US students spark Lebanon bird scare

Two girls, one (phantom) boy, and a pigeon ignite romantic intrigue.

carrier pigeon 298 (photo credit: AP)
carrier pigeon 298
(photo credit: AP)
Why did the carrier pigeon cross the border? It depends on who you ask. According to the Lebanese Ya Libnan News Web site, the bird was carrying a love letter from an Israeli Arab girl intended for her Lebanese lover. But if you ask Detroit teen Rachel Greenbaum, you'll get a completely different answer: The Israeli Arab girl is really an American seminary girl, and her Lebanese lover is, in fact, the pigeon. Greenbaum and her friend Stacey Gertz, 17, of Chicago, were part of a group of 95 mostly American teenage girls on a trip to the North led by their seminary, Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY). On November 16, they reached Mitzpe Hoshaya, where they participated in an activity called "Kfar Kedem‚" which simulates life in Israel during the time of the Mishna. With MMY director Rabbi David Katz leading their troop, they dressed in the clothes of the time, made pita, rode donkeys and slept in tents. "As we left, Menahem Goldberg, who runs Kfar Kedem, asked us to let us know how we enjoyed our stay there. But since Kfar Kedem is old-fashioned, Goldberg wanted us to send a message the old-fashioned way, by a trained carrier pigeon," Katz said. Goldberg supplied a form on which to write the message, complete with spaces for writing phone numbers and e-mail addresses. The name "Kfar Kedem" was also on the form. Greenbaum and Gertz immediately volunteered to take care of the pigeon overnight. "All the other girls thought the pigeon was disgusting and didn't want to take care of it, but we wanted to," said 18-year-old Greenbaum. As the girls boarded the bus to leave, the bus driver asked what was in the box. Worried they would not be allowed on with the pigeon, the students told him the large, white box had cake in it. "That's how the pigeon got his nickname - Uga ['cake' in Hebrew]," Greenbaum said. "Rachel and I became emotionally attached to Uga after taking care of it overnight," Gertz added. The next day, Greenbaum filled out the note to send back to Kfar Kedem with the bird. "It said something like: 'We love you Uga. Thanks for last night. We had a wonderful experience,'" Gertz said. "Everything was in English except for Uga's name. We added some inside jokes to the note and wrote Rabbi Katz's phone number and e-mail, and then the bird flew away." Uga was supposed to reach Kfar Kedem within two hours. As time rolled on, the girls grew worried. After not hearing anything about Uga for a few days, they received a phone call Tuesday "telling us to open up the newspaper," Gertz said. Ma'ariv had published a story from the Lebanese press about a carrier pigeon sent to Lebanon by an Israeli girl thanking her Lebanese boyfriend for the wonderful night they shared. At first, Lebanese police thought the note was an intelligence code and tried to decipher it. They then concluded that it was a love letter from an Arab Israeli girl from Kfar Kasim to her Lebanese lover. "They mistook Kfar Kedem‚ for the Arab town of Kfar Kasim," Katz said, laughing. Though it is not clear why, the misunderstanding was exacerbated by the belief, on the part of the Lebanese man who found Uga on his roof, that the pigeon was carrying bird flu, leading to further reports in the Lebanese press of a bird flu scare across southern Lebanon. A Westerner in Beirut who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that Lebanon was aflutter with the story of the bird. "It came out in the newspaper on Sunday," he said, "and everybody was talking about it. "The bird was taken to local authorities with the fear that it carried bird flu, but they found that it had a message, with Hebrew in it, attached to its leg, so everyone decided it was a love affair between an Israeli girl and a Lebanese boy. People here are romantic," he said. The Beirut-based Westerner said that when it became clear that the bird could not have been intended for a boyfriend in Lebanon unless it had originally been sent from Lebanon, the love affair was deemed false and the press dropped the story. The girls of MMY still cannot quite believe they are at the center of the story. "I started laughing when I first found out," Gertz said. "There was no way this could be true. It sounded like it had come from the pages of The National Inquirer." Goldberg is dumbfounded about her identity as described by the media. "They think I'm an Arab girl sending this letter to my Lebanese boyfriend thanking him for a great night we spent together," Goldberg laughed. "The whole episode is so funny. It's like a domino effect - a whole line of mess-ups. "Of course we were really upset that we started a bird flu scare," she added, "we wouldn't wish that on anyone." As it stands, the girls miss their long lost friend. "We just want Uga back," Gertz said. "We want him free." Orly Halpern contributed to this report