Birthright: redux / “Be Ready for the Longest Post Yet”

Indeed, dear reader. The previous entry, nigh on half-completed, was lost. The lord of shadowed things saw fit to rob me of my work and by extension you, dear reader, of the enjoyment of reading it. May his days be numbered, that we might again enjoy bloggéd things in the freedom of open sunlight.

Alright, enough of that. Back to the topic at hand.

Birthright!

Wow. What an experience! Birthright ended up being amazing. A time I won’t ever forget. I hope the friends of mine preparing to embark on their own birthright trips have experiences as wonderful as mine.

Before getting into it though, I should like to open with an admission: I did not go into birthright totally open-minded. I assumed I wouldn’t connect to the experience or to my traveling companions, and that my purpose in going was to travel to Israel on a free ticket, with the ultimate goal of visiting family and friends. There you have it. I went into birthright thinking it wasn’t for me.

The experience ended up being one of the more thought provoking, deeply powerful and enjoyable experiences of my life. I met and spoke with a slew of interesting young people, discussing a very challenging set of ideas: identity, conflict, hate, fundamentalism, faith, history. I won’t go into a discussion of philosophy here though (or perhaps “yet”), and I wish to share with you now simply the 10 day journey as a set of experiences, unadorned by excessive warbling.

We already talked about my flight, so we needn’t get into any part of it again. Upon landing we started traveling straight away. At Ben-Gurion we met Shachar (our guide), Uri (our medic and armed guard) and Tziki (our bus driver). These three were something of a “dream team”. I believe that, since we were the first IsraelExperts group of the season, we were given the best-of-the-best.

From the airport we headed north, to see the town of Zichron Ya’akov. An early settlement, visiting it (and its cemetery) was an interesting opening to the trip. Shachar openly admitted that one of his favorite means through which to learn history is cemeteries. An interesting fellow indeed. From there we headed further north and east, to Kibbutz Farod, where we spent the following two nights.

The next day we started by heading to Meron, where the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the fellow responsible for the Zohar) is located, but we didn’t see the tomb. Instead, we went to the site of an old synagogue. A 1500 year-old synagogue, to be exact. Shachar discussed etymology (a subject which most reliably sets me joyfully frothing) and how changing the names of places is an exceptionally effective way of colonizing a place (New Amsterdam, anyone?)

From there we headed to Tzfat–birthplace of Kaballah!–where the purpose of our visit was less to sightsee than to hear Shachar’s info about the changing of the treatment of Shabbat on the part of the Rabbi known as Ha’ari (the lion). I am personally thankful, since it is to him I owe the notion that it is celebrated as opposed to treated mournfully. אחלה קיף.

(Noteworthy: Tzfat has very small alleyways. Tziki navigated them in a BUS. It blew my mind.)

From there (yes this is one day, and yes it is ridiculous) we headed north, to another cemetery, but this time to a cemetery honoring a period of time before the formation of the state of Israel, when independent militia groups fought off attackers to defend kibbutzim. A famous statement “טוב למות בעד ארצנו” (it’s good to die for our country) was uttered by Yoseph Trumpeldor near the place. Heavy stuff.

We then skirted the border of Lebanon on our way to Mount Bental, where we entered a bunker and discussed military culture a bit. Once again, Shachar was awesome about clarifying which statements were opinion and which simply historical fact. Our day filled, we headed back to Farod for the night. (Also to party a bit at the Kibbutz’s pub).

The next day we started out by heading to a different Kibbutz (I’ve forgotten it’s name) to get a basic overview of the history of the land and it’s occupants. The woman who presented the history to us was pretty even handed about the whole thing (not as good as Schachar though), and then told us about her projects through which she fosters communication between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Also they have a multi-denominational circus.

From there we headed to Sakhnin, an Arab town, to talk to some young Arab women about their experiences as Israeli Arabs. A very interesting and informative experience. I was impressed by the raw honesty that they displayed. Women of different religious groups who were friends, capable of believing entirely different things and of believing that their “friend” is destined to suffer eternally because of their religious differences. Fascinating discussion.

We got back in the bus and headed south to Tel-Aviv. We spent the rest of the day exploring Jaffa, which is always fun but wasn’t a new experience. If you are ever there, go to Dr. Shakshuka. Seriously. Go and eat the greatest Shakshuka ever. We spent the night in Bat Yam (south TA) and had a night out on the port, during which I met with Shara and Eyal for dinner. (More on them later.)

The next day we went into Tel-Aviv and met our Israeli companions, who joined us for 5 days of our trip. We started by heading to Rabin Square, where Shachar talked about the assassination of Itzchak Rabin. This was particularly hard for me, and to be totally honest I don’t really want to go into it on the blog. If you’d like to talk about it, let’s go out for coffee or something and do so.

After Rabin Square we headed to Dizengoff and were given free reign to explore for a bit. Sam–a new buddy–and I just walked around looking at the graffiti in Tel-Aviv. Some of it is great, some of it is less-than-great, but all of it was interesting. Retuning, we entered the Independence Hall, to discuss the declaration of the state of Israel.

It had been a while since I’d sung Hatikva (Israel’s National Anthem), but listening to the recording of Ben-Gurion’s declaration followed by an emotional rendition of the tune, I felt compelled to join in. Looking around, I saw others doing the exact same thing.

We then went to Nahalat Binyamin, the artist market and bazaar (in Israel they’re known as Shuk) with further freedom to explore. Sam and I left the Shuk completely in search of more graffiti. (Note: if you’re there and like Bourekas, right at the entrance of the Shuk a few doors down on the right side is the BEST Boureka I’ve ever eaten. Thanks To Shara for introducing me to it a few years back.)

After shopping around, we got on the bus and drove down into the desert, where we would spend the weekend at a Kibbutz called Mashabim.

Mashabim was great because it provided us with some much-needed downtime. The amount of information we had been receiving was beginning to overwhelm some of us, and Shabbat meant less activities. A free day to take it all in. Friday night we had our own little Shabbat ceremony, ate dinner and partied at the Kibbutz’s pub.

Saturday was excellent. Uri, Sam and I walked around and ended up sitting on the grass with a group of local kids (on break from the army), smoking hookah and swapping stories. (Sam is a veteran and was taken in most familially by all Israelis who learned of his service in the Marine Corps).

That night, after Havdallah, Shachar did one of most impressive things I saw on the entire trip–he constructed a gigantic map of Israel and the surrounding countries on the floor of a building using only masking tape. Honestly. I was really, REALLY impressed. He then led an interesting activity through which he taught the group a bit more history of the countries in the region, specifically their Sovereignty and timelines (turns out a lot of the group thought the Arab world had control over itself for much longer than the actual truth. Good thing we came on birthright to learn, right?) After the lesson we headed back to the pub, which was a roarin’ good time yet again.

Sunday morning we left Mashabim and headed to שביל הסלט (Shvil Ha’salat – the road of salad), where we got a chance to see some of the ingenuity of Israelis. (Agriculture in the desert? WTF?) It was here that several wonderful things happened: I ate the hottest pepper I’ve ever eaten, the most delicious bell-pepper I’ve ever eaten and the best carrot, too. (Noteworthy: the fruits and vegetables in Israel might ruin fruits and veggies for you when you get back to the states. Just warning those who are heading there soon.)

From Shvil Ha’salat we headed to Sderot. That is when the day started getting heavy. For those who don’t know it, Sderot is a small city very near Gaza which has suffered roughly 11,000 rocket attacks from Gaza in the last few years. The potholes in the street, the inexplicable shrapnel scars littering the homes of families, the fact that a person is always less than 15 SECONDS away from a bomb shelter by foot. These are the realities some Israelis live with. We met an American woman, a documentary filmmaker, who had decided while working on a piece on Sderot to move to Israel. She was a fascinating lady, and I think that for most of the people the discussion we had with her presented a huge turning point. We went to see Gaza. Not from the inside, of course, but from a hillside nearby. We were probably no more than 2 or 3 miles away.

It was pretty heavy to look at. To see how close the Arab cities and the Jewish cities really are was pretty unbelievable. To be honest, I have no witticisms on the subject. It just silenced me completely. After looking at Gaza we went to the Sderot police station to look at the recent haul of missiles that had fallen in the area. Each is marked for date and location. It didn’t take much time find one that had fallen barely a month before we were standing there.

(Folks interested in the raw data: Google QuassamCount. A website that streams rocket activity from Gaza.)

After Sderot we headed to the desert for our “authentic Bedouin experience”. While it was nice to learn about traditional Bedouin culture, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was among Museum Fremen. It just seemed too much like an attraction. Of course, going to a real Bedouin village would probably not have been the most positive experience, so it was good we were able to do what we did. We ate dinner there and all slept in the tent after having some quiet time in the desert to think. ‘Twas quite dusty.

The following morning we went on the requisite camel ride. It was actually quite pleasant, though it lacked a certain mystique, being lead on a 15 minute camel ride within site of a road that busses frequent. That concluded our Bedouin experience. We got back on the bus and headed to Masada.

The walk up Masada was nice, and the story of Masada an interesting one, but all I could think about on top of Masada was how disappointed I was–my camera’s battery was about to die.

Walking down the snake road from Masada was also enjoyable–a pretty intense upward climb, no doubt–at the bottom of which we hopped on the bus and headed to Ein Gedi.

The walk to the pool at Ein Gedi is fairly short, and the place was crowded, so I stayed behind with some of the Israelis and we put our feet in the water a little distance from the main pool.

From Ein Gedi we went to the Dead Sea for a quick float, which is fairly self explanatory. We hopped back on the bus and headed to Jerusalem.

Our first day in Jerusalem was an intense one. We started off by heading to the cemetery on Mt. Herzl. Seeing the tombs of key figures of Israel’s history was intense, but nothing compared to the graves of the soldiers who died in combat. Some of our Israeli friends shared stories, which made the experience even more powerful. Then we went to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum.

About Yad Vashem I have this to say: it is so difficult to conceive the existence of such reckless and deep hatred that after a certain point, one cannot help but partially shut down and discontinue processing further information. This, I believe, happens to some visitors (at least it happened to me) in Yad Vashem. I know the basics of the history and the statistics, but no matter what, facing the imagery in rapid succession in a building DESIGNED to render the visitor scared and shrunken has a deeply disturbing effect. Some people think this is the purpose of visiting the museum, others think it isn’t a good way to promote awareness. I won’t argue the merits of the rebuild. I’ll simply say that after a certain length of time I was incapable of handling any more information, despite attempting to read and take more in. I just couldn’t take anymore without a break.

But there are no breaks. That, I think, is the point.

Exiting the main hall of Yad Vashem, we went to the children’s memorial which, while equally heavy, moved me in a different way because it was a simply breathtaking feat of architectural design. A haunting and gorgeous room.

We went back to the hotel for dinner, to light Hanukkah candles and to decompress a bit from the day’s experiences.

The following day we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem. We started by visiting the active dig site of the city of David, then walked (through the west bank, le gasp!) back around to head into the old city proper. Near the Kotel we we’re given free reign and a time by which to return.

The last time I visited Jerusalem I decided to not visit the Kotel (western wall, wailing wall for those who didn’t know), and I was working under the assumption I wouldn’t visit it this time around either, so I walked with a small group of friends into the exciting part of the Shuk we were told not to enter: the Arab quarter. After buying pitas full of an as-yet unidentified meat and waking around some more, we ended up mulling over the idea of heading to the Kotel. I believe my exact words were “fuck it. Let’s go.”

We walked through the security checkpoint and into the large courtyard, which was filled with Ethiopians wearing traditional-esque garb that was covered in images of Jesus. It was truly a bizarre sight. (Turns out there were several “Ethiopian Christian heritage” tours being conducted in the area). We then tried to enter the Kotel grounds through the women’s side, which didn’t work out so well.

When we finally entered the correct side of the Kotel grounds, Kippas firmly in place, I decided to look up at the wall. As soon as I looked at it, I felt a sense of the history of the place. It practically washed over me like a giant wave. My father and I constantly talk about the “tribal,” “ancient” and “ritualistic” aspects of Jewishness and in seeing the wall I felt a deep connection to the ancient, tribal people to which I belong.

I walked back to the table of Chassidim pestering people to put on tefillin, and asked a gentleman to assist me with the Phylacteries. (Turns out this guy knew the Chabad Rabbi in Santa Cruz. Small world, no?)

I didn’t do it because I felt some metaphysical/spiritual/religious need to do it. I did it because of an overwhelming sense of my genetic heritage. For just a moment, I was the Kwisatz Haderach, looking back in my mind through the generations, connecting to an ancient past…

(Can you tell I reread Dune while I was on the trip?)

We headed back to the hotel for dinner and Hanukkah lighting, then went to sleep and prepared for the last day of our birthright trip.

In the morning we packed the bus and headed our for a great morning: we were going to conduct a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for those travelers who wanted one. An awesome thing, to be bar/bat mitzvah’d in Jerusalem, in sight of the old city! I was truly honored when John (a new buddy) asked me to provide the blessing. Once again, regardless of my personal sense of belief, I felt compelled to participate in a tribal initiation right of my people.

During the ceremony, two segway tours went by. This, you might think, is one of the funnier things that has ever happened. You would be right in thinking that. After the ceremony, the group started a typical bar mitzvah dance party. It was hilarious.

From there we went to our penultimate activity: walking through an old neighborhood towards Mahane Yehuda, the large Shuk in Jerusalem. We had almost four hours of free time there, most of which I spent walking back and forth through the Shuk with friends, taking photos of fruits and veggies for sale.

Finally, we hopped back into the bus and drove to the Knesset. In my opinion, it was an odd way to end things, but ultimately it was another interesting moment in the trip. (Sam and I spent the bulk of the time there performing A Capella tunes.) We watched the sun set, got back into the bus and headed to Ben-Gurion, where we would ultimately be split into those heading back to the states and those staying in Israel.

We’ve passed the 3000 word threshold, which might be officially too long of a post. In proof reading, it seems I warbled a bit towards the end, but c’est la vie. This is, after all, a collection of warblings.

I skipped a healthy amount of detail in this post. If any of you has any questions about specific locations or events, I would be happy to answer them. Comment away!

Stay tuned. Now I head straight into the next post, which will concern itself with the second half of my trip…

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6 Responses

  1. Elan,
    It’s so wonderful to read your words! What an incredibly rich experience you had which has had a major influence on your life.
    Love you,
    Aunt Jude (new shortened form of Judith)

  2. Welcome back! Sounds like a great trip so far. Looking forward to part two. Now I want to re-read Dune.

    (And go turn on permalinks in the WP settings!)

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