A YEAR IN JERUSALEM
By George and Eileen Anderson
We are a million years old. Our eyes feel sandpapered. A wheel broke on a suitcase. There is a record heatwave and we're still dressed for a Kiwi winter. We've got swollen ankles like we borrowed Schwarznegger's muscles. And, wow-ee: we're in Jerusalem!
Okay, we confess. We're stark raving bonkers. Unfit to be released into the care of the community.
Really sensible people stay home and grow geriatric gracefully. The daring-but-prudent travel on a tour that's designed to help you survive.
But us? Fifty-four hours 'twixt leaving our snug little bed in the wilds above Whangarei and touching down (airlinespeak for a teeth-jarring thwack in the Promised Land).
Korean Air's a great airline. They didn't blench at our grossly overweight cases. (You go for a year, you take everything.) Even upgraded us to Prestige Class so we could sprawl in comfort. (My legs - George writing this bit - are designed for painting ceilings; they don't telescope for air travel.)
This time we found ourselves in Cairo. Probably due to Middle East politics. It seemed to worry the authorities that we were booked to transfer onto an El-Al plane, Ben Gurion-bound. Anyhow, an armed Egyptian relieved us of passports and tickets, while we were driven in a van that would have given OSH the screaming horrors across half-a-dozen runways and led at speed (yallah means hurry, we learned) down, down, down, to an underground room and a two-hour wait. We wished we'd never read any suspense novels.
Then - ah, bliss! - another brisk trot to - oh, joy! - the Israeli security area where we briefly identify our luggage, answer a barrage of questions, receive back - it's Christmas, folks! - passports and tickets, and are politely conducted to a bona fide transit lounge where ordinary passengers sit.
A short hop in the dark that took the Children of Israel forty years. Just time for a quick on-board snack. Sandwiches. The fillings are divine, copious and tasty; the bread is antediluvian, antique - we make uncalled-for bricks-without-straw remarks. Some folk are never grateful.
The lights of Tel-Aviv. A quick glide to Ben Gurion. The afore-mentioned teeth-jarring thwack. Israel!
Would you believe the formalities - immigration, finding a trolley and our luggage, customs, manipulating an ATM to score a pocketful of shekels (technically shekelim) and meeting the soldier who is to play nursemaid to us for the next year - all that only takes minutes.
Later, we will be very, very thankful. And tell God so. Right now we are somnambulists. Zombies. Asleep on our feet.
But our soldier (who speaks good English - life is wonderful!) says something that penetrates even our befuddled senses.
'We're sending you straight to Jerusalem - you said you'd like that.' Like! Like? Ridiculous word. Adore doesn't get much better. We're ecstatic. The soldier does battle with the midnight taxi-drivers outside the airport, warns us to get a printed receipt; we'll be reimbursed later. Nice.
And we begin the long ascent to the Holy City.
Our apologies to you all. No lyrical descriptions of the steady climb into the mountains towards the one place on earth personally chosen by God. We doze and snore like pagans. Until we reach the Beit Avot ('Parents' Home' - sounds nicer than old folks' home). We haven't a clue where we are.
Into 'our' flat. An attempt at systematic unpacking - experience has taught us it's worth the ultimate effort.
Push the two single beds together.
And sleep. And sleep. And...
That was then. Eventually we recover. Join the human race. Begin to suss out our work duties, get to know the 140 residents and the goodness-knows-how-many staff.
And off-duty we catch up with events in the world around us. Across the front page of the Jerusalem Post's commentary section is a quote from Michael Novac: 'You can't take Jesus Christ seriously unless you take Judaism seriously. You can't be a Christian unless you accept Judaism'. Clearly there will be a public airing of topics in Israel that were once forbidden.
(Like this quote from the then Prime Minister: click here to read his exact words.)
And we've just celebrated Tisha B'Av - the day on which both the first and second Temples were destroyed. For the Orthodox, it is a time of fasting and mourning. But there is a rumour going around Mea Shearim - the suburb where the ultra-Orthodox congregate - that this may be the last time such a holy day is marked with sadness.
A prophecy states that when the Messiah comes, it will be a day of feasting, singing and dancing. An expectation is growing that the arrival (we would say 'the return') of the Messiah is closer than ever before.
Meanwhile, in the language of good King James, we 'occupy till he comes'. Which, in our volunteer work situation, means a hands-on involvement with elderly residents, making their lives a tad more enjoyable.
Which also means understanding what the heck we're supposed to be doing. In Israel, everyone except us is in charge. Everyone has differing ideas of how a job should be performed. The art is to guess who's in charge, what rules are absolute, what are the unforgivable sins.
Of course we befriend kitchen staff. Hey - they control the tucker, for goodness sake! A smile or three, twenty minutes of table-laying outside of working hours, can make a rare old difference to what we get to carry upstairs for our supper.
And off-duty we begin to find our way around. Locate where we are on a map, so we don't get too horribly lost the first time we go exploring. Try out new Hebrew words and phrases that we've learned since last time. Chalk up brownie points for successfully catching the right bus, finding a supermarket for the odd delicacy after which our soul lusteth, discovering a library with Internet facilities, and clicking on the correct doodahs the first time.
But one phenomenon stares us in the face. Israelis have actually heard of New Zealand. Back in '81, as tourists, we were compelled (oh the shame and ignominy of it, mea culpa and all that) to identify ourselves as wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap Australians.
Later, in '96 and '97, maybe half the people we spoke to had heard of Noo Zild or something.
But now, ah! Hot water out of ground! Gisborne, the first day! Very green, plenty sheeps!
The Millennium publicity has paid off, and Israelis hope to send their kids there for OE after the army.
And, wouldn't it rock you - Israelis think that God has this special thing for New Zealand and (no joking, now) Australia. They know it. They can prove it.
Read on for further details.
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