In a flash we received an invitation for an all-expense-paid honeymoon visit to the States that would enable my husband Ronney to visit New York for the first time in order to meet my dearest childhood friend, attend my nephew’s Fourth of July wedding in Baltimore, allow a day for touring Washington, D.C., and eat the best kosher Chinese food in the world at least two times. After scouring the internet for the best airfares, we opted to call my reliable local travel agent and found a better price than anything on line. We quickly renewed lapsed passports, threw money at soon-to-be-partying children and departed for Ben Gurion Airport.
El Al Airlines is terrific, and don’t let anyone sway you with stories of testy stewardesses, impatient passengers and non-stop prayer quorums blocking the way to the restroom. Take it from this infrequent flyer; after switching from El Al to a famous/nameless air carrier in Barcelona, I can attest that I’ll fly with the Jewish carrier anywhere its goes, and if it doesn’t go there, neither will I. A planned two-hour layover in Spain turned into a five-hour delay and we only made the connection flight when a charming police officer testily roused me from a nap on the terminal floor.
Making it onto the plane in the nick of time, we were served a meal that was marked Kosher for Passover, but not which Passover. Desperately hungry, we ripped open six layers of plastic wrap to discover the most inedible food available outside of the set for Survivor. The half-frozen chicken-something was tasteless, and I added ketchup, pepper and salt while learning that sucking on a bite of frozen airplane food for 10 to 20 seconds (small bites) softens the offending victual enough to swallow. Daring to look at my mate, I observed that he sprinkled a condiment I didn’t recognize over his entire meal. My inquiring mind asked, “What’s that?” and he said, “I don’t know, but it can’t hurt.” Yanking the wee packet from his fingers, I gleaned that he’d just covered his entree with instant Sanka. Undeterred, he heartily consumed the meal. Items on that tray defied imagination, evoking images of a dietician asking, “Hmmm. What else might Jews eat?” Macaroons, matzoh, candy bars, a pickle, pats of margarine and non-dairy creamer. Angioplasty, anyone?
My mother’s apartment overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Several mornings, jetlag be damned, I laced up my sneakers and power-walked along the boardwalk, enjoying the sounds of crashing waves, the thump-thump of avid joggers and the shouts of intrepid surfers. I’d return to the apartment before anyone else awakened, fully drenched in sweat, and feeling ready to begin a day of seeing everything I once knew through different lenses.
Upon arriving in Manhattan, I yearned to show off my savvy, city-girl acumen. Dragging Ronney down the steps to the subway station, I saucily asked a transit cop where to go for tokens. “Say what? We ain’t used tokens since 2003.” Clearly things had changed since my last visit eleven years earlier.
We did Times Square! Macy’s! Fifth Avenue! FAO Schwartz! Penn Station! Ronney told Broadway’s famous Naked Cowboy that he was on his honeymoon, and people cheered and took their picture together. We pretended we were guests at the Plaza and confidently strode through the lobby before sashaying through Rockefeller Center. Dinner at an incredible kosher steak house made a walk through Central Park to our borrowed apartment a fitting close to a perfect Manhattan jaunt.
I don’t think I remembered how BIG everything is in America. The clothing; the portions, the buildings, the people, the cars! Econo-size and bulk sales for extra savings. I felt daunted and even troubled by the sheer enormity of everything and everyone while my husband loved every minute. His happiest moments came from 7-Eleven Big Gulps and jumbo satchels of nacho chips while I cowered behind the magazine racks.
Although my English allowed me to sound like the native-born New Yorker I am, it was clear to even the dimmest observer that I was from another planet; I’d never before swiped my own credit card or signed my name onto a screen that looked like Etch-A-Sketch. Self-service check-out at the supermarket had me laughing aloud while scratching my head in wonder. I talked to elevators and arrived at my desired floor. Sitting in the lobby of my friend’s building, I saw two old-time movie stars coming home with groceries, and Ronney went to a 6 a.m. yuppies-only exercise class. In total, we drank over 100 cups of coffee from Starbucks (including the 50-cent refills).
Hitting Washington, D.C., on July 3, we rented bikes and sweltered along a route that took us past the Capitol, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institute, Jefferson, Lincoln and Vietnam War Veterans Memorials, the Washington Monument and White House. Having again forgotten to bring along kosher food, we subsisted on a diet of water, potato chips and a few crumbly granola bars I’d forgotten in the bottom of the backpack. Tucked under the overhand of a touristy snack stand during a flash thunder storm, I befriended vacationers from Pakistan, Norway, Missouri and The Bronx. (I found the Missourians to be the most exotic.)
And even with the addition of a celebratory Shabbat and wedding of my nephew, the trip rapidly came to a close before I’d gone to my favorite ice cream parlor, driven past my high school or visited my father’s grave. With too few minutes to spare, we said goodbye to the land of my birth and began the long return to the land I’ve made my home.
Nothing remains the same, and even the Won Ton Soup wasn’t exactly as I’d remembered it. Nevertheless, the stories of growing up that I’ve committed to memory remain steady and reliable in the retelling and, perhaps, are better left unaltered. Waking up in my Jerusalem apartment this morning I suffered a brief jolt of panic, unable to recall whether or not I’d been to America or just dreamed of such an action-packed week. Seeing that my nightshirt was embossed with a large decal of the Statue of Liberty, I fell back against the pillows with a sigh, safe in the knowledge that I’d been away and back. And was now, indeed, at home.