Email as it was in ancient times

The tale of a bottle’s nautical voyage around the globe, and the message inside.

The original letter, which was returned to its writer in Israel after washing up on a Bahamas beach, after floating for nearly 2 years. (photo credit: YAEL EISNER)
The original letter, which was returned to its writer in Israel after washing up on a Bahamas beach, after floating for nearly 2 years.
(photo credit: YAEL EISNER)

Who among us hasn’t pondered throwing a bottle into the ocean with a message, and who hasn’t thought when walking along the beach of finding a message in a bottle? A man called John walks his dog in the powder- fine white sands of an outlying island in the Bahamas on a windy day in January. A wave washes up to him and out of the see-through, blue-green water falls a bottle, delivered by an angel of the sea, crystal clear; the shiny moon-and-star glitter still sparkling and swirling around a rolled parchment. Once out of the water, there are no signs it has been floating in the Gulf Stream and swells of the Atlantic Ocean for nearly two years.

He wants to save the bottle for his hot pepper sauce, but the cap is sealed shut, with epoxy apparently. He shatters it to get to the message.
Six pages of strange writing. Arabic, he thinks.
John shows it to a relative who once worked in Saudi Arabia. No, not Arabic. He’d spent some time in Israel over three decades ago.
Maybe it was Hebrew script, he thinks.
He takes it to the local library; maybe the librarian can help.
There he meets a woman from Minnesota on vacation with her son. She asks to take a copy of the letter back with her; maybe someone there can make sense out of it.
They all agree it looks like poetry. It has coordinates; maybe it is a note from a shipwreck. They don’t know that it begins, “Dear God.”
In Minnesota, the woman passes the letter to my sister Kelly, knowing she has a brother in Israel. She sends it to me.
“Maybe you can decipher it?” Kelly asks.
The script is clear and legible. “Elokim yakar...”
“Dear God, From the expansive and blue Atlantic, thank you for this pleasant sail so far from St. Martin. To Longitude 055 09 43 SW Latitude 23 12 42 N. I wish to thank you and ask a few wishes or prayers for people who are important to me.”
It has coordinates that put it deep in the Atlantic. A shipwreck? A suicide note? It is signed Yael Eisner. No other details.
I set out to track her down. Could she be some Israeli expat living abroad? The Internet is like a deep ocean.
I find a few Yael Eisners in the world on Facebook and LinkedIn.
But there is one who likes sailing and has friends with the same names as those mentioned in the letter. This one, it turns out, lives in Jaffa, in a cute little cinder-block shack just a few meters from the sea. And she is shocked.
“I have to take a deep breath to read this,” Eisner says, when I hand her a scanned copy of the letter.
Yael Eisner is 39 and teaches photography at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. Her thick black hair is pulled tightly into a ponytail, and she has hidden chapters of her life written on her face. Her deep brown eyes are like tinted windows; she can see out, but you can’t see in. She tells me she was incredulous when I informed her that someone had found her letter in the Bahamas.
“As far as I was concerned,” Eisner says, fondling the pages of letter, “if I threw in a bottle and it was found, then that’s where it would stay. I was completely surprised and pretty much shocked [when it came back to me]. I never in my wildest dreams thought that somebody would actually find a bottle that I threw into the ocean so far away from land, from any land.”
An avid sailor, Eisner has participated in a number of regattas, and two years ago a couple with a yacht offered her a rare chance to fulfill a dream and cross the Atlantic with them.
“It seemed very natural to me to continue this fantasy, to go to another level. I was already going to be in the great Atlantic Ocean; I had heard that people throw letters inside bottles, so I said, ‘Yalla, let’s try it and see what happens,’” she recalls.
Tossing letters in bottles when at sea has been done for thousands of years.
The idea has sparked popular songs like the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and a hit Hollywood film of the same name. I ponder whether we secretly want them to be found, sealed in a bottle, or like the notes tucked into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, never have them read by mortals.
“It’s a fantasy. You throw something in the ocean. You see that in movies, you read about it in books, so maybe it can happen to you,” says Eisner, raising an eyebrow. “Just to communicate or connect to somebody, a complete stranger to you, who could find something you throw into the ocean and maybe join, even for a little bit, your path in life or your personal story...
it’s just magical. It’s very [innocent], I think.”
Eisner communicated her intention to her students, some of whom wrote letters and asked her to cast theirs into the ocean. She bought a dozen little bottles from an old Persian Jew in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. When he heard of her plans, he too asked if he could write a letter – with a prayer to God – for his daughter who was ill.
Eisner made her way to St. Martin, an island in the eastern Caribbean, to meet her friends in their yacht, the Passepartout, and in April 2012 began the rough journey that would see them on the edge of a storm sailing for the Azores, a chain of isolated islands about 1,300 kilometers west of Portugal.
“It was a sail of almost three weeks.
You don’t have the noise of the city.
You don’t have the supermarkets where you have to buy food, so you’ve already prepared food beforehand. The number of people has been reduced to just four.
The colors have been reduced to nearly just two main ones: blue and blue or hues of blue and gray, with a wonderful addition of the warm and red shades at dawn and dusk,” she says.
The Atlantic began to peel away the non-essential, leaving her with raw feelings exposed to the sea and skies.
“At an intimate and very emotional moment for me, I went with my gut feeling and when I felt right – and had the muse to sit and write something that came to me, to throw into the great, wide-open, magical, endless sea – then that for me was the day,” Eisner says.
She took to the rocking deck and began to write on a paper pad.
“I feel very little, like really, really small. It is an overwhelming feeling. It’s a little scary, but also you feel as if the world is much, much greater than you and all these billions of people on this planet. It is very cosmic and mysterious and wonderful, and very powerful.”
I ask her to read the letter aloud. The land solid under her feet, Eisner gets to the part about her folks. She gulps and gets choked up; the feelings are still raw.
“I love you very much and hope you find some peace and joy in your heart and have days of tranquility... Dad, I hope that life will be a little less stressful for you. That you fill your lungs with air and take things to your heart less...”
For six pages, Eisner, who speaks fluent English from her years and education abroad, writes intimate wishes for her many friends, sisters, lovers, men and women. She asks that I refrain from publishing this, and I agree. But I ponder...
why in Hebrew? “It could be I wrote it in Hebrew because it was really a letter and I presumed that if someone found it, they wouldn’t understand what it said. It was another step in hiding behind the act that I did,” she confides.
“I thought [when I heard you had my letter], maybe I had written something in English and now somebody knows something very personal about my life. Oh no. Oh God.” She laughs.
“And then I started to be a little scared of what I wrote.”
But Hebrew? That’s the amazing thing about our tribe. No matter where we are, our reach is so great there’s sure to be some Jew, or someone with some remnant of our collective unconscious national soul, that’ll be able to decipher it.
And I began to wonder: If I bury a message in the earth to be discovered in a millennium or two, which language should I write it in? Only a handful of scholars can decipher ancient Persian cuneiform texts, or Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Even ancient Latin and Greek are dead tongues. English may proceed down that same path. But Hebrew, the same language written on scrolls and buried on the shores of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago, was able to be read by first graders in modern Israel when they were found.
Eisner says she didn’t expect anyone to find the letters, or necessarily want them found. But she took actions to preserve them. She wrote in indelible ink; sealed the bottles with epoxy; recorded when she threw in each bottle.
Hebrew is eternal.
“But in principle, that wasn’t the goal. The main thing about throwing a bottle was mainly for me. To simply feel what it was like to throw something without knowing where it would reach.”
The bottle floated nearly two years and traveled for 2093 km. until beaching at the feet of chili sauce John, walking his dog on the outlying Bahamian island of Eleuthera. They later connect by email and he offers to send the original letter back to Eisner, for her to throw it into the sea again and see if it gets back to him.
“So, Yael,” I say. “One’s private life isn’t so private after all.”
She laughs, “Totally. It turns out that even in the great Atlantic Ocean, you can’t really hide.”
“What we learned from this,” I tell her, “is that when you write a letter to God and throw it into the expansive, deep azure ocean halfway around the world, sometimes it makes it to the Holy Land.”