By Michele Herenstein
Several months ago, I felt a yearning in my heart. It wasn’t for books, which I love, and it wasn’t for my favorite pasta dish. It was a longing, a yen, to be in Israel. I had never had such strong feelings towards Israel before.
I’m sure many of you have been to Israel, but I had such a wonderful time I wanted to share it with you, my readers. And although so many of us have traveled to Eretz Yisrael, each person’s story in our special country is unique. I’d like to share my own experience, because Israel caused me to burn with love.
I flew solo to Israel, and to my delight, the person sitting next to me was a neighbor from the Regency, where I live. She lent me a feeling of safety and comfort.
I have been visiting Israel since I was a teenager. I always look forward to going there, but this time I had a hunger. I wondered if this was what people feel when deciding to make aliyah.
I decided to go for a week, and make it a family week, since my brother, his wife, four daughters, and eight nieces and nephews live there. I bonded with the family and even met some extended family. I felt much comfort being in the country I love, and it was hard to leave!
I arrived home, happy to see my NY/NJ family. However, pretty soon, I wanted to go back to Israel. This time, I wanted to set up a more interesting trip. I began calling places that teach ulpan one-on-one. After playing seven-hour-difference phone tag, I located an ulpan course that would be accessible to me for 10 hours, at my schedule, in my residence. I signed on. Whether ulpan was just for fun, as I had been learning Hebrew on my own and loving it, or would lead to a more long-term plan in Israel, I still do not know.
Ulpan exceeded all my expectations. My instructor introduced herself and we got along well from the beginning. She was teaching me through stories. I was supposed to learn how to tell the story in Hebrew—in plural, in masculine, and in feminine. I also learned that some Hebrew expressions that I was used to saying were not used in Israel anymore. At the end of each session, she’d have me tell her a story b’Ivrit. This was me: “Ani tzarich pasta penne im grated gevinah.” A bit bizarre and understood by practically no one, but I still have my eyes on my goal.
When I was with my family in the Old City, I tried using some of my new Hebrew, and they started giggling. I misspoke too many words to count and interchanged English and Hebrew in the same sentences. I sort of laughed at myself and continued the meal speaking only English.
Then, as it was my birthday around the time of my trip, my parents treated me to Cromim Spa, not far from Jerusalem but far enough away that you felt you were in paradise. What a beautiful place. It might be the only place where no one looks at you funny when you visit the buffet several times to get croissant and cake.
The pools, treatments, water aerobics classes, and delicious food made me feel comfortable, warm, and contented. There weren’t too many more relaxing moments on my trip.
I was quite sad to leave the spa but I stoically whispered to myself, “All good things must come to an end, although I don’t know why!”
My niece Rivki took a two-hour bus ride from seminary just to visit me, which made me feel ecstatic. Rivki and I are close, and we used to learn Emunah and Bitachon by R’ Avigdor Miller. We went to lunch and had delicious food, and it was wonderful to be together. If I lived in Israel, I would definitely see her more often!
• • •
As Rivki and I were taking our Gett (Israel’s version of Uber), we chatted nonstop. Suddenly we heard a voice say, “Sheket!” We turned to each other in shock. We realized it was the driver. I said, “This is a cab; we’re allowed to talk.” The driver was just getting started. “Sheket!” he repeated. “You talk too much.” I tried intercepting him by explaining that we are allowed to talk in cabs and he tried explaining rudely that it was too noisy for him. Rivki, ever the peacemaker, managed to get us to the restaurant without a full-blown fight. I even think we were on good terms with him by the time we left the monit. At least Rivki was!
From then on, we couldn’t help but say to each other, “Sheket! Sheket!” and we laughed nonstop.
I was a Gett monster. I still didn’t know my way around Jerusalem as well as I should, so I depended on calling Getts to pick me up. I thought it would be easy. However, a good example of Gett difficulty is that every time I went to Mamilla Mall, I called a Gett to go home. For some reason there were different addresses surrounding the mall and the Getts couldn’t find me. I’d spend minutes on the phone with the Gett driver explaining where I was, and he would describe where he was. I realized I could have walked for all the distress the Getts were causing me. But the positive thing is I didn’t need money on hand to take a Gett. What a feeling to be picked up, get a ride, and jump out at the other end. My version of a limo!
There was one time I had an excellent experience with a regular cab. I have a history of chronic sinusitis and had been having terrible headaches. It got bad on a Friday, so my sister-in-law’s best friend drove me to Israel’s version of emergency care. The doctor prescribed antibiotics, but all the pharmacies except one were closed because it was almost Shabbat. I quickly grabbed a monit and he immediately understood my situation. He drove to town as quick as can be. I was astonished when he said he’d wait for me. I didn’t believe him but I went inside the pharmacy. There was one pharmacist but many people who needed meds before Shabbat. There were issues with my medication and the pharmacist got on the phone with my doctor. My prescription for antibiotics had to be changed and it was a good long while before I was “let free” with my medication.
I was on tenterhooks when I walked out the door. But wow, there was my monit. I thanked him profusely. Hashem was definitely looking out for me. I made it just in time for Shabbat.
• • •
I made new friends in Jerusalem, such as the coffee barista at the corner of Derech Harakavet and Derech Beit Lechem. Every morning, I took my shekels and walked about eight minutes till I reached my favorite bakery. I had to get there in time to get the freshest croissants. Then I walked back to the corner where my coffee guy made the most amazing cappuccinos. Each day I’d order an iced cappuccino and hot cappuccino. The coffee man was my chaver (friend), asking about my ulpan progress.
I’d take my croissants and coffees and walk the short steps back to the house. I’d eat with my favorite book, pleased as punch.
I grew used to the everyday in Israel, seeing the storekeepers and making friends like I do on Central Avenue. But there was something special and holy in Jerusalem.
Several nights during the weeks of my trip, I was so tired that I just wanted to dine myself. From the time I had first gotten to Israel, I had come to favor one restaurant more than others—Lucianna. They made amazing pasta that I could truly eat every night (and almost did). I had a waitress who was Drew Barrymore’s doppelganger. I told her this and showed a photo of Drew on my iPhone. She laughed. We became restaurant friends and every time I went to Lucianna, I ordered the same pasta dish, and “Drew” was usually my waitress, recognizing me as I walked through the door.
• • •
My last Shabbat was going to be spent in Acco. On erev Shabbat, a bunch of us went to Rosh HaNikra. It was breathtakingly beautiful, an amazing site I hadn’t seen since my teen tour decades before. Spending time with friends in Acco was terrific. It was a vacation for all of us. In the group, there was one other American, and the other three had made aliyah. I wondered if this was a sign. Was aliyah in the cards for me?
My nephew Zachary and I went to dinner together, where I saw my cousins Susan Kirshner Sheldon and Jeremy Sheldon. There were other friends I saw, and through these three weeks, I still hadn’t managed to meet all my Israeli friends. Half of my high-school and college friends have ended up making aliyah, which became a more enticing idea the more comfortable I felt in my daily life in Jerusalem.
One of my favorite mornings was when my three married nieces from Ramat Beit Shemesh and Beitar took buses and schlepped with their babies (the older kids were in school) to come visit me. We picked up cake, croissants, cookies, and salads from Green’s and we all got blended drinks. We sat at the kitchen table and talked over each other. We passed the babies around, and I made sure I held the babies I had never met. And we ate cake (yes, cake was a huge part of my vacation and I paid for it when I got back!).
I had missed my Israeli family when they made aliyah over a decade ago, but our relationships are still strong. And my new relationships with the little boys skyrocketed when I sat and played hours of Play-Doh with them.
On my last day in Israel, I made a promise to come back soon, to continue ulpan, and to spend more time with my family and some friends I hadn’t had a chance to see.
Little did I know that tickets for motzaei Yom Kippur to Israel had already been purchased and I am iy’H going back again with my family. I do know how lucky I am, and I’m grateful to Hashem and to my family for help in getting to Israel so often this year.
It’s not so hard to say goodbye to a beloved country when you know you’ll be back soon. I said my goodbyes to the coffee guy and the girl who stood in for him sometimes; my ulpan instructor Bazy; “Drew the waitress”; the owner of the croissant shop; the 100 Gett drivers I used (and that might be understating it); and of course my family and friends.
But they weren’t really goodbyes! They were more like “I’ll see you soon.” I will never say goodbye to Israel. Whether I live there or not, it will always be my home.
Michele Herenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.