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Birthright Israel

Left today for a birthright trip to Israel with Jared and Kali. It’s a free trip offered to young Jews who haven’t been to Israel before, to help them appreciate the state, and maybe get them to fall in love and make Jewish babies. Neither of these ends are our goals, but a free plane ticket around the world is too good to pass up.


El-Al 747

Jared failed the Jewish test administered by El-Al, and was searched closely before being allowed on the flight. When they found his Arabic textbook, they decided he was a security risk, and he was escorted onto the plane before the rest of us, surrounded by burly guards. This was an ignominious start.

Day 2 – Kinneret


This is why we’re hot

Today we woke near the Sea of Galilee, at what is called a kibbutz but appears to really be a motel. Vivi, our tour guide, is almost unbearably chipper, and wakes us each morning to the dulcet tones of Israeli pop and cries of “boker tov.” Took a short hike up to a military base to get accustomed to the heat and humidity.

Lunch in the Kabbalist town of Tzvat which now appears to be simply a tourist trap. Then we went river rafting on the river Jordan, which is really just a stream. The current was fast enough to be fun, particularly when going around corners. Joel, one of our American guides, fell out of his raft, and decided to join ours on short notice. He dove in head first, causing Jared and I to duck. Kali didn’t see him coming, and got his face slammed into the top of her head. She had a sore noggin, but he got a bruise that lasted the rest of the trip.


Crump vs clown

After dinner, and an activity to discover our Judaism, we went on a cruise around the Sea in something resembling an Ark. Jared got his dance on, crumping with Vivi. Bruce, a former WNBA cheerleader, also showed his moves.

Day 3 – Jerusalem

In the morning we climbed a waterfall in the Golan, which served as an excellent shower. Then we drove to Mt Bental which overlooks the Syrian border and contains a bunker from the 1967 war. It’s clearly put together as a tourist attraction, but is fun as a piece of kitsch. We got to listen to a one-sided history lesson about the various wars, the heroism of the Israeli tank commanders, and why the taking of the Golan Heights was a defensive move. While I concede that taking the high ground is a strategically important objective, the idea that Israel only fights defensive wars is clearly false.

We drove to Jerusalem, and prepared for the Mega Event, a gathering of all the birthright groups in country at the moment for a ritual orgy of zionism. The thousands of waving flags, thumping pop music, and unthinking group dynamic was reminiscent of rallies at Nuremberg. At least there was a dance party afterwards, where I was able to work out my political tension by unbuttoning my shirt and getting my groove on. I channel every eurotrash/arzt stereotype, and made a total fool of myself. It was glorious.

Day 4 – Jerusalem

Today at breakfast we pondered the nature of faux coffee (Nescafe) that refuses to dissolve in water. I proposed soap to bridge the polar and non-polar natures of the two substances, but Kali was not amused. She can be a little grouchy before she gets her fix.


Strong city walls

We toured the City of David, which is used as archaeological proof for the existence of a Jewish state. While there is no direct evidence that there was a king named David at the time in question, there were clearly Jews living in the city at about the time described by the Bible. We walked through a water tunnel, designed by the Jebecites, from the fortified city to a hidden spring beyond the walls.


Holy sights

After an excellent lunch along the Cardo, the old Roman shopping street, that remains remarkably unchanged, we went to the Western Wall. This was more powerful for me than I expected, to see something so old that was clearly “mine” was a different experience than other famous ruins. Of course, the destruction of the neighborhood that used to be against the wall, after Israeli paratroopers took it back in 1967, tempered the experience slightly. It is incredible that the Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally right on top of each other, making any attempt to draw rational borders an exercise in futility. Still, it was awesome to see those huge stones unmoved by time and conflict.


Rooftop partay

We had another evening activity, where we discussed our experiences of antisemitism. I had none to share, but it was moving to hear those of others who grew up in less affluent, or more ignorant, parts of the country and world. The group was surprisingly good about understanding antisemitism as just one part of all racism, which must be opposed in all forms. Then we watched a documentary about the flight of Israeli F-15s over Auschwitz, which was almost Brucknerian in its homage to military power. Hard to reconcile Top Gun and Vad Yashem, but we dealt by having a party on our rooftop deck.

Day 5 – Jerusalem

Today was emotionally exhausting. After breakfast, we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. It affected me more than the US Memorial, although that could be due to the seriousness of the group dynamic. The Hall of Names was particularly powerful; a circular room dedicated to the remembrance of the lives of the victims, with a large empty section for those who will never be found. The architecture was a little much, with the exhibit hall encased underground in concrete but opening on an expansive view of Jerusalem. Others found it moving, but I thought it bordered on cliche. Also, the exhibits on the hardship of life in the ghetto behind imposing walls, failed to acknowledge that Israel is currently building to enclose other communities.


Then we went to Mt Herzl, the military cemetery and a memorial to the founder of Zionism. Ivtak showed us the grave of his friend, an American to who rushed back to Israel at the start of the Second Lebanon War. He was killed after paratrooping behind lines and searching houses for Katyushas. After the heavy day, we went to a bar that was rented out for us. Brandy taught me more about the Napoleonic code than I’ll ever need to know, and Craig pissed in a drain. Good times.

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