Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chapter Twenty of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself.

     From the quick swerve and loud honk, Sondra realized that the bus driver had narrowly missed hitting an old Arab leading a donkey across the busy street. She shook her head in disbelief. In the last hour since she had left Lod Airport she had seen enough strange sights to last a lifetime: soldiers with machine guns slung casually over their soldiers, Arab women walking with bulging baskets on their heads, religious men dressed all in black from their heads to their feet, rusty trucks at the roadside with memorial signs next to them, and more.
     "Is it what you expected? Robin, her seatmate, asked her.
     "I didn't know what to expect. I'm just glad I'm here," Sondra squeezed her hands in excitement. "What about you?"

    "My sister came on this tour last year. She told me everything."   
    With a squeal of the brakes the bus stopped and Ilana, one of the groups’ leaders, stood up with the microphone.
     "We are going to make one stop before we go to the hostel. Your belongings will be safe, but please put on your hats. Everyone follow me."
      "All I want to do is go to sleep," Robin complained.
     As exhausted as she was, Sondra did not want to go to sleep. She wanted to see everything. As she left the bus, she joined the two girls from Kansas City. They were from the big Reform Temple and Sondra had never met them before, but they were friendly. All of the thirty-eight kids on the tour were friendly, but all of them were from big cities. They looked at Sondra almost as if she were a creature from another planet when they found out that she lived on a farm.
      When they all met at JFK airport in New York, Sondra had been surprised to see that none of the boys were wearing yarmulkes. And when a group of men with black hats approached the boys to put on tefillin – the leather straps and black boxes that religious men don daily in order to pray each morning- only two agreed. The tour was supposed to be strictly kosher, but Sondra wondered if she were the only one who cared. She did not have time to worry about that now, though. Ilana and Itzhak, the other leader, were racing through a crowded, dark marketplace and down a narrow alley. If she didn't pay attention, Sondra knew she would be lost. Almost running she descended some stairs, made a few turns, and then came to an open plaza full of sunlight. There, in front of her, stood the Western Wall, just like it looked in all the pictures. Emotions from the past seven months caught up with her. She burst into tears.
     No one from the group noticed Sondra fumbling in her bag for tissues. An older, wrinkled woman with a white kerchief covering her graying hair stopped at Sondra's side.
     "Why are you crying?" She asked kindly in heavily accented English as she handed Sondra a clean handkerchief.
     "I… I don't know," Sondra wiped her eyes. "I wanted to come here for so long."
     "And now that you are here you are going to stay?"
     Sondra shook her head slowly. "No, my parents won't let me stay. They're waiting for me to come home."
     "This is your home," the woman stated. "When you go back to America, remember that. This is home for every Jew."
     "Sondra, are you okay?"
     Without meaning to, Sondra turned her back on the woman and saw Robin waving to her. She waved in return and when she turned around to thank the woman and return the handkerchief, the woman had disappeared.
     "Who was that?"
     "I don't know."
     "Come." Robin took Sondra by the arm. "Let's go to the Wall. We're supposed to write a note and put it in between the cracks."
     Once again, Sondra wished that Debbie had come with her on the trip. She knew the cantor's daughter would have directed her to pray at the Wall and not just make a wish. 

     The next three days were a whirl of touring Jerusalem. They saw museums, tombs, and many different neighborhoods of the city. In between they went swimming, planted trees, and went to a sound and light show. Before she knew it, it was Friday afternoon and Sondra asked Ilana what they would be doing for Shabbat.
     "Tomorrow's a free day," the young woman spoke offhandedly. "What do you want to do?"
     "I want to have Shabbos," Sondra answered simply.
    "Okay, that's cool. There's several batei Knesset near the hostel."
    "Several what?"
    "Synagogues," Ilana translated somewhat impatiently. "Tomorrow you can have lunch anytime between eleven and one. That will give you plenty of time to even go to the Kotel if you want. There will be supper in the evening before Shabbat is over."
     "Is the food going to be cooked on Shabbos?" Sondra asked nervously.
     "Of course not," Ilana looked at Sondra as if she was an idiot.
     Before sundown, the manager of the hostel directed Sondra and most of the other girls to light the Shabbat candles on a special table in the dining room. Itzhak escorted about half of the group to a local shul. Although she had never gone to Friday evening services in Kansas City, Sondra found she was able to follow the service. Afterwards people greeted them "Shabbat shalom" and asked them where they were from. Someone had a cousin in Brooklyn and wanted to know if they knew him. On the way back to the hostel, they saw several other groups, staying at the same place, coming back from different synagogues. There was indeed the spirit of Shabbat as they sat down in the dining hall and had a real Shabbat meal.
     After the meal, however, Itzhak announced that whoever wanted to go with him to a private party at the Hebrew University campus should meet at the entrance of the hostel at ten o'clock. They should bring money for the Arab taxi. Sondra was disappointed to see how many wanted to go. She noticed, across the room, though, a group of French girls who were still sitting at their table and quietly singing Shabbat songs. Sondra decided to join them.
     She did not know French, but several of the girls knew English and made her feel welcome. As she sang, Sondra looked the other girls over carefully. All were wearing long skirts, long sleeves, and nylon stockings. She felt rather self-conscious in her short-sleeved dress in which she had always felt comfortable in Kansas City. No one seemed to notice, though. After the French girls finished saying grace after meals,  they invited Sondra to walk with them to the Western Wall the following morning. She eagerly accepted the invitation.
    "I guess Shabbos is Shabbos in any language," Sondra said to herself as she walked to her room.
     On Sunday morning Ilana and Itzhak began banging on their groups' doors before six o'clock. There were lots of moaning and complaining, but the two leaders did not care.
     "The bus is leaving at seven. You need to have your bags in the lobby before breakfast. Let's go!"
     "And I want three guys to help me load the bus!" Itzhak commanded.
     Sondra was one of the first ones downstairs. She wanted to say goodbye to the French girls who were supposed to be flying back to France that evening, but not one of them entered the dining hall. At five till seven Sondra left, boarded the bus and sat down in the aisle seat that one of the girls had saved for her.
     After a week together, everyone in the group had relaxed and become comfortable with one another. They went touring in the north of the country and in the south. Sometimes they traveled in air-conditioned buses, but more often than not, they rode in the back of trucks. They went hiking in nature preserves, visited archeological sites, swam in the ocean, and saw the towns. Sondra quickly learned to cover herself with suntan lotion and fill up her canteen with cold water every morning. She also learned to take the teasing about being a farmer's daughter in her stride. 
     They ate a big Israeli breakfast every morning and most days had full, meat meals both at noon and in the evening. During the last week, though, they began to see fish over and over and some of the kids began complaining.
     "Sorry," Ilana said most unsympathetically. "You're on a kosher tour and a lot of the places don't serve meat during the Nine Days."
      "Nine days of what?" someone challenged.
     "The nine days before Tisha b’Av." Although not especially observant, Ilana had come from a traditional home and she explained the days of mourning for the Beit Hamikdash that had been destroyed two thousand years earlier.
     "When's Tisha b’Av?" Sondra asked nervously.
    "Actually it's Shabbat," Ilana answered. "No one fasts on Shabbat, though. It's pushed off till Sunday."
    Sondra kicked herself mentally. She vaguely remembered Debbie's explanation from last summer, but she had not learned any more about it. Should she fast? Why hadn't anyone told her Tisha b’Av was coming up? She couldn't call Mr. Marcus collect from Israel, but she really did not know what to do. She was on her own. This Shabbat was a free Shabbat. It had been planned weeks ago that she would go to Aunt Irene's cousin who lived on a religious kibbutz near the Jordanian border. She wouldn’t have to be back with the group till Sunday night in Tel Aviv. 

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