The Wandering Jews

by Judith Fein September 30, 2011


By Judith Fein

Senior travel correspondent Judith Fein got a taste of what it was like for modern Jews’ Israelite ancestors, who had to be on the move, in makeshift homes, under a desert sky. At Sukkot time, she shares her story about being a wandering Jew of sorts in the New Mexico desert she calls home.


The first time it happened, my husband Paul and I were in New Zealand, on assignment as travel journalists, en route to a meeting with Maori tribal elders. The phone rang in our hotel room, we picked it up, and our housesitting friend on the other end was so hysterical we could hardly understand what he was saying. We finally managed to piece together the story: when he returned to our house after work, water was gushing out of the windows and front door. A washing machine hose had burst, our cherished abode was flooded, and we gave permission to an emergency crew to knock down walls, tear up floors, install industrial fans and dry our house. Then we went off to the Maori meeting: what else could we do?

When we arrived back in the U.S., we moved into a hotel for a month, while a man named Dave restored our house to living condition. He said he was an expert in remediation with non-toxic products. Dave was a pathological liar. He used highly toxic products that affected our health and well being. Dave assured us he would remedy his remediation, said we should find a short-term rental and that we’d soon be back in our home. Like credulous dupes, we moved from hotel to hotel, room to room, whatever we could locate that was vacant and rentable. No one knew where to find us. We couldn’t work. We schlepped around our essential belongings in a suitcase and plastic bags. We alternated between disbelief, depression and rage. Our insurance company cut us off because Dave wasn’t delivering. Eighteen months later, the truth became obvious: Dave was about as non-toxic as a nuclear dump site, we had become sensitized to the chemical soup he concocted, and we could never live in our house again.

A group of friends met us in the basement of the house and helped us to do triage — what should be kept, what could be tossed. As I looked around the basement, I realized all the helpers were Jewish. It was probably just a coincidence, I thought.

We found a furnished rental apartment, sold our house, and an estate sale company found willing buyers for almost all of our possessions. Then we wept.

One night, a few years later, I was alone in the furnished rental apartment when I heard a gurgling noise coming from the downstairs toilet. The next thing I knew, sewage was spilling out of the toilet and backing up into our living room. I knew better than to call Dave or a Dave equivalent. It was a holiday weekend, and I finally connected with a plumber who wasn’t partying. I ran outside and saw that the sewage was backing up into the other apartments around ours. I called the owners, who were away, notified the apartment manager and started throwing all our ultra-soft bath towels onto the living room floor to absorb the liquid mess.

Long story short, sewage has a mind of its own, and we had to vacate the apartment. I threw a few belongings into a suitcase and found a hotel room, where we lived for a month. We couldn’t work. We intervened with the remediation crews to make sure they used non-toxic products. We were depressed and anxious, and now we had relocation PTSD.

One woman at the hotel where we resided went out of her way to help us.

“I feel a connection to you,” she told us.

I looked at her quizzically.

“It’s because you’re fellow Jews,” she explained.

A year later, I won a vacation at an upscale resort in Sedona, Ariz. We had a luxurious, wooden, creekside cabin in a sylvan setting. We had been working l5 hours a day for months, and our mantra was: wait until we get to Sedona. There we can really relax.

We checked into the resort, drank the champagne that was waiting for us, nibbled at the designer chocolates and collapsed in exhaustion. In the middle of the night, we heard insistent banging on our cabin door. Someone screamed, “Get out, get out!” My first reaction was that we were in a scene from a disaster film. My second thought was that I was having a nightmare. My third thought was that it was highly unlikely Paul and I were sharing the same nightmare. I bounded out of bed, flung open the door and saw a wall of flames coming toward us.

We had less than l0 seconds to vacate. Ever wonder what you would take if you had a sixth of a minute to choose? I grabbed my night guard — a little plastic mouthpiece one wears at night to keep upper and lower teeth from gnashing, grinding or colliding. I don’t think my teeth do any of the above, except when faced with liar Dave or equivalent raw sewage. There was no logical reason for me to take my night guard, so, in retrospect, I can deduce that I was not in a reasonable state. And Paul, who is a photographer, grabbed his camera. As the firemen hauled him away, he was snapping pictures of the blaze.

For the rest of the night and into the morning, we had no idea if our possessions were charred or saved. Instead of sinking into a pit of angst, I interviewed the other evacuees about what they grabbed in their last seconds before the blaze. And Paul snapped photos. Our story made the front page of the local paper.

“I’ll bet the experience was very difficult for you,” a young journalist said to us. “Fire is very scary. And dislocation is….hard for Jews. I know you are Jewish. I’m Jewish too.”

She was right. We confessed to her that we had just added another layer of dispossession trauma to our lives.

A few weeks ago, we were sitting in our furnished rental apartment in Santa Fe, and we smelled the unmistakable odor of fresh smoke. It was like a thousand simultaneous barbecues, but no one was flipping burgers or searing steak. Rather, the smoke was drifting from the largest fire in Arizona history. Shortly thereafter, the worst fire in New Mexico history broke out. And guess who was, literally, in the line of fire? Our apartment was downwind of the blaze, which was threatening Los Alamos nuclear labs. We closed all the windows, turned on air filters and cranked up the air conditioner, but we were soon gasping and wheezing.

I looked at Paul. He looked at me. We knew what he had to do. We threw our belongings into a suitcase. We couldn’t head south, because of the Arizona fires, and the wind was blowing the New Mexico fires north. We called our friends Mel and Roberta Klein in Denver to ask if they knew about air quality in northern Colorado.

“Forget northern Colorado. Just come here. Then you can figure out what to do.”

We pointed our car north and drove.

In case you ever have to evacuate your abode, you might as well know that you will probably have no disposable psychic or emotional energy to interact with other people. You will not feel like making chitchat or catching up on recent news. You will be thinking about when you can go home, where you should go next and how you can soothe your jangled nervous system.

If you are ever refugees from your apartment or house, I can heartily recommend a sojourn with Roberta and Mel Klein. They explained where the light switches were, set us up with a computer so we could monitor news of the fires, showed us the best place to take a revitalizing walk in nature, took me to my first baseball game, invited us to a live NPR broadcast and said they were leaving in three days for Snowmass, Colo., to visit Roberta’s sister and that we were invited to come.

“We couldn’t possibly,” we protested.

We went online to find an alternate place to go. Driving north to Moab, Utah, sounded great, but the temperature was 102 degrees. South of Denver, there were smoke advisories. We spoke to health experts in New Mexico, and they informed us that if we were sensitive to smoke, it could be hazardous to our health to return home until the fires were out. At the moment, the largest blaze was only three percent contained.

We drove to Snowmass, where we were welcomed into the home of Susan Beckerman. Her mountaintop house, a marvel of architecture that took five years to build, is replete with worldclass contemporary art, endless vistas of peaks, clouds, forest and fauna, an indoor pool and seltzer water that pours from a counter-top hose. She offered us a private apartment next to the house and gifted us with tickets to several concerts at the world-famous Aspen Music Festival.

One night, as we all ate dinner, it occurred to me that Mel had served as president of Temple Sinai in Denver, and that Susan was very involved in the Reconstructionist community and serves on the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. It was no coincidence. Every time we had lost our footing, it was Jewish people who helped us regain our balance.

And perhaps it was no coincidence that we, as Jews, got to experience the pains of relocation. It gave us a tiny taste of what our people have gone through — uprooting, dislocation, having to gather up belongings in a hurry, leaving home, the unknown, lack of safety.

We had always intuited how awful it was, but we never really knew from the inside about the depression and anxiety that accompany the dislocation.

Paul and I are travel journalists. Our motto is: we live to leave. But choosing to leave and being forced to leave with no agenda of return are two very different things. Even though our home is a furnished rental apartment, we miss our bed, fluffy towels, file cabinets, folk art, salad spinner, spices, books.

Friends are contacting us by email. I realized this morning that although we have friends of all religions, the ones who check in on us are all Jews.

It’s no coincidence.


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