Thursday, September 15, 2011

When people ask about my Israel trip

IDF soldier in Tel Aviv. Photo by Or Hiltch

When I say, I went to reconnect with family I mean, Im not joining your crusade.

WHEN PEOPLE ASK about my Israel trip, I have to choose my words carefully.

    I walked around deserted streets on Shabbat evenings, befriended stray cats, stared at huge jellyfish washed up on the shore. An Apache helicopter flew over a miniature Coca Cola factory. A 17 year old boy in a daishiki who slept on the beach because his father brought home nightly mistresses bluffed his way through an earnest cover of Hallelujah.

The usual travel vocabulary of micro-snapshots feels vapid and inadequate. The word Israel resonates with more political weight than I am comfortable with. It sends my anarchist friend on a rant about oppression and the injustice of settlements in Palestinian territories. It causes my aunt to swallow her civil dinner tone along with another gulp of wine and rail against about Obamas lack of support, or double standards in journalism. On both occasions, I nod politely, feeling guilty.

I take the journalists fifth plead vague objectiveness. In actuality, I dont know whats more irresponsible pretending that a twenty day trip has made me informed enough to take a definitive stance on a complicated and polarizing political issue, or pretending that I can take a trip through hotly contested land which a significant part of my family calls home and remain a detached observer.

Two recent articles come to mind. In one, an Italian man arrives in Falluja as a tourist, on a guilelessly apolitical mission to see a new country. In another, an American college student on break from classes and in search of an extreme vacation flies to Libya to join up with the rebels. Was I any better than the former? Conversely, were my peers who, dissatisfied with the lack of struggle in their lives and inflamed by the idea of authentic conflict, traveled to Israel to build settlements for either side any different from the latter?

    Yael lay back in the bus seat with his feet up. He was in his last year as an Israeli Defense Force soldier. He was also a promoter at a nightclub. He had friends who died in suicide bombing attacks. He had an expensive watch and a new iPhone. Yael put his faith in Yahweh and the IDFs intelligence division: both knew about things before they happened and both promised protection. This was especially important because Yael believed his country would be at war within the next year.We shared headphones and listened to a reggae song that was a current hit on Radio Galgalatz. Time is short here, he translated, and much work exists on the way. The desert unfurled outside the window. We passed a town whose residents expected Katyusha rockets the way Boston expected rain. And when he comes, Yael translated, pointing to the sky, he always comes on time. .

    At the wailing wall, women in shawls rocked back and forth. Girls looked around nervously, then looked back at their prayer books. Many cried. Some whispered, chanted, wrapped their voices around vowels I didnt understand.

    People came here to wail and hope and wedge countless tightly wrapped pieces of paper inside the wall, ink seeping into the rock face so that their prayers would become a part of something bigger, so that a bigger force might take them into account for the continuous creation of the world. If the kingdom of heaven was a democracy, were these women casting their ballots? Warm Mediterranean waves threw me towards the shore and I cut my leg on a rock. A submarine sat watchful on the horizon.

When people say, the personal is political they mean, a place is never just a place. When a guide says, look at the beauty of the desert he means, and help us preserve it and understand that it is ours. When I say, I went to reconnect with family I mean, Im not joining your crusade. Sorry Im not sorry.

    It turned out that my Israeli cousin and I have lived parallel lives halfway across the world without knowing anything about each other. Her ringtone was Bob Dylans Tambourine Man. We had identical Chagall prints hanging in our hallways. For a year after her army service, she lived in a bummer house in the Tel Aviv ghetto, wore vintage dresses, tried to be an actress. Now we were both working at arts journalism music for me, theater for her. She took me to an exhibition of rock n roll photography. We sang Karma Police at dawn as we walk up the five flights of stairs to her flat, after a night of dancing.

    The kibbutz where my Israeli relaives lived for two years reminded me of the bungalow colonies where I used to spend my summers, especially at twilight. A scruffy dog followed us up the path, nuzzling my hand. Four teenagers sat at a table drinking bottles of Goldstar beer and talking about burlesque. My uncle pointed to a nearby field the site of his brief shepherd career. Herding sheep was never my intention, he explained, but I didnt want to deal with the kibbutzniks. Sheep were far more reasonable.

It is easier when I tell people I went to Tel Aviv their eyes light up mischievously, they ask me about the nightlife.

    Hordes of revelers danced their way down Rothschild Street, reminiscent of SXSW or a Friday night in Williamsburg. The similarity ended when we find ourselves beside a van of Rabbi Nachman followers Hasidim in white skullcaps breaking it down on top of a party van to a techno remix of the Numa Numa song. Rabbi Nachman, Nachman Meuman. Nahman Meuman. Rabbi Nachman Meuman. We dance along with the gleeful crowd, then duck into an underground dubstep club.


    People still danced and drank and laughed, only their eyes burned a little brighter and everyone seemed to drive a little faster.

    In the Negev desert in the dark, where the sky was peppered with millions of stars, the lights of a Humvee were visible from many miles away. I lay back in the cool sand and waited for something poignant to come to me, but as usual, found only snapshots and stories.

Back home, it is the same. I did learn a lot about the conflicts, but my perceptions of Israel are all colored with the warmth of family happiness, the conversations with the people I met, the taste of thick hummus and dark Turkish coffee, and the impossible hues of Mediterranean light. I remember Efi Eyal in Yad Vashem saying, What is your art like? It is like me, and feel a reassuring sort of resignation.

I dont connect with holy but I connect with home. I dont connect with war but I connect with survival. I dont connect with politics but I try to connect with people.

So then, I leave the activism to the activists the way I leave the falafel connoisseurship to the foodies and the Judaica to the believers. I deal in stories, so I come back with stories. If that means all I can do for now is learn and listen, then for me, that will have to be enough.


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