Sometimes a Cappuccino Is More Than a Cappuccino
I’m writing this from thirty thousand feet, between Romania and Greece; headed home from Israel three days earlier than planned.
I’ve been flying across the globe for over fifty years. I have never cut short a trip because I didn’t feel safe where I was or that something could erupt.
I’ve been too scary out of the way places. I’ve done it at times when the rest of the world wasn’t doing it.
When I was twelve, I went to Cold War Romania with my mother.
I lived alone in Hong Kong when I was nineteen. A city I loved and have returned to for my entire life. A city I sadly would not feel safe in today.
I went to India for the first time in nineteen seventy- eight.
I was in Jaipur long before it was a go-to/ hot spot destination. It had more cows than people. Hot water was delivered to your room in buckets. It was the most other place I had ever been to.
I have always felt at home in the world, up until now.
So many people wrote to me and said, “come home.” The Israelis said if something goes wrong the safest place to be is in Jerusalem. It might be. But not if home is halfway across the world and part of your family is there.
I do have other blogs to post. Stories of the Old City of Jerusalem, more wonderful markets and meals, The Holocaust Museum. But due to the iffy WIFI, I don’t have access to my photos.
Nor does this trip feel like one that needs chronological retelling.
Travel at its best opens your eyes and your awareness to the ways and life habits of others. It’s the world’s best history teacher. It hopefully allows you to if not totally embrace, at least understand and partake in other cultures and habits you normally are not exposed to.
I’m not a chicken on the road.
Someone wrote in that I was such a trouper with my ankle. Not at all. It wasn’t as bad as it looked, and I would never let something like that come between me and a great adventure.
I once fell out of a rickshaw in Old Delhi at rush hour. The rickshaw wallah jammed on the brakes, I did a nosedive into the traffic. Luckily, I wasn’t hit. I climbed back into the rickshaw quickly. Then I noticed my pinkie finger was totally out of joint.
I was with the director of the film we were shooting, and she wanted me to go to the hospital. That was the last thing I wanted to do. So, I just pulled on my crooked digit and shoved it back into place and off we went.
The point of that story is I don’t get all out of joint, even when I do.
But Israel was a challenge for me on so many levels.
It didn’t help that we woke up on Friday and Trump had pulled the lever and thrown the world totally off balance. Suddenly we were back to being glued to CNN. The very experience we flew far away to escape.
Jerusalem as a place forces you to question and think and time travel in ways few cities do.
If you are a lapsed Jew it causes you even more inner tumult than you might already have. I’m not even a lapsed Jew. I’m a Jew who was raised as a Christian. And have stuck my toe in the waters of every religion I could find.
Lucy is sure of her identity. I have spent a lifetime searching one out.
Would this trip answer big questions for me? Would I suddenly feel like I was home?
Would I have a mid-life spiritual ah-hah and have to write an entirely different book than I have been mapping out?
Or did I already have a leg up on the questions I’d spent a lifetime asking?
We arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday. We had one full day, Thursday to really see the Old City. And we walked it from ten in the morning until after five.
But then we woke up and it was Friday. I knew that the city shut down for the Sabbath. But I kind of figured it was like Rome on Christmas or India on – India never shuts down. Asia never shuts down. And most things are open in the states on Sunday.
Not Jerusalem, it slams the door shut and next to nothing is available.
Sundown for some reason starts at two in the afternoon on Friday. That is when everything starts getting shuttered, but the following day when sundown begins is closer to seven.
Its funny timekeeping, if you ask me.
When you’re biting your nails for a cappuccino this seems like an eternity. When the Holocaust Museum tosses you out before they close at two it feels weird. When you literally cannot go anywhere for over twenty-four hours it feels very strange. OK in all fairness we went to the Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the gift shops and café were closed.
There were Arab places open. We didn’t know which ones and we tried going back to the Arab section of the Old City, which I love. But then a big fight broke out and it was the day Trump had killed the General and I didn’t think it was the best idea for us to be wandering around.
I have never been anywhere where everything shut down so completely.
I entered into truly a Talmudic debate with the person running the dairy restaurant part of the hotel about why they could not hire someone to turn on the milk foamer and the espresso machine since they could not.
I get you can’t. I get others can’t drink it if it comes from a machine. But this is a hotel. It’s an international chain. It has people here who are not Ultra-Orthodox or maybe even Jewish. It has people who want a sandwich, who need a concierge to make a phone call, a gift shop to be open to buy an aspirin, and someone in the bar to make a friggin cappuccino.
They did not agree. I finally said I would do it. I would come down and make my own coffee if they gave me access to the machine. They refused.
Unbeknownst to us, we were staying at a Hassidic hot spot.
That may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. The Waldorf Astoria is a pilgrimage hotel for Hasidim. They flock there on weekends and holidays.
Lucy wanted to do the hotel’s Shabbat dinner. We were literally the only non-Ultra-Orthodox people in the dining room.
In terms of people watching, culture absorbing and otherworldly experiences it was fascinating.
In terms of feeling judged, scorned and disliked for what I looked like and what I did or didn’t believe it was beyond intense.
No smiles. No Shabbat Shalom. No “where are you from?” “Is this your first trip here.” Do you like the chopped liver? I tried smiling – but got daggers back. Or the turn of a covered head.
A walk across the dining room to go to the ladies’ room made me feel like the school slut who just got pregnant with the gym teacher.
I’ve walked into Mosques in Hyderabad and Istanbul and been treated better. I remember an Oman in Luxor inviting us in, this was during the height of Bush’s Iraqi disaster and he gave us tea and discussed the world situation with us; Glenn an obvious Jew, me an obvious woman and potential Jew. He made us feel so at home. We sat and drank mint tea and talked. He showed us all around his Mosque. I’ve had endless experiences like this around the world.
I’m not religion bashing. But in terms of me making sense of my birth roots, this was not a helpful experience. It made me feel alienated and shunned from the religion to which I was born.
Now many will write in that this is the fundamentalist, offshoot of the religion. I know that. I’ve been fascinated with the Hassid’s and their ways for years. I’ve just never been locked in a hotel with two hundred of them for a weekend without access to real caffeine.
One woman would not ride in the elevator with me.
They glared when we walked by. I know they are often the victims of anti-Semitic slurs and attacks. But just like staring at the wall of the dead in the Holocaust Museum those things affect all Jews. Whether you actively practice or not.
This is the problem I have with religion as an organized practice, it often feels more exclusionary than inclusive. Especially the sects within sects of religions.
I googled The Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem and several people had written in “beautiful hotel, but don’t go if you are not Hassidic or Ultra-Orthodox. You will feel very out of place.”
Perhaps I have told this story as it’s one of my favorites and it’s why I travel and why I have made a point of taking the girls since they were small.
We were in Cambodia many years ago and Glenn and I had wandered off on our own in Angkor Watt and couldn’t find the girls.
We looked around for a while and finally found them under a giant tree surrounded by about fifty young Buddhist Monks in training. They did not share a language and the boys could obviously not get too close to the girls, but they were trying on their sunglasses and they had found a way to communicate despite their great cultural and language differences. They were laughing and pointing and absorbing the other of each other.
We watched them for a few minutes, and I said to Glenn I feel like we’ve done our job. They are at home in the world, they will be OK.
That was that world. Not the one we live in today.
Israel is a conundrum to those who live there. It’s beyond complicated to those who have spent years studying it. It’s been complex since it was formed.
Part of what makes Jerusalem so important is in this little spit of land in the Old City are the beginnings of the world’s three main religions. All of them still with a huge footprint, no matter how many regimes, dynasties and other religions have tried to erase them.
When you have Mary’s supposed birthplace next to a Mosque when the fourteen stations of the cross start winding their way up the VI Delarosa which is near the Wailing Wall when Mosques are built over Temples next to the place Christ supposedly hung on the Cross. It’s a mind-boggling living textbook to the religions of the world.
You go back to your hotel you turn on CNN and once again the world is fighting over religion. The same fight century after century after century.
Then you go down to the lobby of said hotel to have a drink and people who are supposedly the same tribe as you are won’t talk to you because your head isn’t covered and you’re wearing jeans and a long-sleeved sweater and not married to a guy dressed like he just stepped out of fifteenth-century Poland.
And then you literally have to flee the vacation you planned so your daughter could experience her religious roots, and you could see one of the world’s most interesting places due to the fact in 2020 an American family lives under the rule of a dictator whose impetuous, tyrannical nature has thrown us all in harm’s way.
And you think back to the Old City of Jerusalem and you wonder how far we have really come in thousands and thousands of years?
Then I conjure up the image of my young daughters laughing with the monks under the shade of a big tree in Angkor Wat. I think back to the Oman in the Mosque who gave us tea. I remember the Hindu drivers who have taken me home to their families and offered us what little food they had. I think about standing in front of the Vatican with thousands on Christmas Eve, about Easter Sundays in Notre Dame. About marching in the snow in the Jewish Cemetery in Prague and crying with fifty strangers.
And I then understand that the most religious person for me, I emphasize for me, is the Dalai Lama. Who says quite simply,
My religion is kindness.
It doesn’t matter where you pray, what you wear, what bumper sticker you have on your car if we are not kind if we do not look out for each other, embrace the other in each other. If we do not take care of our planet, and the burning Koalas, of the homeless in our streets, if we don’t stop the anti-Semitism, the racism and the hatred, the abuse of women, and the insane killings, if we lose more of our young men to a senseless war in the Gulf we have not moved one step from where it all started. And it doesn’t make any difference if Mary was a virgin or not.
No one is coming to save us. We have to save ourselves. And we have to get moving.