By the end of the first day, it still hasn’t hit me that I am in Israel, a fact betrayed only by the Ben Gurion border control stamp on my passport and the occasional road sign spotted with Hebrew text and Arabic squiggles. I begin to feel differently when I look out the window of our coach (a 50-seater with little air conditioning vents above each seat) and see farms littered with grazing cows and fields of fruit trees arranged neatly in rows that trail off to a soft texture of foliage. The sight reminds me of my Hebrew school days, filled with agricultural talk of dates, figs, palms, pomegranates, olives, and the famed Land o’ Milk and Honey.
Here it is.
We stay the night in a kibbutz in the Golan. The rooms are nice and the bathrooms are clean enough, but they’re oddly arranged, with the sink, shower, and toilet all sharing one tiled room without any separation or divider between them, such that the whole space becomes one giant shower once you turn on the faucet, at which point you kind of just pray that the water goes down the drain and doesn’t flood the place (which must happen sometimes since there’s a battered squeegee resting against the wall).
The day before I left for Israel, I had read the Wikipedia article on The Setback, a.k.a. The Six-Day War, The ‘67 War, or what had usually been described to me as The Swift Victory for Israel in which She was Attacked by Five Arab Nations, Kicked their Asses, and Lived to Tell the Story. The truth behind wars is never simple enough to be explained by a slogan, and the truth behind this war was more complex than anyone had previously cared to share (e.g., nobody told me that Israel struck first.) And so I realized very early on in the trip, maybe even before I left, that describing it would inherently be political. For example, what had I done so far? Had I spent a few nights in northern Israel with some new friends? Or had I been flown to disputed Syrian territory by Jews with vested interests and told that it was my birthright to be in that place? Both descriptions seem unfair, yet true. (Wikipedia also tells me that the kibbutz where we stayed, Afik, was the first place settled in the Golan Heights by Jews after the war, and its location was chosen by the Nahal infantry brigade of the IDF, which focused on encouraging civilian settlement.)
Every group travels with an armed guard, and ours is a musician with a guitar strapped to his back and a WWII era rifle that I’m told occasionally jams. He’s very tall and tan and looks suave with his aviators and ruggedly handsome smile. He could beat me up and run off with my girlfriend and he knows how to shoot a gun, so I feel reasonably safe. He plays a strange but awesome Chris Cornell cover of MJ’s ‘Billie Jean’, and we keep asking him to play Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’; he obliges us and we sing along.
On Thursday morning eight Israelis join the group — five are soldiers in the IDF, three are students. The students are dressed like the Americans, in tees and sandals. The soldiers arrive in uniform: slacks, boots, button-downed shirts, badges, and a neatly-folded beret slung over the left soldier and tucked under a clasp. During the five days they stay with us, the soldiers wear these uniforms twice, once out of tradition at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) and now on this first day because Taglit has asked them to. They are invariably young, trim, beautiful, and single. Their English is at once perfectly understandable and charmingly foreign in a way that somehow manages to compound the uniform’s mystique.
We liked them even before they arrived. Israel is defended by its people, not by hired guards, and there’s something romantic about being young and serving your country not because you think it’s cool to shoot guns and earn badges and wear cammo with eyeblack, but because it is demanded of you. Because your friends would think less of you otherwise. Because your parents did it and so will your children. [Under what circumstances would I volunteer for the US army? If I were to die fighting for a country, which country would I want that to be? Who do I belong to? Does my patriotism for the US and A go beyond waving a flag and passionately enjoying the luxuries of a modern world power?]
Our bus passes a Hassidic man holding a sign that says “GO TO HELL FAGS” in protest of the gay pride events in Jerusalem. We laugh, mildly horrified at seeing hatred that runs deep enough to temporarily convert an ordinarily religious man simply because his own religion doesn’t have a destination hellish enough for his victims.
All of Jerusalem’s buildings are dressed in the same sand-colored stone, making the whole scene look like one giant sandcastle. Or maybe just a big awkward party where half the guests want to go home to change.
Overlooking the Western wall, the view is dominated by the shimmer of the Dome of the Rock. The Muslim call to prayer sings out over a PA system in that nasal tone that is the signature of a loudspeaker. It is haunting and beautiful. This place does not belong to us. (But who, anyways, do I mean by “us”?)
An Israeli flag hangs at half-mast. A convoy passes by carrying the body of Elazar Abuhatzeira, a famous Israeli rabbi and kabbalist who was murdered yesterday morning. The Hassidim chase after it in an endless stream that gathers at his grave.
There was no mention of the Kosher meals served on the plane or what even kashrut is. Nobody asks me to pray or to wear a yamalka unless it’s required by whoever owns the building we enter. Not even during services. It’s clear that the staff is trying hard to make everyone feel comfortable regardless of background or familiarity with the customs and laws, and it’s working.
On Friday night we start Shabbat in Jerusalem. (In hindsight, with all the flowers and people lining up and arranging themselves into various cute patterns, it must have looked an awful lot like a wedding ceremony. Intentional? In any case, it was very sweet.) Later, David, Adam and I perform a skit where we pretend to sing Adon Olam to the most inappropriate melodies we could think of, before finally settling on Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’. It goes over well.
On Saturday night we have a little BYOx party out by the pool, where x is whatever beverage is on hand. David and I each bring a bottle of dessert wine from Monday’s vineyard tour, which presents a challenge because nobody has a bottle opener and the push-the-cork-down-through-the-neck method wasn’t meant for these non-standard bottles with 6″ flamingoed necks. Two pens and a handful of bleeding concierge fingers later, the open bottles are passed around in a way that would surely give my mother a heart attack, if not for the dangers of broken glass, then for the added risk of contracting meningitis when drinking from a shared cup. (Everyone survives.)
At Yad Vashem we pass what must be 200 armed soldiers, and I’m comforted to know that we could probably survive a skirmish on this hill, were we to get caught in the middle of one. Guns aren’t all that frightening when everyone has one strapped to his shoulder. In the US, the only guns I see are the semiautomatics carried by those guards at Grand Central with the dogs that sniff out narcotics, but I understand this says more about me than it does about the US and its attitude towards guns.
On Monday night, after riding their camels and eating their food, we sleep in the Bedouin’s tents. I had always imagined these to be small, like teepees, but in reality they’re enormous event tents similar to what you see at music festivals and graduations, so large in fact that all 50 of us spend the night in the same one. At sunset the sky is a vivid purple. Later there are so many visible stars that you can’t help but just cock your head back and stare.
At breakfast I discover matbucha, a Morrocan dish made with cooked tomatoes and peppers, and it is delicious.
On Tuesday night we go to a club in Tel Aviv, arriving early in the night when the place is still quiet. It’s a beautiful space with a terrace and high ceilings that aren’t yet filled with smoke. It’s hard to foresee that the next hour will take the club from sparse to packed. Really packed. When 6″ of space between neighboring faces tightens to 4″, each movement seems to draw a new apology, less out of regret than from my involuntary reaction to constantly being in someone else’s way. I visit the bathroom for a moment of relief from what is apparently my militant politeness. I guess Israelis are used to constant proximity to strangers. A new friend buys me a beer that tastes like tomato sauce. (Why was the club packed on a Tuesday night? I’m told of two reasons: the club has a guest DJ on certain weeknights, Tuesday being one of them, and also there are other Birthright groups visiting. How many? Everyone?)
When friends asked where I was headed, I responded with “Israel”. That much was easy. But when they asked what for (vacation? Jewish things?), I hesitated, laughed nervously, then tried to explain Birthright in a sentence. “Some Jewish philanthropists think it’s important for every Jew to visit Israel, so they run a program called Birthright; I signed up for it.” On the third or fourth night I realized how wrong I was.
On that night the group held a “reflection” session of sorts where we went around the room and each person responded to the same question posed by the staff. I was floored by the answers because they revealed the program’s wild success. Some expressed that they found meaning in their religion for the first time; some committed to raising their children as Jews; some considered moving to Israel; some wanted to know what they could do to help the Jewish state; and a new couple was born [Update on 4/2014: the couple was married in January].
It suddenly made sense why a program like Birthright exists and why it is funded both by Jewish philanthropists and by the Israeli taxpayer. It isn’t about visiting a place for a week and a half. Rather, it’s about experiencing an impeccably-crafted snapshot of both Judaism and Israeli life, one curated for its young American audience and that accomplishes exactly what it had set out to do: “to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”