Jew(ish): Traveling Through Israel By Foot, Friendship, & Feline

   Crossing the Ein Avdat Oasis in the Negev Desert, Israel. 

Crossing the Ein Avdat Oasis in the Negev Desert, Israel. 

"It has been almost a month and I'm still processing it all. This trip still kind of feels like it was all a dream. Anyone else feel that way too?"

This was posted by one of my traveling companions from my Birthright Trip in the Facebook group for our bus (#243, represent!) last week. Everyone agreed, of course. It's hard to believe that exactly one month ago we were recovering from a flight back to New York after spending ten intensive days in a completely different part of the world. I've spent the last few weeks trying and failing to write a post about the experience (after all, I don't want to let it go undocumented) but it's been difficult to figure out what to say. The cliché, of course, is that taking an international trip changes your life permanently. There's an entire industry based on the idea of people finding themselves through travel, and I suppose it wouldn't be surprising if I'd come back from a tour created with the express purpose of connecting people with their heritage, the Jewish religion, and the country of Israel with some newfound connection to the religion or the land. But I don't feel much different. I'm still uninterested in engaging with organized religion. I still have very complicated feelings about Israel and its political situation. I have a bit more understanding of my heritage, but I'm not sure I gained a better understanding of myself. Perhaps it's because I went on this trip when I was 26 and had already spent many, many years refining my knowledge of myself, but I returned from my journey feeling like much the same person as I was when I left. This is by no means a unique perspective, but it does make it difficult to condense my experiences into an interesting blog post that might resonate with someone other than myself and my mother, who reads everything I post.

This is not to say the trip wasn't incredible or eye-opening. The land was beautiful, the history informative, the people incredible, and I loved every minute of the time I was there (except maybe when I had to pee in the desert. My friend Dina, who held the flashlight while I "nature-peed", can vouch for my vocal complaints during that particular experience. What can I say? Roughing it is not my forte). The very fact that I was standing on land that had been occupied by so many civilizations for thousands of years took my breath away at times. But processing that, condensing it all down to some satisfactory answer to the inevitable question people ask me - "So, how was Israel?" - has eluded me.

   The Banias Falls, spices in the Tel Aviv Shuk, the Dead Sea, the view from Ben Gurion's Tomb, and looking out over Israel and Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

The Banias Falls, spices in the Tel Aviv Shuk, the Dead Sea, the view from Ben Gurion's Tomb, and looking out over Israel and Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

What I can say about this experience is that it challenged me. From the very moment I started the application process, I was a bit out of my depth. Let me tell you, for me personally there is nothing that smacks me in the face with an inferiority complex quite like applying for a program for Jewish people when I don't feel particularly Jewish myself. Though I can easily trace my Jewish heritage through my mother's mother back to Russia (or the Ukraine, depending on who you ask and which decade's borders we're going by), the practices have been all but lost in our family. We don't go to synagogue or regularly observe the high holidays. I never went to Hebrew school or had a Bat Mitzvah. My grandma's sole tradition that she passed onto us was having a family gathering on one night of Hanukah, during which she served latkes with sour cream and pork sausage on the same plate, if that tells you anything about how seriously she took her family's faith. So despite the fact that I had been assured by many of my friends who were Birthright alums that a lot of participants were in the same cultural boat as me and the fact that I was genuinely interested in learning more about my family's heritage and cultural history, it was still rather nervewracking to go through a process that appeared to measure my level of Jewishness, a religion and culture I had never had more than a passing connection to. Even when I was eventually approved and assigned a trip date, I'm not sure I truly believed I'd be allowed to go until our plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport. (This belief was further exacerbated by an hour and a half long extended security screening by El Al airlines during which they confiscated, of all things, my hairbrush, my journal, my water bottle, and my travel pillow and moved them to my checked luggage before finally escorting me onto the plane mere minutes before we were supposed to take off. A very surreal experience, especially since Friends was playing on the TV in the background the entire time.) 

All my fears dissipated once the tour itself began, however. Truthfully, there just wasn't time to worry about anything other than where we were going next, if my water bottle was full and my camera was charged, and whether or not I was going to be able to focus on another half hour lecture on the history of Jerusalem when we'd been up til 3 am the night before. We were scheduled from 7 am to 10 pm most days, and I was lucky if I made it through the evening programming without dozing off at least once.  Everyone became masters at the art of bus-napping, catching a few extra minutes of sleep between stops as we criss-crossed the country. We had to get close with one another, fast. Nothing like snoring, open-mouthed and mere inches from one another, to remove all barriers. Luckily, we had an excellent group, one committed to bonding fully as a whole rather than fracturing off into separate cliques, so you knew you were bound to have a good time regardless of who you wound up seated beside. This was both a blessing and a curse for me. I have a tendency to feel a bit lost in the crowd, usually preferring to find one or two close friends so I always have someone to turn to, and the mass-friendship experience sometimes meant that I found myself walking alone and didn't know who to reach out to. The upside of this, however, was that within minutes somebody always caught up to me and struck up a new conversation, and it was never the same person. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to breathe and just BE in the moment and see what happened next rather than trying to regain control and seek out one particular person. The whole trip was an education in giving up control and seeing where events were going to take you, something I'd forgotten how to do in my seven years of living on my own and being the only one responsible for my life and well-being. So a challenge, yes, but not a bad one.

   Hiking in the Negev Desert.

Hiking in the Negev Desert.

As for Israel itself, I don't even know where to begin. It's easy to see why the land has been fought over for millennia. It's a breathtaking place full of such variety of flora and fauna, not to mention the historical landmarks. We visited the ruins of a Roman Aqueduct in Caesaria and looked out over the B'hai Gardens in Haifa. We learned about the Mikvah and the history of Kabbalah in Tsfat and walked through twisting, ancient alleys filled with artists selling all sorts of beautiful work. We hiked up to the Banias Falls, saw the Temple of Pan, and stood on a ridge that gave us a view of both Lebanon and Israel. We visited a bird sanctuary in Jerusalem, walked through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the Mount Herzel Military Cemetery. We sang songs around a desert campfire and slept under the stars while a nearly full moon shone down on us, a curious fox scouted out our campsite, and shooting stars flew past overhead. We climbed to the ruins of the fortress of Masada at dawn in the midst of a dust storm. We swam in the hot springs in Tiberius and floated in the Dead Sea. We did a guided meditation in the Nagev and visited two desert oases, Ein Gedi and Ein Avdat. We visited the Shuk in Tel Aviv and a state of the arts school for special needs students in Ra'anana. To cover everything we were lucky enough to experience would take several more blog posts at least twice as long as this one.

   The Caesaria Aqueduct, the B'Hai Gardens in Haifa, the views from the rooftops of Tsfat and a windchime and bell shop in Tsfat.

The Caesaria Aqueduct, the B'Hai Gardens in Haifa, the views from the rooftops of Tsfat and a windchime and bell shop in Tsfat.

Out of the entire journey, though, three experiences stood out to me as being particularly meaningful. The first was at the Kotel, the Western Wall. I mentioned earlier that I am not particularly religious, but religious or no there is a powerful spiritual pull in that place. Maybe it's some mystical force, maybe it's just the concentrated energy of 2,000 years worth of prayer. But the minute I placed my hand on the cool stone wall, I felt instantly grounded and present in the moment in a way I've never experienced before. My mind is always going in a hundred different directions, so meditation has never been my jam, but in that moment I felt completely centered and at peace. Even the animals seem affected by the energy of the Wall. There are birds all over Jerusalem - pigeons, sparrows, crows, doves - but it's like they were drawn to that place, maybe due to the detritus from all the humans that pass through that spot, maybe by something more pure, more magical. It's hard to say. But one of the most beautiful shots I got from that day was of a pure white pigeon flying directly at the Wall, like the dove of peace. And when I finally left to rejoin the group, I found a silver heart-shaped confetti on the ground. It was most likely discarded by a passing Bar Mitzvah, but found hearts are something that have long been a symbol of my late sister's spiritual presence within my family, so finding one in that moment was incredibly powerful. 

   Powerful moments at     the Western Wall.

Powerful moments at the Western Wall.

The second experience that moved me deeply was visiting Yad Vashem. I must admit, that was actually the part I looked forward to the least. I fully believe that the Holocaust is an important piece of history and one worth remembering, but I get a bit exhausted and desensitized by the image upon image of brutality that tends to fill these sorts of museums. Six million is such a large number that it's almost numbing to hear it repeated over and over again. What surprised me about Yad Vashem was the focus on individual stories and artifacts - the glasses of one person, the letter found in another's pocket, the suitcase packed by a family as they were forced to leave their home - as well as the underlying message of hope in dark times. I was indescribably moved by the sheer amount of artwork they had documented from that time, the hand-drawn birthday cards and homemade games created for children living in the ghettos, the artists who painted and sketched their daily reality no matter how bleak it became, the tales of theatrical productions staged in the ghettos and the camps. As an artist myself, it wrenched my heart and lifted my spirits to see the effort put into making sure beauty and creativity endured regardless of how  horrific reality became. The stories of how Jewish families lived in Europe before the Holocaust were powerful to me, too, as they made me feel a sense of connection to my own family, many of whom fled to North America during the pogroms were long gone by the time Hitler rose to power. The reports of brutality were there, too, of course, but like everything else in that museum, they were told through the eyes, notes, and narratives of individual people. It humanized this overwhelmingly terrible historical event, made it feel more raw, more accessible, and made it affect me far more deeply than I expected. I think most of us left the memorial feeling very contemplative, moreso than we had prepared for going in.

   The view from outside Yad Vashem. Photos were prohibited inside the museum. 

The view from outside Yad Vashem. Photos were prohibited inside the museum. 

On a less emotional and spiritual note, but no less powerful for it, was the effect of the hike up Masada. We awoke at 4:30 in the morning (a late start if you want to reach the peak by sunrise), after tossing and turning all night on the freezing, rocky ground of what was effectively a gravel parking lot at the entrance to Masada National Park. We'd bundled up in layers and had been provided with sleeping bags, foam mats, and tents (though many of us chose to forgo the tents), but their thin protection had been little help against the chill and discomfort, and the most sleep any of us had gotten was about two hours, if we were lucky. We packed up our campsite, brushed our teeth, and ate breakfast in the dim, pre-dawn light and set off toward the foot of the mountain as fierce winds whipped dust around us and threatened to tip us over. Most groups climb up the Roman Ramp, which is the easier of the two trails, and only make their descent down the twisting Snake Path, but most groups don't camp the night before and our site was on the wrong side of the plateau for us to follow that route. So we took the Snake Path both going up and down. If you want to talk challenging, well, climbing up the Snake Path will make you realize just how out of shape you truly are. The cross-fit trainers in our group took off at a run and reached the top within a half an hour, but the rest of us made much slower progress, panting and wheezing and sweating as we forced our way up the twisting path and rows and rows of uneven stairs hewn into the rock, stopping often for water breaks and to catch our breath. Due to our late start, the sun rose while most of us were only halfway up the incline, but it was still a remarkable sight. I found three or four members of our group who had set the same pace as me, and together we rallied one another as we staggered toward the finish line. Our tour guide waited for us at the top, high fiving each of us in turn as we entered the ruins of the ancient fortress and looked out over one of the most incredible vistas I have ever seen in my life. The morning's dust storm had made everything a bit hazy, giving it an ethereal, otherworldly feel, and suddenly the climb felt more than worth it. The wind was more bitter on top of the plateau, and we quickly donned the layers we'd stripped off during our strenuous, sweaty climb and huddled together for warmth. We shared a snack of dates as we discussed the infamous history of Masada, and then our tour guide and staffers performed an informal Bar Mitzvah for several of the men on our trip who had opted to participate in a renewal of their faith. It was short, sweet, and to the point, and at the end one of our staffers broke out his guitar and we sang and danced to an acoustic rendition of Hava Nagila and introduced our Israeli peers to that classic American Bar Mitzvah experience, the Cha Cha Slide. By the time we finished and began our descent, I was thoroughly chilled to the bone and it was barely 8 am. It was probably the most productive morning I've ever had in my life, if I'm being honest. Despite the fact that halfway up I wasn't sure if my lungs and legs were going to hold out, I enjoyed the physical challenge. Let me tell you, if I lived near the Judean Desert I would cancel my gym membership and just hike the Snake Path once a week. I'd be in incredible shape in no time. 

   Attempting to capture the breathtaking beauty of Masada and its view of the Judean Desert.

Attempting to capture the breathtaking beauty of Masada and its view of the Judean Desert.

Still as much as  the scenery and the experiences themselves affected me, the people who shared it with me were just as incredible. Between those who had traveled with me on the long flight from the US and the participants, guards, and guide who joined us once we reached Israel, they were the most amazing group of traveling companions I could ever have asked for. Together, we ate, napped, and hiked our way through each and every day. We engaged in thoughtful discussions about what it meant to be Jewish and heated discussions of how that affected our daily lives. We gathered at the hotel bar in the evenings, chatting and bonding, or out at designated bars on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, sharing tales of our lives and experiences over a beer or two. We posed for pictures and took ridiculous selfies. Those of us who were cat people quickly became known to one another, as we were the ones who stopped to pet and photograph every cat that crossed our paths (and there are A LOT of cats in Israel, let me tell you. I was even followed by cats as I moved between pools at the hot springs!), while the others looked on at our train of feline followers in amusement. One day, at a rest stop, we discovered a massive, magical playground that put every climbing structure I have seen in the States to shame, and we spent half an hour climbing up jungle gyms, jumping on trampolines, racing down thirty foot slides, chasing one another, and generally acting like excited children. When we asked our tour guide later if any group he'd been with had behaved as we did upon seeing such an incredible playground, he shook his head and said, "Not even close." We laughed, we hugged, we cried, we drank, we danced, we became close in a way that only exists in such an intensive, compact experience and rarely survives the outside world once the journey is over. 

   Group photos, incredible playgrounds, and nights out in Tel Aviv. 

Group photos, incredible playgrounds, and nights out in Tel Aviv. 

And so, a month has now passed. Life has gone on and we have all settled back into our daily routines. Our Facebook group is still relatively active, and I talk to several friends from the trip on a regular basis, but apart from that not much feels different than it was before I left. I miss the people I met in Israel, both American and Israeli, and am planning a trip back to see everything I missed and the places I wished I could have spent more time in, but mostly it does feel like a distant dream. I am still fumbling through life, still trying to figure out how to get to the path I want to be on, as are most of my peers. For some of them, that path now includes an extended stay or possibly even a move to Israel, but for me it may include a visit or two, but nothing more. If I had to choose one thing I learned from the trip, however, it's to surrender myself to the challenges. I have chosen a difficult life for myself, just as I chose a trip that I knew would push me out of my comfort zone, but both have the potential to be incredibly rewarding when one simply embraces the experience and breathes through the discomfort when it arises. I said in my previous post that I am trying to be more like The Fool, and journeying through Israel embodied that commitment for me. Hopefully the rest of the year ahead of me will have just as many adventures as I found myself on in those ten days, albeit of a different sort. And as many cats. You can never have enough cats. 

   So many cats....

So many cats....