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.