February 14, 2004

Mojave Encounter

It was Friday morning and, after an enjoyable two days in Las Vegas we packed into our 7-seater SUV for the return trip to our holiday base camp in Palm Springs. We were going to spend a last Shabbat there at my uncle’s desert home before returning to England.

It’s a 5-hour drive across the barren Mojave Desert and Death Valley. We were already a little late and, with sunset around 5 pm we could not afford any unscheduled stops.

I can’t recall how far we had got in miles. Like most dads, I tend to measure these family journeys by the number of times a voice pipes up from economy asking “Are we nearly there?” or: “Can we stop … I need it badly”. However, when Mom demands a stop, there’s no choice. And so, the next exit it had to be!

As exits go, this was about the most nondescript I have ever seen in America. None of the usual shopping outlets or eatery chains: just a gas station and a rundown coffee shop. As the six of us spilled out of the SUV and went our separate ways, my attention was drawn to a disturbance across the car park. A heavy-set guy was screaming into a payphone, punching the air wildly with his free hand. Customers emerging from the coffee shop gave him a wide berth, suspecting as I did that the man must be on drugs. I also decided to turn away to make sure the kids went directly back to the car.

Walking behind me, my son Elliott noticed it the very moment I did. “Dad! He’s speaking in Hebrew!” I turned and drew closer to the man, his burly back toward me. I tried to make out what he was shouting. Just then he dropped to his knees and started sobbing into the phone. I understood something about him losing his passport, his money and even his cigarettes.

Normally I would never dream of approaching such a raving giant in the middle of nowhere, but the sound of Hebrew broke all barriers. I ventured forward and tapped the man on this back. He turned and rose to look at me, in mid-tirade, his reddened face streaked with tears and eyes bloodshot. I said three words: “Mah karah lecha?” (What happened to you?)

It was as if those three words were a magic spell. All at once the anger melted from his face and his expression changed to an almost childlike wonderment. After what seemed like a long moment, the silence was interrupted by the voice on the other end of the phone shouting “Hallo, hallo!!”. I took the receiver from his chubby hand and asked the other party to hold for a moment. I then repeated the question: “Mah karah ?” and the man, who spoke no English, started blubbering out his story in Hebrew that was way too fast for me. In between rapid sentences I managed to determine that he was returning from Las Vegas to Los Angeles with a small Israeli tour group and that they had left him behind at this fuel stop without his bag. He had no money, no ID, none of his precious cigarettes and no way of communicating with people other than in Hebrew. I also understood that he was living with his cousin in LA on a tourist visa which had long expired and that he would probably be deported if stopped by the authorities.

I picked up the phone and asked whom I was speaking to. It was the Israeli ex-pat owner of the tour company. He said the driver had left the man behind by mistake but had now gone too far to return. He would have to make his own way to LA and his bag would be safely returned to him. He enquired whether I could drive him into LA but I explained that I was soon going to turn off to Palm Springs. Well, he said, the man would just have to find his own way back; there were plenty of Greyhound buses.

My new friend may not have understood English, but he sensed that these people were not cooperating. His expression was again turning angry and desperate. I figured that this tour outfit may not be totally legitimate and may have lots of other patrons without valid visas. I had not let on to them that I understood Hebrew, and decided to use a some magic words in English. “Listen,” I said, “I am not going to leave this man alone in the desert with no money, no ID and no language. If you don’t come back for him, I am going to call the Highway Patrol!”
The answer was just what I expected: “Just a moment, sir.”

After some muffled exchanges of "Mishtarah..mishtarah" at the other end, the man came back to me. “Sir, hello sir, it was really very kind of you to stop and help our friend. Maybe my driver can return part of the way, if you would agree to take our friend to the spot where you turn off to Palm Springs...". I agreed and we settled on a rendezvous point before exchanging cellphone numbers and hanging up.

Hanging up the phone seemed like the loss of a lifeline to my stranded friend, but I quickly reassured him with a pat on his broad back. “It’s okay," I said in Hebrew. "They have your bag, your money and your passport. I am taking you to meet your bus and you will be safely in LA by the evening.”

He looked at me curiously.
“Atah gar poh?” [Do you live here?] he asked.
I said I lived in England.
He asked me what brought me to this place?
At this I pointed to the heavens.
This made him gulp.
I said: “When you speak in Hebrew, you are never lost.”

By this time my wife and kids were back in the car. The kids shrank into the back when they saw me walking this raving giant to their car and then ushering him into the front passenger seat. I introduced him to everyone and began telling them his story as we drove back onto the highway, which stretched like a thick black felt-tip line drawn across the empty landscape.

As he began telling me about his family back in Israel, my wife and I realised that he was a bit simple. He had left Israel because of the Intifada. He was getting married to a Mexican girl. I asked naively whether she was Jewish. He said no. It was only to get him a Green Card.
(I used to think you had to marry a US citizen to get a green card. Things have obviously moved on since then!) I asked how he was getting by in California without speaking any English. He said he was working for his cousin who ran a furniture warehouse in LA.

It was at that point that he looked round and remarked that my wife spoke American.
I told him, she was born in New York.
“So,” he said, “you can come live in America any time.”
“Yes I could if I wanted to,” I replied. “But I don’t want to live in America.”
“Aha!” he smiled. “You like better to live in England, yes?”
“No,” I replied. “I don’t much like living in England either.”
He looked puzzled. “So where do you like to live then?”
“Yerushalayim” I replied.

Well, you should’ve seen his jaw drop.
You could almost read his thoughts shunting across his forehead like a Times Square news ticker.
Here is a guy that has an American wife, can live and work anyplace he chooses, is fluent in English, has money and an education … all the privileges. And the only place he wants to live is Israel??? It seemed totally beyond his comprehension.

We were still chatting about the whys and wherefores of living in Israel when we approached the rendezvous point: a Roy Rogers restaurant exit. I pulled into the car park expecting to see a tour bus waiting for us. Instead we were met by an Econovan not much larger than my own SUV. I looked at my wife and we both wondered how it would be possible to leave a 300-pound mountain behind at a pit stop without noticing. Something was not kosher.

Our passenger took his leave with gushing thanks and set out across the car park, eager to remonstrate with those who had dumped him. We never did understand how they came to leave him there.

He may have walked out on his country but his luck was that he still spoke the language of his people.
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