Day 15

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My last day in Israel began with a trip to Banana Beach, and from there, I walked along the Mediterranean coast to Jaffa. I am not a huge lover of beaches, but even I was impressed with Israel’s coastline. The waves are too rough for languorous swimming, but the water is perfectly warm and cool at the same time, a vast shift from LA’s chilly ocean temperatures. You can easily do what I did: sit down near the edge of the waves and let the water and sand roll over you, recede, then repeat. Accompanying sunburn not recommended.

I wish I had more to say about Jaffa, but I did not explore the old city as much as I’d have liked. The new areas are hip and trendy, and wildly overpriced. I saw more British and French tourists in Jaffa than in any other part of Israel. There are many antique furniture shops and wonderful boutique clothing stores selling items made by local Israeli designers. When I am a wealthy woman, I will return, but for now, the streets of Jaffa are too rich for my blood.

My new Israeli friend, N., met me in Jaffa for a late lunch. She was surprised I hadn’t heard the sirens in Tel Aviv the night before. She had been at home in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and she had packed herself and her younger brother into their safe room.

That’s right, most modern Israeli homes are built with a safe room, meant to withstand home invasion or aerial attacks. N. drove me back to her family’s beautiful, spacious apartment in Holon and I saw the room for myself. Before this trip, I would have found it inconceivable that a country exists where people build bomb shelters into all their new residential architecture. Do they really want to kill us all that badly?

The answer is, as usual, a complicated “no” and a complicated “yes.” But it is a bit unsettling to think that these are the basic measures of everyday life that make people feel safer. I feel safer locking the exterior doors at night. N. feels safer knowing that she can sit with her brother in their safe room during a rocket attack.

That is a hard reality and a valid perspective for me to encounter. I never once felt unsafe in Israel, even after I became a solo female traveler. Is it because there was no immediate threat to my own security, or was it because of the safe rooms, the sirens, the strong, good-looking IDF soldiers around every corner?

I think it must toughen up children to grow up like this. Instead of learning that the world is their oyster, they learn to make their own advantages in an environment where stability is no guarantee. Maybe the Israelis grow up tough, and that can be a good thing, but the flipside is all those children in Gaza who will grow up traumatized, fearful of life. A constant assumption of danger, or the potential for it, seems like a difficult way to come of age.

Then again, maybe we soft Americans aren’t looking hard enough. As the surge in global anti-Semitism continues, I find myself thinking that maybe the Israelis do have a point. Lately it is becoming more difficult to remind myself that it is an unsustainable worldview. Better to do nothing, and “pray for peace,” as I was told many times on this trip. But prayer isn’t going to get children out of safe rooms and into art museums. And I think, metaphorically-speaking, that is a greater goal.

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Day 14

It is strange to be writing about Tel Aviv from the Northeast Corridor regional Amtrak. I suppose it’s a testament both to my commitment to completing this travelogue, and to the fantastic last few days I’ve had in Israel. I have always been the sort of person who turns to writing when I have nothing better to do. I think that’s why it’s never been a clear-cut career path for me. But enough about my internal occupational psychodrama–we’re here for Tel Aviv.

On Tuesday morning, I visited an outdoor arts and crafts market near the Shuk Ha’Carmel. I read online that the local artists are required to be present at their stalls, rather than employing salespeople, in an effort to directly engage with the people who buy their work. My most memorable interaction was with an older Russian woman who handpaints batik designs onto silk scarves. I liked her work, but mostly I just liked this feisty lady who is doing something creative in her retirement, so of course I had to buy something from her.

When I buy a gift, I always try to keep the recipient’s tastes in mind, even when they differ wildly from my own. So as I sorted through floral designs and Jerusalem cityscapes to find just the right pattern for my grandmother, my lovely new Russian friend was showing me her silk paintings of leopards, elephants, and cats playing saxophones. Creative, yes, but not exactly Bubbi’s taste. After I settled on a beautiful design and mentioned that I was getting it as a gift for my grandmother, I was given the ten shekel “Babushka discount.” Small potatoes (enough for vodka?), but a victory to be sure.

I also bought myself a beautiful, unusual ring from a female artist, and having decided that I had probably spent enough money for the day, I decided to do something historical. I walked down to nearby Founders Park and visited Independence Hall, the military bunker turned art gallery that was the site of David Ben-Gurion’s proclamation of an independent state of Israel back in 1948.

I found it quite meaningful that this announcement took place in an art gallery established by Meir Dizengoff, one of Tel Aviv’s most famous early citizens and the first mayor of the city. According to our very knowledgeable tour guide, Ben-Gurion even requested that the paintings in the main gallery space be selected specifically for Jewish themes before he delivered his speech. Just a few years earlier, Jewish creatives were being exterminated across Europe. In 1948, a state is established, quickly, and in doing so, makes a point of recognizing the contributions of its artists. I have never been a religious person, but part of the reason I’ve not abandoned my cultural heritage is because Judaism, as a culture and ethnicity, tends to recognize the value of all intellectual achievements, whether they occur in theology or philosophy, science or art.

Speaking of art, this tidy little segue brings us to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I have been to many art museums around the world (#humblebrag?), but I was totally unprepared for the quality and diversity of art here. I saw so many cool pieces by both contemporary artists and classically-trained “masters” (I put this phrase in scare quotes to make my friend M.S. laugh).

There were many memorable pieces, but one exhibit stands out. I am picky about museum spaces. If the explanatory captions are too trite, or the floor plan of a gallery is not organized in a logical manner, I rarely enjoy looking at whatever is on display. At this museum, however, I stumbled into the most brilliant, simple exhibit designed specifically with children in mind.

Here’s the premise:
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And here’s the result:
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Tiny, brightly-colored, silkscreened images of toys all displayed at child height. The miniature guard rail barely hit my knees. Images of toys arranged in such a way that they are meant to be wondered at by those who still play with toys. Is this not a perfect way to get kids interested in art?

We can debate the artistic merits of Andy Warhol all we want, but ultimately I consider this to be a highly successful exhibit. It doesn’t even remotely pretend to give a shit about adults. Any adult viewer of average height would have to bend down to inspect these paintings. And that is exactly how it should be.

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Later that evening, I had a nice meal at a local Israeli-European bistro. I don’t usually snap food selfies, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. It was a very pleasant end to a wonderful day. The soporific effect of the train has begun to kick in now, so I will write a bit about Jaffa later (and how I slept through Hamas rockets). Thanks again for sticking with me.

Day 12 / Day 13

I have been negligent in my travelogue duties because I have been having so much fun post-Birthright. My original Birthright group, the LA crowd, left Saturday night. I was merged with a New York group assembled from the other half of my too-small initial group and a bunch of Long Island people and Westchester bros.

We were told that we’d be meeting the other group for dinner at a restaurant, but when we joined their already raucous group, we learned that they had actually finagled a third night out in Jerusalem (i.e. drinking abroad) from their guide. Technically Birthright only allows two “nights out,” a policy whose value was quickly ascertained over the course of the night.

You know those idiot Americans that are mocked in foreign media? Yes, that would be the seven group members, those inimitable brosephs, who knew each other from college and were having a bit of a last hurrah. As they sang patriotic American songs in Zion Square, I saw an older man watching them with total disgust. Yes, I am not proud, but I may have said, loudly, “This makes me embarrassed to be an American.” The man turned to me and said, “You should be.” Don’t I know it.

Determined to escape this group through any means possible (remember, my official trip had already ended, save for a handful of people in the same position as me), I massaged the truth during next morning’s market trip. Technically, I was supposed to stay with the group until they left on their first airport dropoff run. My original group had already had a more subdued, respectful visit to Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s central open air market, so I politely inquired as to when I should take my luggage off the bus. Six minutes later, I had dropped off my luggage at the fantastic Abraham Hostel, recommended by S., and was making my way to the old city.

I finally had a chance to explore the Muslim, Armenian, and Christian quarters on my own. I barely knew when I was passing through the latter two, but the Muslin quarter had more of a marketplace feel. Unlike the staid Jewish quarter, mostly populated by tourists and Hasidic Jews (sometimes both!), the Muslim quarter is more clearly a place where people come to do their shopping and socialize. I don’t have any photos, as I hesitate to take pictures in an area where I do not speak the language and the culture is not my own, but believe me when I say that the solo-female-traveler fear mongering is unwarranted. People in the Muslim quarter were certainly more friendly and eager to talk, but the most unwanted male attention I got on this whole trip was when I sat waiting for my group in Zion Square the night before. A bum (I won’t say homeless cuz, who knows? Maybe he has a home) made smoochy noises in my direction and another bum translated for him: “He thinks you’re cute.” Ah, the universal language.

After wandering the old city for a bit, I made my way back to the hostel. I found a nice café in a cool part of the new city and found several interesting stores to visit the next day.

I only spent the following morning in Jerusalem, walking around and visiting shops. The most eventful part of the day was when I struck up a conversation with an expatriate shop owner originally from the states. (Sidebar: Holy shit, Birthright, look at me! Managing to have a conversation with a stranger without your inane human scavenger hunt clues! I mean, wow, I must really be a special and unique individual if I am capable of speaking to other humans without a written prompt instructing me on what to say. Ayyy, she thinks for herself — back in the cag–sorry, back on the bus!)

So we got started talking about the conflict between Israel and Gaza, as you so when you meet another American living in this country. N. asked me about Birthright, and I learned that he and his partner were closing their small vintage shop to open a dim sum bar in two weeks. I mentioned to N. that his new endeavor was exactly what I loved about Israel, the freedom to experiment and do whatever you want.

There is something liberating about living and working in a very young country that is still figuring out its culture. The U.S. is very set in its ways, like most countries that long ago surpassed their centennials. Israel has a feeling of dynamism and productivity that I’ve only felt rarely, perhaps in certain creative pockets of Baltimore. But in Israel, the whole country’s like that: immature and naïve, yes, but also with a strong willingness to try anything once and see what sticks. This is the first country I’ve ever visited where I’ve felt that I, as a young person of few means, could contribute to the culture in a long-lasting and meaningful way. I don’t plan on making aliyah anytime soon, but it is heady and strange and new to experience a modern country in such a nascent stage of growth. I like it, and I hope to return.

In the afternoon, I took the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I arrived at Arlozorov station in central Tel Aviv, and then took a public bus to my hotel. It was a fairly nerve-wracking experience, partly because there was no English signage and I was relying solely on Google Maps to get off at the right stop, and partly because I kept thinking of what it must have been like to ride public buses in Israel ten years ago when terrorists were blowing up themselves and other passengers.

See how quickly it can go to a dark place? That’s been my experience of Israel so far: an exhilarating sense of national possibility tempered by the struggles of daily existence. As I was told by our Israeli medic on the trip, you don’t think about that or talk about that every day or you wouldn’t be able to live here. It’s not a denial of terror whatsoever–it’s a redirection of one’s energy to whatever is best served by it. That is why so many Israelis are involved in protests of their government. There is no universal, blind allegiance to a government that many see as increasingly right wing. Perhaps the U.S. media could give some voice to dissidents in general. I know it’s hard when we’re too busy oppressing our own people with police brutality, but it’s just a thought.

If you are reading this and assume I am lying about everything in my newfound Zionist fervor (inaccurate), just know that the actions of a government and the opinions of its progressive citizens rarely coincide. As an American, whether I like it or not, I know that feeling all too well. More on Tel Aviv later.

Day 10 / Day 11

Hey guys, there’s not too much to say about these last couple days of Birthright, especially since we didn’t do much on shabbat. I’ve just struck out on my own as of five or six hours ago, so I’ll try to write a bit more about Jerusalem when I have a chance, and hopefully have some cool Tel Aviv stories later in the week. Thanks for reading. You are all wonderful people, and I have very much enjoyed your digital companionship on this trip.

Day 9

E. took a picture of me at the Western Wall yesterday. An art history PhD student, she is the only one of us traveling with a proper camera. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it will make me uncomfortable to see myself that way, hands pressed hard into ancient rock.

Here are my literary notes from yesterday:

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Obviously stone cannot move, rock is unyielding. If you hold your hands above your head long enough in the midday desert heat, you are bound to feel your pulse thrum against your palms. The ocean wave vibration of the wall is dependent on its visitors. I doubt the polished surface pulsates in the middle of the night.

I have learned that it is perfectly acceptable to identify as a Jew who does not believe in god (I choose not to capitalize). That is apparently quite normal amongst the secular Jews who make up the majority of Israel’s population. I have also re-learned how to feel connected to a place. I do not feel that for Los Angeles as I did (and do) for Montreal. I’ve learned that massive religious/spiritual displays, like the shabbat celebrations every week at the Kotel, are essentially empty to me, but I have also learned that I am not wholly incapable of buying into the rippling illusion when I stand there by myself.

S. said we place our hands on the wall and push. There’s no satisfactory explanation for this. Like most aspects of religion, it is simply what is done. I have the suspicion that were I to lightly lay my hands against the structure, I would feel very little. I left a note in a crevice of the stone, but what do you say? I didn’t know to whom I should address the message.

Dear God, it’s me, Mirah, and I would like a pony.

I have learned that it’s generally okay to know nothing. In an intellectual sense, I do not know how I am meant to approach this wall. So I go with it, toward it, and remind myself that feeling is first. I have always had a strong affinity for material objects. Perhaps there is no inherent divinity in rocks. Perhaps the stones I place at the graves of half-buried soldiers are more valuable. But mostly I think it is fine, and possibly even encouraged, to acknowledge a wide dearth of answers. Rocks and stones may break my bones, but walls will never hurt me.

Day 8

I’ve had a couple very intense days in Jerusalem and it has been difficult to make time for this travelogue. That is likely because I feel most in my element when traveling through cities. A waterfall hike is nice, but there’s nothing like reading the tone of an unfamiliar cityscape.

Thursday was a difficult day because someone, somewhere thought it was a great idea to combine Yad Vashem in the morning with the Mount Herzl military cemetery in the afternoon. Each was an overwhelming experience in a different way, so I’ll just cut the bullshit (Mirah, you know you don’t just break the ice, you shatter it.) and tell you about the times I was on the verge of tears at each.

Yad Vashem is Israel’s national Holocaust museum, and was designed by Moshe Safdie in some weirdly Germanic, Bauhaus-esque style. (Oh, can you tell I liked it?) He also designed the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal for those of you reading from there.

What made me weepy? The museum is loaded with artifacts from people who lived and died in the Holocaust. In one display case, there are photos of a little boy. I stupidly forgot to write down his name, but he was sent out of Europe (Germany or Austria, possibly?) on the Kindertransport. The mother had died when the boy was very young, so his father remained on the Continent, while the boy was raised by a family in the United Kingdom. But the father missed the son in an excruciating way and coped by sending the boy postcards meant for children, all of them funny and sweet, but not particularly unusual for the time. Sometimes on the front, he would write “Love, Daddy” over top cartoon animals in silly situations. Rabbits and mice play-acting as people in still-bright, printed color images.

In 1943, the postcards stopped arriving. The little boy and his foster family could not guess why. After the war, the boy learned his father died in a camp. Of course. These stories tend to have the same ending.

I have no idea what was said in any of these postcards. I only saw four cards in a huge photo album of pasted-in postcards, whatever page happened to be open. This exhibit was right at the beginning of the museum. I want you to see me standing there, sniffling over an album of cheap, mass-produced cartoon postcards, a heap of broken images. I want to reaffirm the value of things. This flimsy cardboard postcard means nothing, but a Jewish man walked to the post office or stuck it in the box or handed it to his mailman and miles away a little boy was reminded of his father.

Let’s move on and I will tell you about Horst Rosenthal. Horst Rosenthal who died in Auschwitz and made me laugh. Horst Rosenthal, whose name I recorded, who wrote and drew a Mickey Mouse cartoon about life in the French labor camp of Gurs long before Art Spiegelman had his say.

See Mickey inspect his microscopic crust of bread. See Mickey have a riotously circuitous, tautological conversation about his Jewish origins with a camp guard. See Mickey lament his stay at Gurs, and hear that high-pitched “Aw shucks” voice come through the precise, finely-drawn panels. See funny, ironic, tender, 27-year-old Horst Rosenthal murdered at Auschwitz.

So there you are. I am standing in front of Horst’s work at Yad Vashem, pushing myself to decipher minute, perfect handwriting in French and laughing. That Mickey Mouse sure knows how to get into scrapes. Wonder what kind of death camp shenanigans are next?

I pass through galleries and am drawn to the art of the dead. Drawings, paintings, poetry, diaries. Were they afraid of us because of our capacity for expression? Is that why so many were executed? Did the mastermind feel he would never be as good as Horst Rosenthal? It’s true: his paltry, wan landscapes and urban scenes never carried the warmth of humor, a fine-tuned sense of irony. I laugh for the work I’ve seen, and weep for the work I’ll never know.

I have no segue that doesn’t read false.

Mount Herzl was another difficult experience that warrants an explanation. It is Jerusalem’s military cemetery, where all who have contributed to the creation and maintenance of the nation are buried. All the gravesites are identical. There are no personal memorials beyond the linear walls of Jerusalem Limestone, punctuated by the vertical rectangles of jutting graves.

Naturally we visit the places where they buried the Americans who did Birthright and then made Aliyah. It is sad, but it is another’s loss. I feel what I am meant to feel, but it is not acute, wrenching.

Then S. leads us to a new row of nine graves. Stone memorial plaques have not yet been placed at the heads of eight of the nine graves. There are temporary identification signs in Hebrew, and a mason dusts the half-finished limestone wall.

Look, says S., when I was here last month this was grass. They have had to extend the graveyard. A moment, then comprehension. These are the half-built graves of the Israeli soldiers who died in Gaza. The one permanent stone plaque? That is Max Steinberg, the American who joined the IDF after Birthright, consumed by a country and way of life that held some ineffable meaning to him. I don’t understand, and yet I feel the loss of the grass, replaced by gravel from Jerusalem quarries, space cleared to make room for the dead. I have nothing to say about the graves of Yitzhak Rabin or Golda Meir. May no more cemeteries of war be extended.

I wanted to write about yesterday’s experiences in Jerusalem as well, but I already changed the title of this post long ago, knowing definitively that there is such a thing as too much. Jerusalem is a city of too much. Memorials, nightlife, open celebrations of death and of life. As a person of too much, I will take this as my explanation for the connection I feel, this home and not-home sense of compatibility. I can’t say for sure that next year will be in Jerusalem, but I am doubtful this is the last.

Day 6 / Day 7

Oy, lovers, I’m much too tired for an essay since I woke up at 4:00 am to hike Masada. Here’s a list of the things I’ve done since last we canoodled:

Yesterday afternoon: long-ass bus ride to the Negev desert and a visit to an Ayalim Village. Ayalim is an organization that allows Israeli students to build new villages in the desert near existing, decaying villages. Students live in the Ayalim housing and work with the surrounding communities on social and welfare projects in a new form of self-proclaimed Zionism.

Yesterday evening: CAMEL RIDE. Will update this post with a series in camel portraiture.
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Yesterday night: A night at what S. refers to as the “million star hotel,” an open air tent in the Disneyland-esque Bedouin camp designed specifically for tourists. Well, whatever, it was still pretty great. A Q & A session with a Bedouin man, Mohammed, who has three wives and 23 kids, a traditional(-ish) Bedouin meal, and a semi-sleepless night under the stars.

This morning: A grueling hike up and down Masada, which would have been way less intense if there had been some shade, y’know, anywhere. S. gave a fantastic talk that really emphasized the mythology of Masada versus the reality of Jewish communities in that era. We are obviously all in love with him, girls and boys alike.

This afternoon: Awesome, low-key nature hike with streams and natural waterfalls at Ein Gedi. I’ll post a silly photo of me with our usually surly medic below.
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Today, late-afternoon: Wonderful, amazing time at the fantastic private Mineral Beach on the Dead Sea. Slathered myself up like a pig in mud, took a video of a friend singing that famous song from The Jazz Singer in Dead Sea “black” face (umm…was talked into that one), burned the shit out of my sensitive nasal membranes whilst accidentally touching my nose in the sea, almost got a tan (yo, it’s more than a borderline sunburn, so yeah!), then decompressed in the shallow freshwater pool with my comrades. After Masada, today was pretty great. Heading to Jerusalem soon and waiting patiently for the airline to email me with confirmation of my little extension so that I can see Tel Aviv. Until tomorrow.