Sunday, January 13, 2008

It's been six days since I've returned, and I'm finally somewhat ready to distill my Israel experience into a journal entry. I think I'm only ready because I should be working, I should be reading about medieval Russia, or preparing for my thesis meeting w/ Lynn tomorrow. I should be writing up my presentation for 19thc America this Wednesday, or organizing my course roster. And instead, all I can do is look back through my trip photos and try to make sense of how it was only 10 days, and how I'm back in America and how I'm sitting in Coffeetopia working very slowly. "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

I took over 1200 photos on this trip. It was how I processed everything. Click! Bits of paper shoved into cracks in the Western Wall. Click! The sun rising over the Dead Sea and valleys of colored rocks. Click! Vast green fields surrounded by barbed wire. Danger! Land mines! Click! Click! Cai and me bumping along on a camel through the desert. Hundreds of challah golden challah loaves and people bargaining for the best price before sundown on Shabbat. Over 1200 photos, and I'm working through them before I post them on facebook. As soon as they're up, I'll post universal links here, so everyone can see them.

People have been saying "What was the best part?" or "What was the highlight?" I can't pick one. What I've been saying is that I have a few. Israel is a very intense juxtaposition of old and new. I loved that we could be a in a modern city, thriving and rushing like Los Angeles only with more Hebrew, and then walk a few blocks into the silence of cobblestones and alleyways. I loved Tzfat, the ancient city where the first kabbalists lived. We watched them weave Havdalah candles with up to 86 strands. I loved walking through the Old City, Jerusalem, which is like a world apart from other worlds. At the Western Wall, despite my discomfort at the tiny women's section crammed up next to the generous men's section, I felt the holiness of thousands of women's hands on the bricks before me, the hands that will come after mine, and the hands of the women around me. It is a wall made of bricks and blessings, mortar and generations of paper.

I loved our open air Jeep ride through the Golan Heights. It made me shudder, the beauty and the bombs. The bright green hills littered with rusted pieces of Syrian tanks. The man driving our Jeep told me he saw a man shot to death in New York City and no one stopped to help him, said that would never happen in Israel, and all I could do was apologize that this was the face of America that he found. That wouldn't normally happen, I said. It wouldn't. Danger! Land mines! Danger. Bright, bright green.

I loved the camel ride through the desert and staying overnight with the 47 new friends we made in our bus group, curled up in the Bedouin tent till 4:45am, when we rose to hike up Masada in the dark. When we reached the top, the sun rose and the rocks were one million colors and the Dead Sea was heart-shaped and we were breathless. We walked through the ruins and saw the oldest known synagogue in Israel before hiking back down. We went to the Dead Sea, we floated on our backs and laughed. We saw a herd of ibexes at Ein Gedi National Park.

We barely slept for 10 days. We rose at 6am and often did not return to our hotel till midnight. It was worth it. We rushed through open-air markets and bought colorful scarves and kippot and mezuzot. We only stopped for Shabbat, when we learned that the WHOLE COUNTRY stops at once and takes a collective breath.

It was fascinating to be in the religious majority. It's not that I feel marginalized in America. I don't. I'm white, and I'm in a heterosexual relationship. I'm not marginalized. But in Israel, the country closes at 4pm on Friday at Sunday and opens on 5pm Saturday at sundown. It's like walking through a ghost town Saturday morning on the way to Shabbat services. There are mezuzot in EVERY doorway - even hotel rooms and store fronts, because almost everyone is Jewish. And there is Judaica everywhere - Jewish art, chamsas, Stars of David. Can you imagine a country that does not get ready for Christmas before Thanksgiving? Where everything is kosher and you can buy challah on every street corner? Imagine! It's almost inconceivable unless you've seen it.

Being on Birthright meant that I was surrounded by Jewish friends all the time. We talked about Jewish identity and politics over breakfast every day and I never once had to explain myself.

That said...being in Israel for ten days confirmed what I already knew: IT'S NOT MY HOMELAND. Some people on my trip got to Jerusalem and when we danced and sang on the sidewalks they told me they felt like they'd come home. I didn't. And I don't think it's the "holy land" because I believe, even more strongly now than I ever have before, that NO LAND IS MORE HOLY THAN ANOTHER. It's not about PLACE it's about the PEOPLE. COMMUNITY makes something "holy" or "sacred" or "divine." And while Cai and I formed almost instant friendships with the people on our trip, my community is in Santa Cruz, and so is my home. It's at Santa Cruz Hillel and the Co-Op. If I lived in Israel and built a community there, it would be different, but I don't intend to. I don't need a physical proximity to ancient relics to feel spiritually connected.

I definitely felt a cultural and historical connection, from being in the religious majority for the first and only time in my life.

But I feel more spiritually connected sitting on the floor at the Co-Op instead of standing at the Wall in Jerusalem. I feel more connected staring out over the ocean at West Cliff instead of staring out over the Galilee. It's not that I didn't feel spiritual in Israel. I did. It's just...different.

Anyways. I think I've rambled enough for now. It was a really incredible trip. I made friends I'll never forget. I learned valuable lessons. I saw things I still can't even quite understand, it was all so immense. I can't believe how much they packed into 10 days. Every day felt like three days. I want more. But not yet.

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