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Where are we traveling? Why are we traveling? Five writers find stories in motion…
Wednesday, March 08, 2017
I check my phone before I exit the car, force of habit. There are notifications from my family group chat — a nephew kept my sister up all night, my other sister posted her daily selfie. Same old, same old. I close the app without responding.
The weather is mild, and I have great expectations as I walk to the airport entrance. I spy a shpitzel in the distance and I quicken my pace. Please let her stay put. This is my first sighting; I am beginning to doubt my mission. I’m here in Newark International Airport to find frum people and discover what moves them — literally. Where are they going and why?
I’d had great expectations for this adventure (I dared to call it an adventure — how naive). I’d meet many people, so many people I’d be overwhelmed. And there would be stories, many stories, wondrous and glorious, deep and intimate. But ten minutes after I park my car in row 102, I am already past fidgety; I’m on the verge of bored.
The airport is quiet. Everything is calm. But on my second pass of the duty-free gift shop that sells Chanel perfume and cartons of Marlboro, I spot the floral headwrap, and eagerly, way too eagerly, I approach.
She is young, fresh, with green eyes that light filters through, and a warm smile.
“I’m going to Netanya,” she says. She is a teacher on midwinter break. She is visiting a sister she hasn’t seen in around two years. Tickets were cheap, the time was right, she farmed out her children to her other sisters and is off to get to know her nieces and nephews and catch up with her sister.
“There’s nothing like sisters,” my mother — who has none — always says. She’d always tell me and my sisters how lucky we are, and I suppose we are, to have each other. And at least we don’t have to travel thousands of miles to make fun of each other’s fashion choices — because that’s what sisters are really for, right? (excerpted)
I’m searching for something soft in the crisp morning air, but at the Ammunition Hill Light Rail station, all I find are sharp edges and pinched expressions.
“The train is only going until Shaar Shechem,” I say in broken Hebrew to the young woman to my left. She signs the bad news to her hearing-impaired companion, whose face falls. I’ve been warning travelers about the train’s limited route for nearly an hour now. I should be getting paid for this, I think, then remember the reason for the strike: the city is short on funds. No one’s been paid.
Hence the somber fact that the train is only running until Shaar Shechem.
I want to say I chose the Ammunition Hill stop because the history trembling beneath the surface is palpable, reverberating upward straight to my fingertips.
It’s certainly an appropriate spot to find a story.
Alas, it’s not the history. I chose this stop because it’s close to Ramat Eshkol and I’m hunting Anglo prey. My quest to uncover the stories behind the daily traveler is going to have to be conducted in my native tongue; my Hebrew won’t cut it. In fact, it’s a constant reminder that I don’t quite belong.
It makes the hardness harder.
I reach into my pocket for my phone and realize too late that my change has fallen out. Turning, I find two burly Arab men staring at me, arms crossed. Our eyes meet and the three of us come to an immediate understanding.
I walk away quickly. In close proximity to a number of diverse neighborhoods, the area is often volcanic. Even with numerous security personnel around, I’m not interested in starting anything.
Temporarily penniless, but determined to find myself a story, I circle the stop like a pickpocket, preferring to accost passengers as they wait, rather than actually board a train. This is definitely not my comfort zone. I was the girl who made everyone else make the Shabbos plans in seminary because I was too shy to call up strangers. Taking a deep breath, I plow forward. “Where are you going today?”
“I am going to protest on behalf of Amona.” This from a teenager with blazing blue eyes and braces on her teeth.
No one seems particularly interested in expounding. The usual tension felt in this area is exacerbated by the fact that the train isn’t running normally. A few travelers are frantically trying to reroute; I dare not approach them. (excerpted)
An average of 750,000 people travel through Grand Central Terminal daily. Finding someone Jewish shouldn’t be too difficult.
I’m banking on that as I disembark from the Number 6 train, disinfect my hands twice with Purell, pass under the massive Tiffany’s clock over the entrance on 42nd street, and survey the expansive area. The ceiling in the main concourse is 125 feet high, an intricately decorated mural designed with the constellations — accidentally painted backwards — and the acoustics lend a faint echo to the thrum of activity.
Career women in pantsuits and heels, and men in woolen coats rush across the main concourse toward the tracks, a group of train conductors in traditional uniforms and caps chat near the information desk, three boys in army fatigues stroll by, and policemen stationed every few feet keep close surveillance on the hub of activity ahead of them.
So do I.
After 45 minutes of people-watching, I finally have my first skirt sighting.
I spot my potential target from the back. Her hair is down past her shoulders, a neat, straight-ironed look (why is it that only Jewish females from Brooklyn carry that off? It’s like we don’t come in curly versions at all). She’s wearing a coat so I can’t fully see her clothing, but the hem peeking from beneath comfortably passes the crease behind her knees, by at least an inch.
Feeling like the Tzniyus Patrol, I surreptitiously move behind her. I stalk her a few feet, and she turns around suddenly. Her coat is open, and — okay, not Jewish.
I back off and wander aimlessly up a wide staircase, past a shoe-shine, a Chase ATM, a Starbucks, and a Chinese man in a yoga position. I pause in front of the Grand Central Market; you can buy challos there, I notice, and it’s Thursday, so I hang out near the bakery section for ten minutes to see who stops by — nobody — before giving up and continuing along to the bathrooms. I loiter there for a few minutes, examining the women as they exit. Do they slow down, mumble something under their breath, and then hurry out?
It’s already close to two hours into my assignment, with no hits. I need to work my stakeout more strategically. Okay, where do Jews travel from, or travel to? I check the computerized train schedule posted on the wall. Trains are coming and going to Port Jervis, Mount Kisco, Poughkeepsie, Mount Vernon. A New Haven arrival is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. I glance at my watch—
Just then, a woman emerges from Track 101. She seems to be in her mid-sixties. Her hair is covered with a black woolen hat — cold weather? or Tichel Tales? — and she’s dressed in a conservative dark coat, gloves, suede boots…
...And she’s wearing a black skirt.
All the signals in my Jew-radar start flashing. (excerpted)
I’m standing in a grungy London Underground station, frantically scanning the crowds for sheitlach or long skirts, when it hits me how crazy this assignment is.
This is England, after all, and riding the Tube is an exercise in grim politeness as you pretend not to see the seven other people crammed around a central pole at your end of the carriage. The young with their earphones jammed in, the elderly perusing the Metro, carefully creasing back each page of the tabloid, and everyone in between gazing at the ceiling disinterestedly, don’t-talk-to-me-and-I-won’t-talk-to-you stamped all over their faces.
My hometown of Gateshead may be an anachronism, but it’s comforting to live in the last of the shtetls. Here in London, there’s a crush of humanity, but each, to the other, is invisible.
I ride to the end of the Northern Line, where the train empties out, and I find that when I look around, there are faces that look somewhat familiar. A primary school teacher on her way to work, a girl taking time off to see a friend. I introduce myself, say hello, and press for stories with persistence. Then, running short of time, I cross the platform and take the next train in the opposite direction, from Edgware to King’s Cross, hopefully arriving in time to catch an overground train up North and homeward.
On the platform, I spot another likely candidate. She holds an oversized Fenwick’s bag, secured at the top with an elegant fabric ribbon and bow. It’s a regular school/work day, and I can’t help but feel curious as to where the girl is going.
Miri is friendly and happy to answer my questions, but wonders aloud whether her story will be of any interest. She’s in seminary, home for a friend’s chasunah, and traveling back to sem that night. It’s early to be up and about the morning after a wedding, especially for a girl on mini-vacation.
She indicates the shopping bag.
“My mother bought this, thinking her mother might like it — we have a few family simchahs coming up. But my grandmother decided against it, and today’s the last day for returns. I’m going to return it, and save my mother the trip back into town.”
My mind snags on the mother-daughter parallel. “So you’re going out to help out your mother, who went out to buy something for her mother?”
She thinks for a moment and laughs. “I guess so. I didn’t think of it like that. It’s sweet. Will it make a story?” (excerpted)
Buses take you places.
And that place might not always be the destination you had in mind.
I climb up the stairs of the 417 that will take me from Ramat Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem, and wonder where it is I have to go.
As a kid with too much imagination, every journey took on a mystical significance. I’d settle in my seat and look around and wonder: why them? Why am I in transit with these fellow passengers? What is the mystery of this confluence, our lives brushing against each other as we move — just for an hour — at the same speed, in the same direction?
I push philosophical musings to the side and eye the passengers who crowd onto the bus; soon, the seats are all taken, and people slouch along the aisle, finding a plastic handle to hold as the bus takes corners as if it has a sudden flashback to a previous incarnation as a Ferrari.
We approach the final bus stop in Beit Shemesh, about to turn onto Route 38, which will merge onto Highway One. As we near the stop, the driver slows and opens his door. “No room!” he shouts. “Two minutes, another bus will come.”
A little boy, dark hair, stands on the street, desperation in his eyes. “But nahag! I need to be on the bus.”
Passengers peer out the window and take a liking to the young boy — he can’t be more than seven or eight. “Nahag, let him on!”
“Come on up, yeled!”
“Nahag, he’s just a kid. Someone’s probably waiting for him at the other side.”
One woman fights a touch more vociferously than the rest. She pulls along a shopping bag, bumps into ankles, and lets out a stream of vociferous Hebrew at the driver. He looks around, angry, then stabs the button to close the door. The boy is left on the sidewalk. The bus pulls off down the road.
“Nahag!” A sigh of protest, but it lacks energy, a deflating balloon.
The woman with the shopping returns to her seat, shaking her head. I turn to her. “Nice of you to stick up for that boy,” I say.
She looks up at me, as if considering whether my compliment is justified. “Well…” she says eventually, “he is my son.”
Laugh? Cry? Call social services? (excerpted)
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