An American in Tel Aviv – Israel Day One

Hello, Shirley here—sorting through the stacks of programs, brochures, schedules, and ticket stubs from my five and a half days in Israel—and gathering my thoughts about what I will take away from this complex journey.

I’m sore. International travel will do that to you: heavy backpacks and long flights in tight seats leave physical reminders of my trip, manifested in the aches and pains of my body (though a big shout out to the British Airways counter-person at Ben Gurion who upgraded me to Business Class for the first leg of my return without telling me; a mitzvah if ever there was one!).

The mental reminders will last much longer. Those now swirl in my head, a soup of images, smells, tastes, conversations, theatrical pictures, and international sharing that is sure to simmer for many years to come.

The best way I know to do this is to start from day one. So here goes.

I head to Dulles only minutes after the close of our December Theater J Council Meeting. The support I feel from Council and Staff is significant. I’m proud to represent this group of artists, decision-makers, thinkers and colleagues as I set out on this journey, and I’m thankful for the encouragement and dedication–staff in DC have no small task at hand this week with a show starting rehearsals and a festival essentially launching at the end of the month.

Getting through Dulles is easy-peasy, and I make a few final phone calls at the gate, before I’ll be unreachable by phone for about a week.

Until my transfer at Heathrow I could, of course, be heading anywhere in the world. Clues about my destination only emerge in London, as I wait at the gate for my flight to Ben Gurion. The large wall of windows draws black hats and prayer shawls into its light. In the moments before we board there are anywhere from 10-15 men (and a few women in head scarves) davening at the window. I try to take a picture with my phone.

(I only captured one prayer shawl here, before feeling invasive. A little bit curious about the large Dunkin Donuts bag the women next to me have with them; is this the US souvenir equivalent of halveh and dead sea mud?)

There is no question as to where I am headed at this point.

I arrive at Ben Gurion exhausted and disoriented, having slept very little on the plane due to the aforementioned cramped seats and the temptation of in-flight films (CONTAGION was the stand-out, though an unwise choice for someone with slightly hypochondriac tendencies; it also made me think about our upcoming LOCALLY GROWN offering from Gwydion Suilebhan, and about the intersection of science and story-telling).

I’m here a day before the actual conference starts so I’ve booked my own hotel room for the first night, and in the interest of my bank account–I went through Hotels.com. I take the train from the airport to Tel Aviv (clean and easy) but get off a stop later than the hotel paperwork has directed. At the station I find a cab, and show the driver the map (also sent by the hotel) that supposedly explains how to find in it the mix of twisty streets known as the Yemenite neighborhood of Tel Aviv. The driver welcomes me to his city. When I tell him I last visited twelve years ago (1999) he assures me it will look like a much different place. I am afraid it’s been too long to make an honest comparison. There’s a ton of construction, that’s true.

(These streets are even twistier and more confusing in person, trust me.)

He navigates the narrow streets and we arrive (we think) at my hotel. We’re wrong. It’s a deserted building. But the taxi is gone so I start wandering. I ask in the cafe up the street, and two workers conference in rapid Hebrew with two customers, until one thinks they can show me where it is on a map. I set off with my three heavy bags (have I mentioned? I’m not the most savvy traveler) and though it is only 5:30 pm or so Israeli time, it is starting to get dark. Panic starts to set in after asking two more people for directions, and still not finding the door to the hotel. I’m used to having cell phones and gps to help me through these situations–here, right now, I’m unconnected.

Finally, a woman shows me–I’m on the right street, just heading in the wrong direction. I make it to the guest house and find the friendliest staff ever. I don’t have the heart to tell them about my difficulty finding the place–chalk it up as a memorable travel experience.

Oh–and there are stray cats all over. This is one of the first things I notice about Tel Aviv. I mention it to Stephen Stern later and he tells me there used to be many more, and I don’t want to know what was done to bring down the population. I’m sure I don’t.

(Tel Aviv cat-cum-scrappy survivalist.)

After settling in and a quick lie-down, I head out to try and find the Habima Theater, where we have the pre-festival opportunity to see KOHAV YAIR by Shlomo Moskovich (Jen has done a wonderful job with play write-ups, check those out). I pick up a coffee and sandwich at the cafe in the immense Habima Theater complex, glad to have my first meal in Israel even if it is essentially a caprese sandwich. Everything I eat in Israel is tasty. Everything. This I remember about my last time here–of the places in the world that I can eat without worry (as a pescetarian) Israel is high on that list. Everything is fresh and flavorful and fantastic.

I’m thrilled when I see Jennifer Mendenhall and Sinai Peter in the lobby. Though exhausted beyond the point of adding much to the conversation, familiar faces in a foreign place are always a welcome sight–and these two faces are smiling and warm. We sit together to watch the interesting, and sometimes baffling, look at Israeli army service and the fall out of a battle injury, father-son relationships, the role of the (Russian, non-Jewish) outsider in Israel (who ends up becoming the savior, in fact), with a strong musical component throughout. On a side note, I envy the technology of their projector.

By our exit from the theater I feel I’ve pushed through my jet lag enough, and collapse is inevitable. I head back along the increasingly easy route to my hotel (essentially behind the now closed up Carmel Market) and crash for the night. Tomorrow is a new day, and sleep is welcome. More posts, more pictures–soon, I promise.

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