The passport was readied, e-tickets printed out, even the suitcases started to fill with the gifts for relatives and friends in Israel. Any trip to Israel is a special occasion; flying there to celebrate the bris (circumcision ceremony) of my daughter's new baby boy made it even more exciting. A Wednesday afternoon flight, leaving from Newark at 3:50 would be long, but I would arrive early on Thursday morning and have another full day in the Holy Land. The pieces of the puzzle that would make this trip so special started to fall into place.
The call from my sister-in-law, Aviva, my erstwhile travel agent, broke the Wednesday morning calm.
"Yonah, there's a strike in Israel. The airports are closed. Nothing is going in or going out!"
I stared at the phone in disbelief. "But I have to get there before Shabbos," I protested, "The bris is early Sunday morning!"
All the airline mavens began to weigh in on how long the strike would last. "It'll be over before you land in Israel," chimed one. "It could be days before the labor union will allow the airports to open," said another.
I was nearly resigned to a celebration from afar.
"There's a 6:30 P.M. flight to Paris, a 6-hour wait in the airport, and it gets into Tel-Aviv at midnight on Wednesday." My travel agent's suggestion sounded plausible, though exhausting, but it would be a futile gesture if the strike would still be on. Continental would not take off without a guarantee of an airport in which to land.
Hoping against hope, I went to the airport and joined the throng huddled around the ticket-counter, waiting for word from Israel about the strike. The "on-time" sign for the departure of our flight ominously turned to "delayed" as 3:00 approached. Four o'clock came and went, and all hope hinged on an impromptu Continental Airlines supervisor's meeting. The loudspeaker announcement echoed the "CANCELLED" sign that flashed for the now defunct Flight 84 to Tel-Aviv.
I shared a cab back to Brooklyn with an acquaintance who had also hoped to spend a few days in the Holy Land. I dropped my bags and dutifully called the 1-800 number for an Israel airport update. To my surprise, I got a human on the phone!
I literally pleaded for help, spilling out my tale of woe, spiced by the excitement of a new grandchild, and the potential misery of a new, very lonely mother.
"We have indication that our flights are landing in Israel, and there are connecting flights through Paris, Madrid, and Frankfurt, landing at Ben-Gurion Airport," she bubbled. "I suggest you get back to the airport and either try to get on the next direct flight to Israel, or get there through Europe."
Throwing providence and common sense to the wind, I gathered my bags again and headed back to Newark. Forty minutes and $65 later, I arrived, and the scene was strikingly familiar. Concerned travelers gathered around the desk, hoping for updates and praying that their flight, scheduled for around 11:00 P.M., would indeed depart. Armed with the information that the earlier flight had indeed been cancelled, that planes were not landing, and negotiations were on hold, these beleaguered travelers looked grim.
I took my place amid the hubbub and waited. Two middle-aged gentlemen living in Long Island by way of Iran approached me, wondering if perhaps there were any insights I could offer for our collective problem.
"There is a flight leaving tonight at 9:20, arriving in Paris at 11:15 A.M. on Thursday." We knew of the flight, and they discouraged us from taking it unless we were certain we could land in Israel. Spending a lonely Shabbos in Paris didn't sit well with me.
The flight arrived in Paris with a connecting flight only 73 km from Israel – Amman, Jordan.
"There may be another option," said another creative ticket agent. "The flight arrives in Paris at 11:15, and there's a connecting flight to a city only 73 km from Israel. You can probably get a cab to take you over the border. It lands in Amman, Jordan."
There was a pregnant pause as we mulled over the options. "This is only available if you have a U.S. passport, and when you get there, remember... you're on your own!"
We all possessed U.S. passports, but her parting comment seemed a little unsettling. Traveling extensively across the United States for lectures and art presentations helped me become somewhat savvy about negotiating airports and city destinations, but Amman seemed to go beyond the pale.
I called my travel agent to see if I was totally out of touch with reality. "It is an option," she said. "My colleague once sent nearly 20 people to Israel via Amman during the last strike."
I am not the daredevil type. Admittedly, I've gone on a roller coaster as an adult, even negotiated traffic in mid-town Manhattan and on the California Freeway, but Amman? I called my rabbi to bounce this new twist off a rational, clear-headed individual who would help me determine if I overstepped the boundaries of sanity and was putting myself in danger. "Paris is still in doubt until the strike is resolved. Amman is a definite possibility, and the travel agent said it has been done before. It sounds fine," he opined. His Talmudic logic and Rabbinic blessing seemed to move me further along my "scenic" route to Israel.
By now, another stouthearted individual joined our deliberations. A young man in his twenties sought the advice of our threesome, and mulled over the possibilities.
We were a motley crew. A kippah-toting young man named Adam, two Iranian-born businessmen, Eddie and Raymond, and me – a black-hatted and bearded rabbi/ artist – formed a cohesive unit based on our common need to get to Israel. I felt a tremendous surge of pride in being Jewish, identifiably Jewish. Total strangers moments ago knew that we could be together, bond with each other, share this unlikely experience – because we were all Jewish.
Eddie and Raymond phoned their cousin in Israel and arranged for him to pick us up at the Allenby Crossing, on the Jordanian-Israeli border. From our vantage point at Newark Airport, it sounded like we were arranging to meet someone on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.
"If you decide to go, I'll ticket your bags all the way through to Amman," the attendant advised. "And remember: in Amman, you're on your own!" Her ominous warning gave us pause, but we were a determined lot. There was no turning back now. Adam's mother wisely suggested he buy a baseball cap. I traded my black fedora for an orange and blue Mets cap.
Welcome to Jordan
Raymond and Eddie were seated nearby and as we landed in Paris, we stayed near each other for camaraderie and emotional support. Adam was nowhere to be seen. We were among the last to board the flight to Amman, and yes, indeed, we were told, there was an Adam that had checked onto the flight already.
We were about as inconspicuous as a cup of wine splattered on a white wedding dress.
We sat on the runway for nearly two hours until the fog lifted, and our plane filled with Arabs headed toward the friendly skies of Amman. A sense of foreboding gripped this august quartet as we entered Amman Airport. An old, drab-looking terminal was filled with Arabs milling around in contemporary dress, mixed with traditional headgear, and flowing robes. The large CITIGROUP sign beckoned to us in English, "WELCOME TO JORDAN." We were about as inconspicuous as a cup of Malaga wine splattered on a white wedding dress.
We immediately came to the attention of an energetic, helpful airport attendant who helped ease our transition to a very foreign land. "You require a visa to enter Jordan," she said. "That will be 25 J.D, Jordanian dinars, or $45 U.S, each." The stamp on our passport said 10 J.D., and she gracefully pocketed the collected sum from her new clients. Welcome to Jordan, indeed.
The primitive baggage carousel creaked out suitcase after suitcase from Paris as we waited hopefully for our bags from Newark. One of my bags never arrived from Paris. One of Eddie's bags met the same fate.
We tried to convey our sense of urgency to our Palestinian-born attendant, ironically named Haifa. "Our bags were lost, we were delayed in Paris for two hours... their cousin has been waiting at the airport to meet us... and we really have to get to Israel," we implored.
"Border?" she said. "The border is CLOSED. There are two borders from Jordan to Israel – one near Tiberias, the Sheikh Hussein Bridge and one near Jericho, the Malakh Hussein Bridge. But they are both closed. They will open again in the morning."
We were crestfallen. Exhausted from the trip, and emotionally drained from the experience thus far, we again stressed the urgency of our mission, and attempted to speak to speak to her in a language we knew she would understand – dollars. She dialed her cell phone, muttered some rapid-fire Arabic, and began to rush around, as the minutes ticked by. "I can't help you. The border is closed for the night."
We tried to ascertain exactly when the borders opened, so we could be there at the appointed time. One thing we knew for sure; we were spending the night in Amman Airport. We decided to forego what we imagined were "deluxe" hotel accommodations in Jordan, and opted to sit or doze on the airport benches. Haifa had one last piece of advice for her new American friends. "Don't go through the Allenby Crossing. That will take you through 'the territories,' and it's much more dangerous. Go instead to the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, near Tiberias. It's a two hour drive, but it's safer. Don't let the driver take a dinar over $70. Good night." She graciously took an additional $20 for her expertise, and vanished into the Amman air.
Calls from America from our trusted travel agent seemed to contradict Haifa's advice. We were told that it's less than an hour to the Allenby Crossing from the airport, and we would have to travel over two hours, through Jordan, to get to the Tiberias Crossing. Adam and I had to get to Jerusalem, less than 40 minutes from Jericho; Eddie and Raymond had to go to Tel-Aviv. We would in effect be traveling two hours up north to come back nearly 2 ½ hours to Jerusalem. "With my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Genesis 32:11). The decision was made at about 1:00 A.M. We would split into two groups. Our Iranian friends would meet their cousin near Tiberias; Adam and I would opt for Allenby. We would set out for the borders at 4:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M., respectively, as we were told it opened 6:00.
We passed the night nervously. Needless to say, other than the water, there was no Kosher food concession in Amman. We shared pistachio nuts and bagels, stories about our backgrounds and the reasons each of us had for embarking on this adventure. At 5:00 A.M., the airport taxi driver approached Adam and me. "I take you, bridge?" A group of his compatriots made sure that our driver would be the one to take us, though he spoke very little English. Through an interpreter, we agreed upon the cost of the ride, $28. A fellow Jordanian, dressed in business attire, assured us that everything would be okay. Actually, I hadn't really been afraid until he said, "What are you afraid of? He will take you."
The airport was a public area. Flights were coming in at all hours. Typical airport scenes of tearful goodbyes and embracing hellos were our nocturnal backdrop. The setting was quaint, but didn't induce fear. A large sign loomed overhead in English, "Life is good."
The feelings of helplessness took hold as we sat in the back of the taxi.
The enormity of our situation and the feelings of helplessness started to take hold as we sat in the back of the taxi. Imagine the scenario. Two American Jews in the back seat of an Arab taxi, on the streets of Amman, Jordan, at a pitch black five in the morning. Street signs would have been meaningless, written in Arabic; we were literally a captive audience, going along for the ride. The road seemed endless, the turns in the road foreboding. There was little conversation in the back seat. We recited Psalms over and over again.
Halfway through our early morning ride, the driver slowed down and stopped by a roadside kiosk. We waited with breathless anticipation until the driver emerged with some black coffee and cigarettes. When we slowed down passing a group of Arab Bedouins huddled around a fire, we wondered if we were to join as breakfast. An artistic imagination can paint so many scenarios at 5 A.M. in Amman.
Signs indicating that we were headed in the direction of the Dead Sea were comforting. Adam reminded me that we were close to the site where Moses was told he could not enter Israel. He would see it on the other side of the Jordan River, but would never step foot into the Promised Land. No bridge, no border crossing, no gates; the word of God is stronger than any man-made security device. Adam kept up the mantra, "In the merit of Moses, let us get through. In the merit of Moses, let us get through."
Entering the Promised Land
We finally reached the checkpoint of the Jordanian side of the border, the King Hussein Bridge, at a few minutes before six. The appointed time arrived, our driver approached the young Jordanian border guard, and in unison we entreated "Americans, American passports." The border guard was unimpressed. The Arabic driver repeated the words "V.I.P." The border guard shook his head and we took our place behind another three cars, also waiting to enter Israel. No one seemed to be in a particular rush, as drivers stopped to shmooze, have some coffee, take a smoke, and wait until the guards were good and ready to let us in.
Our driver, trying to make polite conversation, said, "Come back, Jordan?" We laughed nervously, thinking that a stroll through Death Valley at noon would be equally inviting.
In the back seat, we thought only of Israel, the cherished sites in the Holy Land, seeing our brothers and sisters walking the streets of Jerusalem. We finally crossed the Jordanian side of the border. Our driver motioned that this was the end of the line, and held his hand out. "Pay," he said, in perfect English. We gave him $30, not even expecting change. He shook his head, pulled put the paper given to him by the dispatcher at the airport (which clearly said 28) and demanded more money. A Jordanian who spoke English fluently tried to have us realize the "misunderstanding." It was 28 Jordanian dinar, or about $50. The driver waited impatiently.
The crowd discussed the "misunderstanding" and I heard the words 'American' and 'Yahud,' Jew, float into the Arabic conversation. "It's not worth $20," I reasoned, thinking of my 11 children and the streets of Jerusalem. Finally, until our interpreter (who had an American, Jordanian and Israeli passport) pulled out a wad of bills and handed the $20 unceremoniously to the driver. At that point, our sense of urgency increased.
We still had to get to the Israeli side of the border, the Allenby Crossing. Our interpreter told us that any Arab who wants to get into Israel has to buy a ticket to get on a bus to get to the Israeli side. "It can be an an hour and a half until you get there." We blanched at the thought of another delay, since we were still very much on foreign soil.
"If you want, you can get V.I.P. service across the border. Go into that office; they'll fill out all the paperwork and you'll be there in ten minutes. It costs $82 each." He smiled at us. "More money, more service; less money, less service." We were finally beginning to understand the country's economy, and were eager to pay, and eager to leave.
We often plan and execute the myriad details, then the Director informs us, "I have a different trip planned for you."
Papers were filled out, our pictures taken, money exchanged hands, and we were finally en route. Puzzled Israeli border guards questioned two obviously Jewish Americans about coming into Israel through Jordan. "Help yourselves out," he advised us. "At the next checkpoint, tell them you are Jewish and they won't need to interrogate you." I replaced my Mets cap with my black hat and breathed proudly. It felt so good to be able exhibit my Jewishness openly.
We went through passport control at the Allenby Crossing, relieved to see young Israeli soldiers, and happy to be able to speak to our brothers and sisters in Hebrew. A cab ride by an Arab driver, arranged by the Israeli border guards, would finally take us to Jerusalem. My rabbi kept calling, hoping to hear that the Judean Hills and the streets of the Holy City were finally in sight. Forty minutes later, we were home.
Before we left each others' company, the four adventurers exchanged phone numbers, hoping to be in touch. My missing suitcase arrived the day I was to return to the States; Eddie was told after he returned to the US that his was located and its way to Amman.
My daughter Rivki and her husband Yair celebrated a beautiful bris for their son, Yitzchok Meir, on Sunday morning, as scheduled, surrounded by family and friends. Thank God, their Zeidy from Brooklyn/Amman was able to attend. Adam joined the festivities and was warmly embraced.
So often we go through life, planning, preparing, coordinating, executing the myriad details to perfection, and our Director informs us, "I have a different trip planned for you." We redirect our tentative steps and try to follow the path upon which He has sent us. We are allowed to be part of the process with our free will, but we are still part of much larger, often inscrutable Master Plan. We can change course with a sense of bitter resignation and frustration, or we can welcome God's involvement in our lives, in its major arenas, and its most minute details. We'll be embraced by His love, and showered with His kindness, if we will pause to reflect that He's directing our life's flight plan, always in control. Enjoy the trip.