As soon as I stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv, I was disoriented. The escalators in one part of the airport reminded me of pictures I had seen of the Western Wall. The hand-dryer in the men’s bathroom was made in Iowa. Outside, strung across the grass there was a Nokia ad, proclaiming, “We connect people.” “Welcome home,” was the first words I heard from an Israeli.
A Birthright Israel trip is a disorienting thing.
The goal, as I experienced it, of the Birthright trip is to make you want to make Aliyah. They did not hold back. You were allowed six hours of sleep a night. You spent hardly more than a day at any locale (in Jerusalem you get two; once at the beginning of the trip, once at the end). You crawl through tunnels, you shop at bazaars, you go for a dip in the Red and Dead seas, you climb Masada at dawn, you are told that Israel is there for you, to protect you, a place where you can be a Jew and be proud.
But it is troubling (my home feels like Tabernacle, NJ), and I did not come back feeling jazzed about the Israel that we were shown. I was constantly with forty Americans my age. We’d meet every night with another American group to go out to a club or a bar. This was a constant. Once, we stopped at, what seemed, the only town in the Negev desert just so all of us eighty Americans could buy alcohol. I was offended by the liberal use of the word goyim [literally nations but in Yiddish often used in a derogatory way to mean non-Jews].
I felt like Momo, the Israeli who headed up the tour company in charge of our trip, went out of his way to promote the idea that, as Jews, everyone is out to get us. He asked us to share our experiences of Anti-Semitism. People stood up and talked about how someone once asked them if they killed Christ, or how a Christian had asked, seriously, “But… but where are your horns?” Momo did not seem to want to differentiate between hatred and ignorance.
I wrote these journals while at my last semester at college. It’s been over a year since I came back from my Birthright trip and my feelings about Israel have only complicated. This is not to say that they are negative—just complicated. Every time I think back to how much they promoted a college party atmosphere, or to the flagrant displays of nationalism (uncomfortable to a self-conscious American), it is counterbalanced by the pluralism of the ordinary Israelis, their skin and their accents, and the history of each and every footstep. In many ways Israel is like eating a carob straight from the tree—there is a raw taste that curls back your tongue while you sense the deep sweetness.
I do not know what I hoped to accomplish in these journals. They are not a linear report on Birthright Israel. They do not solve how I feel about Israel, or Judaism. They are not a political statement. They are uncomfortable and self-conscious. They are small snippets of my Israel experience. They are snapshots of my Judaism.
A year is a trained beast with no memories
- Yehuda Amichai, The First Rain