| Connection Everywhere: Yom Kippur Theme 5783 |

Istanbul Airport: Yom Kippur 5772

“Please come with me,” she begged. “It’ll be a one-time thing — and the trip won’t last more than 24 hours”

As told to Sarah Pardes by Ruth Laniado 


ack in 2011, a few days before Rosh Hashanah, I got a call from my older sister. “I need a huge favor,” she said.

My sister runs a company that imports women’s clothing from Europe to Israel. Every few months, she flies abroad to visit the factories, usually accompanied by her business partner or her husband. This time, however, both were unavailable. “Please come with me,” she begged. “It’ll be a one-time thing — and the trip won’t last more than 24 hours.”

My initial instinct was to refuse. The days before Yom Tov are already hectic, and, baruch Hashem, I have a number of small children. Also, until that point, I’d never once left Israel. I’d never had a need nor a desire to leave my beautiful country. But my sister was desperate, and my husband volunteered to watch the children. So, for the first time, I found myself applying for a passport and packing my bags for a flight.

A day before we were scheduled to leave, my sister called with an update: Because of production delays, the flight would be pushed off by a week, to two days before Yom Kippur. Once again I hesitated, but my husband urged me to do this chesed for my sister, even arguing that the new timing was better.

The trip to Europe was smooth — no hitches, no delays. And less than 24 hours later, my sister and I were at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey, eagerly awaiting our flight back to Israel. We arrived with plenty of time to spare, boarded on schedule, and waited for the plane to roll down the runway and bring us home.

But as the plane lifted off the ground into the air, the engine began to malfunction. We heard hysteria in the cockpit and were in a state of pure terror for several minutes. Then, baruch Hashem, the pilot regained control and was able to land safely back at the airport.

We disembarked, shaken, without  realizing that another trial was still ahead of us.

The repairs took longer than expected, and no substitute aircraft could be found. The airline refused to commit to a takeoff time, and Yom Kippur was fast approaching. How would we get home in time? My husband put our Israeli travel agent on the case.

Meanwhile, the hours passed, but the plane still didn’t pass inspection. The airline company directed the passengers to a local hotel, but we were afraid to go there — two Jewish women in a Muslim city. We opted to spend the night in the airport, hoping desperately that by the next morning, Erev Yom Kippur, we’d be able to fly back home.

But it was not to be. By the time the announcement came that the plane was ready for takeoff, it was already noon. It was clear as day that it was too late to fly. Even if there were no delays and we arrived at Ben Gurion before Yom Kippur began, how could we be sure of finding a cab at such an hour, on such a day? Reluctantly, we decided to stay put for Yom Kippur.

The challenges facing us felt insurmountable: How would we be able to pull together an Erev Yom Kippur meal to sustain us for the fast? Where would we find machzorim, non-leather shoes, or Yom Tov clothing?

Later, we discovered that Istanbul has both a Jewish community and many shuls, but at the time, in the heart of a Muslim country, we felt lost. Our only comfort was that we didn’t have to worry about our children back home, as our mother had volunteered to look after them.

The hours went by, and we couldn’t find a solution to our dilemmas. We resigned ourselves to make the best of the situation. For our Seudah Hamafsekes, we ate fresh fruit and some leftover crackers from our suitcases. As shekiah drew near, we took off our shoes and set them by our bags.

The holy day came in, and we started reciting what we remembered of Kol Nidrei. Fearful of mangling the tefillos, we didn’t say any other tefillos, aside from Vidui, which we repeated multiple times, choking back sobs with each recitation. Our lips mouthed verses of Tehillim; our eyes rained tears.

Night fell and we remained sitting on a hard bench at the airport, lost in our own world. People came and went, rolling their suitcases, chatting, buying drinks and duty-free items, while we huddled together on the side.

If we couldn’t daven properly, we told ourselves, we could at least perform the mitzvah of the day — teshuvah. I made a mental review of the past few years, looking at what I’d accomplished and also my failings. I had all the time in the world for a thorough cheshbon hanefesh — in fact, that was the only thing I could really do.

In those hours sitting with myself, I gained insights I would never have had if I’d spent Yom Kippur in the comfort of my home. I made a few resolutions that were small, but of inestimable importance.

The next day our “schedule” was the same, though it was much harder. We were terribly hungry and thirsty because we’d barely eaten the previous day. We were also exhausted from another almost sleepless night on the hard bench. We pushed ourselves to concentrate on our prayers and to ignore the bustle of people passing us by.

Many hours later, the holy day drew to a close. We stood aside and repeated seven times with all our hearts Hashem hu HaElokim. We saw the Shechinah on its way out and clung to the final moments of the day. We wanted to reconnect to our neshamos, and to anchor ourselves to the resolutions we had made. Outside, the sky grew black.

Now that it was time to make Havdalah, we were back to technical questions: Where could we buy wine in a Muslim airport? I called my husband, and he consulted with a halachic authority who ruled that we could make Havdalah on some mezonos we had in our bags.

Speaking to my family was a comfort. The children were doing fine and were on their way home. Our travel agent had been able to snag us seats on a flight departing in two hours. We arrived in Israel in the early morning hours of the 11th of Tishrei.

Since then, I’ve never agreed to leave the country for any reason. I spend Yom Kippur, like every other Yom Tov, in the comfort of my home. But sometimes, usually late on Yom Kippur night, I remember that hard bench at the airport, and it all comes back. I try to make the same kind of cheshbon hanefesh I did then, and to recreate that visceral sense of spiritual awakening.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)

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