Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Galen's Days in Israel: Part Two

This is Part Two in my Israel Logs. You can find the first installment here.

Jan 4:
This was Shabbat, and we did just about nothing - it was excellent. In the afternoon, we took a trip to the beach in Eilat. It was much, much too cold to swim, so I sat on a towel and read. That night, we went to a mall for dinner (and shopping). Yes, I bought a dress - don't you know me by now? We went to a bar called Park Avenue, which was decorated with touristy pictures of the New York City skyline. After my time there, no place seems less inviting or romantic than New York. I ordered a gin and tonic and received a glass of gin and a glass of tonic. 

My, this was a S Saturday.

Jan 5:
My birthday started with a bang - by 10 AM, I was atop a mountain from which I could see Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The Red Sea looked like a tarp - I felt I could pinch it and pull it off the land. 

We came down to the seashore, and even though it was 60 degrees I went snorkeling. The water was frigid (I screamed a chain of expletives as I eased-in) but once I was submerged I felt like part of the atmosphere. I very nearly swallowed seawater, but after a few false starts I found a rhythm. Floating on top of the water, facing the rocks on the sea floor, was very much like meditating. Fish passed beneath me; I pretended I was a mermaid. 

We had lunch at a kibbutz that specializes in dairy (amazing ice cream), and toured another - Kibbutz Lotan. At midday, I sipped tea in a mud building as sun streamed through the window.

As the sun set, we visited Ben Gurion's grave. It sits atop a cliff in the Negev desert, symbolizing the first Prime Minister's dream to incorporate the desert into Israel.

We're hearing a lot about the SIZE of Israel; we are told that without the Negev, the country will not be large enough. We are told that the Negev is vital for Israel's growth. We are reminded that the United States is SO BIG - look at how small Israel is! How can it ever compete?

We ended our night at a Bedouin settlement. An older tribesman welcomed us with coffee (the tradition is three cups) and told us a bit about his peoples' past and customs. The Bedouins aren't nomads anymore, and they sleep in trailers cemented to the ground. While the presentation was interesting, it did not feel particularly authentic. It was like visiting a museum and being told that people live there. The food, however, was delicious. 

I was presented with a cake, and the boys lifted me in the air 26 times - I laughed as my head brushed the roof of the tent again and again and again.

Late that night, we walked away from the settlement and spent some time under the stars. Ten minutes of silence and contemplation (in the freezing cold) was a welcome way to end my birthday. What is that Carl Sagan quote? "Everyone who has ever lived or died has done it on this rock?" Something like that...

We all slept in one huge tent, on pallets on the floor. I thought I'd be uncomfortable, but it was the best nights' sleep I'd had so far. 

In the morning, Mel woke-up with her face in my cake. CLASSIC.

This was a Special Sunday.

Jan 6:
Our last day in the desert.

We hiked through a valley with an oasis. There were natural caves in the cliff sides where rabbis and monks used to isolate themselves for years at a time. I could barely handle ten minutes of silence the night before - what a wimp. 

Shabat told us the traditions of a particular desert tree - the Bedouins claim that the wood will burn for days at a time. The burning bush, perhaps?

We left the desert for Tel Aviv. In Rabin square, our group grew by seven - we now have Israelis among us. Five of them are still soldiers; the others are a student and a business owner. They will accompany us for the rest of our trip, and hopefully we will all be different for knowing each other. After some light icebreakers, we heard about the tumult of the 80s and 90s, the hope of a new leader, and the despair of his assassination. His memorial is composed of jagged stones, representing the emotional earthquake of his death. 

There, we heard an anecdote that will not leave my mind. In 2011, a group of a thousand Palestinian prisoners was released in exchange for one Israeli POW. All the Israelis in our group, including Shabat, believe that was the right decision. One phrase keeps repeating in my head: "We do not negotiate with terrorists." 

Is one life worth more than another? Is it right to release a thousand convicted killers back into the world? Or is it wrong to let a countryman go?

I had pizza for lunch - it felt like cheating.

The market in Tel Aviv was interesting, I suppose, but if you've been to New York's Chinatown, then it's nothing new. By this point, I was ready to leave Tel Aviv; I missed the desert.

After dinner we had a panel discussion with our Israelis. Shabat tried in vain to keep the discourse light, but we weren't interested in pleasantries. There are serious forces at work here, and it seems we all want to understand them. 

I was most surprised by their attitude toward the United States - they don't understand what it's like to be a minority. They don't understand how we can BE a minority. They would rather live in Israel, where everyone they know is Jewish, and they don't ever deal with the complications of cultural diffusion. Personally, I love the American salad bowl; I love that I am from a blended family, and am constantly exposed to differing viewpoints. Yes, it's annoying when people try to convert me (it's not gonna happen, kay?), but I am proud to be a part of America's tapestry. In Israel (where 80% of the population is Jewish) you might be understood, but you are also one of the herd. And how must it feel to be non-Jewish here? In the Jewish State, being a Christian must be very frustrating. 

If you're the majority, then someone else is in the minority; do not forget to include them in the fabric of your country.

Almost everyone else went out to a club after our discussion - I am an ancient 26 year-old lady, and I went to bed early. But first, I spent two blissful hours ALONE in my hotel room. It was my first period of isolation in 6 days, and it was sorely needed.

I'm just gonna say it: Manic Monday.

Jan 7:
So many people are hungover this morning - I feel fantastic. Sorry, not sorry :)

At the moment, we're on the bus heading for Zefat. There, we will learn about Kabbalah and the roots of Jewish mysticism. I'm reading Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha" on my Kindle, which seems appropriate.

Here's a quick thought: I found out that I can be bat mitzvah'd in Jerusalem. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to do it, but it's a possibility. I wanted to feel more Jewish after this trip - that's one way, I guess.


It's been a few hours - we are now in Tiberius, in our hotel. Zefat was incredible - we visited a Kaballah center, a visual artist, a candle factory, and the artists' colony. 

At the Kaballah center, we reopened my favorite topic: Gilat Shalid, the Israeli soldier who was traded for 1000 Palestinian prisoners. In groups, we were given pieces of Jewish text and asked a series of questions relating to the controversy. My group discussed the difference between the heart and the mind; which decisions are better, emotional or rational ones? This group of 15 read passages by Jewish rabbis and tried to find consensus. It. Was. Fascinating. I could talk about this for days and days and never be tired; I am fascinated by the differences in American and Israeli culture. 

The artist showed us beautiful paintings which describe the core principles of Kaballah. My favorite mapped the sound waves of a Shofar, and showed how the blasts illustrate a relationship with The Divine. I've always been interested in Buddhism, and my therapist says I should meditate more - maybe I should give Kaballah a try?

The artists' colony in Zefat is incredible - there is so much beauty lining the streets. I kept thinking about my Aunt Sherry - she'd be in heaven there. 

Zefat won me over, hard. It is by far my favorite place we've been. The desert was lovely, a place to restart, but Zefat is a place that feeds the open soul.

I had a revelation this afternoon; I know what lead me to Israel: the questions. I always say, "I love being right," and I do (I really, really do). But when it comes to my faith, I have many more questions than answers. I'm not just talking about "big questions," either; there are a lot of details that I just don't understand.

I didn't grow-up going to synagogue; I actually attended a Unitarian church until I was 18. I am so grateful for my inclusive, tolerant, curious Unitarian family, but I have always longed to understand my Jewish roots. I call myself "Jewish," but sometimes I feel like a fraud because I don't understand the minutiae of day-to-day Jewish life. I'm ignorant to hundreds of traditions. Hell, until last Friday, I had never observed Shabbat before. 

These questions lead me to Birthright. I came to Israel to learn about my people - about Israel, this place which (I am told) is my home. I don't know yet if I feel "more Jewish" than I did when I left the United States, but I understand Judaism a bit better than I did a week ago, and that's a good place to start.

I liked this Teachable Tuesday.

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