When I left for Israel, I was very conscious of not becoming one of those birthright kids who returns from Israel an ardent Zionist with a new found connection to Judaism and can only describe the trip as amazing or life changing. In short, I didn’t want to be brain washed, and upon return, I’m afraid that the program did such a good job that I don’t even mind how brain washed I am.
I now see Israel as two things: A safe state for Jews and a country that happens to be located in a historic and somewhat crazy region. The program I did had six Israelis, and many of their families immigrated to Israel because Jews were being killed in their homeland. Some of the American participants were first generation Russian Jews who happened to get visas to the US before Israel. I know Israel isn’t perfect, but the idea of a state were a persecuted group will be protected is kind of a noble idea, especially considering that America isn’t taking in displaced Iraqis. That’s not to say other minorities shouldn’t have the right to the same safety, and if the UN chartered some land in Western Canada and ran a refugee country, I’d be all for that. Before the 1967 War, Jerusalem, the part of Israel that makes it holy, wasn’t even a part of the country. In a way, Israel’s location is a global-political coincidence: Great Britain and America wanted in an ally in that region and it happened to be the same place often referenced in the Torah. Before settling on Middle East, Israel was almost in Uganda!
Growing up in New Rochelle and going to Barnard, I never was wanting for a Jewish community. Most of my childhood friends are Jewish. Before this trip, Jewish culture meant Westchester culture, and if you’ve ever been the eponymous mall, you can understand my hesitation to feel connected to Judaism. But in Israel, secular Judaism was much more compelling. On Shabbat, we did a Kiddush, and I knew all the prayers almost involuntarily. When I was little, my family used to have a Shabbat dinner. It never felt religious: my mom and I didn’t do the prayer over the candles, no one in my family ate the challah, and my dad and brother would wear ill-fitting yarmulkes stolen from temple when they watched TV after dinner. Reciting the prayers again in a group of new friends felt inexplicably significant to me. It was like everyone in the group had the same experience as I did. It’s completely illogical since I’m not too sure about the God part in Judaism, but for the first time I felt that my yet-to-be-conceived children should be connected to this too, and that knowing the prayer over bread I don’t even like wasn’t a small thing.
For a lot of people visiting Israel, one of the novelties is that virtually everyone is Jewish. The supermarket clerk and the bus driver all know what Purim is. My many years at a snobby summer camp in the Berkshires didn’t make me think that being part of a Jewish community would make me more comfortable with myself, but on this trip, I was completely unguarded. In New York I never dance, but my earnest and bad dancing to Hebrew music became a running joke on the trip. Though most of us would never go to the same bar in New York, almost everyone on the trip got along and had fun with one another. I don’t know if that’s the credit of our stellar social skills, the length of the trip or the fact that we all came to Israel as Jews eager to learn more.
My favorite part of the trip was our last hike on Mt. Shlomo. The hike down is about four times longer than the hike up, and it involved a bit of rock climbing. I hadn’t gone hiking in a long time, and I had forgotten how much I love being outdoors. At one point there was an open hill that made more sense to run down. Sprinting down with my arms out, I hadn’t felt more exhilarated in a long time, maybe ever. After the hike, we had lunch at a terrible restaurant in Eilat. Instead of ketchup, they had this weird sweet-and-sour red sauce posing as Heinz. On the bus after lunch, our guide Udi asked if we liked the ketchup, and to a few boos, he replied, “It’s actually Christian blood, which you know we Jews love so much.” Like much Jewish humor, it doesn’t really make sense out of context, but the whole bus cracked up.