The email came amid the last-minute flurry of preparations, as I was hurriedly shoving long skirts and a mosquito net into a beat-up hiking backpack, just a few hours before my flight to Uganda for a reporting trip. “I am so glad you asked if there is anything you can bring our community from Israel,” wrote Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the leader of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. “We cannot find arba minim [the four species including lulav and etrog] anywhere here in Uganda. Could you please bring us a set?”
My heart sank. It was 10:30 p.m. on Monday night in Tel Aviv, two days before the Sukkot festival. I had to leave for the airport in just over two hours. Sure, if I were in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, I’d know where to go. But Tel Aviv? The White City doesn’t exactly have the same late-night lulav buying culture as more Orthodox areas. But then I decided: I can’t let a small logistical snafu prevent the entire Jewish community of Uganda from observing the commandment to shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, could I? So I did the only thing I could think of to do: I turned to Facebook.
“I have an emergency lulav situation,” I posted in Secret Tel Aviv, a 50,000-strong Facebook group for English speakers in Tel Aviv. The group often plays host to cringe-worthy questions from clueless tourists, or downright offensive tirades against Israeli culture by non-Hebrew speakers on a year course (newsflash, sweetie, just because Tel Aviv is full of Jews doesn’t make it a copy of Brooklyn). “Does anyone know where I can get a lulav and etrog in the next hour? I’m in south Tel Aviv and I’m about to fly to Uganda, and the rabbi has just informed me they couldn’t get any lulavs or etrogs in time for the holiday. Anyone know a place that’s open?” I asked. “Or perhaps I could buy your set and you could get another one tomorrow?”
Within moments of my pressing “post,” replies started dinging. Some suggested the temporary sukkot markets that spring up before the holiday, but I was doubtful anything in Tel Aviv would still be open, and didn’t have time to be biking around aimlessly. A friend suggested Shufersal supermarkets, and I was about to start calling the stores in desperation. But seven minutes after I posted, Tanya Saunders wrote: “If you don’t have one yet, call my husband right now.”
“Hi, um, this is Melanie, I’m calling about an emergency lulav situation for the Ugandan Jewish community?” is probably the weirdest way I’ve ever opened a phone conversation.
“Hi Melanie, I’m about to drive through Bnei Brak,” said her husband, Josh. “Give me your address and I’ll drop it off at your apartment.”
Within 10 minutes, the Ugandan lulav emergency was solved. I could hardly believe it. But on the other hand, I could absolutely believe it. This is Israel, and this kind of stuff happens every day.
An hour later, Josh and Tanya and another friend pulled up outside my apartment. They’d gotten an amazing deal on a full set of the four species, and a hard case perfect for traveling.
“It’s a beautiful set,” they told me, and then invited me over for a future Shabbat meal. We chatted about the hilarity of the situation, the Abayudaya community, and the way Jews who are strangers often come through for each other in exactly this type of way.
I printed out the TSA press release permitting lulavs and etrogs to be brought into the United States, despite the fact that it is fresh fruit and flora and generally prohibited to bring into most other countries. I could just imagine trying to explain what I was carrying to the Ugandan customs officials.
And then, before I knew it, lulav in hand, I was on my way.
I had a 12-hour layover in Istanbul, so the lulav and I set out for some sightseeing.
I was so worried that I would forget it, since I’m not exactly used to traveling with a lulav or a violin bow, that I tied it to my backpack. I could just imagine, after all the miracles of Facebook, I’d let an entire country’s Jewish population down because I forgot the lulav in a coffee shop.
I was so delirious from lack of sleep and three days of crazy preparations for the trip that at one point I started calling it “Luli” and speaking to it as an imaginary friend.
Here’s Luli and me getting a sahlav in the Sultan Ahmet plaza.
Despite arriving bleary-eyed at 4 a.m., I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism of bringing a lulav and etrog to Entebbe Airport, a place rife with history for Israel. The security guards didn’t even scan the case in the end.
I won’t be visiting the Abayudaya community until the second holidays of Sukkot, so the rabbi sent someone to Kampala to pick it up.
I was worried about knowing how to recognize the right person.
“Hi, I’m Shmuel, hag same’ach,” the man said when he came to meet me. Ah, yeah, that’s definitely the right person.
The lulav traveled on a bus to Mbale and then to the community. I didn’t get a chance to call Rabbi Gershom before the holiday started, so I can only hope that it arrived safely. And thank the power of social media and the goodness of Jewish strangers, for the creating the opportunity to get a lulav from Bnei Barak to rural Uganda just in time for Sukkot.