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Israel had me at Shalom

by on March 21, 2011

March 4, 2011 – Israel

A few weeks ago I announced I would be gone on a trip to Israel.  I return without any exciting stories of rebellion or tsunami, so the story I tell doesn’t really involve chaos or disaster.  My apologies.

The trip was with forty Jews I didn’t know (okay, 39 I didn’t know, I knew myself) out of an airport with which I had no familiarity, with vague instructions about where to rendez-vouz and at what time.  Naturally, that plan worked brilliantly.  I walked through security alone and found my group at the gate a couple hours later – a great way to get acquainted.  As they say in a timeless Jewish comedy skit from the ’60s, “the plane left on time, two hours late.”

Actually, the plane left on time, but if you want sustenance while traveling do NOT fly Delta.  The Kosher meal was hardly warm and not much more edible, and that was it for a twelve hour flight.  My first thought, though, upon landing wasn’t about food; we were in Tel Aviv and my first though was “David Ben Gurion was named after an airport.”  That is how I introduced myself to the Land of Milk and Honey; with humor.

The trip left on March 2nd out of New York.  We got to Israel on March 3rd, late, and got to the kibbutz even later.  A kibbutz is where you plotz after a long day.  By March 4th we had no idea what day it was, and it was only out first full day of a blitz through the country.  Our first venture was to walk in the valley between the Golan and Gali Mountains, partly to see the country and partly to move our legs after a long time on a plane and bus.  It’s interesting that I’ve always walked sure-footed and quickly, both hiking (mountain-hiking and otherwise) and on city streets.  Is that because I grew up in the mountains, or am I naturally a fast walker, sure of how and where to cross a stream?  Some of us walk fast, and some of us walk slow, and a group of forty somehow naturally seems slower than a group of 20, 10, 0r 5.

March 5, 2011

March 5th was the first time in a long time that I had observed Shabbat.  In Israel, of course, and in Judaism the sabbath, Shabbat, doesn’t begin on Saturday, but on Friday night.  The day doesn’t begin on Friday, but a day ends when the sun goes down.  Just as I once had to ask why the French calendar ends with Saturday and Sunday (I mean, ours begins on Sunday, why doesn’t everyone follow us?), I have had to ask why a day begins at night (this time, I asked myself).  The day doesn’t begin at night, the day ends with the sun, which means the next day must start.  Shabbat is interesting and meaningful in Israel (the Israelis I have made friends with will laugh when they read that obvious sentence), while here even serious and faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims might attend Church – but guess how they get there.  In Israel (you Israelis will laugh again at the obviousness) things stop on Shabbat.  Cars don’t drive Friday night and Saturday.  Phone calls stop, at least in the public domain.  No pictures.  A Sabbath Elevator is required.  Shabbat actually matters.

On Shabbat, at a time when we were not familiar with one another, we stopped to ask what it meant to be a Jew.  Naturally, the kibbutz we were on was not old – about sixty years, which is the age of Israel.  The kibbutzim are failing, but that’s not a topic of Shabbat….   Kibbutzim are a product of the idea of the New Jew (an idea of the late 19th and especially early 20th centuries, promoted by early Zionism), that a Jew can be more than a banker, that a Jew can work the land (an act forbidden to Jews for many centuries in Europe).  And so, Jews worked the land of Israel.  That’s what it means to be a New Jew.

For everyone, being a Jew means something different.  I place no emphasis on the Torah, but believe it was written (by man) with a purpose.  I am not a New Jew.  Nor am I the Jew of Middle Europe.  I am mixed; observant and unobservant; interested in scholarly works but not the works of only my religion.  I am a Jew, like many of (the forty of) us, that attained a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, went through confirmation with my class two years later because it seemed like the thing to do, and paid no attention to my religion, though I did not forsake it.  I simply gave it no meaning, because I was never taught that it had any except a historical one.  The (literal) meaning of Israel is to wrestle with God, that is, to question Him/Her/It, and that is what we do naturally; we question.

March 6, 2011

I’m  either perpetuating a new myth or an old one when I say that, like the rabbi of Europe, who moved to the town of Tsvat in his old age, I can see why he heard the songs of angels in Tsvat.  It is a beautiful town, in the beauty of Mediterranean coastal mountain villages of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, where beauty comes naturally and where the buildings belong to and enhance the land.

Tsvat is not only beautiful, it inspires greatness.  It has become a center of (if not the originating location of) the study of Kabbalah, which studies the interconnectedness of matter and spirit (the physical and the metaphysical).  Kabbalah begins with language and numbers, and is patterns and meanings unified with questions and answers that lead to more questions and answers.

There is a refrain running through Israeli answers to problems that is both a joke and not a joke.  Issues everywhere may be bad, but Israeli problems are worse.  Water supply may be short everywhere, but it is more endangered in Israel.  Environmental problems may exist everywhere, but in Israel they are worse.  National Security is an issue for everyone, but it is for Israel more than others.  This is what the Israelis tell you, both with humor and with seriousness.  I don’t know what kind of realistic world we’re living in, but out of about fifty Jews, every one believed that global warming is real.  Maybe a problem is only bad when you recognize that it exists.

Between Tsvat and learning about environmental issues that Israel faces, and its efforts to solve these problems followed by our drive to Tel Aviv, seven Israeli soldiers joined our trip.  They joined, not as soldiers (though they had their uniforms) but as Israelis.  They joined so that we could learn about Israel from Israelis, and so they could learn about America from Americans.  They came from all ranks and duties, and they came with a joie-de-vie that many Americans do not have, the kind inspired by college or comradeship in a duty and service that means something and inspires friendship with those who work for the same reason.  (I say this afterward because I saw it in their faces, though I did not doubt it at the time.)  They stayed with us for about five days, which is very short, but in the action-packed schedule of a ten-day tour, it was good amount of time

March 7, 2011

We spent very little time in Tel Aviv – the night of March 6 – which is a bit disappointing to me as I tried to study the culture and politics of the country.  Tel Aviv, after all, is the diplomatic and modern cultural center of Israel, and the place of independence.  We saw Independence Hall – where Ben Gurion was named after an airport – and heard the speech proclaiming independence.  Except that we are so far removed from the event, both in time and space, it was important and good to see.  I suppose it’s a bit like listening to someone read the Gettysburg Address once an hour at Gettysburg, or listening to a guide recite The Declaration of Independence.  Interesting, but not quite moving.

Tel Aviv is pretty in a modern kind of way; it looks exactly like any other large city in the world, with signs in a different language (actually, most signs are in Hebrew AND English, and most Israelis I encountered spoke passable or good English).  The Mediterranean is, perhaps, the prettiest part of Tel Aviv and we walked from there to Jaffa.  It’s a mess trying to figure out which city is where (not just Jaffa and Tel Aviv, but anywhere in the world) but Tel Aviv is a suburb of sorts of Jaffa, and Tel Aviv has several suburbs.  Brilliant, right?  With all the walking I did in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and every other part of Israel, I can’t tell you a whole lot about culture; we saw what we (tourists) were meant to see.   However, as I’ve said, things don’t change much between one country and another.  (For instance, parts of the agricultural countryside of Israel look just like shanty-towns of Mexico, California, or the Midwest).

I’ve been told that the term gentrification has a negative terminology, because it involves fixing an area up only for profit.  It gentrification is negative that’s not what we helped do in Israel; if it can be a positive action as well, which has no profit in mind, then we – the almost fifty of us with the soldiers – helped gentrify a neighborhood by cleaning and weeding a garden in Lod.  Of all the forced fun activities we did – the ones that did not involve seeing the country – I think this might have been the most useful, both to Israel and to ourselves.

March 8, 2011

We hiked in the Negev Desert.  It’s beautiful and I’m glad I don’t live there.As Jews, our ancient recorded history began, and culminates in, wandering in the desert.  We came out of the land of Egypt, which is desert, the land called Mitzraim, “narrow passage,” which could have the double meaning of a birth canal.  That is, we as Jews were born in Egypt.  There is a horribly written book that I encourage you not to read, called The Gift of The Jews, but nonetheless has its facts and story correct. Before Judaism man conquered space – farmed his fields – and repeated the next year.  But he had not, as far as historical record makes clear, conquered time.  The Jews (and, if you’re Christian you have no reason to object, because the Jewish history Before the Common Era is the the Judeo-Muslim-Christian tradition) conquered space and time.  They conquered space – how else? – by occupying land, and working the land.  They conquered time by 1)making a historical record, and 2)by setting aside time as the sabbath.  We came out of Egypt, and received commandments, and conquered space and time.

Our trip experienced very little culture, or ‘real’ feeling of life in Israel – though it’s not unlike life in America.  We came close, perhaps, when we stayed this Tuesday night in a Bedouin camp.  We rode camels – I don’t intend on doing that any time soon – listened to music, and stared at stars.  But not me.  I’ve seen stars, and I was tired.  So I slept as much as I could, in our open tent, with all of us.  The food was awesome, as it was everywhere on this free trip, but next time I’m in a Bedouin camp I’d like to not eat on paper plates with electric lighting.  It kind of ruins the feeling, you know.

March 9, 2011

After the Second Temple fell in 70 C.E. and there was open Judaic revolt against the Romans some Jews – about a thousand – fled to Masada, an inhospitable but naturally fortified mountain in the Negev.  The Romans set up eight camps in an area where I could see no possibility of growing food and besieged the mountain for five months.  To get up Masada we hiked up the Roman Ramp, which was more of a natural path given steps (I’m not sure there were steps for the Romans), and it’s a half-mile hike where people can throw rocks at you from above.

You  can see the Dead Sea (which is also the border between Israel and Jordan) from Masada.  They should rename it the Magic Shrinking Dead Sea, because it’s disappearing at about two meters at year, mostly from water being consumed before it reaches the sea.  So, for the night at the Bedouin tent we packed an overnight bag, for our day at Masada and the Dead Sea.  I FORGOT to pack my sandals.  A word to the wise: don’t do that!  I went into the Dead Sea far enough to say I’d been in, but ouch, walking on dried salt deposits hurts.

March 10, 2011

My experience with Holocaust memorials is that the hurt of the Holocaust becomes stronger near the source.  The deportation site in France hurts more than a museum in Los Angeles.  How did Yad Vashem, the memorial and museum in Israel, feel?  The Holocaust always hurts, but there was not strong feeling evoked (for me) at Yad Vashem.  Only the usual sadness, which I hope we all feel.  The pictures, the places, hurt far more than the story.

I wonder if I should feel bad, conceited, or knowledgeable that when discussing (actually, listening to a funny lecture on) the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict I knew all the names, dates, figures, and players involved.  I know of the leaked secrets, which I could dedicate whole writings to, and the disappointment and just how close we are and have some idea of how far we have to go.  I don’t mean to say I learned nothing hearing a  talk on the event, especially so close to the source (I was in Jerusalem); I walked away knowing that it is not easy to solve and not easy to absolve.  (And though we were so close to the Conflict, we saw no dividing wall, no settlements, no checkpoints.  We saw what they wanted us to see.)

March 11, 2011

In a world where we think in thousands of miles and look up to see things we know to be millions of light years away, walking through Jerusalem takes a very short time.  It must be less than a square mile if it takes fifteen minutes to walk from one side to the other.  Jerusalem, though, is a place full of history.  Markets from Roman times can be seen not far from building two thousand years older, which are not far from those two thousand years newer.  It is not hard to imagine a place with such history; it is hard to imagine a place with such history in America.

We visited the Western Wall not once  but twice on this Friday.  The first time we were almost the only people there (men to the left – North – side of the wall, women to the right side, with a partition), and we Walled.  I mean, we prayed as desired – it felt right to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at the Wall – and left a note if we wished to leave a note.  In some way the Western Wall is more impressive – it is a different kind of impressive – than the Great Wall.  The Western Wall is high, and trying to conceptualize the technology, including manpower, to move the blocks of rock is a hard thought to wrap my brain around.

The second time we visited the Wall was after Shabbat had begun and several hundred Jews were at the wall, praying, dancing, and singing (or wailing).  The experience sharpened my conviction that religion at its best is meant to bring people together, and can be done through song and dance.  What is religion at its worst?  It must be to pull people apart, probably not through song and dance.  It was quite an incredible feeling – much more so than doing the same thing at a local dance – to grab a stranger and dance, producing the feeling of brotherhood.

March 12, 2011

The following is a direct excerpt from my journal, while some of the above has been from my journal, and most has been to enhance it.  I find that the best way to conclude my trip is what I’ve already written:
Today is our last day; most of the forty of us will never see each other again.
Our bus does not run on Shabbat, so our only transportation on Saturday is on foot.  We walked to the National Cemetery and saw the graves of Golde Meir, Ytzhak rabin, and many others.  The most  touching grave was that of an American who died fighting in the Israeli Army: “whose love of G-d and Israel is eternal.”
Our plane leaves at night, and it began to occur to me – and to all of us – that we were leaving, as we said goodbye to those not joining the flight.
Ten day is a short time to get to know a country or a group of people.

March 4, 2011 – Israel

A few weeks ago I announced I would be gone on a trip to Israel.  I return without any exciting stories of rebellion or tsunami, so the story I tell doesn’t really involve chaos or disaster.  My apologies.

The trip was with forty Jews I didn’t know (okay, 39 I didn’t know, I knew myself) out of an airport with which I had no familiarity, with vague instructions about where to rendez-vouz and at what time.  Naturally, that plan worked brilliantly.  I walked through security alone and found my group at the gate a couple hours later – a great way to get acquainted.  As they say in timeless Jewish comedy skit from the ’60s, “the plane left on time, two hours late.”

Actually, the plane left on time, but if you want sustenance while traveling do NOT fly Delta.  The Kosher meal was hardly warm and not much more edible, and that was it for a twelve hour flight.  My first thought, though, upon landing wasn’t about food; we were in Tel Aviv and my first though was “David Ben Gurion was named after an airport.”  That is how I introduced myself to the Land of Milk and Honey; with humor.

The trip left on March 2nd out of New York.  We got to Israel on March 3rd, late, and got to the kibbutz even later.  A kibbutz is where you plotz after a long day.  By March 4th we had no idea what day it was, and it was only out first full day of a blitz through the country.  Our first venture was to walk in the valley between the Golan and Gali Mountains, partly to see the country and partly to move our legs after a long time on a plane and bus.  It’s interesting that I’ve always walked sure-footed and quickly, both hiking (mountain-hiking and otherwise) and on city streets.  Is that because I grew up in the mountains, or am I naturally a fast walker, sure of how and where to cross a stream?  Some of us walk fast, and some of us walk slow, and a group of forty somehow naturally seems slower than a group of 20, 10, 0r 5.

March 5, 2011

March 5th was the first time in a long time that I had observed Shabbat.  In Israel, of course, and in Judaism the sabbath, Shabbat, doesn’t begin on Saturday, but on Friday night.  The day doesn’t begin on Friday, but a day ends when the sun goes down.  Just as I once had to ask why the French calendar ends with Saturday and Sunday (I mean, ours begins on Sunday, why doesn’t everyone follow us?), I have had to ask why a day begins at night (this time, I asked myself).  The day doesn’t begin at night, the day ends with the sun, which means the next day must start.  Shabbat is interesting and meaningful in Israel (the Israelis I have made friends with will laugh when they read that obvious sentence), while here even serious and faithful Christians, Jews, and Muslims might attend Church – but guess how they get there.  In Israel (you Israelis will laugh again at the obviousness) things stop on Shabbat.  Cars don’t drive Friday night and Saturday.  Phone calls stop, at least in the public domain.  No pictures.  A Sabbath Elevator is required.  Shabbat actually matters.

On Shabbat, at a time when we were not familiar with one another, we stopped to ask what it meant to be a Jew.  Naturally, the kibbutz we were on was not old – about sixty years, which is the age of Israel.  The kibbutzim are failing, but that’s not a topic of Shabbat….   Kibbutzim are a product of the idea of the New Jew (an idea of the late 19th and especially early 20th centuries, promoted by early Zionism), that a Jew can be more than a banker, that a Jew can work the land (an act forbidden to Jews for many centuries in Europe).  And so, Jews worked the land of Israel.  That’s what it means to be a New Jew.

For everyone, being a Jew means something different.  I place no emphasis on the Torah, but believe it was written (by man) with a purpose.  I am not a New Jew.  Nor am I the Jew of Middle Europe.  I am mixed; observant and unobservant; interested in scholarly works but not the works of only my religion.  I am a Jew, like many of (the forty of) us, that attained a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, went through confirmation with my class two years later because it seemed like the thing to do, and paid no attention to my religion, though I did not forsake it.  I simply gave it no meaning, because I was never taught that it had any except a historical one.  The (literal) meaning of Israel is to wrestle with God, that is, to question Him/Her/It, and that is what we do naturally; we question.

March 6, 2011

I’m  either perpetuating a new myth or an old one when I say that, like the rabbi of Europe, who moved to the town of Tsvat in his old age, I can see why he heard the songs of angels in Tsvat.  It is a beautiful town, in the beauty of Mediterranean coastal mountain villages of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, where beauty comes naturally and where the buildings belong to and enhance the land.

Tsvat is not only beautiful, it inspires greatness.  It has become a center of (if not the originating location of) the study of Kabbalah, which studies the interconnectedness of matter and spirit (the physical and the metaphysical).  Kabbalah begins with language and numbers, and is patterns and meanings unified with questions and answers that lead to more questions and answers.

There is a refrain running through Israeli answers to problems that is both a joke and not a joke.  Issues everywhere may be bad, but Israeli problems are worse.  Water supply may be short everywhere, but it is more endangered in Israel.  Environmental problems may exist everywhere, but in Israel they are worse.  National Security is an issue for everyone, but it is for Israel more than others.  This is what the Israelis tell you, both with humor and with seriousness.  I don’t know what kind of realistic world we’re living in, but out of about fifty Jews, every one believed that global warming is real.  Maybe a problem is only bad when you recognize that it exists.

Between Tsvat and learning about environmental issues that Israel faces, and its efforts to solve these problems followed by our drive to Tel Aviv, seven Israeli soldiers joined our trip.  They joined, not as soldiers (though they had their uniforms) but as Israelis.  They joined so that we could learn about Israel from Israelis, and so they could learn about America from Americans.  They came from all ranks and duties, and they came with a joie-de-vie that many Americans do not have, the kind inspired by college or comradeship in a duty and service that means something and inspires friendship with those who work for the same reason.  (I say this afterward because I saw it in their faces, though I did not doubt it at the time.)  They stayed with us for about five days, which is very short, but in the action-packed schedule of a ten-day tour, it was good amount of time

March 7, 2011

We spent very little time in Tel Aviv – the night of March 6 – which is a bit disappointing to me as I tried to study the culture and politics of the country.  Tel Aviv, after all, is the diplomatic and modern cultural center of Israel, and the place of independence.  We saw Independence Hall – where Ben Gurion was named after an airport – and heard the speech proclaiming independence.  Except that we are so far removed from the event, both in time and space, it was important and good to see.  I suppose it’s a bit like listening to someone read the Gettysburg Address once an hour at Gettysburg, or listening to a guide recite The Declaration of Independence.  Interesting, but not quite moving.

Tel Aviv is pretty in a modern kind of way; it looks exactly like any other large city in the world, with signs in a different language (actually, most signs are in Hebrew AND English, and most Israelis I encountered spoke passable or good English).  The Mediterranean is, perhaps, the prettiest part of Tel Aviv and we walked from there to Jaffa.  It’s a mess trying to figure out which city is where (not just Jaffa and Tel Aviv, but anywhere in the world) but Tel Aviv is a suburb of sorts of Jaffa, and Tel Aviv has several suburbs.  Brilliant, right?  With all the walking I did in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and every other part of Israel, I can’t tell you a whole lot about culture; we saw what we (tourists) were meant to see.   However, as I’ve said, things don’t change much between one country and another.  (For instance, parts of the agricultural countryside of Israel look just like shanty-towns of Mexico, California, or the Midwest).

I’ve been told that the term gentrification has a negative terminology, because it involves fixing an area up only for profit.  It gentrification is negative that’s not what we helped do in Israel; if it can be a positive action as well, which has no profit in mind, then we – the almost fifty of us with the soldiers – helped gentrify a neighborhood by cleaning and weeding a garden in Lod.  Of all the forced fun activities we did – the ones that did not involve seeing the country – I think this might have been the most useful, both to Israel and to ourselves.

March 8, 2011

We hiked in the Negev Desert.  It’s beautiful and I’m glad I don’t live there.As Jews, our ancient recorded history began, and culminates in, wandering in the desert.  We came out of the land of Egypt, which is desert, the land called Mitzraim, “narrow passage,” which could have the double meaning of a birth canal.  That is, we as Jews were born in Egypt.  There is a horribly written book that I encourage you not to read, called The Gift of The Jews, but nonetheless has its facts and story correct. Before Judaism man conquered space – farmed his fields – and repeated the next year.  But he had not, as far as historical record makes clear, conquered time.  The Jews (and, if you’re Christian you have no reason to object, because the Jewish history Before the Common Era is the the Judeo-Muslim-Christian tradition) conquered space and time.  They conquered space – how else? – by occupying land, and working the land.  They conquered time by 1)making a historical record, and 2)by setting aside time as the sabbath.  We came out of Egypt, and received commandments, and conquered space and time.

Our trip experienced very little culture, or ‘real’ feeling of life in Israel – though it’s not unlike life in America.  We came close, perhaps, when we stayed this Tuesday night in a Bedouin camp.  We rode camels – I don’t intend on doing that any time soon – listened to music, and stared at stars.  But not me.  I’ve seen stars, and I was tired.  So I slept as much as I could, in our open tent, with all of us.  The food was awesome, as it was everywhere on this free trip, but next time I’m in a Bedouin camp I’d like to not eat on paper plates with electric lighting.  It kind of ruins the feeling, you know.

March 9, 2011

After the Second Temple fell in 70 C.E. and there was open Judaic revolt against the Romans some Jews – about a thousand – fled to Masada, an inhospitable but naturally fortified mountain in the Negev.  The Romans set up eight camps in an area where I could see no possibility of growing food and besieged the mountain for five months.  To get up Masada we hiked up the Roman Ramp, which was more of a natural path given steps (I’m not sure there were steps for the Romans), and it’s a half-mile hike where people can throw rocks at you from above.

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