Tuesday, August 21, 2007

en route to israel

Thursday, July 12, 2007

En route to JFK airport—quite a trek as we slept at Susie’s place in Harlem last night—I shared my anxieties with Abbey about the social aspect to this Birthright trip we’re about to embark on this morning.
“It’s not that I don’t want to make friends, it’s just that I get uncomfortable in large groups….especially when the group has been formed for any religious purposes…even if it’s my own religion,” I said, still half in a sleeping state of mind. “I’m just so glad that we found a time when the two of us could go on this trip together.” Abbey is my single Jewish friend…(I mean I guess that’s unfair—I have a few other friends from pre-school/Hebrew school, but no one that I talk to/hang out with frequently.) and has been since first grade when we met on the playground.

Nevertheless, I was more than ready and excited for this trip, thankful that we were departing on the 12th because I am superstitious about the 11th of any month. For the past week the Hebrew alphabet song, which I don’t think I had sung since fourth grade, kept spontaneously running on loop through my head, while random memories of Sunday school permeated my thoughts as I mentally prepared for this upcoming adventure.

El Al airline staff members took security measures to a whole new level. Four or five uniformed people stood in a row, each behind a podium, and each of us had to approach one of them for what seemed like a formal Jewish interview before being okay-ed to continue on to the baggage check line. A woman, not much older than myself, asked me about my Jewish identity—are you Jewish? Yes. Did you grow up in a Jewish household? Yes. What is your favorite Jewish holiday? Passover. What is Tu-bshevat? Celebrating trees…right? Do you have a Hebrew name? Yes. What is it? Um…my mind went totally blank. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked me that…I know I have one, I said. Oh! It’s Yenta! She looked at me like she was waiting for my serious answer. Really? Ha, yeah, really. I laughed nervously. I’m not sure whose idea it was to give me a name that means “gossiper” but I can’t really do anything about it at this point.

A nice girl, who introduced herself as Reva, started talking to me as we waited in line to hand over our checked bags to the giant x-ray machine. She said she had just been grilled for 15 minutes by one of the El Al people, even asked to write (or maybe read? Or both?) Hebrew. “Yikes!” I said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. I don’t think I would have passed.” She suddenly realized she was sans passport and had to leave the line to find it. My opinion of meeting new people already began to change.

When we first arrived at the airport we were told to meet under a specified sign at 10 a.m. before we’d proceed through security as a group. It was only about 8:30 a.m. by the time Abbey and I checked our bags and received our boarding passes, so we went downstairs to get some bagels and juice at Au Bon Pain and make some last-minute “goodbye-I’m off to the Motherland” phone calls.
As we approached the meeting place we saw a bearded man already addressing a large group of people sitting on the floor—our first glimpse of our leader, Leor and the rest of Shorashim 15B. I looked at my phone. 9:58. I turned to her and said, “Apparently meet at 10 means be here 5 minutes early…” as we sat down behind the of the group. “Thanks for joining us,” Leor said directly to us. I felt my face turn red and stared down at my shoes.
He lectured us about the importance of drinking water and wearing hats and that we would, in fact, not be allowed to wear tank tops. I, assuming that this rule must have been a misprint in our packing list, of course packed tank tops. Then he passed around pieces of paper and instructed us to write why we came on Birthright. “Free trip to Israel,” definitely crossed my mind, but deep down I knew it was more than that. I wrote, “To rediscover my Jewish roots and take a lot of photographs.”

Once on the plane I discovered to my immense disappointment that I had been assigned a middle seat. A girl named Sabrina sat beside the window and a guy named Matt sat in the aisle. Turns out that out of all the people I could have possibly been sitting with, I second-handedly knew Matt. My friend Stephanie had been telling me about him for several years, this guy she was in love with who had the same birthday as me. She had called me back in June freaking out that he and I were going to be on the same birthright trip. Right before we left I stalked his facebook page and realized we had two friends in common--not just Steph but this guy, Matt, who I've known since preschool. Turns out Matt and Matt are best friends from college and were roommates in Chicago this past year. What are the chances of this happening? I thought. (Later, I found out, the seats were arranged alphabetically, so it shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise. But I'm easily excitable.)

The flight was pretty uneventful. We had two meals, I finished reading Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim and watched Disturbia on the little TV screen embedded in the headrest in front of me. Good book, not a good movie. Matt hardly ever sat in his seat, and with about three hours left in the flight, Sabrina’s best friend, Valerie, replaced his absence. I couldn’t get over the hilarity of sitting between the two of them. There was a lot of “Oh.my.god. Val.” thrown around. I slept a little bit, mastering how to curl into myself, propping the provided pillow atop my bent knees (see photos [taken by Matt] below).

Here's a link to my album of photos from my NYC visit pre-Israel: NYC photos

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