Smirking at SeaTac, Nu’ing in New York, and the Ukrainian/Italian/Spanish Connection from Ben Gurion

When do you know that your vacation trip has started? When you notionally wanna get away and begin to work on the purposes and logistics? When tickets are purchased? When packing begins? When you leave your home, driving out of your driveway or walking to the transit hub, heading down the same road that you have traveled hundreds of times, but this time the destination is unusual, or even unprecedented? Did the trip start when you have physically arrived at a space different from your regular patterns?

And how is that perception of change differ if at all when you are traveling not on a vacation but on the next step in an evolving and non-routine retirement?

Here are a few incidences that occurred during this transition to Jerusalem that marked the emergence of a start of a trip.

At SeaTac’s American Airlines self check-in station: 

“So, you are going to Tel Aviv,” the young lady in uniform both stated and kind of inquired, leaning in to me and the machine, smiling brightly, ready to offer me help that at the moment I did not need. 

“Yes,” I smiled back at her.

“Well, it must be interesting, but it’s not really my kind of place.” She paused.  “That’s Israel, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” I responded.

“Well, I must have been listening sometime in school to remember that!”

“Education is a great thing,” I smiled back!

Then she helped me wrap the baggage claim tag on my large suitcase.

At the End of the Transportation Security Administration Security Line

After 20 minutes of strolling and waiting in the security line, I reach a good-hearted TSA agent.  She smirks playfully at me after taking my boarding pass and passport. “Does it smell to you?,”  she whispers.

 “Say what?” I reply.

“Does it smell like food?  Something smells good” she smiles, eyes twinkling.

“When was the last time you ate? I ask.

“Last night..  ’bout 5 o’clock.”

“You gotta go get something to eat, young lady.”

“That be for sure” she laughs, and gives me a big smile as she hands back the docs.

Now For Something Naughty

It’s 6:30am SeaTac time and I’m hungry myself. At the airport you have plenty of food choices. But I’m about to go to the land of serious, ubiquitous koshrut. Eretz Yisrael: the Kosher Everest.  And I’m feeling naughty.  One last sin before my great Jewish transformation.  

I order a Black Forest ham, cheese and egg sandwich at Subway.  Not even that tasty, as it turned out, but every mouthful savored.

I do order the egg whites and select “wheat bread.” Secular pieties as partial redemption?  Nah, just useful rationalization.

America to Israel at Kennedy

Israel didn’t start at Ben Gurion Airport. It started at the El Al boarding line at Kennedy.

The trip from Seattle to New York was uneventful. But upon leaving the plane and arriving at JFK, the airport’s renowned dysfunction hits you right away. Not one airline official to give directions. No signs pointing to other terminals or identifying which terminal I need to go to re-board on El Al.

Heck… I’ve got a little time. I go for a slice of NYC pizza. Surprise. It’s awful. Really poor and really expensive. I move on.

After asking several people the way, and walking what seemed like about half a mile – I am not exaggerating – going up and down several escalators, and hopping on a train to Terminal 4, I get off to find a vast hall of dozens of international airline counters. I wonder how much time is spent at Kennedy determining which airline line should border others? Unsurprisingly, El Al’s is located far down the hall from EgyptAir and QatarAirways.

When I arrive to the El Al boarding line, I’m back in Israel. More than half of the line-mates are Haredi. I’m surrounded by people of all ages speaking Hebrew and Yiddish (many, but not all, Haredi use Yiddish as their day-to-day tongue, reserving Hebrew more for religious observance). There is already a palpable intensity in the air. No shouts, exactly, but lots of verbal banter and ordering around of some passengers by other passengers. “Where are you going, boychik? Nu?”

El Al staff, all in uniforms, were secular and slightly brusque in affect. I give the first lady attendant my passport. She studies it carefully and starts asking me questions. “I see you’ve been to Jordan.”

“Yes,” I respond. “My sister and I went to Petra 5 years ago.”

“How long were you there?”

“Parts of two days and two nights.”

She looked a tad worried. Asked me to wait, and motioned for another staff to come by. They talked briefly, she handed me back my papers and she told me to move on to the baggage station lady. I then handed my passport and boarding pass to the new lady who gave it to another staff person. After about a minute where I saw him talking to other staff, he came back, handed my papers to the baggage station lady, who in turn handed it to me, and … I was free to go to the plane.

What does security mean to me as I begin this sojourn in Israel? Am I ok with a second look by officials simply because I visited another country long ago?

Israel is a “security state.” It has never been recognized by some of its neighbors (Syria and Lebanon) and there is a “cold peace” with Egypt. Questions of safety in Israeli society and the acts of the State to secure that safety are principle concerns of everyday life and the political life of the country. I am visiting Israel at a time with a national election called for April 9. I expect this already intense and conflicted place to be even more visually predominantly so in the coming months. I’m sure there will be things to blog about.

No, Everyone Does Not Speak English

Arrival at Ben Gurion after another long flight. I’m both beyond tired and exhilarated. There are critical things to do. Make sure my smartphone accepts a new sim card and allows me the access I need to communicate and access the internet. Secure luggage and identify the location of a Nesher Sherut collective taxi which will supposedly take me to the front door of the apartment in the North Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem where I am renting a room. Get cash (shekels) for the sherut and other short-term needs. For all those things… success. Boxes checked. The sky is partly cloudy. The freeway to Jerusalem is a breeze. I’ve arrived.

On to the sherut, I strike up a conversation with two middle age women. I ask them if they speak English. Nope. Hebrew or Yiddish? Nope. How about German? No. Russian? Why yes! (Ah… they looked Russian to me… should have known, right?) Well, turns out they are Ukrainians – not Russians – who are living in Italy. Go figure. Between my Spanish and their Italian, we hit it off famously!

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