Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Birthright - תגלית

Since the week past was short on anything exciting, I decided to finish my Israel trip recap. Ironically, it is basically 2 months since it had begun. Better late than never.

This was not a leisure trip (as in a vacation). It was a semi-educational program called Birthright in English and Taglit (תגלית - Discovery) in Hebrew sponsored by the rich philanthropic brethren. The trip is free but the catch is that it's open only to 18-27 year old Jews, space is limited, and one trip per person. My application was accepted on the third attempt, so to say I was excited to go doesn’t come even close to describe my high spirits.

I wanted to go on the trip expecting only to refresh my memories because I had been to Israel when I was 10 (we spent some two months visiting relatives and touring the country). I thought my childhood memories were vivid enough. Little did I know how much my view of the world has changed after almost 9 years in the USA.

The Awesome | The Enchanting | The Addicting | The Funny | The Annoying | The Shocking | The Disgusting | The Aftermath

The Awesome

When people ask me what I enjoyed the most on the trip, it seems they expect to hear about some spiritual experience or seeing something incredible. Well, the whole thing about visiting Israel is a spiritual activity and there are plenty of fascinating things to see there. I loved the two planned physical activities we had.

First, it was the descent from the Masada fortress, a 2-thousand-year-old military complex built by Herod the Great on top of a 400m (1,200ft.) rock in the middle of the desert not far from the Dead Sea. It is known for being the site of one of the few mass Jewish suicides in order to prevent being enslaved. However, my experience had nothing to do with history. There was something refreshingly exciting and empowering in realizing that you can run for over a mile down a narrow winding rocky path in some 100F weather in sandals while balancing a day pack and a camera bag. The real test of primal survival instincts kick in when you are at the bottom of the mountain, you see the visitors’ center, but the path you are on clearly doesn’t lead there and there’s nobody to ask for directions because you are in the middle of a frigging desert. Though cell phones had good signal, we managed to find the way back without using them.

The other one was rafting down the Jordan River. To be honest, that was my first rafting experience and I have not rowed any boats in almost 10 years. The Jordan is a very narrow river (18-20ft wide where we were) and its banks are full of trees and bushes that grow too low over the water and sometimes in the water providing additional physical exercise of ducking and bending while avoiding being hit with branches and snags. The fun ended relatively quickly as my first boat ended up colliding with one of the snags precisely into an old patch. Luckily, there was one last boat behind us so a 5-people crew became a 10-people crowd with four oars, which sort of eased avoiding further dangers and ensured our safe arrival.

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The Enchanting

As I’ve said, there is plenty of sightseeing to do in Israel. Its diverse nature is mindboggling especially when you realize that it’s about the same size as New Jersey (not that the Garden State is uniform). Israel has almost all types of terrain – deserts, forests, plains, mountains, rivers, lakes, and seas – and that’s without getting into subtypes. I realized it will be impossible to capture it all in photographs during our ride from the airport to Jerusalem, so I simply enjoyed it for 10 days. Besides, nowadays all I need is to enter the location into an online image search and get plenty of views to show where I’ve been.

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The Addicting

I’ve liked hummus before but eating it 2-3 times a day for a week made me a total addict. For the last 3 days, our hotel did not have it for some reason and, boy, I was not pleased. In the USA, hummus is apparently considered a delicacy despite its simple ingredients: chick peas, olive oil, sesame seed paste (tahini), and flavor additives (salt, pepper, nuts, etc). This special status results in sky-high prices of $8 per pound in my local Safeway (I’m scared to think what it costs at WholeFoods). Luckily, the DC Costco offers it for half the price.

The new bug though was Edward Maya’s single Stereo Love. The producer & the song are just beginning to take over the DC nightlife but in Israel it was everywhere. Listen to it and you will understand its magic (hint: it’s the accordion).

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The Funny

My collection of ridiculous & embarrassing moments grew significantly within literally 5 minutes. First, when riding camelback at a fake Bedouin camp (it’s a well-maintained tourist attraction) I felt someone lightly pulling my backpack, which was strange as I was in the back. It turned out the camel behind me decided to try a new snack. Luckily, it hadn’t gotten far and the damage was limited to some smelly saliva & shrub remains. Though the worst was yet to come.

You see, the camp is on top of a hill in the middle of the desert and that afternoon was extra-windy. As we have discovered, when you are riding camelback in a windy desert the moisture you feel on your legs is not water from an oasis. Yes, it’s camel pee. Well, it wasn’t as bad as it could sound but it was definitely unpleasant to realize that sweat & dust were the least of my troubles.

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The Annoying

The one thing I hated the most about Israel was how slow it is compared to the USA. The amount of time we spent in lines is unimaginable (including 2-hour check-in on the flight back). This sluggishness is omnipresent even at the busiest of times, which is very strange because Israelis are stereotyped as highly impatient. Here’s my theory: the Hebrew equivalent of “come on” is “bikitzer”; compare that to “hold on a minute” “regah”. Striking difference, isn’t it?

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The Shocking

The most upsetting thing happened the night before last in Israel. A small group of us was coming back from an outing in Tiberius waterfront on Saturday evening when I saw a yarmulke-wearing cleanly dressed man in his early forties with a large plastic bag going through a trashcan looking for empty bottles & cans. This activity immediately brought the memories from my childhood in Belarus of elderly people doing the same in order to have supplemental income to their beggarly pensions.

It wasn’t the first person I’ve seen scavenging through garbage since I left Belarus. It wasn’t the first person I’ve seen in Israel scavenging through garbage. It was the first person who looked like he had no other choice I’ve seen scavenging through garbage. It was the end of my Israel fairy-tale because in a country with such a strong welfare safety net & a developed charity network there cannot be decent people scavenging through garbage.

I could have done or said something and I didn’t. I’m not upset at myself because I never give money as alms (I prefer to donate my time, which I value more). But I am upset at everyone else in the street who could have seen that for not doing anything about the country & the system that drives people to such extreme survival.

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The Disgusting

There was one aspect of the trip that made almost the whole group’s stomachs turn – politics. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a shocker that a program called “Birthright” would contain a fair amount of pro-immigration & pro-Zionism activities. We did not like the Soviet-style execution of those activities. The prolonged speeches glorifying the state of Israel delivered to tourists and the pointless symbolic actions with mandatory attendance for all program participants created unmistakable parallels with the Soviet Union.

Our apogee of this nonsense happed on the third day. It was the day when an incredible event created in the minds of Birthright management took place: they decided that all groups would march for 1km all over the country to symbolize something. Our group was assigned to Lod, a town famous for having a sizable Arab population. Guess where we were marching! That’s right: through a mostly Arab neighborhood! with Israeli flags! almost 200 young people from the Americas! chanting some songs in Hebrew and English! What the hell were the organizers thinking?

Personally, I didn’t care much about the march because my mind was jumping between my sandals rubbing my feet, my freshly-scraped leg (a story on its own), and the lax security at a mass event. However, my less-forgiving & more content-aware peers were quite vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction.

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The Aftermath

Obviously, the trip was a life-changer for me. It didn’t change my love for Israel as a foreign country or myself as a Jew. It changed my view of Israel as a possible immigration destination. I had considered moving there a couple of years ago but I wanted to refresh my memories. Now, that I have seen the present-day Israel, I would not want to move there though it’s a great vacation destination.

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