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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Just Three days

This was written some 17 years ago...

Just Three Days


This is a true story. Yes, of course we know that Hashem runs the world. But some times it appears more obvious.


Sunday morning, three o’clock, Yerushalayim


I quietly tiptoe to the kitchen and try to remain calm while dialing the San Francisco number. I wait impatiently until a stranger answers the phone in the hospice and gently informs me that my father’s bed has been vacated. Although the house is silent, I am screaming inside.


On Friday afternoon, just a few moments before ushering in the Shabbos queen, I had been told it was only a matter of minutes. The rav had instructed me to begin sitting shivah the moment I would hear of my father’s death. Now, in the pre-morning stillness, I quietly tear my blouse to fulfill the requirement of kriah and begin sitting.


9:00 a.m.


Life, death, weddings … so much has happened in the last year.  Soon we will be marrying off a child, our third within seven months. Three weeks ago, I spent Shabbos in the hospital, helping my daughter give birth to my new granddaughter. Two weeks ago, we hosted a kiddush in shul. This past Shabbos was spent with the knowledge that my father was probably not alive. Next Shabbos I’ll be in the midst of shivah, and the following Shabbos we’ll be celebrating my son’s ufruf, and then Shabbos sheva brachos.


Isn’t it strange how we measure time with Shabbos?


My husband returns from shul and informs me that after hearing more details, the rav decided that I should begin sitting shivah from the time of the funeral. That would be Tuesday night Israeli time, late Monday morning Pacific time. I phone a travel agent to ask if it’s possible to make it to San Francisco in time for the funeral.


10:05 a.m. 


The travel agent returns my call. There is a flight leaving Ben Gurion for Newark, New Jersey, at 11:30 a.m. The ticket will be waiting for me at the airport. My connecting flight from Newark leaves at 6 p.m.; the travel agent, however, cannot issue a ticket for that flight as there is less than two hours leeway.  Once I land, I will have one hour to buy a ticket and catch the connecting flight to San Francisco.


My husband orders a taxi while I locate my American and Israeli passports. I notice that my American passport expires in another ten days.


Since I cannot use my Israeli checks or credit card in the United States, I need cash to purchase the ticket in Newark. I have $950 in cash. I had planned to use it to pay for my son’s wedding hall. I stuff the $950 into my wallet before grabbing an overnight case and throwing my pajamas and my husbands slippers (which looked as though someone had already torn kriah on them) inside.


As I run to the taxi, my neighbor comes out with a bag of food for the way. But I can’t think of eating.


10:40 a.m.


We’re stuck behind a truck, and I feel as though I’m about to explode. Doesn’t that driver realize that he’s slowing us down? I must catch that plane. 


I understand why an onen ‑- a close relative of the deceased -- is not allowed to fulfill positive mitzvos such as davening or reciting a bracha. I cannot think of anything, except the mitzvah of burying my father.


11:00 a.m.


We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport. I race to the check-in counter. They send me to the ticket counter. Pushing myself to the front of the long line of people waiting to purchase tickets(and hoping the people there will judge me favorably) I quickly tell Rivka, the woman manning the counter, that the travel agent had told me that my ticket would be waiting for me.


But there is no ticket. For Rivka to issue a ticket at such a late hour, I would need Yitzchak’s approval.


I sprint over to Yitzchak, only to find him deeply engrossed in a phone conversation. I try to catch his attention.


Yitzchak finally finishes his conversation -- and lets me know that he cannot give the approval. “That’s Rivka’s job” he explains in between phone calls.


11:07 a.m.


Back to Rivka. She reiterates that she needs Yitzchak’s approval. My husband has joined me, and together we jog to Yitzchak while I quickly explain the problem. Yitzchak finally finishes another phone call and tells me that it’s not in his hands. Only Rivka can issue a ticket. We return to Rivka.


Just before we reach the ticket counter, Rivka yells, “I have your ticket!”


I take out my checkbook. “You’ll pay the travel agent when you return,” shouts Rivka. “Hurry! Just go!”


11:15 a.m.


I race to the check-in counter, but they send me for a security check. There’s a long line of passengers waiting to be checked.


“Who’s your boss?” I scream. My fellow passengers are angry with me for disrupting their check-in. I hear people whisper, “She could have come a little earlier.”


Someone sends me across the room to a senior security guard, but he refuses to check my one carry-on bag at such a late hour without Yitzchok’s authorization.


Back to Yitzchak! I  am on an emotional roller coaster.


11:24 a.m


Yitzchak is talking on the phone again. I don’t know if I should scream in frustration or just forget about the trip. He closes the phone and nonchalantly informs me that it’s too late for me to make the flight. 


“Security and passport control takes at least half an hour, and the flight is leaving in less than ten minutes,” he explains.


“But if you took me through, I could still make it,” I plead.


He shrugs his shoulders.


My husband and I slowly return to Rivka. “Perhaps you can travel through Europe,” my husband tries to encourage me.


The moment Rivka sees us, she jumps up with eyes ablaze. “What a chutzpah! I’m going to get you on that plane!”


 My emotions are careening.


11:28 a.m.


Rivka and I race through the airport. Security? I get pushed to the head of the line (let those people fume). It’s the end of December, and the airport is packed with tourists returning home after their holiday. We push our way through crowds, jumping over suitcases.


Both Rivka and I are panting as we finally reach the loading gate. Rivka grabs the personnel phone and orders a car to take me directly to the plane.


I do not know how to express my gratitude to this wonderful woman. Tears spring to my eyes. Finally, I manage to catch my breath enough to thank her, but she just says that she hopes I will make the flight. As I get into the car, she says the traditional words of consolation:  “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”


Her words are like a balm to my soul.


11:35 a.m.


The car races across the tarmac. In the distance, I see the stairs being removed from the plane.  The car stops next to the plane and I run out, leaving my overnight bag inside, screaming “rega, reeegaaah!” (one moment, one moment) at the top of my lungs.


The army officer standing in front of the plane waves his arms and shakes his head to let me know that I cannot board the plane.


“That’s my plane! Let me on,” I yell.


“Forget it, it’s gone!”


“It’s not gone, it’s right here,” I argue.


“Forget it, lady. It’s gone. ”


“It’s not gone. It’s right here,” I repeat.


“It’s gone. We’ve taken away the stairs. The door’s sealed. You cannot get on that plane. It's against the law.”


“I have to get to my father’s funeral. If I miss this flight, I’ll miss the funeral.”


“Lady, catch another plane.”


 I am desperate. I look the officer straight in the eye and say, “You have an opportunity to perform an incredible mitzvah -– chessed shel emes –- by enabling a Jewish daughter to go to her father’s funeral. How can you pass up such an opportunity? Just think of the reward you are letting slip through your fingers!”


“Lady, you have more chutzpah than brains. Go, and may the Almighty-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”


He radios for the stairs to be returned and I am allowed to board the plane.



11:42 a.m.


The plane takes off. I breathe a sigh of relief.


My mind goes back to the conversation I had earlier that morning. My sister told me how the entire family had converged in my father’s room just minutes before he passed away. My niece had arrived directly from the airport.  My father’s wife had been home sleeping when a “wrong number” woke her up. The rabbi just “happened” to walk in and say Shema with my father. And then, a few moments later, he returned his soul to his Maker, in the presence of most of his family. The hand of God was so very obvious.


11:46 a.m.


A strike closes Ben Gurion Airport, leaving a large number of holiday tourists stranded. The airport reopens twelve hours later. My plane was the last flight to leave before the airport.


The steward serves lunch, and I request a glatt kosher meal. A few minutes later the steward returns and apologizes, “We only have one extra glatt meal. It’s fish. We're out of meat meals.”


Later, I learn that an onen is prohibited from eating meat.


5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (midnight Monday in Yerushalayim)


The plane lands in Newark, New Jersey. I have one hour to catch my connecting flight. I arrive in a cavernous room mobbed with people waiting on a snake-like line for passport control. It will take at least two hours to get to the head of the line.


I run to the woman directing people to the end of the line and try to explain that I have to catch a plane to attend my father’s funeral. She bellows, “EVERYONE’S gotta wait at the end of the line.”


I obediently take my place in the line. The snakelike line weaved back and forth with ropes to keep the lines separate. Turning to the person standing on the other side of the rope, I plead, “Please, could I go ahead of you. I have to catch a flight to my father’s funeral.”


I find myself being pushed through the lines as I crawl beneath the ropes. From above, I can hear people telling each other that I am traveling to my father’s funeral, and to let me through. At one point, I lift my head and the rope above me snaps. The room fills with flashing strobe lights. But I am almost out the door.


5:15 p.m.Eastern Standard Time


It’s the holiday season and the airport is mobbed. I have no idea where I am supposed to go, nor can I remember the name of the airline that I am supposed to fly.


I look at the posted listing of flights, but there are no flights headed to San Francisco, nor do I see any information booths. I frantically run through the airport looking for someone to help me. I see a uniformed man standing near the entrance to the train station that connects the terminals.


 “S’cuse me,” I begin, barely able to breathe. “I have to catch a six o’clock flight -- at least I think it’s at six o’clock -- to San Francisco. But I can’t remember the name of the airline I am supposed to fly.”


He asks to see my ticket.


“I haven’t purchased it yet. But I can’t remember the name of the airline,” I try to explain.


The man is incredulous. “You don’t have a ticket and you can’t remember the name of the airline. Are you sure you want to fly to San Francisco?” he drawls.


But the moment I explain the circumstances, his expression softens. “I’ll make a few phone calls,” he says, walking to the nearest phone booth.


A few minutes later he informs me that there is a six o’clock flight to San Francisco, but it is overbooked and reserved passengers are being bumped. I decide to try to get on that flight.


5:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time


I take the train to the proper terminal and dash to the ticket counter. I decide that if I don’t succeed in getting to San Francisco, I will remain in Newark and return on the next plane to Israel. But please, Hashem, I pray, let me make it.


Someone makes room for me at the head of the first-class line. I explain to the ticket agent that I need a flight to San Francisco, preferably the flight that is scheduled to leave in less than twenty minutes.


The woman at the ticket counter informs me that the cost of a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco is $1,600. I am flabbergasted. “But I don’t have the money, and I must get to my father’s funeral.”


“A funeral?” the woman asks. “I’ll speak to my superior and see if you’re eligible for a bereavement ticket.”


The bereavement ticket costs $945. I left Israel with $950. I pay for the ticket and am left with five dollars cash. The flight is overbooked, so I am traveling standby.


6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time


Huffing and puffing, I arrive at the boarding gate. The flight is full.  I explain to woman there why I must get on this particular flight. Although the computer shows no extra seats, she boards the plane for a head count. Several minutes later, she returns to inform me that there is one extra seat.


The young Chinese woman sitting next to me starts a conversation. I tell her about the incredible Divine Providence that I am experiencing as I travel to my father’s funeral. She begins to cry as she tells me that her family lives in mainland China. She fears that if something were to happen to them, she would not make it home on time. My heart goes out to her.


I remember coming to Israel, just short of my eighteenth birthday. I wanted to build, to live in the palace, to be close to the King. At the time I was unaware of the difficulties of being so far away from my family -- of raising my children without aunts, uncles, cousins, and of course grandparents; of feeling alone and vulnerable in the face of sickness and old age. Had I known of the difficulties, I am certain I would have still made the same decision. Yet I feel the pain of being so far away and helpless, and appreciate this young woman’s empathy.



10:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (Monday 8 a.m. Israeli Time)


My flight is scheduled to arrive in another hour. It is almost twenty-one hours since I left Tel Aviv and more than twenty-eight hours since I found out that my father was gone.


What will I do when I arrive at the airport? The funeral is in the morning. It’s a two hour drive to my father’s home. I feel uncomfortable calling at such a late hour. I am sure my family is exhausted from their ordeal, just as I am exhausted from mine.


11:20 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, San Francisco International Airport.


I start looking for a quiet bench to spend the night when a young man dressed in black approaches me. “Nice guys wear black, Mrs. Shapiro. I am your escort and will take you wherever you need to go.” I am overwhelmed.


“A malach, a living angel,” I exclaim. “How can I ever thank you?”


Yerachmiel, a recent baal teshuva, is floored by my reaction.


On the way to a the Chabad rabbi’s home, not far from the airport, Yerechmiel  explains how he had come to pick me up at the airport that evening. My husband had informed the Rabbi that I would be on that plane (golly, I didn’t even know I would be on that  plane!), and asked if someone in the community could meet me at the airport..




Everything is a blur of exhaustion and emotions … Kisses, hugs, tears.  I bury my father and remove my shoes to begin the shivah.


Tuesday, 4:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time


I had spent the night at a luxurious hotel not far from my father's home, together with my two nieces. Trying not to wake them, I quietly get dressed to meet my airport shuttle. I am embarrassed to walk through the airport in my husbands torn slippers, so I don my leather shoes. Just as I am about to tie the laces, it tears in half. The woman at the reception desk informs me that the hotel is out of shoelaces. I have no choice but to wear my shivah shoes.


7:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time


The flight is scheduled to leave in one hour. I am seated on a chair, reciting Tehillim. When I look up, I notice a large group of middle-age tourists making themselves comfortable on the plush carpet. I realize that if they can sit on the floor without embarrassment, so can I. I lower myself (or perhaps I should say raise myself) to the floor.


9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Newark Airport


I cannot wait to return to the warmth of my family. Shivah is not a time to be alone. Although I am surrounded by people, there is no one to share my pain, no one to console me.


I board the plane. As I begin to settle into my seat, the woman in the row ahead of me turns around to ask a question. She notices that my blouse is torn and realizes that I am a mourner.


“If you want to talk, I am here, and if you wish to be alone, that’s fine with me,” she says.


I am overwhelmed by her empathy. She concludes with the traditional words of consolation -- May the Almighty console you amongst the mourners of Zion Jerusalem.


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