Well, orientation is officially over. Thursday was a somewhat detail-oriented day where we received an academic preview and a look at the year's calendar. Orientation ran a bit late, so I was already about a half-hour behind schedule for the evening's festivities.
There's an Israeli congregant of Temple Emanuel in Roanoke named Chen, and Thursday was Chen's daughter's wedding in Haifa. Chen had invited Amanda Winter and myself to the wedding, and not wanting to turn down an opportunity to explore Israel (and celebrate with bride and groom), we accepted. The night was certainly an interesting one and definitely worth the logistics. The previous Friday night at the HUC dinner, I sat next to a woman who had recently made the exact trip Amanda and I were planning to Haifa, so she told us exactly how to get there. And, more or less, everything went according to plan...
After running home and changing, I met Amanda at a bus stop on King George St, planning to get on the first bus that was heading to the Central Bus Station. We boarded the 74 at 4:45 pm and arrived at the Central Bus Station at 5:00. We were hoping to catch the 5:15 bus to Haifa, so we hurried inside, bought our ticket at the counter, and found our way to the platform. We were still inside the main building waiting in a line that extended into the parking garage-like area where the buses load passengers. The 5:15 bus wasn't actually coming until 5:30, and when that bus arrived and loaded up, it became clear soon enough that we wouldn't be able to fit. The crowd of people pressing into the bus filled it too quickly, so Amanda and I relegated ourselves to waiting for the 6:00 bus (the last one to leave for Haifa).
The Israelis behind us warned us, "You have to be aggressive, or you will not leave Jerusalem today." Armed with that encouragement, Amanda and I determined to make it onto the 6:00 bus. We were fairly near the front of the mob (you could never describe what we were in as a line), and I felt sure that there was no way that 40-50 people were "ahead" of us. Nevertheless, we weren't going to take any chances. I tried to inch forward (as other people entered the garage from other doors and sauntered right up to the "front'), and I clutched our ticket (hoping, probably fruitlessly, that having purchased a ticket might guarantee us a seat).
When the 6:00 bus finally arrived after 6:05 it pulled into the space that was filled with human bodies. Again, I wasn't willing to relinquish any ground, but I was literally moved by the crowd to make room for the people who had to get out of the way of the bus. Amanda was trying to hold onto me, and I was trying to avoid falling off the ledge I was standing on. It as madness! As the bus started loading, I stood not three feet from the door - yet, people streamed in from the sides, and the people in front of me couldn't enter the bus. Eventually, I put my arm in front of some people to my right and planted my foot in the door. The woman in front of us was trying to secure passage for her dog but was denied by the bus driver; she left in a rage. The driver then told me that there was only standing room on the bus ... but Amanda and I had come too far to be deterred now. The bus driver stamped my ticket, and Amanda and I boarded.
As luck would have it, there was one seat on the bus (albeit an uncomfortable one in the back row), which Amanda was able to sit in. I managed to sit on the steps by the rear door, and though it was by no means comfortable, it was a lot better than standing still for an additional two hours (after having waited for the bus for over an hour already).
The ride was uneventful, and the bus station at Haifa was much less hectic than the one in Jerusalem had been. We got off the bus at 8:10 (the wedding started at 7:30) and made our way to the cab station. A driver was more or less ordered to take us to the reception hall, which we were later to find out was about a half-hour away from the bus station. On the ride to the reception hall, I actually had a fairly pleasant conversation with the taxi driver in Hebrew. I told him that I was studying to be a rabbi and that Amanda was studying to be a "chazanit" (female cantor), and he made a sign of obvious surprise. "Chazanit? Chayav lih'yot Reformim." "A female cantor? Must be Reform!" We also talked about Haifa, how we had lived only briefly in the country, and that we would call him when we were ready to leave the wedding so that he could come pick us up.
We finally arrived at the reception hall at 8:45, and judging by the number of name-cards on the table, we were far from the last guests. We walked in, I got something to drink, and Amanda and I scoped out the scene. The wedding was taking place in an outdoor area next to the dining/dancing room. An orthodox rabbi was officiating, and a few rows of chairs were set up in front for the people who were interested in watching (at least, those who weren't just going to wait for the video (as everything was being recorded)). However, hundreds of other people were milling about, talking, drinking, and eating from the buffet line of hors d'oeuvres. A few minutes after we arrived, the groom stepped on the glass, there was a general display of good cheer, and a host of white balloons were released into the air. Seems like we had arrived just in time!
In an effort to greet Chen, Amanda and I stayed near the chairs and watched guests file past. The dress of the guests was very different from what one would expect in the United States. Some people were dressed in their every-day clothes, others wore fancy (though not necessarily "formal") dress, and a select few wore formal clothes; even the bride's dress was not your expected white gown. I'm glad I had kept my necktie in my pocket!
We did manage to greet Chen and her family and then followed the crowd to dinner in the enormous reception hall. (I estimate that there were 400-500 guests.) Amanda and I found our seats, but about a quarter to a half of the crowd (including the happy couple) went straight to the dance floor. The music was reminiscent of an American bar mitzvah - dance music that included some contemporary Israeli rock/pop and some American classics (the Twist, Rock Around the Clock, etc.). There was nothing slow, and guests of all ages danced the same way to the same music (though the older songs did tend to attract a slightly older crowd).
There was no order to the meal; when you were seated and ready to eat, someone brought food. I had some delicious pasta, and Amanda had fish. I conversed half in Hebrew and half in English with an Israeli sitting next to me from a small village where he worked with the merchant marine corps. He was very interesting - born in Morocco but raised in Israel, he said, "I'm not religious, but I go to synagogue three times a day." And so do his children. He doesn't follow the mitzvot, but he loves to hear the words of the prayers at the synagogue. I wonder how un/common that attitude is in Israel....
Amanda and I danced for a while (how could one not?), but we didn't stay very long. After all, we had an orientation program the next morning in Jerusalem! So, after an hour and a half, we had Coby the taxi driver pick us up and take us to the Sheirut (shared cab) station. We found a 10-seat sheirut and paid our fare to Tel Aviv. It certainly was nice to (A) have a seat, (B) have accessible air conditioning, and (C) have someone to talk to on the long drive home. Once we made it to Tel Aviv, we had to repeat the process on a sheirut to Jerusalem - there's no direct public transportation from Haifa to Jerusalem that late at night. We finally arrived back in the City of David at about 1:15 am, making ours a 9 hour trip of which 1.5 were spent at the wedding.
Still, after this experience, I have adopted a "bring it on" mentality about traveling anywhere else in the country. My Hebrew is good enough to be understood, so I can always ask for help, and I have a much better understanding of the bus and sheirut systems (both of which are significantly less expensive than mass transit in the US). Overall, despite having a great time at the wedding party, I feel empowered to travel wherever chance may give me an opportunity to go.
The following day included a concluding orientation program and a some down-time before Shabbat services. Friday night and all of Saturday were fairly meaningful, and I will write about them next time. For now, it's time to hit the hay since I have an early morning tomorrow ... which is the first day of classes! Cheers for now.