Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Trip Concludes, but the Stories Continue

From Naharayyim, we continued northward toward the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Neri called his girlfriend at a local high school, and arranged to meet with her during one of her short breaks, so we dropped him off at a beautiful high school campus right on the southern shore of the Kinneret, and figured we’d go have a cup of coffee or something nearby while we waited for him to call us back.

As we came out of the school and drove about one kilometer north along the western shore of the Kinneret, we came upon a cemetery where we all knew of many famous people who had been interred. We visited the graves of Rachel (the poet), Naomi Shemer, and various other political founders and leaders of Israel.

We wandered around for a bit looking at some of the beautiful monuments that have been constructed there until Neri called back. We picked him up and continued our journey. Dad was looking at the map, and mentioned that he had always wanted to visit Kfar Nachum, where there is an ancient synagogue.

We drove through T’veria, (Tiberias) but got a bit detoured and turned around due to some construction, so about 20 minutes later we found ourselves getting close to Natzeret (Nazareth) which was entirely the wrong way. We turned around and got back on the right road, but it was getting late in the afternoon, and we were all becoming a bit road weary. We finally found Kfar Nachum, which turned out to be just a big church, so we were a bit puzzled. After we asked in the souvenir shop, we found out that there was indeed an ancient synagogue, but it was in another location down the road. After a bit more confusion about where we were supposed to go, we found our ancient synagogue and paid the entrance fee of less than 1 dollar per person (3 shekels). After we wandered around for a bit and took some beautiful pictures, we were ready to go back to the Kibbutz. I found out later that Efrat’s migraine had gotten much worse as the day wore on, so I am particularly impressed at her success in maintaining her composure.

We stopped on the way back at a very fancy restaurant at Ashdot Ya’akov, where we had a small late lunch, as we had decided to go out later for felafel and shawarma in Afula after resting back at Beit Hashita for a few hours. Neri also had basketball practice over at Kibbutz Geva, so we figured we would drive out to Afula whenever he got back. We almost forgot to take pictures of all the various dishes, but Neri reminded us, and even had some fun rearranging his plate so that it would photograph better after he had taken a few bites. The waitstaff went crazy over Dad’s Obama shirt, which he had gotten from Chestnut Hill College on the occasion of the inauguration. We’ve been inundated with so much Obama regalia here in the U.S., but apparently Obama t-shirts are very popular in Israel and hard to obtain, much like Levi jeans in past years.

After passing through Beit She’an, we stopped at a spot where Ma’ayan Charod passes under a bridge and drops downward much like a waterfall. This spot is dry almost 365 days a year, with there being a small trickle of water at certain points in the winter. With all of the rain that has come this winter, though, it was flowing like a real, genuine river.

After a few minutes, we got back in the car and drove the few minutes back to the Kibbutz, just in time for Neri to get his stuff together for practice. Dad and I got our internet fix and caught up with Mom while Efrat got some much-needed rest. As I was trying to organize my pictures in Picasa on Efrat’s computer, I accidentally deleted them, so I had a scary hour or so before I found a utility that looked like it would be able to resurrect them. Once we were all set with the utility running, we headed out for Afula.

Our first stop was “Home Center,” a big-box, home-improvement/utility store, to check if they stocked a specific kind of felafel-making kitchen tool my mother had asked us to bring back. They did not stock it there, but we were told that any other store with kitchen tools should have it. The big chains carry only stuff that big chain shoppers would want—mostly Western stuff.

We then headed down to the small strip of felafel/shawarma/seed and nut kiosks in the downtown area near the Central Bus Station. Afula is famous across Israel for its felafel and seeds/nuts. Because of Ta’anit Esther, though, most of the places were closed. Nonetheless, on Neri’s recommendation we got some great shawarma (finally!), and Efrat got some felafel. After eating, Dad and I picked up some more roasted almonds, and the 70+ year old guy behind the counter also went on and on about Dad’s Obama shirt and how much he and everyone else in Israel is excited about our new President.

We headed back to the Kibbutz, and Dad and I got in some Skype/photo uploading/blogging time in Efrat’s office before trudging back to our apartment to sleep.

Dad and I got up a bit earlier Friday morning, for two reasons. First, we wanted to get back to Netanya at a reasonable hour to hit up the shuq and a supermarket to pick up some swag, before Shabbat started, to bring back to the U.S. But mainly, we needed to be completely out of our little apartment on the Kibbutz before 9 a.m., as it was being used by its rightful owner (one of Efrat’s neighbors) for teaching daily classes on the “Alexander Technique,” which is apparently some kind of massage therapy. We hadn’t known this on Thursday morning, and had caused some considerable consternation when we had not vacated on time.

Our plan was to have a quick goodbye with Efrat and get on the road before she managed to rope us into breakfast, but when we arrived, breakfast was already on the table. We stuck around to eat and afterward to upload our pictures to Efrat’s computer and instruct her in how to use Skype with the new webcam we had set up for her.

We put 50 shekels of gas into the car at the Kibbutz gas station on our way out (the credit card reader was malfunctioning with international credit cards), and got back to Netanya around 11:30. After picking up some cash from Moshe, we headed over to the Netanya shuq and Shufersal next door and were very satisfied with the stuff we were able to score there. We got some Hebrew books and movies for the girls, two felafel-maker tool thingies for mom, a whole bunch of kippot, a Hebrew-language computer keyboard, some chocolate bars, assorted teas, and various other odds and ends.

We got back to the Wasserman house with plenty of time to have some lunch, relax, and Skype with Mom before Shabbat. I actually fell asleep sitting up on the couch for about two hours mid-conversation, and was awakened in time to shower and change before Shabbat began. Dad and I opted out of going to shul with Moshe, Meytal and Adi, and instead hung out with Sylvia and their neighbor Malka for their traditional start-of-Shabbat chat. I’ve had several such meetings with Malka over the years, but this was Dad’s first time.

Moshe and the girls returned shortly after Malka left, and we were treated to a delicious Shabbat meal. Sylvia made me swear to detail every dish that was served at her home, as I suspect she felt cheated by my laziness in detailing the menu of the engagement party in my blog post earlier in the week. We began with gefilte fish and Israeli salad for Moshe, Adi and I, while Sylvia and Meytal ate leftover salmon (not to be confused with the band of the same name), vegetables and rice from the engagement dinner. We all shared some incredible challah along with hummus.

After clearing all the fish-related plates and utensils from the table (per kashrut), we were treated to what I think was the best chicken soup with noodles and matzah balls I have ever tasted. Seriously, up until Friday I had never tasted any chicken soup that could even hold a candle to my mother’s or Alex’s, but Moshe’s chicken soup simply blew me away. My Dad and Adi feasted on turkey necks from the soup, while I ate some baked chicken leg and rice.

We had some pareve, chocolate-coated Tofutti bars for dessert, sang some z’mirot and benched birkat. Adi went out to hang out with some friends, Meytal and Moshe went up to sleep, and Dad, Sylvia and I stayed up a while longer to chat about old times, memories and family. Dad and I woke up the next morning at 9 a.m., just a few minutes after the family had left for shul, so we went downstairs and had some tea, coffee and cheesecake for breakfast while we read Israeli newspapers and relaxed. It was starting to get pretty hot outside and upstairs, but the downstairs was nice and cool. Adi and Meytal returned around 10:30 a.m., and Sylvia and Moshe got back shortly thereafter.

We all sat down to a delicious meal of salads, challah, hummus, and Moshe’s incredible cholent with potatoes, kishke, sausage, beans, and all sorts of wonderful stuff. Dad was enjoying himself so much he was scraping the burnt stuff off of the bottom of the pot.

After lunch, Dad, Moshe and I napped for a few hours while the ladies went to a women’s study group. Shortly after they returned and turned in for naps, Dad and I set out for a walk around Netanya. We walked up to the sea, where the main road down the side of the cliffs to the beach meets up with the new section of the tayelet (promenade) that runs southward along the newer, fancier neighborhoods. We stopped to rest on some benches there, and headed north for a few blocks before cutting over toward the apartment building on Smilanski Street where we had rented an apartment for a few months back in 1985, during our first family visit to Israel. We both got a bit mixed up on how to get there, however, so we cut our losses and turned toward Herzl Street and Kikar Ha’atzma’ut, which is a big, pedestrian-friendly square above the main beach area. We wandered around for a bit and found another bench on which to sit for a while to do some serious people-watching and enjoy the warm weather and beautiful views. We reminisced a bit about our previous stays in Netanya and our memories from around that area. From the bench where we were sitting, for example, we could see toward the location of the former restaurant where my grandmother, Evelyn, famously got a bit freaked out at being served a whole fish (with head on), the old Blue Bay Hotel where my grandparents stayed for several weeks during our summer visit in ’85, the ice cream stand where my mother tried to order “chatul” (translation: cat), and many other great stories.

After resting for a bit, we headed south along the tayelet, which has been beautifully expanded and renovated in recent years and was teeming with people basking in the unseasonably sunny warmth. As we found ourselves back in the old neighborhood near Smilanski Street, we tried a different route, and soon found ourselves standing in front of the old building where our family had spent the summer in a first-floor apartment. We shared some fond memories of early-morning visits to the bakery on the corner and a few Shabbatot at the American shul down the street. As the sun started getting low, we started heading back for the Wasserman home, and made it back in time to sit and chat with Sylvia and Meytal over sunflower seeds and some much-needed cold water.

Moshe got home around 6:30 p.m., and we performed the Havdalah service with matches, as is their family tradition. When Adi got home shortly thereafter, we had some dinner of the usual Israeli salads, cheeses, bread and hummus. Dad and I took turns packing our stuff, and we watched some old videos we had made together during our ’85 trip that I had never seen before. There was some great footage of my Dad’s parents that he had taken before joining us in Israel when the school year ended for the summer, as well as of Sylvia’s mother and step-father. As we watched his father sending video messages in Yiddish to his brother and sister in Israel (all three have been gone for quite some time now), Dad pointed out that he is about the same age now as his father was at the time the video was made.

We both showered and changed, and at around 12:45 a.m., we headed out for a final visit to Jerusalem before leaving Israel on an early morning flight. This was one of the many ingenious suggestions of my mother, of course. On our previous visit to Jerusalem on Tuesday, my father had forgotten to bring the notes he had gotten from his students to put into the Kotel. We were both mortified, and not sure what to do, beyond leaving them behind for a friend or relative to bring with them on their next visit. Mom pointed out that Marianne was flying back with us, and that it would be nice of us to drive to Jerusalem and pick her up in the middle of the night before the flight, instead of having her make her own arrangements through her sister. Marianne was thrilled, and I found out later that she would have had to take a cab anyway as her sister and new brother-in-law do not drive.

Dad and I arrived in Jerusalem right on time at around 2:00 a.m., and after some minor argument about how to best park closest to the Kotel, I remembered a short cut that involves driving directly through the Old City itself. I have walked the same route many times, so I was not so worried about getting lost, but I think that driving down 2,000-year-old streets that were not particularly designed for cars of any size made Dad a little nervous. We later realized that a bit too much caffeine in his system had made him a little jumpy, but I can see why he was somewhat intimidated. I, for one, was enjoying the idea of being able to tick “driving through the Old City of Jerusalem” off of my ever-growing imaginary bucket list of things I would like to do. We got a great spot, and around 2:25 a.m., we agreed that we should try to make similar last-act-of-the-trip, middle-of-the-night visits to the Kotel on any future trips to Israel. Having the place almost to ourselves was a very special moment I will always remember. I took a short video of the scene to try and share the experience.

We got some directions from a few policemen to Marianne’s sister’s place, and were able to find it shortly thereafter, after stopping a few passers-by and calling for last minute assistance. On the ride back toward Tel Aviv to the airport, we shared stories of our trips with Marianne, who had a delightful time with her sister.

We returned our rental car a little after 4:00 a.m., and got through the security and check-in for the flight reasonably quickly. Say what you will about tight security, but they’ve got it down to a science in Israel, and the new Ben Gurion Airport is a marvel of both architectural and functional design. After we worked out a minor problem for Dad with the passport control people, we found a quiet corner of the food court to snack on croissants, borekas and salad, while we took advantage of free, airport-wide WiFi to Skype with Mom one last time. We headed over to the gate, and I dozed off for a bit while the boarding process was delayed by about 40 minutes.

Dad and I were able to sleep through most of the flight to London, which was wonderful for two reasons. First, it helped us to get back on a normal U.S. sleeping schedule, as our departure and arrival times corresponded to approximately 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. U.S. east coast time. More importantly, however, our seats were not particularly comfortable, so sleeping took our minds off of how pinned-in we were.

We arrived in London about an hour late after being forced to circle the city for about 25 minutes prior to landing. We rushed toward the United Airlines transfer desks, and I was thankful for my Premier status, as we were able to bypass the lines and get straight to a person. While they initially said there was no chance of us making the connection, after a few seconds of pleading with them, they radioed down to the gate and told us to run. I ran ahead with boarding passes and passports while Dad and Marianne went as fast as they could. We were the last three people to get on the flight, and it was not too full either. Marianne was supposed to be seated toward the rear of the plane, but we took advantage of the empty seats to get her into our Economy Plus section, where there is a bit more legroom.

Dad and I watched several movies together, and I dozed off for about a half hour mid-way through the last movie we watched, “Doubt.” We landed in Washington, seamlessly got our stuff, picked up my keys from one of my co-workers and parted ways.

While I am told that I am reasonably good at writing, my greatest weakness is in crafting an adequate conclusion. That being said, this endeth the travelogue.

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