From Teaneck to Tel Aviv

This blog entry about the events of Sunday, June 14, 2009 was originally posted on June 15, 2009.

DAY 1: “Tickets and passport,” requested Shir, the cute Israeli woman with a welcoming smile at the Israeli airline El Al line at JFK’s Terminal 4.  Little did I know that she was the first line of defense in a long-drawn-out Israeli security ordeal before departure from New York.

“Have you packed the bags yourself?”

“Yes.  Just a couple of hours ago actually.”

“What is your purpose for traveling to Israel?”

“Vacation,” I answered.  “Plus I have a friend from here that is visiting family there.”  I was referring to friends from New Jersey Mienri and Maya who were on the outskirts of Tel Aviv visiting relatives (but more about them later). 

“First time?”


“Exciting!” she smiled, but the questions continued.  “What congregation do you belong to?”

I was caught off guard; this wasn’t any question I’d been asked by another airline.  “Uh, I was raised Catholic.”

“So Catholic?”

What’s the right answer? I wondered.  Do I have to go explain to her that isms aren’t so black and white in modern society, and that no one can purely classify themselves as one thing these days in terms of the old school organized religions?  But I opted with the simple answer, “Uh, yes.”

“Do you know Hebrew?”

“No, but I have a Hebrew phrasebook.”

She smiled.  “Well, the only word you need to know is ‘sababa’.”


“Sababa.  You use it for everything.  Sababa.  It’s like, everything is cool.  They say ‘How are you?’ You say, ‘Sababa.’”


But everything was not cool after she had escorted me to and from the ticket counter to get my boarding pass; I thought I simply had to go to the JFK security gate as with any other airline, but there was a special Israeli security checkpoint and I had been selected.  Granted I knew I probably raised a bunch of flags: 1) my ethnic ambiguity could be interpreted as Muslim; 2) my passport was all beat up since I had accidentally run it through a laundry cycle; and 3) I was traveling solo.  I was a good sport about the whole ordeal; Shir remained as my friendly escort right to the front of the super Israeli X-ray machine they had, screening a long line of bags from a tour group.  “Don’t worry, we get to skip the line.”

But skipping the line only made it faster for Israeli security to sequester all my belongings before take-off, which meant I would be really bored out of my mind on the two remaining hours before boarding.  “Can I take my laptop?” I pleaded.  “I came to the airport early so I could work on stuff before the flight.”  True, I wanted to crank out some freelance design work I was doing for Discovery/History Channel host Josh Bernstein (yes, I just namedropped) so I wouldn’t have to do too much of it while traveling.  Despite my attempts to work out a compromise like Barack Obama, negotiations with Israeli security failed and they wouldn’t budge from the established policy.  However, they did let me take my cell phone, my notepads, and a book.  (At least that was a start.)

“Look,” I said to Shir, before being escorted out.  It was my Lonely Planet Hebrew phrasebook. 

She smiled.  “Look up sababa!

DESPITE THESE ANNOYANCES, they didn’t thwart my interest in going to the Holy Land.  In fact, my interest in making the trip to Israel, the Jewish state in the Middle East that has been the topic of world political controversy since its inception in 1948, spawned from my upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, where I spent my formative years.  Teaneck, a suburb of New York City, was an experimental community of cultural integration since the 19th century, a melting pot of every race, religion and creed that still exists today with it’s big mosque, Christian churches, and several synagogues.  In fact, it is this melting pot of culture that Damon Lindelof (co-creator of the hit TV show Lost, producer of many of J.J. Abrams’ films, and former high school classmate of yours truly) credits as his inspiration for storytelling and filmmaking.  “What was cool about growing up in New Jersey, especially Bergen County, is it was very diverse,” says Lindelof in an interview.  “I literally went to high school with people of all different races and ethnicities and backgrounds.  That broadened my horizons as a writer.  It made me interested in other people’s stories.”  (Boom, another namedrop!)

But even with all the cultures in Teaneck, the town is often associated with the Jewish people, the same way Harlem, as multi-cultural as it is, is often associated with African-Americans.  Teaneck’s large Jewish population is evident on any given Saturday when the streets are filled with dressed up religious Jews walking to and from temple on the Sabbath.  It is more evident in certain neighborhoods during the holiday season, when you can pinpoint the Christian household because it’s the only one on the block with Christmas lights up amongst a dozen of houses displaying menorahs.  Teaneck’s downtown is almost completely kosher; a restaurant would not survive on Cedar Lane without offering a kosher option.  The five and dimes also cater to the Jewish population; Hannukah gift wrap is plentiful in December and Jewish coloring books are commonplace in the bargain bin.  Recently, my mother unknowingly grabbed a few coloring books for my little nephew, not realizing he would be using his crayons to color pictures of challah in “My First Shabbos.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “It’s just a coloring book.”

Anyway, it was in this Teaneck environment that I was raised Catholic by my deeply Filipino Catholic parents, who ironically enough, used to play the soundtrack vinyl record to Fiddler on the Roof all the time.  One day I’ll have to write a novel about my peculiar coming of age story — a completely true 180 from a mainstream story — in which I grew up amongst a majority of Jews in the public school system.  Not that I’m complaining; we always had the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off since kindergarten.  Whether these extra days off from school contributed to me being a sort of semitiphile (is that even a word?) I don’t know, but it could also be from the other Jewish influences of my formative years in the 80s and 90s — it was the hey day of Steven Spielburg’s Nazis-I-Hate-These-Guys movies, and time of the coming of my comedic heroes Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld. 

Perhaps these influences, combined with my parents’ Filipino Catholic upbringing, all collectively gives me the unique personality I have today, where I easily make friends with Jews, Asians, Latinos, and people from island nations.  I take it for granted sometimes; I often forget people didn’t grow up with all these influences.  In college, I did a graphic design project about the Jewish Holocaust and my classmates questioned how that ever entered my head.  I pinned it on a psyche of my upbringing, the then recent release of Spielburg’s Schindler’s List, and the thought in the back of my mind that Teaneck High School actually had a Center for Holocaust Studies.  In my head, I find it curious that to this day, in 2009, people don’t get the jokes in some of my Jewish-inspired t-shirts on (yes, that’s a gratuitous plug to my t-shirt store), even in Jew-a-plenty New York City.  “Hola!” one friend said, thinking my shirt boasted a misspelled Spanish word for hello, not realizing “Holla!” is a pun of the exclamation and the Jewish braided egg bread challah. 

Dry and ready?” wondered another friend.  “Um, I don’t get it.”

“It’s from the song,” I explained, which only spawned a blank stare.  “Didn’t you guys grow up singing the dreidel song?”

Alas, we can’t all be from Teaneck, New Jersey.

I WAITED AND WANDERED TERMINAL 4 like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, passing time by working on Blog duties and trying out McDonald’s new Mac Snack Wrap, a deconstructed Big Mac in a soft tortilla — perhaps they were inspired by my FancyFastFood site? (gratuitous plug #2)  I was back at Israeli security at 1:45am for the now delayed-until-3am flight, to get my bags — but not without some additional tests; they swabbed my shoes, my notepad and even my Hebrew phrasebook for explosive materials.  “Did they swab your feet?” I asked, smirking to the woman next to me in sandals.

“Yeah.”  I wasn’t the only one singled out by El Al; two other solo travelers, both female, were there.  I made friends with the one that I shared an escort with to the gate: June, a laid-back woman from New Jersey.  I told her about my roots in Teaneck. 

“Oh I know Teaneck!” she said, smiling.  “Really good falafel there. The best…”  Funny, I’d never had it, but was it possible the best falafel was not in Paris or Berlin?

“Yeah, it’s very Jewish,” I told her.

“Yeah, I know.”  Teaneck’s reputation preceded it.  Then June jokingly came to the conclusion of the reason why I had been flagged for suspicion: “You’re a Catholic from Teaneck.”  (The fact that I was actually wearing my “Dry & Ready” t-shirt with the dreidel on it [picture above] probably added to the suspicion as well.)

She told me about how they had probably singled her out for certain flags: 1) an atheist, she didn’t have a real answer for the congregation question; and 2) she was only traveling with one bag.  But we had it easy compared to the third person traveling solo.  June whispered in my ear, “I think the woman behind us got the full body search.  I saw her go into the backroom with someone putting on rubber gloves.”

We eventually met this young woman when the three of us were escorted by Israeli security to the plane door.  “[So I guess the three of us were singled out,]” June said to her.  “He thinks it’s because we’re traveling solo.”  (I had also realized we were probably the three non-Jews on the flight.)  “So you got the extra search, huh?  I wonder whey they chose you and not us.”

“Oh I know why,” the young woman said with a frown, flashing us her ID.  “Jordanian passport.” 


Not that she was born in Jordan or anything; Rafif was an Americanized Palestinian from Jerusalem, but with the lack of a Palestinian state, the only statehood she could claim was neighboring Jordan.  “It’s the passport they give you when you’re from there [the land Israel occupies] but you’re not Jewish.”

We empathized with the pretty Palestinian — I mean, who wouldn’t of any religion if someone just got the full rubber glove treatment? — but she wasn’t angry or anything.  Annoyed was more like it; she was Americanized (a student at SUNY Purchase) and hoped for a better time in the future.  “It’s so stupid that it’s like this,” she ranted, wishing things were like they were in New York where nobody cares and everyone gets along peacefully.  All she could do for now was grin and bear it.  I was just glad she beared the “it” with the rubber gloves and not me.

Us three goys sat in diferent parts of the ultra-fortified Air Force One-like aircraft, but I made good fortune to sit next to Devorah, one of a larger young tour group going to Israel on a Sephardic tour.  “It’s like Birthright but you have to pay for it,” the spunky L.A. college girl with the British accent explained to me.  It was the best she could do because, even as a Jew, she had been denied an application to Birthright Israel twice, possibly because of her Farsi, Iranian roots.  “I’m Sephardic,” she told me.  (Sephardic Jews are of the olive-skinned variety, generally descendent from Iberia, northern Africa and Asia Minor.)  She wasn’t a stranger to extra security checks herself.

“People tell me that I could pass as Sephardic,” I told her.

“Yeah, you probably could.”

THE TEN-HOUR FLIGHT wasn’t too excruciating with our conversation, our attempts to take a nap, our meal times (on El Al at dinner, every meal is the kosher meal), and the in-flight entertainment.  Devorah was deeping enthralled with He’s Just Not That Into You and an episode of House, while I finally got a chance to work on my laptop.  We feared that landing in Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion would only bring us a whole other long-drawn-out security check and interrogation, but it was surprisingly a breeze.  In fact, I was in and out of immigration after only three simple standard questions, and after I had picked up my baggage, I went to customs and they just shooed me away to the exit. 

That unexpected bit of ease and relief was only outdone by the time Devorah said something to me on the plane when she noticed the t-shirt I was wearing, thinking it was from Urban Outfitters until I told her otherwise.  “Dry and ready,” she said, smiling.  “Ha, that’s funny!”

And she wasn’t even from Teaneck. Sababa.

Next entry: You Don’t Mess With The Zohar

Previous entry: Preface In Paris

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “From Teaneck to Tel Aviv”

  • Tada, I’m all caught up.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  03:26 AM

  • the coloring book was for your little nephew, not cousin…

    logan and i read a book at the doctor’s office (Teaneck Peds) all about Jewish holidays…haha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  03:43 AM

  • Nice story…but i don’t get it either.

    anyway, have a great trip.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  04:06 AM

  • for those that don’t know the dreidel song, the chorus goes like this:

    Oh - dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
    I made it out of clay
    And when it’s dry and ready
    Then dreidel I shall play!

    you can also check out the south park episode where they make fun of it too…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  04:19 AM

  • Friend, Tzachi will get in touch with you, I gave him your email. He would be happy to meet up or talk. Have a great trip!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  09:44 AM

  • @aviva: Ester wrote me; I’ll be looking her up in Jerusalem in the next couple of days…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  10:03 AM

  • Woo. On the road again!

    You’re giving me the bug too. I might make the same trip in September.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  06:35 PM

  • omg omg omg .. THE Josh Bernstein? The jewish Indiana Jones?

    Posted by Phil  on  06/15  at  08:30 PM

  • one more contact came through, sent you an email.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/15  at  10:35 PM

  • You’re spelling Steven’s last name wrong, name-dropper.
    I can’t wait for more pictures!
    Sincerely, the honorary named Noelle

    Posted by No-L  on  06/16  at  12:48 AM

  • Day 2 is officially over, Israel time. According to my self-imposed blogging schedule, I have until the end of Day 3 to write, edit, and post Day 2. Stay tuned; I’m heading out to Haifa (not Old Jeru) with a new “best friend of the day,” Lily…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/16  at  02:24 AM

  • Yay! Blog! What a weird security question about congregations. Looking forward to the next entry!  Sababa.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/16  at  08:19 AM

  • Yay Erik’s back!

    I’ve been a fan since the global trip. And just wanted to say my husband and I are on our own global trip thanks to your inspiration.

    Thanks bunches Erik!

    Posted by Liz  on  06/16  at  10:31 PM

  • RE:Israeli security ordeal at JFK, wait till you leave Ben Gurion International Airport for JFK and you’ll be asked exactly the same questions! Things haven’t changed ... I was grilled that way way back in 1977!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/17  at  02:18 AM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
You Don’t Mess With The Zohar

Previous entry:
Preface In Paris


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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