Like Hell, the Dead Sea has no outlet. Water flows in from the Jordan River and evaporates as it is trapped there, so that the sea becomes heavy with minerals -- brimstone without the fire.
I found out one summer that the Dead Sea has ways of trapping people, too. I visited the place with my husband and kids, yet also very much alone. My family is Jewish: to them, Israel could be home. They were visiting a place where they felt welcome, as Jews, as Americans.
I, on the other hand, was the Outsider. I was brought up as a Catholic, with stories of Jesus comforting the lepers, raising old Lazarus from the dead, of mangers stuffed with sweet-smelling hay. But I had left those stories far behind when I lost my faith. I had taken a course called "The Bible as Literature" in college, and that is how I saw the Holy Land, much like the Black Forest of Grimm's fairy tales, as a place of charming fables and ancient superstitions.
Even so, I wanted to see these places, like any good tourist. So, I figured, we'll "do" Masada, we'll "do" the Dead Sea, and then we'll zip back to Jerusalem.
Everywhere, signs in Hebrew and English warned of the mineral-laden water. Even a drop of Dead Sea water in your eyes or mouth could mean a poisonous sting, even a trip to the hospital. This was no playground; splashing was strictly prohibited. Addled, we still wanted to float in this sacred boy of water fed by the baptismal Jordan. The water bit back, though, stinging our cuts and scrapes. When we stepped out again, our skin was coated with sticky oil; the wind was picking up.
Time to go, the Dead Sea checked off our list. In front of me, my husband was starting to trudge up the rocky beach to the car, slowly patting his bathing suit pockets. Pat, pat.
I had a dark thought. "Tell me the car keys weren't in your bathing suit," I pleaded.
But they had been. They no longer were. With all his bobbing around, the keys had been lifted out by the water. And we learned that while the Dead Sea is remarkably buoyant, not everything floats. Car keys don't.
As I look back that moment, I realize that some self-actualized souls could see it was just a foolish mistake that caused a heap of inconvenience and a very long day. But at the time, I felt trapped. The keys - our escape, our means of control - were long gone, slipped off a ledge into the deepest water at the very edge of the area for bathing. The four of us waded helplessly back into the water, pushing our faces as close to that poisonous stew as we dared, praying we might spy the bright glitter of car keys before the salt encrusted them. We didn't.
The wind picked up, and we dragged stickily back to the restaurant. Using a mixture of Hebrew and English, my husband phoned the car rental agency in Tel Aviv, literally the other side of the country, and begged them to send a taxi driver carrying a new set of keys. It will be at least three hours, we were told. Meanwhile, they added, keep an eye on the car in case someone else finds your keys and drives off.
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Life During Wartime
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