At the one-fifty bus stop on the highway near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport I stand on tiptoe to look for my bus. Waiting. It’s only a few hours before the Sabbath, when, according to the law, buses will stand idle at central depots. My bus is over half an hour late.
If someone were looking at me, they would see a woman in her sixties—wearing fitted jeans, a short sleeve floral T-shirt, and a navy Prada backpack—pacing back and forth, rubbing her neck and frowning. Waiting. But there’s more to me than that. There is history. Mine. That of me and this place.
There is only one other person at the bus stop, and he’s in army uniform—dusty black boots reaching to just above his ankles, creased khakis, rolled up shirt sleeves, a grey beret to the side of his head. He towers over my five-foot-four frame, but looks barely old enough to shave. I take a step toward him, feeling a blister beginning on the back of my right heel from my new wedge sandals.
“Excuse me. Do you know if the one-fifty bus is still coming?”
He doesn’t look at me but taps his phone.
“I’m going on a different bus,” he says. He points at the screen and leans toward me.
“See here, this dot. It’s your bus, and it’s moving closer. Don’t worry.”
But I do.
“Thank you,” I say, stepping away from him. He has officer epaulets. He must know. A few minutes later, he slings his rifle and kitbag over his shoulder and boards his bus without looking back at me.
Except for a group of four men wearing denim overalls who stand chatting in a bay not far away, I’m now on my own. When a minivan slows down and the door slides open, the men stride toward it, bend down, and step inside. I pray this is a shared taxi, known as a sherut. But when the driver sees me striding toward him, ducking to get in, he holds up his hand, palm in my face as if he were a traffic cop.
“You can’t come in,” he snaps. “I can only take the workers from the airport factory.”
The door slams shut, and I stumble backward onto the roadside. Now what am I going to do?
Convinced I missed the last bus, I hear my friend Miriam’s voice in my head: “You haven’t visited Israel for over ten years . . . none of us take buses anymore, we all have cars now. . . don’t forget the buses stop running early on the sabbath. You must rent a car.”
Trucks carrying branches of bananas, cabbages, and chickens in crates rumble down the highway. Their din gives me a headache. The few buses I do see are all speeding down the middle lane. Taxis race by. Their yellow roof lights indicate they’re not free, but I’m hoping one off-duty driver might stop. They ignore my yelling, whistling, and waving.
Now I wonder why I’d been so stubborn. Having previously lived in Israel, I know that public transport is banned on the day of rest. This week I’d taken trips to Jerusalem and Jaffa, managing connections by using the apps. Yes, the buses took long detours, and it took longer to get about. but there were bus stops everywhere: near train stations and main traffic junctions; on highways as well as familiar neighborhood streets; outside schools and hospitals; synagogues, churches, and mosques; overlooking olive and citrus groves; and under eucalyptus trees. I began to recognize the street names and found myself remembering all the things I loved about the country.
During the ’70s and ’80s I’d lived with my husband and two children next door to Miriam in Ra’anana—a small neighborhood just north of Tel Aviv—scented by strawberry fields and citrus groves. Local farmers cultivated potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and parsley on smallholdings. A chicken farmer drove his horse and cart delivering fresh eggs on Mondays, fresh milk on Tuesdays, and chicken manure on Thursdays. When the wind blew in the wrong direction “fresh” farm smells were earthy, acrid, unpleasant.
Our one-story family home was on a dead-end street, where neighborhood kids played hopscotch, jumped rope, and kicked soccer balls. We moms sat on my veranda, gossiping, sharing recipes and experiences with doctors, teachers, and hairstylists over endless cups of Nescafé—with two teaspoons of sugar.
The strawberry field is now a tarred road leading to the highway, and the traffic is endless. Our two-bedroom semi-detached house has been remodeled into a three-story mansion, barricaded by an iron security gate and a brick wall twice my height. Lucy, our black Labrador, doesn’t bound out and lick my hand. Apartment blocks, townhouses, cinema complexes, shopping centers, a community center, and an artificial lake smother the landscape, now no longer familiar to me.
While is no longer the country I once knew and longed for, public transport is much improved. The bus stops are high-tech and, up until now, the apps accurate. Every few seconds, electronic signs list new information about bus arrival times. Young and old stare at their phones. Phones ping as a bus comes closer.
The old stuffy buses with hard plastic seats and dust-covered windows that spewed out black exhaust fumes are now air-conditioned with plush seats, headrests, and wi-fi. Window blinds keep out the searing sun. When I stare through the clean glass, I don’t recognize the new highways, cloverleaf junctions, and bridges, or the unfamiliar names of new towns and suburbs. High walls to stop landslides stand firmly near the edge of neighborhoods where acres of native grasslands bloomed into carpets of red poppies in the spring. Office blocks with Microsoft and Google logos, technology centers and successful IPO’s on the New York Stock Exchange altered this landscape. Yet, in some instances, this modern, high-tech country hasn’t progressed. Economic growth has not reduced the power the religious parties hold. Buses stop early just to appease those who do not wish to travel on the Sabbath, without considering the rest of us.
Up until this moment, I’d enjoyed my bus travels around the country. Some things hadn’t changed. At bus stops, I’m asked where I’m going and offered unsolicited advice as to which bus is the faster route. Once a stranger walked me around the block to make sure I’d get the express to Tel Aviv—and then sprinted back to catch his own bus.
On this Friday afternoon, I squint at the glare on my phone screen. When the moving red dot vanishes, I glance at the highway hoping for a miracle. I reboot my phone but the dot is still not there. My mood changes, and I think about some of the things I hate here.
At first glance, the bus stops seem like those in New York, Amsterdam, or London—the same Plexiglass shelters, with bus numbers, timetables, and blue or red benches. But the way people are treated is different. For the past few decades, bus stops, terrorists, and bombs have a frightening relationship. Since the late ’80s, nearly two thousand people have died in suicide bombings. Fear and mistrust hover. In Israel, men wearing red and white-checked keffiyehs and embroidered kufis, and women in dark single-hue hijabs and chadors, stand patiently next to the driver as he inspects identity documents, plastic shopping bags, and backpacks. The rest of us climb into the bus and walk straight to our seats.
These days Palestinians travel to Ben Gurion Airport, Nazareth, or Tel Aviv only if they’re prepared to stand in long security lines. They must be patient and put up with young soldiers checking travel documents, bags, suitcases, and conducting body searches—at any moment, singled out from the rest of us.
Likewise, for security reasons, most Israeli Jews don’t visit Tulkarm, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. In the ’70s I often met with Arab work colleagues at a restaurant not far from the market where I used to buy fresh produce. We feasted on a mezze of Palestinian cuisine: tabbouleh, eggplant salads, labneh, fluffy pita bread straight out of the oven, kababs, shashlik, and thick, black coffee served with baklawa. These memories are so powerful that even out here, on the highway, I can almost taste the flavors. Honey. Almonds. Laughter.
The bus stop’s shadow stretches longer. I kick at the gravel with the heel of my sandal and turn around to notice a middle-aged man wearing grey slacks, a cream-colored shirt, and black moccasins sitting on the bench, huddling over his phone. Dwelling on the dangers of cross-border relationships, I hadn’t noticed him arrive. I walk toward him and clear my throat.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I say softly. He doesn’t look up.
“Excuse me,” I repeat. My voice a high-pitched squeak, a noise that appears from nowhere when I’m nervous. “Any chance you’re waiting for the one-fifty bus?”
“No, I’m being picked up.” He stares at his phone and wipes the screen with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Do you know why it’s not coming?” I’m almost shouting, hoping to get his attention.
He sighs, stands up, and looks at the timetable stuck in between panes of Perspex running his forefinger across the page. “Maybe we can drop you off somewhere. Where are you trying to get to?”
Of their own accord, my fingers scrunch the bus ticket from my last journey, and I wonder if it’s safe to tell him where I’m going. He looks at his phone again, but he still hasn’t looked at me. Maybe he’s the low-key type no one suspects. In the ’60s and ’70s, you could hitchhike and take lifts from strangers in Israel, but after interracial murders and kidnappings, no one would dare now. I see images of my bruised, naked body lying in a ditch. But none of these terrifying thoughts deters me from accepting his offer.
“That is so kind of you, thank you.” I try not to think about what I’m saying or what I’m about to do. My heart thumps loudly above the traffic noise. I must be mad.
Eyes riveted to his phone, he nods and sits back on the bench. I drop my backpack on the ground. The man frequently stands to scan the highway, and then sits again, as if he is doing squats in a gym.
“Do you work nearby?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.
I can’t help wondering if he’s planning my murder. We don’t talk. Not about Bibi and Trump, nor children, grandchildren, or the unseasonably warm weather. Bending down, I fumble in the side pocket of my purse for my Swiss Army knife and slowly flip open the main blade. If I were to get into trouble, I could jab it into his chest.
Toyotas, Peugeots, and Volkswagen Beetles drive by. When a navy dust-covered Nissan sedan hauling trailer pulls up about ten minutes later, I’m relieved to see a plump woman step out the driver’s seat, walk toward the man, and hug him. She looks to be in her thirties and wears a knee-length floral dress.
“Sorry I’m late, Abba,” she says, winding a hairband around her long curly hair to fix it into a ponytail. “The kids didn’t want to stay at home with the babysitter. And on top of it all, this trailer slows me down.”
The man turns to look at me. “Can we drop her off at Shalit?” he asks. I stand up, pick up my backpack, and walk toward them. “This is my daughter Aviva,” he says, looking down.
“Of course. But we must pick up Josh. My brother,” Aviva says, and smiles. “A detour. Are you okay with that?”
“Thank you. That’s fine.” I smile, relieved to be with a family, especially a woman, whose car is littered with cookie wrappers and crumbs, a teddy bear missing an arm, a pacifier tied onto a blue ribbon, and an orange sippy cup on a kids car seat. “I’m so grateful. I was beginning to think I might be stuck here all evening. And these,” I say, pointing at my two-inch wedges, “wouldn’t get me very far.”
Aviva takes out the car seat and puts it in the trunk. When I slide into the back, the seat of my jeans sticks to a few gummy bears. There is a smell of coffee, stale crisps, familiarity.
This time it is my son’s voice saying: “Mom, no. You cannot—must not—hitch a ride with these strangers.” But he’s in New York and I’m here. As we drive off, I grip my cell ready to dial 100 for the police if anything strange happens. A few minutes later I peek at my screen. There is no signal. Not even one bar.
“So-o where are you from?” I ask, “Do I detect an Australian or New Zealand accent?” I try not to stutter, but my tongue feels clumsy.
“Melbourne,” Aviva says. “We emigrated ten years ago and now live on Moshav Ora, near Jerusalem.” She signals to the right and glances over her shoulder to make sure she can switch lanes. “Abba got this high-tech airline job so the whole family came. I married Yossi here, and we have two kids.” She honks as she tries to pass a slow-moving truck and curses as the driver swerves.
“My brother Josh is doing his army service. Right now, he’s visiting his girlfriend.” Aviva turns off the highway. “And you?”
“I’m Sue, visiting for a few weeks from Seattle. But I did live in Ra’anana for twenty years.”
After about ten minutes we reach a moshav, an agricultural village where her brother is supposed to be waiting outside a kiosk.
She parks the car, gets out, stretches her arms sideways, and yawns.
“Why can’t Josh ever be on time?” she asks. “Aaah, my teenage brother. On the wrong corner as usual. Hurry up.” she yells, mimicking his gait as he strolls toward us. “We’re already late.”
From the kiosk the smell of pitta with hummus and shakshuka—eggs simmered in a rich tomato sauce—reminds me I missed lunch. We all step out of the car and wait for Josh as he ambles down the narrow road. The side door of the kiosk opens, and the owner shuffles toward us, holding four pitas filled with humus and chopped salad.
“I’m closing for the Sabbath and it won’t keep until Sunday,” he says. “Enjoy and be healthy.” When I try to hand him a twenty-shekel note, he raises the palm of his hand, drops the kiosk iron shutters with a clang, and ambles away, whistling.
“Shabbat shalom,” we chime in unison. “Todah, thank you.”
The bread is warm and soft and the salad crunchy.
Josh walks up to the car, slides in, and dumps his rifle on the floor with the muzzle pointed at my feet. I shift sideways but keep looking at his hands, noting his trigger finger. I rub my right thumb over the blade on my penknife.
“Don’t worry,” Josh says as if reading my mind, “I won’t kill you. There are no bullets inside.”
I can’t stop my cheeks flushing as we tuck into our sandwiches.
As we make a U-turn to take the road back to the highway, Josh turns to look at me, and I can feel his eyes running up and down my legs, finally settling on my backpack. I can’t help but imagine that he thinks his Abba is crazy to give a lift to a stranger, even if she looks the same age as his grandmother. Thankfully, he turns away, sighs, and interrogates his sister.
“So, what’s in the trailer?”
“Grandma’s fridge. She’s given it to us.” Aviva looks at his expression in the rearview mirror and frowns.
“To us? What does that mean?” Josh’s voice rises. “To you, to me, to Abba? Who?” He straightens the collar of his khaki army shirt.
“To me,” Aviva yells back.
“What makes you think you’re so special?” Josh snaps at his sister and leans forward, forearms on knees.
“Kids, I’m first in line. I’ll decide,” roars their father smacking his hands against the dashboard.
I’m in the middle of a typical Israeli verbal boxing match, each talking over the other, trying to make sure they’re heard. But no one is listening to anyone. All three voices pound my head. The trailer bounces over a road hump, and the car swerves ever so slightly. My side door scrapes a hibiscus plant, knocking off a scarlet flower. My head feels as if it were about to explode.
I yell, “I’ll buy the fridge.”
“How much do you want for it?” I start to giggle, a nervous habit I have if I think I put my foot in it. I’m not quite sure if they thought I was serious. Surely not.
And then we all laugh.
“Well, who would’ve thought we’d be selling Grandma’s fridge to a stranger I picked up at a bus stop near the airport?” Their dad turns around and for the first time looks at me and smiles. “I’m Terry, by the way.”
Josh gives me a high-five, and Aviva brakes the vehicle to stop the trailer from colliding with a motorcycle. For a moment no one speaks. A sign reminds me that we’ve five kilometers to go before we reach the Shalit junction. Aviva slows at the busy intersection and parks the car to the side under a “no stopping” sign.
I turn to face Josh and say, “Good luck with the rest of your army service. Stay safe.” He extends his right hand and I shake his—rough and chapped. I open the car door, swing my legs, and try to slide out. The seat of my jeans sticks to the car seat. A bus honks and I feel the swish of air from a passing car, but that doesn’t stop me from walking around to the front passenger seat, where the dad is sitting. He rolls down his window.
“Thanks again, Terry,” I shout above the traffic. “And a special thanks for the fridge.” I laugh.
“Safe travels,” he replies, sticks up his right thumb and smiling as if he’s saying goodbye to an old friend.
Aviva jumps out of the driver’s seat and walks around the car. She hugs me and hands me her business card.
“Please stay in touch,” she says, holding on to my forearms a few seconds longer. “It’s been such fun meeting you.”
“Your kindness and generosity,” I begin but my throat tightens. “Thanks for the ride, I appreciate you giving me a lift. Truly.”
This is how I remember Israel. Noisy, funny, and generous. Drivers are careless—often ignoring the driving regulations—family debates are hectic but not divisive, and the kiosk owners generous. Now I have glimpsed my old Israel in the new. I feel immense relief to know it is still there, has not faded, was waiting for me.
Without signaling, Aviva edges the car and trailer back out in to the traffic just as a bus with no passengers speeds by. The direction: No Service. I shut my eyes waiting for the crash that doesn’t happen.
I took a risk when I got into Aviva’s car, but this is what it was like when I lived there, when we trusted our neighbors and helped one another in awkward situations. The past is still here in the present.
Hours ago I thought I was stranded in the present, but in reality, I’m stuck in the past.
I don’t feel stranded anymore.
An executive coach and writer, Susan Bloch is an eclectic author of non-fiction and fiction short pieces, as well as books and articles on leadership and board effectiveness. Her essays have won a prize in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Her essays have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals, including The Forward, Entropy, The Citron Review, STORGY, Pif Magazine, Tikkun, and HuffPost. Her book, Travels with my Grief is due to be released by RedDoor publications in September 2022. www.susanblochwriter.com.
*This essay was originally published by White Wall Review in October of 2020