art · culture/multiculturalism · Hispanics/Latinos · Israel · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · New York · prayer

Fish Out of Water

Here’s a funny little story about Israel….
On my first night in Israel, I realized that I was the farthest anyone in my family had ever been from the homeland, the Dominican Republic. Sure, New York, to which my parents had emigrated as children, was far from “D.R.” but Israel was literally on the other side of the world. I had to mark this “auspicious moment” somehow. I had, in fact, gone where “no man had gone before.” So, I did something I rarely did, I called my Dad.

“How are you, baby?” he asked in English with a languishing drawl that reminded me English was not his first language, despite the utter lack of a Spanish accent.

“How am I?” I laughed. “Dad! I’m in Israel!”

He gasped. Was he picturing me being blown to bits by mass transit? Probably. “Que?! What! What are you crazy?”

I rolled my eyes. And as I normally did, I assured him in a soothing tone that I wasn’t. I told him that I was in Israel to study Orthodox Judaism at a school for converts. He showed some uncharacteristic restraint by not telling me that that was crazy, too.

In the Old City.

The next morning, I had called my boyfriend to figure out our plans for the day. He was staying at a yeshiva on the other side of town. He was going to be my tour guide while I was in Israel. He had visited many times, even spending a year long stretch after high school.

“I can’t see you until late this afternoon,” he said in a matter of fact voice.

I was startled.

“But I don’t have any food for breakfast!” I whined slightly hysterically, a picture of myself starving and dying from thirst flashed before my eyes.

“Well, you’re just going to have to go out and buy yourself something with the money I gave you last night,” he responded in a huff.

My jaw dropped. I didn’t know anything about Israel. I didn’t know the name of the street where I was staying. I didn’t know how to get around. I had done absolutely no research, assuming that my boyfriend would be my walking, talking guidebook.

And that’s how I had ended up, chesting heaving, standing in front of the ugly, limestone building where I was staying. All the buildings on the block looked exactly the same, short, wide and composed entirely of limestone bricks.

“Okay, you can do this,” I said loudly. But I didn’t believe it. I was the kind of girl who could get lost using a map and often did.

I looked left and right. An art gallery. A Judaica store. And right in front of me, traffic on an asphalt road that was at a standstill.

But past the traffic, there was hope. A street lined with cafes, little bistro tables littering the pavement.

I power-walked down the block, headed for the nearest crosswalk, worming my way past snails, er, people, after reminding myself that jaywalking wouldn’t fly in Israel.

Waiting at the crosswalk, I looked up at the clear skies above. I could feel the sweat bead on my scalp, under the swirling cloud of my curly afro as the sun beat down mercilessly overhead. The dry heat was a blessed change from the humidity of a New York summer.

Once across, I paced in front of the restaurants apprehensively. All signs on the store windows were in a language I couldn’t read. And the restaurants looked fancier, reminding me of the expensive cafes at every other corner of Midtown Manhattan East.

Familiarity drew me to the café with a large deli counter that took up most of the room. A few natives milled around inside. I quickly searched the walls for a certificate that would prove the café kosher. But everywhere I was overwhelmed by Hebrew.

The tall, dark-haired tanned attendant leaning against the glass behind the counter mumbled something unintelligible in my direction. I blinked and shook my head.

“English?” I asked with a frown, straining upwards to look at him over the tall counter. His eyes strayed down to the modest long-sleeved blouse and long skirt that announced my religious affiliation: Orthodox Jew. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Why didn’t I speak Hebrew? With my tan skin and dark features, I certainly looked the part of an Israeli native.

“Ah, American,” he laughed, enunciating the words in a gruff Hebrew accent. He rifled through papers on the counter and rescued an English menu. “Here.”

I smiled gratefully. My stomach grumbled as I paged through the menu. I bit my lip. There wasn’t any pork on the menu so maybe it was kosher. I mean, I was in Israel, right?

With a shrug, I ordered a wrap that included a litany of ingredients I couldn’t identify. Desperation was my middle name. The savage beast that was my stomach was a rough rumble and tumble of acidity. I rubbed it soothingly.

When he announced the price in Hebrew, I presented him with a fistful of Israeli money. He laughed again, repeating the price in English. I paid him quickly, rushing out with the white bag he had handed me.

Back on the pavement, I took a deep breath and peeked inside. It smelled…foreign but not offensive. I was hopeful. I pulled the wrap out with one hand, offered a little before-the-meal prayer and opened my mouth to take a bite. My phone started vibrating in my fannypack.

I sighed. Stuffing the wrap back in the bag, I pulled out the phone.

“Yes?” I said with sharp annoyance. Only my boyfriend had the number.

“You know that not every restaurant in Israel is kosher, right?” he said.

I gulped.

“I got a wrap at the deli/café across the street,” I said with exasperation.

“Did you check for kosher certification?” he asked.

“Everything was in Hebrew!” I whined.

“Hmm,” he offered back. “Well, maybe it’s kosher. I mean you’re not Jewish yet so it’s not really a big deal.”

I gasped. I hadn’t had a piece of unkosher food for months!

“No, honey, I mean….”

“I know what you meant.” With a click of a button I hung up and paced down the block.

At the trash can, I sighed and threw the little white bag in.

“G-d, I’m so hungry,” I whispered aloud, pausing in front of another restaurant. And just then, a man in a black suit, white shirt and tall black hat sauntered into the restaurant in front of me. My eyes widened. Jew! I squealed in my head. I had just figured out my way around my limited Hebrew.

At some tourist site in Northern Israel.

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