by Meryl Shecter
Vice Chair, ACB International Relations Committee
In June of 1972, I flew with two of my sighted college girlfriends, all of us Jewish, to Israel for a seven-week adventure. These two sisters, twins, were a great help to me, being that I was a blind young adult traveling abroad. We flew on El Al Airlines, an Israeli carrier; the flight lasted 13 hours, and kosher meals were provided. For those of you who do not know, the term kosher is used to define the Jewish dietary laws, where the mother’s milk from the cow cannot be mixed with meat from the same animal. In addition, Orthodox Jews do not consume anything with a cloven hoof, such as a pig, since it is considered unclean. The Hebrew word is kashrut, which is the observance of keeping kosher, where separate dishes are used for meat and dairy.
During our voyage we had a layover at Orly Airport, outside of Paris, giving the plane a chance to refuel and I had the opportunity to use my fluent French.
Arriving on Israeli soil was a life-changing experience. This would be the trip of a lifetime, where we would be fully immersed in Israeli society.
We arrived at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where we lived in a dorm with a communal kitchen. This was a joyous international experience, where young women learned about other cultures. Besides conversing in their native languages, they spoke in English when communicating with everyone.
The dorm was located on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, and we took courses taught in English, by U.S. and Israeli professors alike, on Israeli Society and Talmudic thought and literature. The Talmud is Rabbinic text that governs Jewish daily life.
While studying Israeli Society, the class took two excursions — one to a kibbutz and the other to a moshav. A kibbutz is an agricultural settlement organized under collectivist principles, where people live communally off the land. A moshav is a cooperative community made up of small farm settlements. As a blind person, I was welcomed with warm hospitality, and this welcoming spirit was pervasive throughout the entire trip. During these two communal visits, we drank fresh apple juice in their kitchens and observed the happy Israeli children learn. This took place over a year before the 1973 Yom Kippur War where Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack during Yom Kippur, which is the Jewish Day of Atonement.
On Friday evening, many of us went to Givat Ram (pronounced Givot Rom), another satellite campus of the Hebrew University, where we had a Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner and then our synagogue services, with various rituals, prayers a sermon and songs. The Jewish Sabbath commences on Friday evening and culminates on Saturday evening at sundown. On Friday evening, the Sabbath candles are lit, and prayers are said to bless the candles, wine and challah, a traditional Jewish yeast bread enriched with eggs. The Shabbat dinner consists of kosher chicken, potato kugel, a potato-based dish made with pureed potatoes, eggs, onions, vegetable oil, salt, pepper, and flour or matzoh meal. Matzoh is unleavened bread, because during biblical times, when the Jews left Egypt to escape the Pharaoh, they did not have time for the bread to rise. The Friday night festivities were sponsored by Hillel, an international organization for college and university students.
The number 9 bus, which took us to Givat Ram and the supermarket, was a great ride, where the driver played ‘50s music and the disc jockey spoke in Hebrew, a language of which I spoke very little.
Jerusalem has a few major thoroughfares:
- Ben Yehuda Street, replete with cafes, shops and street vendors, was named after Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language. In English Ben means “Son of.”
- King George Street, in Central Jerusalem was named after King George V. This street connects Ben Yehuda Street with Jaffa Road to the Central Triangle, which is the downtown business district. Amidst the hubbub of this area, one can go shopping, catch a bus or meet a friend. Again, the owners were friendly, and blindness was not an issue.
- One of the high points of the trip was a visit to Merkaz Klita, an absorption center for Russian Jewish immigrants who stay there temporarily until they are settled. These people spoke Russian as well as Yiddish. Yiddish is a combination of high German, Hebrew, Slavic and traces of romance languages, spoken by Ashkenazic Jews, who are Central and Eastern European Jews.
- Mount Masada is a mountain fortress that the Jews defended against the Romans, and it was a stronghold that was and is visited to this day. With assistance, I climbed Mount Masada, but we descended via a cable car.
- Hebron is a southern Palestinian city in the West Bank. You smell various aromas of live animals, flowers, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We haggled with merchants in the Arab market for our purchases. There is definitely an art to this.
My encounters with Christians as well as Muslim Arabs were very friendly, and there was no judgment as to my gender, religion or disability.
Another thrilling event was riding a camel in the hot Sahara Desert. Feeling the torrid wind and burning sand on my face, I was amazed that these camels travel long distances and store voluminous amounts of water in their bodies, something you learned in school, but can never appreciate until you are there. The camel’s skin is soft and elastic to the touch.
To my Christian friends, I visited Bethlehem and Nazareth. To my fellow Jewish friends, I went to Rachel’s Tomb as well as Joseph’s Tomb. For my Muslim friends, I visited the Mosque of Omar, and I heard the call to prayer five times a day.
My trip was historic, memorable and fun. I will be forever grateful for the generosity shown to myself and my friends.