Monday, September 16, 2013

Hitchhiking in Israel....dangerous or a way of life?

During the interim days of Sukkot it seems like the entire country is heading in the same direction you're headed.  Going to the beach?  Yep, the whole country is driving towards Palmachim.  Going to the Sachne?  Yep, they're heading there too...  But not everyone has a car - especially our teens, students and those who would rather find an alternative way to travel than try and find parking at any of these tourist sites.  For some reason, especially for our post-high school kids, buses and trains are never an option.  And that leaves hitchhiking.
I'm sure everyone reading this has been told at one point or other in their life not to get into a stranger's car no matter what the circumstances.  And while I wholeheartedly agree and have said the same to my kids, living in Israel has taught me otherwise.  For those of you who live here, you know what I mean.  For those of you who vacation here often, I'm sure you've driven by major junctions on the highway where tons of men, women and teenagers alike stand holding signs indicating where they are headed with hopeful looks on their faces, wishing that your car will be the one that stops for them.  Let me explain a little about this Israeli phenomenon.
My daughter and her best friend are seasoned "trempers" (Israeli slang for hitchhikers).  Back when they were fifteen years old, the two of them decided to do a short overnight tiyul to the Kinneret.  They planned to do some hiking and sleep on the beach.  I was not too keen on the idea, and neither was the other mother involved.  So they assured us that they were meeting a larger group there - kids they knew - and that they would be safe.  I sighed (knowing I wasn't going to win this battle..) and pressed a 200 shekel bill into her hand and told her to take buses.  Well, she came back the next night all bright-eyed and suntanned with a wide smile on her face.  She had had an amazing time.  And she said this as she handed me back the 200 shekel bill.  Shocked, I asked her how she got all the way to and from the Kinneret without money.  Stupid me... I knew the answer but asked it anyways.  She told me that she and her friend "tremped".  And that it took 26 tremps altogether to get there and back and boy, they met the most interesting people in the process.  I wasn't thrilled with what she did - in fact, I was upset and disappointed that she decided on her own to hitch-hike without clearing it with me first.  But she had a trusting and innocent soul in that way most 15 year old girls do, not seeing the dark shadows that often lurk behind closed doors like my seasoned and wary soul tends to see.  Being a responsible mom, I sat her down and told her about some of those monsters in the dark but she shook it off telling me that she was street-smart, had a good head on her shoulders and always made careful choices about which rides to accept.
Truth is, 15 is too young to be hitchhiking, but she's older now and does it all the time.  I would still prefer she take the bus, (which she will have to do once she's in the IDF) but she insists that if she took the bus, she'd miss out on life's most interesting moments.
Case in point:  Last Chanukah, she and this same best friend decided to do a tiyul up north (I swear, I think these two girls have seen more of the country than anyone else...).  After two days doing whatever it is they do up there, they started heading back home.  I had spoken to her earlier in the day and she confirmed that she'd be home just after dark.  A few hours later, she told me excitedly over the phone that her plans had changed and she would be home sometime the next day.  I asked her where she would be staying that night and she said what she normally says to her meddling mother:  "Don't worry!" and then hung up.  Since I've had experience with this particular child, I tried to do just that and hoped she knew what she was doing.
The next day, when she finally came home, she had quite the story:
They were waiting for a tremp somewhere up north and for some reason no cars were stopping.  After a long while, someone told them that if they crossed the highway and stood on the other side they might have an easier time finding a ride, so they did just that.  Not two seconds later, a man stopped and gave them a ride.  He said that he could take them close to where they needed to go, but that he had to stop off somewhere first, get a coffee, grab something and then they'd be on their way.  Now, if I'd heard that, I would have jumped out of the moving car channeling Daniel Craig in a 007 flick and ran for the hills, but no, these girls said, "Sure! No problem!"
He stopped at some kibbutz and invited them into someone's house and offered them food and drink.  They started talking - about where he was heading, and what he was doing over the Chanukah vacation, and he told them that every year he runs a program that takes disabled kids up to the Chermon to go skiing, and that he was busy organizing volunteers for the program which was to take place the next day.  The girls looked at each other and knowing exactly what the other was thinking, immediately asked the man if he needed any more volunteers.  Of course they did!  But these girls were still stuck with the question of where they were going to spend the night... Lo and behold, the woman whose house they were sitting in chimed in and said that her kids were in the army and that she had extra room - would they like to eat dinner with her, sleep there and then join the program the next day?
And so that's what happened....
I remember thinking at the time that these are those moments that can only happen in the movies - they're almost too unbelievable to be true - that these weird coincidental moments come together, converge and culminate in a perfect, wonderful ending.  But I don't believe in coincidences, and neither does my daughter.  She maintains that had they not crossed the highway, they would not have met this wonderful man and would have been robbed of the chance to do this mitzvah.  And of course, NONE of that would have happened in the first place had they taken the bus....
I gave a woman a lift once from the Shilat junction.  She needed to get to Kfar Rut and I was bypassing there on my way home to Chashmonaim.  She told me to just let her off at the entrance to the road leading to Kfar Rut, but that was still a good 2 kilometer walk to her town.  Instead, I turned right and took her all the way in.  It was literally two minutes out of my way - it was no sweat off my back and didn't affect my day whatsoever.  Except for the fact that she turned to me as she got out of the car and, relieved and overjoyed at not having to walk 2 kilometers in the summer heat, proceeded to bless me (and my husband and my kids..) with everything under the sun: health, happiness, success, joy, love, good tidings, etc... I think in the end, I got more out of it than she did.  She got a lift straight to her doorstep, but I walked away feeling blessed.  It certainly put a kick in my step for the rest of the day.
A good friend of mine made a Bar Mitzvah not long ago using Abraham's tent as a theme.  The idea being that Abraham's tent was open on all four sides in order to invite those coming from all directions - we learn from his special tent to be generous, to have an open home and to invite those in that are weary and in need of rest.  At the end of the party, she handed out cards that she had printed up with Teffilat Haderech (the traveler's blessing) on one side.  On the other side was printed, in Hebrew, "Abraham had four openings to his tent and we have four doors in our car..."
Hitchhiking in any other country in the world brings to mind horror stories, CSI-worthy crime scenes and shocking breaking-news events that make us rush to lock our doors and hide under the covers.  Because God knows, there are plenty of bogeymen out there and we're right to take precautions.  But here in Israel, it's part of our day to day life, an integral part of our quirky culture and our generous and helpful spirit.
So next time you're driving up north on a tiyul with your family and you have an extra seat in your car, keep your eyes wide open for those who might be in need of a ride.  There's a good chance it's my kid...


  1. Nice post Chavi. I always feel like there is a family "tremp bank". If I don't give others a ride, then me and my children will have a harder time getting rides. This concept was explained to me as "tremp karma" when I hitched for the first time - 3 years ago at age 45! You're never too old to tremp.

  2. I agree, Leiah! Life is always a two-way street and I try and offer lifts whenever I the term "tremp karma"!