Jerusalem, 1976

by Michelle Edwards (Iowa City, IA) 

I apologized a lot the summer after I graduated from college. Easily the worst waitress in the seafood restaurant where I was working, perhaps even in their entire chain, I apologized for the wrong orders I delivered, the forgotten bowls of butter, and the length of time it took to bring, what seemed to me, an endless and unnecessary quantity of extra plates and silverware. The tips I earned waitressing, many times, generous tips given out of pity, allowed me to make the bundle of money I needed.

I had big plans. I was moving to Israel and starting a year of studies at Bazalel, the art academy in Jerusalem. It was 1976 and I was twenty-one years old. Near the end of my first year in Jerusalem, through contacts made at Bazalel, I landed a plum job printing etchings and lithographs for other artists in a studio affiliated with the Jerusalem Museum.

Living in Jerusalem I was always aware of my accent, my grammatical mistakes, and the countless ways I was identifiably American. Being foreign kept me on my guard. There’s a comfort in the familiar, what we know so well, the streets of our hometown or sounds of our mother tongue. I had left all that behind, without regrets. But it would have been an impossible treat, just once, to unexpectedly bump into a long lost pal from camp, or school, and, in English, joke around and share memories. That comfort was what I did miss. Regretted not having.

My father had died a few years before, and in my hometown of Troy, New York, my mother was busy raising my then teenage brother. My older sister was newly married and lived a few towns over. They were not great candidates for visiting me.

Back then, in the days before cell phones, a long-distance call was something you thought about carefully, planned for, did infrequently, and then, only in the late evening hours, when the rates went down substantially. Overseas mail was slow, and a trip to Israel, an expensive journey. Any traveler going there—neighbors, family friends, friends of neighbors, a grammar school classmate’s parents once, acquaintances even—would call me with a message from home, or maybe drop by my modest digs for coffee and cake. Sometimes with a letter or a small present from my mother. Being so far way, even our remote connections drew us together.

I write about all of this here to give an idea of how much it meant to me when my college friend, Laura, wrote asking if she might visit me in Jerusalem. Back in Albany, in our student days, Laura was my knitting buddy. Once, she had taught me a speedy afghan pattern, using three strands of knitting worsted on super jumbo needles. I still use a variation of this pattern for baby blankets. Knitting had been a love of mine since childhood. Now, with all that it took to live and work in Jerusalem, I was often too busy to knit.

Laura was living abroad, too, on the Greek island of Larnaca. Almost in my neck of the woods. More letters were exchanged and plans were made. I managed to get a few days off from work so we could travel together. Laura was interested in archeology, that was the reason she was in Greece, and we intended to go to Meggido and other sites. My job, printing etchings, dealing with other artist’s demands, was hard physical, and sometimes, emotional work. Having Laura come would give me a chance to vacation, to be carefree for a while. We might even knit, companionably again, outside at a café while sipping our cappuccinos and nibbling on a pastry.

Laura was due to arrive later in the day. I left work early; stopping at my apartment first to shower away the ink and solvent, the sweat and grime that come with being a printer. Clean and refreshed, I headed to Jerusalem’s central bus station.

Israeli buses were unreliable at best in those days. So I had allotted extra time for the eventualities that were sure to occur. Meeting a guest at the airport, being the first to welcome them to the country, was an important part of receiving visitors in Israel. I had wanted to do this right, to be there to say, “Shalom,” to my friend Laura.

The first bad sign was the lengthy line. The second one was really the third, fourth, and fifth ones as well; all buses to the airport came to the gate packed. Loaded. Full. They dribbled off a few passengers and boarded only a couple from the very front of the line. I was afraid to guess how long I would have to wait for my turn. I had miscalculated. The big cushion of time I had allowed for this kind of occurrence no longer seemed generous enough.

Anxiety was creeping into what was supposed to be a special afternoon. A bunch of folks around me began discussing sharing a sherut, a taxi, to the airport. I usually associated taxis with tourists, not working gals like me, but this was an emergency. I was desperate. With a bit of luck, I might make still be able to greet Laura as she left customs and joined the flow into the main greeting area. Squeezed in the middle of the back seat, the ride was suffocating and slow. Did I mention the heat?

When we got to the airport, I discovered Laura’s plane had landed early. Before its scheduled time. Who would have guessed that? I could hardly believe it was even possible.

I looked around for Laura. The airport wasn’t a big place. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. I headed to the information desk and had her paged. Three times. With instructions to meet me there. I waited and waited.

Nothing had gone right that day. This was a part of living in Israel I was still getting used to; much of what I took for granted when I lived in America, like buses and telephones, couldn’t be counted on there. Because of this, getting to places—work, the market, or the movies—and making plans of any kind, was complicated. The stress of the missed buses, the uncomfortable ride, and the afternoon heat had me frazzled, unhinged. And now no Laura.

Israel was and is a country that daily received and reunited the dispersed and separated, family and friends. The airport greeting area was an emotional arena. And that’s without including the pilgrims to the Holy Land. This was the day I was going to be a part of that show. The day I wore the badge of truly living there.

So where was Laura? Was she still in customs? It could be a lengthy process, and had occasionally, been so in my experience. Sometimes security arbitrarily selected a passenger for an extra thorough exam.  I checked by there again. Everyone on her flight had cleared through and appeared to be gone. Her name was on the passenger list, but that didn’t convince me she had actually been on the plane. Could be another system that didn’t work. After an hour or more, of paging and searching, I had to finally acknowledge that Laura wasn’t in the airport.

I jotted my phone number down on a piece of paper and left it with the information desk clerk, even though I knew she would never ever call me. The paper would be lost, and even if she did try, the phone in my apartment might not work that day. Defeated and disappointed, I did not even consider taking a bus home. Or a sherut. This time, I took a private taxi. It was an uncharacteristically, wildly extravagant gesture, and if I could have, I would have paid the driver extra to carry me up the stairs to my apartment.

On the ride back to Jerusalem, I had decided I’d return to work the next day. We were in the middle of printing an edition; it was the responsible, mature thing to do.  I’d tell everyone at the shop what had happened and gather up all the sympathy I could from my coworkers. There probably wouldn’t be much sympathy to gather, though. This was a country where the guys my age were just finishing their army service. Overreacting to life’s little disappointments was very American, a euphemism for being spoiled. Israelis were dealing with the big issues, like war and survival, not missed buses.

So what had happened to Laura, I wondered.  Did she get sick at the last minute? Break a leg? Was she called back to the States for an emergency? I hoped it was something more romantic, like she met the love of her life, hours or minutes before she was to come, and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Exploring all these possibilities didn’t prepare me for what happened when I opened my apartment door.

There, sitting at my kitchen table, was Laura, smiling and sipping tea with my roommates, who had already taught her a few Hebrew words.

“Shalom,” she said.

Surprised, and relieved to find her at last, we quickly exchanged our stories of missing encounters. While I was stuffed in a sherut, Laura had zipped through customs; the usually busy airport had been momentarily empty.  Not finding me anywhere at the terminal or lobby, she was not distressed. No apology needed. She assumed something came up and I was unable able to make our meeting. An independent and seasoned traveler, she grabbed her luggage, hailed a taxi, and gave the driver my address.

I was amazed. It had never occurred to me that all the systems might function and deliver. The plane, customs, taxis.  If I had thought to save up a pocketful of asimonim, the Israeli phone tokens that could only be purchased from the post office, and were very often sold out, and if there had been a pay phone that actually worked, I could have called my apartment and asked my roommates if they had heard from Laura. But I hadn’t thought I would need to call.  And it didn’t matter now.

My guest had arrived. I needed to be a host. It was time for dinner. Maybe we went into town with my roommates and grabbed a falafel, or walked up to the makolet, the little grocery store in my neighborhood, and picked up some yogurts and fruit. I’m pretty sure we stayed away from the buses. The delight of having Laura with me, had helped shake loose the fury and strain of the day. Still I felt limp, washed out, and beat. Not long after eating, we settled into my room. Resting on my bed, I watched Laura unpack her bag.

“I knew that I couldn’t come and visit you without something to work on,” she said.

Laura had brought yarn, a crochet hook, and a shawl she learned to make from the women in the house where she lived. Sold to tourists, the shawls were lacey, with a delicate flower pattern that bloomed across the widest part.

I was a knitter with a very basic knowledge of crochet, mostly self-taught. The shawl was something new for me to try. Something beautiful to make. Every part of me was waking up, alert, anxious to turn my mind, my hands, and the wilted parts of my being, over to learning how to master this pattern.

Hours went by. The two of us sat and stitched, talked and laughed, probably preventing my roommates from having a good night’s rest. Laura guided me through the tricky sea of new stitches. Much, much later, right before dawn, it burst forth. The flower part of the shawl opened up. To this day, I can remember the amazed and exhausted buzz I felt. This is what I had been stitching for. It had all come together. In my hands was a gift of comfort and joy.

They say there are two Jerusalems. The spiritual one of mystics and true believers, where the holiest walk. And the other, the everyday one, where dinner is cooked, jobs are worked, and perhaps, where shawls are made.

That morning, long ago and far away, I learned a pattern was something I could believe in. My fumbles and mistakes could be frogged, taken out, and fixed. If necessary, I could double back and start again, because making the shawl was about trust. Putting my faith in wool and hook and trusting that after a hundred, or a thousand, or a million stitches, a flower will blossom.

Michelle Edwards is the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. Her titles include: CHICKEN MAN (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and A KNITTER’S HOME COMPANION (an illustrated collection of stories, patterns and recipes). Michelle grew up in Troy, New York and now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she shares, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter’s childhoods.  

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2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry

2 responses to “Jerusalem, 1976

  1. Just beautiful! I know just whom I will share this with!

  2. Sarah Lamstein

    What a pleasure to read, Michelle! Thank you!

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