricultural village) founded in 1948 along with the State of Israel. Follow the town's main road until it ends in a T, take a left, and continue until that road, too, runs out. A small "parking lot" with four spots will stretch to your left. Down a skinny set of stairs, you'll see a great stone rectangle of a house — pale yellow with bright, welcoming windows — the largest and most well-known residence in Ramat Razi'el, population 500. A handsome Belgian grandmother with neon-blue zings of eyeliner and a dainty floral headscarf will appear between a pair of heavy doors, hung with brass knockers, and usher you in from the cold.
This is the house, and the family, that pulled me to safety last Friday night, as only my torso still dangled from the jaws of the storm. (It sounds dramatic now, but at the time, I was getting Donner Party flashbacks from the fourth-grade history books.)
No one in Israel can agree on the last time a snowstorm as bad as last weekend's hit the Holy Land. Some say 1992, some say 1954, some — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — say more than a century ago, which probably means never. From a front-row seat inside the blinding white snow globe that engulfed middle Israel on Friday night, with hardly enough oxygen between snowflakes to breathe anything but ice, I'm leaning Team Netanyahu.
So how did one stupid American (plus her furious boyfriend) end up stranded on Highway 395 with a missing mitten and icy swimming pools in her city boots last Friday, as the cloud cover darkened toward Shabbat, worst possible hour to get stuck anywhere in Israel, much less the religious outlying villages of Jerusalem?
Hear me out. Sitting in soggy, thunderstormy Tel Aviv, watching historic and heart-stopping photos light up the Internet — a snow-coated Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, a real-life White Christmas at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a snowball fight at the separation wall — any reporter is bound to come down with an incurable case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). "We're going to Jerusalem," I told my boyfriend, who would have much rather been drinking a hot cup of Hobbit II at our local movie theater, but who didn't want to Scrooge all over my Christmas dreams. So, despite warnings of road closures from the handyman who came to fix our electricity that morning, we sloshed down to the bus station, where a sherut (shared taxi) driver was more than happy to weather the storm for 30 shekels each from 13 passengers either trying to get home or eagerly seeking snow.
That was our first mistake.
The ride was super jolly and amusing at first. We zigzagged all over middle Israel, careening across sleet-covered streets as our driver watched YouTube videos on his iPad (not kidding) and blasted a dramatic soundtrack, sort of a Hebrew version of Fantasia. Whenever we hit a road closure, he would try another back-route (each more obscure than the last), surging with that very Israeli determination to finish what he set out to do, no matter the consequences.
After 20 more shekels each for the extra gas, and three full hours of this Snow Day rom-com — much to the delight of two rosy-cheeked Asian snow tourists on board — we ended up at a roundabout in the road, somewhere in the middle of the Forest of the Martyrs. A row of police vehicles blocked the sherut from soldiering any further up the hill. So the driver, finally resigned to the fact that there was not a single road open to Jerusalem, gave us a choice: Either come back with him to Tel Aviv, or walk the rest of the way to Jerusalem, which he said was about three kilometers east.
You would think, stranded in the goddamn FOREST OF THE MARTYRS on a near-freezing winter day with a snowfall scheduled that night, even the stupidest American would snap a photo of the snow, resign the adventure while she was ahead and return home for some Hobbit II. But, I don't know — we had already come so far, I was restless for a good snow hike and around four or five of our co-passengers had decided to make the three-kilometer trek. Who were we to wuss out?
The problem, as we would come to realize a few hundred meters down the road, was that when our driver had estimated the distance to Jerusalem, he had rounded down by about 15 kilometers.
The Asian tourists had already disappeared up ahead. (I'm still not sure what happened to them; best case scenario, they were among the 2,000 stranded souls rescued by the Israeli army overnight.) To our left we saw miles of forest, dipping across a vast canyon and rising to a distant peak — all blanketed in white and dotted in treetops. The view might have been gorgeous, had it not been ripped from the set of Into the Wild. And my boyfriend, The Protector, was becoming increasingly frantic: In a thought bubble over his head, I watched as the two of us huddled in an abandoned shed, rubbing sticks together with frostbitten hands like a couple of Tel Aviv idiots losing a war against Nature.
My first instinct was to hitchhike out. However, the few privileged drivers on Highway 395 that had made it past the road closures, after heeding our thumbs and rolling down their windows, quickly realized we were equal parts foreign, lost and screwed; they each mumbled a set of nonsensical directions and sort of crawled off, shrugging their shoulders, feeling guilty but not guilty enough.
Overhead, the clouds were almost black now. Night's first flakes of snow parachuted down onto our jackets. Finally, a nice Israeli man driving by with his kids took mercy on us and told us the truth: "You have to knock on someone's door and ask to come in — RIGHT NOW," he said, adding silently with his eyes, "Or the Charedis are going to have American popsicles for breakfast." The driver motioned to a fence made of rainbow stakes on the south side of the road. A wooden sign with a child's drawing of a farm, barely sticking out from the snow, marked the entrance to Ramat Razi'el.
The next half an hour was icy white chaos. We eventually found one villager still lingering outside in the cold, trying in vain to move his car before it was buried by the incoming storm. He said he knew one place we could probably stay, and scribbled down a phone number on a piece of cardboard, instantly soaked, along with a family name: Kaplansky. He told us to follow the main road all way down to the end, then take a left, then follow that road all the way down to the end. So, of course, we did.
Just as the blizzard reached full boil, we reached what we believed to be Kaplansky vicinity. And over a one-bar, 10-percent-battery cellphone conversation with the family's Belgian grandmother, 15 minutes before all the village phones shut down for Shabbat, we were somehow guided toward the correct rectangular snow-blob into which we could tumble.
That's when our Cormac McCarthy snowpocalypse turned into a small-town fairytale so perfect and Biblical I'm still not entirely sure it was real.
Not only did the Kaplanskys take us in, but they surrounded us with warmth and laughing children. (Literally, three of the most joyous little wood nymphs I've ever met.) They stuffed us with chicken-noodle soup, a three-course Shabbat dinner and chamomile tea with honey. After dinner, four neighbors from the village came by: Two beautiful, dark-haired sisters who had married two beautiful, dark-haired brothers, as if they lived in a 1950s mountain musical. They brought their fluffy mountain dogs, too, who licked the children's faces and could bark the answers to simple math problems posed in Hebrew. And when we began to nod off at the great wooden dinner table, we were sent to a private, heated unit off the side of the Kaplanskys' rancho-style compound — probably the only structure left in Israel that still had electricity.
Yet somehow, in the morning, Mr. Kaplansky, a deeply religious man with a giant gray beard that cowlicked in every direction, turned the narrative around as if he were the one who had been blessed with the honor of hosting us. He explained that showing hospitality to strangers is one of the most important pillars of Judaism, and told us the story of Abraham, who turned away from a conversation with God himself to tend to three weary visitors.
The kicker: I the non-Jew, they said, had been sent from God to light the woodstove, as the Jewish people are not allowed to strike a match on Shabbat. This was the only payment they would accept for our stay.
As un-religious as I am, at that point, it was hard not to feel like a pawn in God's classic re-telling of Shelter From the Storm.
After a hot, sweet breakfast and a morning visit from Shoshanna, the village harp-maker and health-food guru, we trudged out, fat and happy, through a fresh coat of snow, back to the roundabout where we'd been dropped off what seemed like a year ago. There, we encountered our final miracle: A young musician who had been stranded at his friend's house overnight was driving back to the Tel Aviv area, with two free spots in his car for two very stupid Americans.