An Unconventional Birthright: One Cynic’s Journey Through Israel
It is fitting that I would struggle to write an article about Israel. Like this article, Israeli convictions (and territories) often waver on shaky, polarized ground when it comes to the spiritual and the political. I recently returned from my Birthright trip to Israel, and after many questions from friends and family (the most common being: “Did you love it?”), I hope I have finally summed up my personal account. And it is just that, my own personal account, my own perspective, one that is likely not shared by many others. If nothing else, my trip to Israel revealed the value of a cultivated and unique identity.
If you know any young, American Jews, you’ve probably heard of Birthright (or Taglit in Hebrew). Birthright is an organization that funds ten-day tours through Israel for predominately North American 18- to 26-year-olds. (However, my travel mates and I did meet our fair share of Australian, French, and Russian Jews as well). Thousands make the pilgrimage during the summer and winter seasons, and it is completely free of charge, save a $250 deposit that is eventually returned. I still hardly believe such a travel gift exists. Where else can you travel for zero dollars?
Financing for the umbrella organization of Birthright stems mostly from donations and government funding, thus fueling a myriad of specialized trips for Jews, including those with special needs, gays and lesbians, adults, and those looking for region-centric trips. Theses different groups each have specialized names, like Mayanot, which means “springs” in Hebrew. All in all, our group was made up of around 40 staffers and participants, which was just enough to fill our tour bus as we went from one end of Israel to the other.
For a country smaller than New Jersey (that was the zinger we heard over and over), Israel and the Birthright experience are equally packed with cliches. You can bet that any group of pictures from a Birthright returnee will inevitably include shots of that person posing in front of a camel, caked with mud at the Dead Sea, or posing with his or her favorite solider. The intent, of course, is that somewhere between sleeping on a mat in a Bedouin tent and Jeeping past the minefields of a former war zone, one realizes his or her empowering Jewish identity, and the necessity of imparting the majesty of the religion to fellow Jews and humanity the world over. Ideally, Israel and Jewish identity become synonymous in a beautifully undisputed fusion of parties, prayer and Middle Eastern paradise.
This failed on me.
My failure was probably a rarity. I watched with bemused skepticism as almost all of my fellow tour members gained that magic spark, had affairs with soldiers, and grew more confident each and every day. As a 21-year-old, recent grad from a women’s college, I felt so much older than the college freshmen on my trip (blame it on my quarter-life crisis). I had already traveled so much, fermenting my Jewish and secular identities in plenty of partying and sightseeing experiences elsewhere. Plus, the rebel in me was always asking: Why did I have to love Israel so unconditionally? As you can tell, I don’t believe in the easy answer.
Apart from my self-proclaimed maturity, another major factor in my perpetual disillusionment was the religious disparity between my tour’s views and my own. When I signed up for Birthright, I struggled to find any group at all that had room for me. The first one I tried to sign up with was Oranim, but Oranim stopped doing Birthright tours. When I discovered the Mayanot group I was so excited that I didn’t realize it was affiliated with Chabad (a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism) until midway through the trip when my rabbi tour guide changed out of his everyday garb and broke out his traditional black suit and fedora.
Chabad, as a sect of Hasidism, involves a more intensive interpretation of the Torah than my more secular Reform sensibilities. Along with the culinary laws of kashruit (keeping kosher), men do not touch women, both genders dress modestly, and prayer is an intrinsic part of morning, noon and night. From Friday to Saturday’s sundown, one traditionally avoids activity or using electricity at all (at one of the nicer hotels we stayed in, all of the rooms had an optional “Shabbat setting”on the appliances that conveniently shut everything down for 24 hours).
My tour group leaders were Hasidic, and they encouraged open discussion and reflection among us visitors. However, I struggled to identify with religious views so different from my own, and I hesitated to speak openly with such different opinions on family, prayer, and God. The leaders told us over and over that Israel was our Jewish homeland, but how could it be a welcoming land for such polarized religious ideology?
The best example of my discontent was revealed at the Western Wall, which given its religious importance, was an ironic setting for my unconventional spiritual awakening. One night during a golden dusk, my group took our first trip to the Western Wall to pray as Shabbat began. Like the trip overall, the evening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will never forget the gold-speckled views over Jerusalem before we entered and sat together as a group.
Then, a short while later, the men and women met at the wall, separated by a divider, and an Orthodox rabbi commenced an evening, or Havdalah, service. The women’s side was maybe a quarter the size of the men’s, and we could see fancy furniture, along with our handsome Australian male rabbi, through a crisscrossed divider. Our side, on the other hand, had a few shabby plastic chairs and a dress code. Women visitors who dress provocatively (i.e., showing arms or legs) are given felt wraps by security women at the edge; the men have no such equivalent.
The rabbi tried to engage men and women alike, with his Australian accent booming from the men’s side. At one point he said, “Girls I can’t hear you!” My first thought was the increasingly embittered “Why do you think?” But of course speaking up would not have been appropriate. Later that night, some girls on my trip joked how cute the rabbi was. “I’d have lots of Hasidic babies for him!” one laughed. Cultural mission accomplished.
The next day, before we returned to the wall for another quiet, reflective moment, a friend and I inadvertently became separated from the group. No one noticed until my friend and I eventually called the assistant leader on her cell phone. How appropriate, I thought, that I would find myself lost when faced with the physical manifestation of ancient Jewish tradition.
That Friday marked the beginning of my series of freak accidents and injuries: I was hit in the eye with a champagne cork in Tel Aviv, and then at the Dead Sea I came down with a case of laryngitis so bad I couldn’t speak for three days. I thought to myself at the time, maybe karma is against me? Maybe my disillusionment is backfiring? I just couldn’t shake my negativity; you could see the trouble right on my face.
Although I struggled with the religious and cultural aspects of the trip, I did find some sights and sounds to be effortlessly beautiful. My group went on three different hikes: to the Golan Heights, the ancients palace site of Masada, and lastly to Ein Gedi, an oasis west of the Dead Sea that is made up of a breathtaking series of hills, springs, and waterfalls. Despite what I’d always considered to be my inherent athletic void, the scenery took my breath away sans asthma attack. To me, the cascading falls and fields of green were pockets of serenity in what felt like an endlessly maddening dry heat. As I sat, reflecting with the springs flowing around me, I seemed to hear in hushed tones: there is always a chance for peace.
When I returned home to the United States, mute with a swollen eye, a coworker passed me Peter Beinart’s latest essay for the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published the day I got off the plane. The article successfully addresses the dichotomy between young American liberal Zionism and the politicized radicalism of Israeli natives. I was struck by Beinart’s comment about Jews with Muslim friends, because I had often thought of both my own non-Jewish connections during my trip. Other representations of Muslim conflict in the media also rang in my head; the more conservative the Jewish education I received, the more I craved the other side. Beinart’s essay alluded to my own discontentment, in that my trip did not leave much room for the omniscient perspective I desperately sought.
As a result of my trip I’d learned a little about politics, quite a bit about religion, and a lot about myself. In the midst of inner and outer tumult, I reviewed my identity as a young American Jew for better or for worse. I ran into old family friends and girls from childhood sleepaway camp along the way, and I looked deeper into the mirror.
Perhaps the fact that my trip to Israel was not a breezy success made it more meaningful than if I’d had the time of my life. Along with a natural affinity for hiking (and how to avoid dangerous champagne bottles), I learned my own value system. I value open-mindedness and breaks from tradition; I want to see a world different from my own. I’m not sure I want to travel again to Israel, but I know there’s more there to discover. For a country smaller than New Jersey, Israel leaves a lot of room for questions.