Posts Tagged ‘travel writer’

Armchair tour: A travel writer embarks on a voyage of discovery in the world of comments

November 4, 2020

My trip to the afterlife of stories began with a simple question at the dinner table:

“What was the name of the city in Albania that Cicero visited?”

A typical question in our household. My husband is the history buff and great synthesizer of historic events; I’m the one who remembers names and dates—usually.

I knew which place he meant: the ancient Roman city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the southern tip of Albania. But the name escaped me. I knew it wasn’t Gjirokaster, the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, and that it wasn’t Kruje to the north, the home of the national hero, Skanderbeg.

The quickest way to find out was to check my story about Albania that had appeared in Hadassah magazine in 2012. In a trice I found the name: Butrint. And then I scrolled down and discovered that my travel story had taken on a life of its own, long after I had moved on to writing about other places. It had never occurred to me to look for comments years after a story had appeared. Thus began a journey of discovery, particularly interesting now that other kinds of travel are but a memory or a dream.

The comments section on Albania began with posts three years after the story appeared. In May 2015, Leonie Lachmish wrote to ask, “Do you know how one can see the ancient synagogue in Sarande?” Then, in connection with the Albanians’ protection of Jews during World War II, she raised an issue that has been discussed elsewhere online. “I wish there were trips for Jewish tourists who believe we have a pleasant duty to visit countries that acted righteously and saved Jews’ lives in the darkest of times. I would so love to meet descendents of families who saved Jews.”

Leonie’s wish was followed by proposals of ambitious projects. In December that year, Anton asked about Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Albania. On the outskirts of the town, according to one tradition, the 17th century mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Zevi lies buried in Varri i Çifutit (Tomb of the Jew).

“I am going to Berat… and I like to see the Tomb of the Jew! (Varri I cifutit),” Anton wrote. “It may be interesting to even find out the DNA inside it. Can be the tomb of Sabbatai Z. there maybe.”

In January 2017, Migena wrote, “I always thought that language bridge[s] nations closer. Albania-Israel relationship must not be stopped at…WWII: why not bringing Hebrew language in Albania?”

Migena added that she comes to Israel every year to attend an ulpan and hopes eventually to be able to translate Hebrew literature into Albanian.

Handrim had a similarly ambitious project. In November 2018 he wrote about rebuilding the ancient synagogue in Sarande: “There are so many levels why this would be great…It is not only a dream. It is a project. Maybe my life project. If anyone of you have an idea, please contact me!”

The comments were both moving and intriguing, stirring the fondest memories of a beautiful and hospitable country (albeit with impossible roads). Then I wondered whether others of my travel stories had a similar afterlife.

So I looked up my article on Macedonia, which appeared in October/November 2013 and in which I mentioned in passing that the country’s “name—identical to that of a neighboring region in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born—and its claim to Alexander as its own national hero have generated a dispute between the two countries that is threatening Macedonia’s entry into the European Union.” Prior to the country’s recent name change to Republic of North Macedonia, it was known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

A year after the story appeared, Nick the Greek riffed on the dispute about the name and the history in a 532-word tirade, including the following:

“Macedon is Greek Kingdom same as Sparta is Greek Kingdom – Both are Dorian, and both Greek. If minor Slavic country today, stepped on to world stage and claimed the name of Spartan Kingdom for country-name…sovereign state-name, nationality, language and ethnicity – How should the West react to such anti-Hellenic action?”

But Nick couldn’t let it go at that, and in December and the following January he continued flogging the point at length. Radio silence ensued for six years, until JR, in June 2020, saw fit to set Nick the Greek straight about where his fulminations were appearing: “This is a post about the Jewish population that lived and still lives in the current Balkan region. This is not about Greece.”

Most comments, however, were benign. Some were attempts to play Jewish geography (sorry, I’m not related to your relatives in La Jolla or San Diego). Some even revealed a sense of humor, such as the welcome correction by Tammy Schneider to my article on New Hampshire (April/May 2016) in which I had mistakenly located Nashua southeast of Portsmouth:

“Nashua is southWEST of Portsmouth,” she wrote. “If you went southeast of Portsmouth, you’d be riding the whales in the Atlantic Ocean!

Others had fascinating information to add. Don Perlgut, a Dartmouth alumnus, expanded on that college’s history of restricted Jewish admissions. “The post-war period is the interesting one, [when] there were no official Jewish restrictions [but rather] an official – and publicly stated – “geographic diversity” policy that actively and openly discriminated in favour of young men…from places like Wyoming, Montana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, etc. [and] against people from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, etc: a de facto Jewish quota.”

Concerning neighboring Vermont, Martha Ginsburg Roditti had the following to add to my story that appeared in July 2017: “I was born in Granville, NY [on the border of New York and Vermont] and heard stories of the Poultney Cemetery. My father and Grandfather were very active in the small Granville congregation. My father had the honor of keeping the Torahs in our house for the High Holy Days (which were conducted in the Grange Hall).”

With regard to Milwaukee (November 2019), Rachel Krug recalled that her father immigrated to Milwaukee “and had often bragged how with his Heder training [he] was able to assist one Golda Meyerson [Golda Meir] with her Hebrew.”

But my favorite discovery on this electronic journey was a comment on my article that appeared in February/March 2014 on the 100th anniversary of a daring and seemingly impossible mission: the attempt by two brave Turkish pilots to fly more than 1,500 miles from Istanbul to Jerusalem and ultimately to Cairo and Alexandria. They never reached their destination: Their flimsy plane, made of wood and fabric, crashed near Tiberias. Yerach Paran, a member of Kibbutz Ha’on, has built a garden surrounding the memorial to the pilots at the site of the crash and tends it every weekend.

In June 2020, six years after my article appeared, the comments section, which up to that point had only occasional posts from former volunteers in Kibbutz Ha’on, showed a trackback—in Turkish. It turned out to be another story about the two pilots, highlighting the
Turkey–Israel connection, that appeared in Avlaremoz, an online publication covering Jewish and minority topics in Turkey. It included a link to the announcement of the 2001 Turkish documentary on the expedition, made with planes of that era. Seeing the story of the brave pilots again (which I read with the help of Google Translate)  of a time when travel involved perils very different from those of the novel coronavirus.

As so often, I have my husband to thank for sending me on this virtual journey and I have the readers to thank for the comments I discovered. May the conversation continue!

Copyright 2020 by Esther Hecht. No part of this post may be copied or used in any way without written permission of the author.

From Santa Fe to Ashkelon: It’s almost like falling in love

December 11, 2010

Between interviews with rabbis I found a quiet moment to explore the meditation garden at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe.

I’m on my way from Santa Fe to Ashkelon, but I have no idea how long the trip will take. It’s not because I don’t know the geographical distance (about 7,000 miles as the crow flies), but because the path also passes through my brain, and there are lots of byways where I may stop for a while en route.

Some people say that the best part of a trip is the planning. I agree, to the extent that I savor the exhilaration of setting out on an adventure, the initial exploration, and the search for information and reliable sources. It’s almost like falling in love. The hard work of writing will come later.

Many people think that being a travel writer is the best job in the world and that the stories spring fully formed from my brain—like Minerva, goddess of poetry, from the brain of Jupiter.

But travel is one thing and travel writing is another. A travel writer can’t just breeze into a place for two or three days and then, in a trice, write a detailed account of the history, demographics, and sights, especially if the focus is on what might be of interest to a Jewish traveler.

My trip to Santa Fe started long before I actually got there at the end of September. Just to sell the idea I had to do several days’ research to convince my client that the city had enough to interest a Jewish traveler. Once that was settled, I started contacts with the local tourism authorities and research on the history, community, synagogues, and artists.

When I finally got to Santa Fe, a big chunk of my time went into interviewing rabbis and Jewish community leaders and attending religious services, in addition to checking out museums, galleries, cemeteries, and places of natural beauty.

While in Santa Fe I stumbled on stories I knew would not fit in the commissioned article; one of the reasons I started this blog was to find a home for them. Even so, when I finally got home a month later and was able to sit down to do additional research and write, I found I had enough material for half a dozen articles, but room for only 2,500 words.

It was time to write and whittle, whittle and write. It’s no wonder I have pinned to my bulletin board the anonymous aphorism I picked up from my former colleague Matt Nesvisky:

“Writing’s simple. It’s just a matter of sitting at the keyboard and sweating blood.”

Now Santa Fe is working its way through the editorial pipeline and I am free to set out on my next journey, this time to Ashkelon. So get ready. Coming soon to a magazine in your neighborhood: Ashkelon, historic seaport and city of the Philistines.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Santa Fe mikveh: A New Mexican dip

September 27, 2010

According to Genesis, four rivers flow from the Garden of Eden; symbolically, they converge in the mikveh.

A new kind of pool in Santa Fe offers a dip in paradise. It is a mikveh, a ritual immersion pool to be used by Jewish women. Housed in a new adobe structure, it is on the property of Rabbi Berel Levertov.
Jewish women use a mikveh mainly to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth. Brides immerse themselves on the eve of their wedding. And immersion in a mikveh is part of the procedure of conversion to Judaism. In some Jewish communities, women use the mikveh to cleanse themselves spiritually, often at the beginning of a Jewish month.
But this mikveh is more than just a pool. The domed brick ceiling has a skylight that fills the room with natural light. And the design on the walls, by local stone-mosaic artist Joshua Kalkstein and titled “Waters of Eden,” consists of 1,400 stones of various natural colors. They depict the four rivers that, according to Genesis, flowed from the Garden of Eden. Symbolically, they flow into the mikveh.
Kalkstein also incorporated the names of important women in the Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Esther. The letters of the names have mystical significance, Levertov said, and through them “women bring the divine energy into the world.”
Rain water flows from the domed roof into a cistern where it is mixed with a certain proportion of tap water to meet the ritual requirements. During last week’s heavy rain the cistern filled up, the rabbi said.
The mikveh is not a bath. Before immersing herself, a woman must cleanse herself thoroughly, and for this there is a separate room with what the rabbi calls a New Mexico shower (squirting water from several directions) and a large tub into which water flows as from a waterfall.
Women in search of the cleansing waters of the mikveh will now find that the waters of Eden await them.
Photo and text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. Neither the photo nor the text may be used by anyone without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

Seven things your guidebook won’t tell you about Ben-Gurion Airport

September 16, 2010
Israel’s main international airport is superior to most in the distance you have to walk to get to your plane. That’s because the gates in the passenger terminal, designed by Moshe Safdie, are arrayed along spokes that radiate from the central passenger lounge.
And now for a few quirky aspects your guidebook won’t mention.
One: Natbag sounds more like a synonym for a jock strap than the moniker
of a self-respecting airport. It’s not the full name, of course, but rather a transliteration of the acronym of the airport’s Hebrew name. Nevertheless, some wag (or idiot signmaker) put this name in English on road signs on the way to the airport. The Jerusalem Post thought this was so funny it published a photo of the sign.
Two: No matter how short the line is at check in, it will take longer for you to get your boarding pass than if you were standing in the long line at the next counter. Seems to be a law of nature that the guy in front of you will have suddenly discovered that his bags are 47 lbs. overweight and he needs to repack them.
Three: Once you’re in the passenger lounge, you’ll need a passport and a boarding pass to buy chewing gum. You’re in duty-free land and must prove you’re entitled to the break on customs and VAT—even though you’ve already had your papers checked by half a dozen security officials. Luckily, you don’t need any documents to buy coffee or a meal.
Four: The toilet paper is very fine-grade sandpaper, the kind that was standard when the state of Israel was established and everyone was a pioneer but which you won’t find in any supermarket these days. Even in the kibbutz they’ve upgraded to softer stuff. Some sociologists believe there is an inverse relation between the scratchiness of the paper and the hardiness of the communal rural sector (the kibbutz), which was a major tenet of the Zionist vision.
Five: Finding an electrical outlet to charge your computer is like finding a gas station in a desert. Even if you find one, it’s likely to be out of service. (To be fair, this is true of all airports I’ve seen.) Look for a lone outlet under a phone bank. In a pinch, spy out a deserted gate desk. It will have lots of functioning outlets, more than any gate clerk will ever need.
Six: I always wondered how the cleaners polish the bottom rails on the inside of the people movers. Now I know: They hop on the people mover, position a Swiffer-like gadget on the edge, and just go with the flow. I never knew cleaning could be such fun.
Seven: El Al tries harder. Our El Al flight was delayed 2.5 hours, as fallout of the wildcat airport strike the previous day. At 6 a.m., an hour before the new boarding time, the PA announcement of free beverages at the gate quickly drew a dozen people, some of whom said they’d been at the airport since the previous morning. There was coffee *and* cake. Under similar circumstances in Geneva, a dour British Airways clerk made it clear that the airline had no responsibility to the passengers.
And now a word about El Al planes:
A sign in the toilet of our 737 said in Hebrew and English, “Noisy flushing is normal.” I asked flight attendant Yigal Levy how many little old ladies had tapped him on the shoulder and said in a worried voice, “There’s something very wrong with this plane. The toilet makes a terrible noise.” Levy said the 737’s toilet wasn’t that noisy and that the idea for the sign came up on another model, where the toilet flush is really loud because of the sucking mechanism.
Finally, the row numbers on the 737 skip from 26 to 44, an oddity that flight attendant Michal Zaiontz was unable to explain. It looks as though the middle part of the plane just fell out somewhere in transit—a very scary thought.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.