Bidud & Beyond
By: Sandy Eller
What a difference a year makes.
With so many people traveling to Israel for this year’s yomim tovim, it’s hard to remember what things were like twelve months ago, when getting in and out of the country involved mountains of paperwork and multiple COVID tests, even for those who met very strict entry criteria. Going was either impossible or impractical for most, but with my nephew’s wedding taking place six days after Sukkos, we were determined to make it to Israel, no matter what it took.
Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into or just how memorable a trip it was going to turn out to be…
It should come as no surprise that it took more than a few trips to move 350 pounds of luggage, four carry-ons, three tote bags and a hat box from the curb to our eighth-floor apartment. When you know that your week in quarantine with your sister and brother-in-law will include four Yom Tov meals, a last minute Hoshana Rabbah seudah with your nephew and his soon-to-be wife, and Shabbos lunch with your the new machatanim, let’s just say you don’t pack light.
But I should probably press rewind and explain how my husband and I ended up in the heart of Yerushalayim surrounded by the aforementioned mountain of suitcases after having ditched all five of our children for Sukkos. When my nephew got engaged to a girl from Matersdorf in June 2021, there was no question that the whole family was booking tickets to Israel. But those plans unraveled as COVID reared its ugly head again and quarantine regulations were implemented for foreigners, leaving even my sister and brother-in-law wondering if they were going to be able to walk their youngest to the chuppah.
With the wedding scheduled the week after Sukkos, my sister and brother-in-law were going to have to go to Israel and begin bidud on Chol Hamoed, a reality that meant getting an apartment with a sukkah and figuring out how to handle davening and Yom Tov meals when they couldn’t even go out to buy groceries. And with Israel allowing only parents, grandparents and those with first degree relatives into the country, not a single one of my nieces and nephews were going to be able to make it to their brother’s wedding, a situation that was beyond disappointing.
Since my husband’s siblings live in Israel, he and I actually met the entry criteria as long as we went early enough to quarantine for a week. Our Rav assured my husband that since gladdening the heart of the baalei simchah was of paramount importance, he could daven without a minyan during bidud, even though it meant missing shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov. We booked tickets and started collecting the necessary info for our permits and when everything finally came together late one Friday afternoon, I put everything through, figuring that I would be done with both applications in no time, giving me plenty of time to finish up my Shabbos preparations.
I couldn’t have possibly been more wrong. I found out the hard way that every picture had to be compressed for uploading, and by the time I finished cross-checking all the information, a full 80 minutes had passed. Still, I was relieved to have eliminated at least one item on my to-do list, or at least I thought I had.
A good friend of mine who works at Amudim reviewed our documents and told me that we were never going to be approved, because my husband’s short-form New Jersey birth certificate omitted his parents’ names and didn’t prove his relationship to his siblings, our key to getting into the country. We ordered a long-form birth certificate which showed up two days later with expedited shipping, and I dropped everything the minute it was delivered, submitting the applications just before Shabbos for the second week in a row.
Menu planning posed a daunting challenge, given that my sister dislikes meat and my husband isn’t the type to embrace lasagna on his Yom Tov table. There were many conversations about urgent matters like needing to bring salt and spices, and while my sister packed olive oil and cholent beans, I assembled a collection of foil pans, cheese and frozen salmon. Suffice it to say that while planning a meal with your new machatanim is always a little intimidating, doing it from 6,000 miles away when you can’t shop is definitely not for the faint hearted.
Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was still trying to get his kids into Israel under a little-known provision that allowed eligible tour groups of five or more as long as they tested negative for COVID before coming to Israel and upon arrival. He hired a tour guide and created an itinerary that included an authentic Charedi wedding and while there were a few bumps in the road when several of them didn’t meet eligibility requirements, most of them did and we all started watched our emails, praying for our approvals to show up.
By the time Chol Hamoed rolled around, we were all burning the midnight oil working out the final details. We were leaving from Newark on Motzoei Shabbos on separate flights, both of which left three and a half hours after Havdalah, which meant we didn’t have a minute to spare once Shabbos ended. My brother-in-law borrowed a large SUV and loaded the suitcases into car on Friday afternoon, leaving nothing to do Motzoei Shabbos except add our food boxes, jump in the car and let one of my nephews drive us to the airport so we didn’t have to deal with parking.
In theory, it was a great plan that should have worked out perfectly. Except that it didn’t…
Our permits finally showed up four minutes after Shabbos started, which meant our first post-Havdalah job was printing out 80 pages of mandatory documentation. As the printer whirred away, I packed up our food, throwing in a few extras like frozen pizza into the box at the last minute and weighing the box to ensure that it didn’t exceed United’s 50-pound weight limit. I sealed the box with a ludicrous amount of tape, throwing the tape into my bag, because you never know.
And then came the text from my sister.
“Car won’t start.”
As we moved on to plan B, getting the suitcases out and taking separate cars, the next text came through.
“We can’t get the suitcases out. The trunk won’t open.”
Thankfully, a neighbor with jumper cables bailed us out, and within minutes we were on our way to Newark, submitting the last-minute mandatory health declaration on our phones. We got to the airport with just enough time to check in at our respective terminals, making up to meet at Ben Gurion’s baggage claim, hoping that we had enough drama for one night, though of course, there was more to come.
The nice people at United refused to look away from our 51-pound suitcases, probably because my food box was four pounds overweight, and I was eternally grateful to have that roll of tape to repack the food box as we shifted items around. Discovering that our TSA Pre-Check and Clear weren’t going to save us any time because there was only security line open in the entire terminal wasn’t at all amusing and, adding insult to injury, TSA decided to inspect my husband’s Esrog, and suffice it to say that there isn’t a man out there who isn’t going to have a panic attack when a security agent picks up their Esrog by the pitum. Meanwhile, over at El Al, my sister and her husband nearly had two pounds of pasta confiscated when security decided that spaghetti was too long to fly with, before ultimately allowing it through.
Our flights to Tel Aviv were like every flight to Israel – long and sleepless – but while my husband and I had a fairly uneventful trip, my airplane-phobic sister had a somewhat different experience. Armed with a bag of emotional support pretzel nuggets to keep her queasiness at bay, she and her husband found themselves located behind an individual who decided to keep his large dog in the aisle next to my sister, instead of in the extra space in front of his bulkhead seat. Dozing off to find a fluffy tail brushing her hand wasn’t exactly my sister’s idea of fun, though she watching the man chase his dog down the aisle after it escaped to the back of the plane was far more entertaining.
There is something incredible about landing at Ben Gurion, even when you know you are going to be waiting on long lines for yet another COVID test. Our Nesher driver got a considerable workout heaving all our belongings into his van and it was a relief to finally get to our apartment and enjoy pizza in the sukkah, freshly delivered by my nephew the chassan. The view of Yerushalayim from our glass-walled mirpeset was stunning, though I can’t say that my brother-in-law enjoyed it as much as the rest of us did given the fact that we were eight floors off the ground and he has a rather significant fear of heights.
Our first full day of bidud was Hoshana Rabbah, but who even had time to go out with the chassan and the kallah coming for the seudah? We managed to pull together a lovely meal from the food we brought with us and I am not embarrassed to admit that I washed off the tray that held the homemade goodies my new niece brought for dessert, giving us one decent serving dish to use when her parents came for lunch after the aufruf, just a few days down the road.
Hours later, we were bentshing licht yet again, this time for Shemini Atzeres. Our Yom Tov was beautiful, the assortment of ingredients we had shlepped giving us plenty of opportunities to improvise, with grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast and last-minute s’mores whipped up on the plata. I only wish there had been some way to video our bidud hakafos, our menfolk dancing around the apartment with different seforim for each hakafah in lieu of the sefer Torah we obviously didn’t have. We spent much of Simchas Torah on the mirpeset watching our Israeli neighbors taking down their sukkos and it was quite the experience seeing a piece of lumber accidently dropped from the fifth floor hitting every mirpeset on its way down, thankfully without injuring anyone.
With Yom Tov over, my husband and I were able to work remotely, while my sister and her husband dealt with last minute wedding details, which included an unscheduled visit with the machatanim, and we somehow managed to conjure up a nice spread out of thin air. We made sure to keep things fun, and while our husbands were keeping up with the daf and other learning, my sister and I made rubber band bracelets and bouncy balls for our grandkids, played Bananagrams and took Snapchat selfies in our matching Bidud Buddies hoodies. Of course, we still had to deal with meals, which involved plenty of kitchen magic, with the chassan picking up the few essentials we hadn’t brought with us, like challah and cholent meat.
Having been greenlighted by multiple Rabbanim to leave bidud for the aufruf, my sister and brother-in-law went to shul Shabbos morning, while my husband and I prepared for that all-important lunch with the machatanim. We threw pekelach brought from home at my nephew when he showed up for the post-aufruf seudah, and no one seemed to care that the cholent was served in the crockpot in the absence of a proper bowl. Thankfully, I don’t think the machatanista realized the pretty tray under the onion kugel was the same one her daughter had used to plate the Hoshana Rabbah dessert she brought a few days earlier.
Having been cooped up for so long, going out for COVID tests felt like a treat, even if we were having them done at a gas station. It was freedom at last the next day as the Misrad Habriut released us from quarantine, but things weren’t going quite as smoothly for my sister’s kids, one of whom tested positive for COVID at the eleventh hour, leaving the tour one person short of its minimum size. Still, the tour had been officially approved, and the remaining four decided to get on the plane and hope for the best, although there was a moment of panic at Newark when they discovered that the travel agent hadn’t instructed them to purchase COVID coverage for their travel insurance policies, a last-minute detail that was solved relatively painlessly. Thankfully, things proceeded smoothly after that and we had some time to do the things that people do when they come to Israel and enjoy the fact that not only had we survived bidud, but it had actually turned out to be a positive and fun experience. By Monday night my niece and nephews had arrived, and we finally started believing that even if everyone hadn’t made it, our side of the family would still be appropriately represented at the wedding.
Technically, this story should have ended right here, its final sentences describing how bashert it was that we found out that the kallah’s flowers had never been ordered the day before the wedding instead of when we arrived at the hall, and waxing poetic about how beautiful the simchah was. But it seems only fitting that a journey like this one, which covered not only several thousand miles and plenty of unexpected occurrences, would take yet another walk on the wild side, doesn’t it?
The day after the wedding started out pretty much the way you might have expected and we all went our separate ways, with my sister’s kids heading out souvenir shopping before their flight home that night. My husband and I went to Kever Rochel and the Old City before meeting his siblings for dinner, and it was well after 11 P.M. when we made it back to the apartment. Taking one look at my sister’s face I knew in the words of the iconic Miss Clavel, that something was not right.
It seems that when my nieces and nephews got to the airport, only one nephew was able to check in, while the others were told that they couldn’t leave because they hadn’t done bidud, even though tour groups were exempt from quarantine. The situation was eventually clarified, but not in time for them to board their flight, and they scrambled to rebook for the next Newark-bound plane leaving 12 hours later their older brother who made it through security joining them because he refused to leave Israel without them.
Hoping to avoid security the next day, they spent the night at Ben Gurion, and with sleep pretty much impossible, they spent the night playing hide and seek in the terminal, skating across the floors in their socks, holding video game tournaments on their phones and taking selfies with their new BFF, a snack stand night-shift worker. We woke up in the morning to a barrage of awesome pictures chronicling their airport adventures and started our day confident that in a few short hours they would be on a flight back to Newark and heading home to their spouses and children.
They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but apparently, they are wrong, because once again, my niece and nephews were told that they couldn’t leave Israel, this time because they hadn’t taken serology tests upon their arrival. It was déjà vu all over again and while the mix-up was eventually resolved, they had missed their second flight and were facing another 12 hours in Ben Gurion. Worse yet, not a single eatery in the airport had a hechsher they were comfortable with during a Shemittah year, leaving them with just a knapsack filled with snacks for sustenance.
Having lived down the block from my sister and brother-in-law for 32 years, my husband and I have come to think of their kids as our own, and I decided to check in on my niece on our way home from Me’aras Hamachpelah, to see how they were managing. It suddenly dawned on me that since they hadn’t yet cleared security, they weren’t far from the bullet train, which gets you from Yerushalayim to Tel Aviv in 25 minutes and my husband and I hatched a plan to pick up lunch for them and run it over to the airport. As soon as we got back to Yerushalayim my husband ran to the Badatz-Eida Charedis felafel place, while I rushed to our apartment and packed up food for supper. Within 20 minutes we were on a bullet train set to depart three minutes later, the entire car smelling like fresh felafel.
I couldn’t make up what happened next if I tried.
An announcement came over on the loudspeaker, advising us to find alternate transportation to Ben Gurion since all trains were suspended indefinitely because of a large fire near the airport. We waited for 25 minutes hoping to hear good news, but common sense finally prevailed, and we got off the train, hoping to come up with another creative idea, but we just couldn’t come up with one, particularly since my husband had yahrtzeit and missing minyan just wasn’t an option. Regretfully, I texted my nephew telling him that we had to pull the plug on our food mission, a decision that we felt bad about for days.
Things went pretty smoothly for the rest of our trip, if you don’t count that small glitch when we almost couldn’t check in for our flight because we couldn’t find the email from Misrad Habriut releasing us from quarantine. Baruch Hashem, it didn’t take long to unravel that problem, and we made our flight home with plenty of time to spare, grateful to have had the opportunity to be there to celebrate the simchah with my sister and brother-in-law in every sense of the word.
If you have ever tried writing fiction, you know that coming up with a fresh and engaging story line is no small feat. Despite having boarded that plane to Tel Aviv fully intending to write a diary of our time in bidud, I never could have dreamed up a story like this one, no matter how hard I tried, and even if I had, I never would have written it up because having so many crazy things happening one after the other was too absurd to be believable.
You have my word – every single word here is true, without any embellishment. In fact, every time something else went wrong, we looked at each other and said, “looks like we have another paragraph to add to the story.”
Mark Twain was right – sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.