Reprinted from San Diego Jewish Journal with permission of the author.
I've always felt I was mediocre at being Jewish, reform even by Reform standards, so I was pleasantly surprised that the 31 others were mostly on Birthright for the same reason I was: at 26, we were the cut-off age for the trip, and we would have felt like idiots missing out on 10 free days in Israel. The fact we were Jewish was a footnote to our identities, kind of like your college major that had nothing to do with your career.
El Al had an open bar policy and within two hours of our flight, we crowded the aisles, chugged Israeli merlot, and high-fived over everything and nothing. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, though, my merlot buzz evaporated after I saw 50-plus soldiers wielding machine guns. This was followed by security checks, metal detectors, and bombed-out homes. Maybe it was my laid-back SoCal upbringing, but this was not somewhere I wanted to live.
The first three days consisted of waking up at six, hiking, getting really boring historical lectures, eating pita and humus, then partying until two in the morning. On a trip like this, you tend to revert to your junior high instincts, which means analyzing the hell out of everyone in your group. Ryan was frat boy detached cool; in other words--prick. Danny was the class clown Jim Carrey of the group--annoying. But the headliner was Jenna, a dead ringer for Evangeline Lilly, which was fitting since this whole experience felt a little like being on "Lost."
On day four, we went to a Bedouin camp in the desert. I decided this was the night to establish myself as Jenna's Birthright Boyfriend; we'd developed a solid rapport, discussing everything from relationships to butter versus margarine. Problem was, at the bonfire, our host Nathaniel wouldn't stop talking. He talked about his distant relatives who'd gotten killed at a bus stop bombing, he talked about Palestinians shooting at him when he was 5. Poignant stuff and I was probably a prick for not being more engaged, but I had the Jenna situation on my mind. And so maybe it was because I was drunk off eight to 12 Gold Stars, but I found myself asking:
"Why don't you just move out of Israel?"
Nathaniel stared at me as if I'd just unzipped myself. Not offended, just confused on where I could be going with this. Jenna chuckled.
"You have a choice, you know." I was making a reasonable point, or thought I was. "In the States, you don't have to worry about getting blown up. Mugged, car-jacked, maybe. But you survive those."
"I have never been mugged."
"And the army service they force you into," I continued, on a somewhat roll. "Not in America. If you wanna fight Iraqis, you gotta volunteer."
"I don't want to go to the U.S. My family is in Israel."
"Bring them, too! You'll have to work out the immigration, obviously, but it's definitely worth a shot."
Nathaniel was silent and for a moment, I thought I was getting through. Man, that would have been nice. I come to this country on a free trip, get drunk, and change people's lives. Not a bad way to pass the time.
"The problem is…"
And right then, Nathaniel did something I can honestly say I've never seen anyone do.
"The problem is…" He scooped up a handful of dirt, dumped it into his mouth, and chewed like a bulldog:
"… I love this country!"
We laughed pretty hard at that, even though I was partially convinced this guy was insane.
Nathaniel's dirt snacking stayed with me the next few days, particularly on a hike to the Red Sea where we saw how close Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt bordered us. The arrangement was like being stuck in a constant state of Cuban Missile Crisis. I didn't see how people could live like this, the same way I didn't get why someone would build a house where a hurricane was likely to decimate it. The Jews had endured more fire than any other culture in history--why not move out of the fireplace? The issue kept buzzing in my ear in a "What Makes Sammy Run" way and by day seven, I was having trouble discussing other things until I got this resolved.
The group provided zero help here. Danny publicly started calling me Moses since I was trying to liberate the Jews out of Israel or something. Idiot. Fact was, he had his sights on Jenna and I was a key obstacle. She and I had been sitting with each other on all the bus rides; one time we fell asleep together, holding hands. Pretty romantic for being on a bus full of people accusing each other of farting.
On day eight, over schwarma, our guard Adam told us about his army experience, how he'd been discharged two weeks before his unit was called in to fight Hezbollah, then how he'd persuaded his superiors to let him re-join. In doing so, he got shot twice. He was also an oleh, an American who'd immigrated to Israel.
"Have you ever eaten Israeli dirt?" I asked.
"The hell is that supposed to mean?" He was also kind of a prick.
"Moses thinks every time you leave your house, you're gonna get blown up," Danny offered.
"That's not what I think." Idiot. "I just don't get why you moved someplace where you're a lot more likely to get killed."
"Damn media. If they told you that Israelis and Palestinians did a ceasefire circle jerk once a year, you'd probably believe that too, huh?"
"Maybe. But the media doesn't say that. They talk about suicide bombings, and--"
"Lighten up, Jon."
It took me about three full seconds to realize that this came from Jenna.
"That's all you've been talking about, 'Why do people live in Israel? Help me understand. Please. Please. Why?!?'"
She and I were the couple, the Brad and Angelina of the group. Okay, maybe not quite, but still, what was this crap coming out her mouth? And why did she use a whiny second grader's voice to impersonate me?
"We're here to learn about Israel, Jenna. Not to get trashed every night."
"You can still talk about other things, Moses."
I must have looked like I was going to chuck my Tahini sauce in her face since she suddenly left, wearing a grin that was textbook smug. The others followed, leaving just me and Adam. Adam cracked a rare smile.
"You know what it is about Israel?"
How could she call me Moses? I'd have to at least go to temple to earn a nickname like that. It's like calling me Super Jew. Ridiculous.
"Israel is the opposite of Jenna."
Is he talking?
"I said, Israel is the opposite of Jenna. Israel isn't good-looking to everyone, but if you see her from the right angle, she's the most beautiful thing ever."
I guess he thought that was really insightful.
That night at the kibbutz, I didn't approach Jenna, figuring maybe she'd offer an apology. She didn't see it that way. Instead, she saw herself hooking up with Danny in an empty classroom which, as I was en route to brush my teeth, I happened to see, too.
I was hung over and pissed off before I even opened my eyes the next morning. Driving to the Western Wall, I sat alone, constructing horrible death scenarios for Danny. I couldn't justify doing that to Jenna, so I just thought of ways to really hurt her feelings.
My mind was still racing erratically when I put on my paper kippah and entered the Western Wall arena. Most of the people were Orthodox, wearing black suits in the unforgiving heat; I couldn't relate to that. And what were they all crying over? Whatever it was, at least they stood for something, unlike my Birthright group. We were bonded by a free trip, nothing else. It wasn't like the Israeli Jews. They were in the trenches together all the time, since always. Does that make you more connected? Does all that make this a country that you would die for, a place you just don't leave when she needs you? Maybe that's what it means to live in Israel.
This last thought resonated like in an echo chamber inside my head.
Maybe that's what it means to live in Israel...
I stopped focusing on Jenna, Danny, all of them, and suddenly remembered when the Twin Towers went down, or more specifically, the two weeks following 9/11. It was a brief window where Americans were emotionally connected, the only time in my life when I felt that a stranger had my back if I needed it. Standing here, I saw that's how people in Israel felt all the time.
And when you looked at it from this angle, there was no question, you saw something beautiful.