My Big Fat Greek Yom Kippur, Part I

Bill Simmons-style, I’m breaking this one up into two parts.  Link to Part II at the bottom.  Cross-posted on the Times of Israel.

Shana tova, everyone. Did you have a memorable season of chagim? I did, having spent ten days on vacation in Greece.  Aside from the fact that I was long overdue for time off, what better time to enjoy chofesh than when everything shuts down?

My first year in Israel:  “The chagim are amaaaaaaazing! There’s no place I’d rather be!” (said with the wide eyes of a child)

Year 7:  “Allright, let’s do this, Israeli-style.  Who wants to go somewhere?”

Everybody knows that from Rosh Hashana to the end of Simchat Torah, the entire nation hangs a proverbial “CLOSED” sign on its proverbial front door and answers every request with “acharei hachagim” (after the holidays).

(For those of you who are out of the proverbial loop, this period of “acharei hachagim” falls in September and October and is loosely translated to “you have a better chance of swallowing a basketball whole than getting anyone on the phone”.*

Job Candidate:  “Hi, are you hiring?”

Company Rep:  “I ehm soh-ry, we ahr veh-ry busy right now.”

Candidate: “Why, are you about to go public?”

Company Rep:  “Ehhh no. Shemini Atzeret with Doda Tzipi. Her ktzitzot are makseem!!!”

And if I may digress, I’m strongly considering naming my first born “acharei hachagim”.

“Hey, what’s your name?” 

“Acharei hachagim.”

“Seriously?  You can’t just tell me now?”

*This is me plagiarizing from myself.


Wake me up when Tishrei ends.  

So why Greece?  Why not?  With about ten days to take off, I didn’t have enough time for Australia and Thailand, and I promised myself I would save Qalqilya for my honeymoon.  (Seriously though, I tend to avoid romantic getaways to locations which have “kill” in their name.  Call me crazy.)  With Athens just a hop, skip, and a jump away, I decided to take the short two hour flight there.

The way the calendar fell, I realized I’d have to overlap my trip around Yom Kippur which I actually found quite intriguing.  I had heard the stories of the fabled Rosh Hashana meals or Passover Seders in Nepal, India, and Thailand so hoped I might have the same meaningful experience at the Athens Chabad.

But before we get there, some general thoughts about the trip.

Compared to the average IsraeIi, I’m not exactly the most traveled person and have yet to take full advantage of our close proximity to so many countries.  I wondered beforehand, how would I be greeted by travelers when introducing myself as Israeli or at least, an American who lives in Israel?  (Don’t get caught up on semantics and Jewish identity issues, I’m only thinking of how I’d easily introduce myself.)  Knowing that a lot of the international community, well, just isn’t particularly fond of us, I wondered what types of reactions I’d receive.

My first night in Athens, I found myself at the big backpacker hostel meeting a few travelers from Canada on the rooftop bar.  (Quick note about Canadians and other English-speakers from around the world:  don’t be fooled, they’re as dumb as Americans.  It’s not that we don’t have our share of idiots, but it’s easy to make fun of and single out the world’s biggest superpower and exporter of fine cultural institutions like “Honey Boo Boo” while ignoring the ignoramuses in other countries around the world.)

Back to the story.

Me:  “Where are you from?”
Guy:  “Toronto.  You?”
Me:  “I’m originally from Texas but I live in Tel Aviv.”

Five minutes after his eyes bulged out and his head spun around three times:  “So, uh, you said you were from where again?  I….stanbul?”

Let’s give it up for Canada, everybody!

Home Sweet Home…

His girlfriend/travel partner wasn’t more worldly.  “So Israel, huh?  Living on the edge!  Hey, everyone, this guy lives in a war zone!”

(Funny that you mention it, can I direct you to a little website I like to call What War Zone???)

Of course, faster than you can say “did you know that Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any country after America?”, I was putting on my hasbara hat and throwing a few talking points her way while trying to not completely kill anybody’s alcohol buzz.  “I knooooow it doesn’t look this way on the news but Tel Aviv is actually one of the greatest party cities in the world.”  I’m sure they didn’t believe me but, hey, maybe, just maybe, next time they read about the Holy Land of Istanbul in the world news, they’ll think of me.

But the fun don’t stop there.  The next day while visiting the Acropolis with my new friends:

Canadian dude:  “So did you ever do that free trip?  What’s it called….Birthright?”

Girlfriend:  “So can you do it if you convert?”

Canadian dude:  “It’s called Birthright, not CONVERTright!”

Someone get Michael Steinhardt on the phone.  I think they’ve found their new director of marketing!

Making my best effort to educate, I told them, “guys, if you have any questions at all about anything, don’t be shy.”

A few minutes later…

Girl:  “So do you keep….kosher?” 

Me:  “Not so much.  You have every type of Jew on the religious spectrum in Israel and around the world.  Many follow those dietary rules but many don’t.”

Girl:  “That whole thing about separating milk and meat?  I think that’s a little much.”

Allright, then.  I’ll be sure to bring that up with Hashem during our next board meeting.

Let’s just say it gets old being a volunteer ambassador.  Can you blame me for deciding it was just easier to introduce myself as an American?

Of course, perhaps I should have decided that a bit earlier.  After agreeing take a ferry to one of the islands with another Canadian woman, she asked me, “Hey, um, I tooootally hope this isn’t a big deal but I should bring it up anyway.  My friend who I’m traveling with is Palestinian and she didn’t want there to be any problems so is that cool?”

Now…..in an effort to enjoy my vacation and say “yes” to offers, it probably wouldn’t have been my first choice to spend vacation with someone who identifies with a group in conflict with the group I identify with, nor would it probably have been her preference to travel with me.  But I’m not so closed-minded where I was going to refuse to hang out with someone because of her ethnic affiliation.  And then there’s the question of “well, is she reaaaaaally Palestinian if she grew up in Canada? And if this person was willing to travel with me, I didn’t want to be the person to say “no”, placing the Jewish state at fault for shutting down Israel-Palestinian relations.  Now understand that all of these thoughts were racing through my brain at once and I had only one second to answer her initial question of “Is it cool?”

So what did I come up with?  “Yeah, no problem!  I like peace!”

Good one, Benji.

To be completely truthful, upon meeting this person, I did my absolute best to be friendly and talk about anything but the place I live (not such an easy thing for anyone to do).  She just wasn’t very friendly or warm towards me and exhibited no sense of humor.  Was it simply her personality or was it due to the fact that I live in Israel?  I can’t know.  But it certainly didn’t make that vacation day fun.  So when our new mutual Canadian friend decided to pass the time on our ferry ride by proposing the card game Speed, I felt my competitive juices kick into overdrive.

To the Palestinian woman, this was probably just a game.  But to me, it was war.  Or at the very least, the Olympics.  I may not have fought in the army but at that moment, I was serving my country.  After two rounds, with the same lightning quickness that the Israeli Air Force displayed in obliterating the Egyptian fleet, I went 1967 on her in taking a huge lead.  (You know, except that one involved brilliant military maneuvers and the other, the ability to throw down cards on a pile.)


You’d be emotional too if you just threw down a King-Queen-King-Queen on an Ace.

I was feeling pretty good about myself until my opponent began to at worst cheat, at best give herself an unfair advantage, slowly flipping over the cards in her direction, allowing her to react to first which makes a world of difference in a game called “Speed”.  Even the Canadian girl got involved, taking my side and calling her out.  The Palestinian girl said, “why are you making such a big deal out of it?  Chill out.”  On behalf of the Israeli government, thank you, Canada for your moral clarity.

The rest of the journey together went without incident.  We parted ways the next day.

Part II found here!
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