September 16, 2019

Searching for the Exotic Adventures in Life and in Judaism

The more exotic the better. That was my philosophy about traveling. Anything that might sound the least bit familiar wasn’t on my list of destinations.

When my late husband, Jerry, and I booked a Mediterranean cruise in 1982 for our second honeymoon, I was excited about seeing the Greek Isles, Egypt and Ephesus, the Greek and Roman ruins in Turkey. There was also a stop in Israel, but that was of no consequence to me. I am Jewish and thought back then Israel was “familiar.” Code for uninteresting. And there was something else. I always thought of Judaism as overwhelmingly solemn and sad. Such unspeakable evil had been committed against the Jews for so long that the idea of experiencing joy when so many had suffered — and who are still fighting to protect their homeland — seemed impossible to me. If it hadn’t been on the itinerary, that would have been fine with me.

The Greek Isles were not exotic to me, but bland. 

The next stop on the cruise was Port Said in Egypt. I could hardly wait to start the day. I knew it would be exotic.  

When we left the ship, we were hit with a blast of hot air. We ran to the air-conditioned bus that would take us to Cairo. After we took our seats, we learned the air conditioning was broken. Oh, joy.  

As we drove down the hot, dusty road in a sweltering bus with sand blowing in our faces, we saw tiny old women dressed in burkas carrying buckets of cement on their heads. In the heat. They were helping to build a two-story house. With buckets of cement on their heads! I felt like I had time-traveled back centuries ago when life was truly primitive. Except this was 1982, and these people were still living this way. 

It was a long ride to the Egyptian Museum (now referred to as the Old Egyptian Museum). I had been guzzling down water and needed to find a restroom. 

 Once there, I entered a stall. What I found was not a toilet but a hole in the floor, the walls and floor reeking of urine. Now I was hot and dusty, and felt dirty. 

The main attraction was the great display of King Tut artifacts. When the tour ended, though, I was ready to sit down, relax and have a good meal.

Two hours back in the suffocatingly hot bus, we arrived at what was then known as the Mena House Hotel. It was close to the pyramids, so tourists would have easy access to the site.

I don’t remember what I ordered for lunch, but it was inedible. 

After lunch, we rode camels and had our passports stolen by our guide, which were retrieved later — for a price.

Suddenly, “familiar” was exhilarating. My preconceived ideas had been all wrong. I was amazed and inspired by what the Jews had accomplished. And I no longer felt Judaism was sad and solemn. I didn’t get what I came for. I got a whole lot more.

I was looking for exotic. Somehow, these weren’t the experiences I had imagined.

The next day, we arrived in Israel. The bus was new, clean and air-conditioned. It even had a bathroom. As we drove to Jerusalem, I looked out my window expecting to see endless miles of sand and more primitive conditions, but instead I saw grass and sprinklers. I was awestruck.

Our tour took us to the Christian sites first, which were fascinating, but nothing resonated since I wasn’t a Christian. 

And then we arrived at the Western Wall. Some Orthodox men were deep in prayer; further down, a woman’s fingertips grazed a ridge in the stone. The emotion welling up in my chest caught me by surprise. We stood there on hallowed ground and for a few moments neither Jerry or I said a word. We wrote prayers on snippets of paper and tucked them into crevices in the Wall. We bought trees in the names of loved ones to keep Israel green. We soaked up our Jewish history.

The King David Hotel had been recommended for lunch. We learned it was Israel’s Independence Day, and after a delicious lunch, we interlocked arms with hotel guests and danced the horah around the pool in celebration. I’ve danced the horah a million times, but to dance it in Israel on Independence Day was a singular experience.

Suddenly, “familiar” was exhilarating. My preconceived ideas had been all wrong. I was amazed and inspired by what the Jews had accomplished. And I no longer felt Judaism was sad and solemn. Of course there are solemn occasions, but now the joy and richness, light and life of what Judaism represents had risen to the forefront of my mind. 

I didn’t get what I came for. I got a whole lot more. 

I wanted to return to Israel the very next time I traveled internationally. Still, on the plane ride home, I found my mind wandering to even more exotic locations: Bora Bora, a cruise to the south of France, a safari in Africa.

After we arrived home, I made a luncheon date with a girlfriend, suggesting all the usual places. She said, “Why don’t we go somewhere different for a change?”

I said, “Like where?”

“My friend, Bonnie, raved about an Ethiopian restaurant.”

“Ethiopian? What kind of food do they serve, exactly?”

“I don’t know, but she said it was very good.”

Much as I like to try new things when I travel, I go back to the tried and true when I’m home. I was reluctant but agreed to go. We drove 40 minutes to get there. 

We entered the restaurant. “White tablecloths. Encouraging,” I said.  I noticed customers eating with their hands. What fun.

Then I looked at the menu. “Everything’s spicy. There’s nothing I can order.” 

Then a man at the next table said, in an unfamiliar accent, “I’m eating a delicious beef dish which isn’t spicy at all.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“Yemen.”

“I travel a lot but I’ve never been to Yemen. No wonder I didn’t recognize your accent,” I said.

“Since we’re trying new things, let’s get their vodka cocktail. It’s made with unforbidden blueberries,” I grinned.

As we drank our vodkas and got to know our new friend from Yemen, I smiled and thought to myself, “I don’t have to travel 16 hours to find exotic. It’s right here at home, in Los Angeles.”


Lynn Brown Rosenberg is the author of the memoir “My Sexual Awakening at 70.”