CBC News Online, 2003
On my second day in Tel Aviv, a dozen of us left our hotel and ventured into the city. We walked along Shenkin, a narrow street that borders a bohemian neighbourhood, before choosing a cafe. We sat at a table on the patio and placed our orders. Someone noted the streets were nearly deserted. It was true, and it made us uncomfortable.
The drinks arrived while we were in an animated discussion about Sesame Street. Was Grover a monster or a bird? Dan argued the muppet's a bird. "Come on! He has feathers!" he insisted.
That's when I noticed a man on the street. He was tall and thin, with dark features. I couldn't tell if he was Israeli or Palestinian. He could have been any nationality. He could have been from Winnipeg for all I knew.
My mind raced back to the week before my departure. A colleague had asked me if I was nervous about visiting Israel. Nervous? Why? No sooner did he pose the question, than I recalled a news feed from Haifa, an Israeli port city, earlier that month. It was about a suicide bombing at a restaurant. Nervous? A little, perhaps, but not enough to stay home.
The man walked by our table and dropped a pizza box into a garbage can. While my companions debated Grover's place in the animal kingdom, my mind raced. Why had the man looked at us so intently? What was in that box? Who was that man?
I excused myself and visited the washroom. Standing at the sink, I told myself I had seen too many news feeds. I was being ridiculous. I assured myself all would be well, then returned to the table and re-joined the conversation.
In the following days, we visited a school for students with special needs, a fire station and other organizations supported by the Toronto Jewish community, which organized this trip. I got caught up in the stories of the people we met. I was fascinated by everything around me, the people, the life on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
I nodded politely as a Jerusalem cab driver told me, in broken English, how he would solve Israel's economic woes. I shared an Israeli friend's excitement about a national soccer star's debut with his new team. I shopped. I considered buying a lottery ticket. The man with the pizza box faded to a dim memory.
Midway through our trip, truck bombs exploded outside two of Istanbul's largest synagogues, killing 25 people and injuring more than 300. Images of death and destruction flickered on the television screen in my hotel room. I had seen these images before. But this time, Jewish targets were being hit while I was in the Jewish state. Now my concerns about the man with the pizza box didn't seem ridiculous.
The remaining four days of the trip were booked solid with seminars, visits, tours and the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. I went to the scheduled events and got caught up in the excitement of engaging new friends in conversations about topics that interested me. Was Ariel Sharon the right man to negotiate a peace deal? Yasser Arafat?
One afternoon toward the end of the trip, I walked through Jerusalem's Old City and paused in front of the Wailing Wall. A few women stood facing the wall, their hands on the large, weathered bricks, their heads bowed as they recited their prayers.
I remembered attending synagogue as a girl, braiding the tassels on my father's prayer shawl as the rabbi recited the High Holiday prayers. I remembered sitting at the Passover table as a teenager, rolling my eyes when my mother scolded me for wearing ripped jeans on a holy day. I remembered that Passover, like every other, ending with the exhortation: "Next year in Jerusalem!"
As the women prayed, I walked up to the wall and put my forehead against the bricks. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
Three days later, I walked into the CBC newsroom. A colleague approached me.
"So, were you nervous in Israel?"
"At times," I told him.
"Would you go again?"
"In a heartbeat."