Checking to make sure I was in a legal spot, I put the gear in park, pulled the emergency brake and turned off the engine. In spite of having spent nearly two hours in the car with the air-conditioner blowing in my face, I was sweating.
This was not due to the weather, however. Though the country was in its sharp, post-Passover leap into summer, the day had a spring feel, its crispness barely marred by the shift from dry to humid that is normal when going from Jerusalem to the coast.
No, the perspiration on my upper lip derived from the anxiety I had been experiencing since preparing for the drive to Netanya.
Nor was the purpose of the trip – to deliver a lecture on Israeli culture and current events – the source of my nerves. I don’t suffer from stage-fright.
But I am terrified of getting lost on the way to a gig.
I also hate being late. This means leaving lots of extra time to take the wrong exit off the highway or maneuver necessary U-turns. As a result, I always arrive early. The day in question was no exception.
I got out of the car and looked around the mostly residential street – more than half an hour to kill and not a shop or café in sight. I decided to walk towards the sea and look around.
Within a minute, I found myself at the entrance to the Park Hotel.
It was here, in 2002, that the Passover massacre took place. During the hotel’s annual Seder, a suicide bomber from Tulkarm (just over an hour away), walked into the hotel disguised as a woman and blew himself up in the dining room.
Blood and body parts covered the matza-laden tables. It was carnage that the Israeli public, already in a trauma- induced haze from daily terrorist attacks against innocent civilians on buses and in restaurants, could barely fathom, let alone stomach.
Thirty people were killed that night and 140 wounded, most of them elderly.
Among the victims were Holocaust survivors, who had lived through unthinkable atrocities and made it to the Jewish state, only to be slaughtered or maimed during the holiday commemorating the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
And now here I was, standing at the site of the barbaric event, which spurred then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to launch Operation Defensive Shield against the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. But there was nothing about the building itself that revealed what had taken place in its halls only a few years earlier. It was just a small, unassuming hotel, with no distinction other than its location on the shore of the Mediterranean.
I looked at my watch. Still a good 20 minutes to go before my appointment.
It was just enough time to freshen up.
Yet I was hesitant. Maybe it was inappropriate to waltz into a hotel where I wasn’t staying to use the bathroom. I wondered what I would say if asked for my room number.
But, oddly, there was no guard at the door. Nor did the man at the reception desk even notice my entry into the otherwise empty premises.
Surprised at the lack of security, but glad to be able to make my way undetected, I went into the ladies’ room.
While in a stall, I heard a clicking noise. It didn’t sound promising, but I told myself not to panic.
After washing my hands and face, however, I discovered that the main door had been locked from the outside.
“Hello?” I called out, first tapping politely and then pounding with all my might. “Hello!” My efforts proved fruitless. Nobody could hear me. No one knew I was there.
At this point, I had less than 10 minutes to get to my lecture, and I was trapped. Thoughts of the tragedy that had befallen all those poor people in this very venue were instantly replaced by more mundane concerns.
I took out my cellphone and dialed directory assistance.
“The Park Hotel in Netanya,” I requested, scribbling the number on a scrap of paper with a lipstick. Blessing modern technology, I called the hotel.
“Um, I’m locked in your ladies’ room,” I said. “Can somebody please come and let me out?” The sound of the janitor’s key in the latch was a huge relief. Not only was I liberated from my embarrassing captivity, but the story made for a perfect introduction to the talk I gave on the miracles and paradoxes of Israeli society.
Indeed, while facing monumental challenges with heroism and humor, we always sweat the small stuff as though our survival depended on it. Maybe that’s the secret of our success.