Discovery in the Middle East

Much can be taken away from the free trip to Israel if you are Jewish between the ages of eighteen to twenty-six, known as a Birthright trip. Eating falafel by the handful and spooning hummus onto your plate as if they were mashed potatoes during Thanksgiving. Walking on the silk-like sand in southern Israel, walking in a tipsy daze through the narrow alleys of Jerusalem during the night, smelling and tasting the vibrant red spices in the markets, nonchalantly strolling through the dessert via camel, A modern day Lawrence of Arabia no doubt.

It was truly an invigorating and eye-opening trip for a Jew who has never been outside the US. However, it was invigorating in a way that may be perceived as cynical, religiously desolate, but also empowering.

A quick background into my religious upbringing:   My mother was brought up ultra-orthodox in her town in New Brunswick, Canada and my father was raised Jewish, attended temple for high holidays and was bar-mitzvahed. I was brought up to celebrate the high holidays and to understand why we celebrate them but that was it. I have only attended temple a handful of times and was given an impromptu bar mitzvah by a pushy rabbi at seventeen. Tefillin wrapped around my arms and reading from the Old Testament (the English side…)

I pondered for a while before applying to Birthright. I am clearly not a devout member of the Jewish community, I relate more as atheist if I had to put a title to my religious belief. I felt like if I took this free trip, I would be taking the spot from a true practicing Jewish man or woman.

I may not be religious but I do realize I appreciate the Jewish culture and perseverance. It would also be nice to start filling my passport with stamps, and it would be kind of badass to causally say, “Yeah, I was in the Middle East. Hm, I guess it is dangerous over there.”

I applied and was accepted.

The first highlight was when we went all the way up north to a lookout where you could see the Syrian border. It looked so serene and fragile. Lush green grass and mountains just begging to be climbed in the distance. Pass that, a chaos unfathomed to any of us Americans. Someone in the group shouted they could hear the “booms” of the bombs in the far distance. I didn’t hear anything except for the cool breeze and farmers advertising their amber gold honey and fire red cherries.

During that day, I also got to see what it was like to be Israeli. We went into an old bomb shelter. It was beyond dark, you couldn’t see your hand if you put it in front of your face, and a quietness so heavy. I spoke to the four unarmed Israeli soldiers that accompanied us throughout the trip and they told me you simply become used to entering the tuna can-like shelter and hearing  the sounds of sirens.           

The nightlife and leisure time meant time for exploration. Walking around the streets of Tiberias, Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem with no purpose or direction and seeing the locals sip on Tubi 60 and smoke hookah connected to tentacle-like hoses, all embracing each other’s company, felt both distant but close to home. Tel-Aviv seemed similar to Miami. Some parts had a Miracle Mile touch with a Mediterranean aesthetic. Within those hazy, drink-filled thoughts, I realized that this is why I came 5000 miles – the nightlife. I hid my birthright lanyard, and anything that could scream American tourist being babysat by Israeli security. I left the bar where the majority of the group was binge-drinking and I blended in with the locals.

 I met two promoters for a popular techno club in Tel-Aviv, but unfortunately, the club had no shows going on. They assured me the techno and underground music scene is slowly but surely building up. I then found a bar that served five shekel shots and shared a finely rolled cigarette with a Frenchman who moved to Israel a few years ago.  He also assured me the nightlife in Tel-Aviv was the place to be. I agreed.

Later on we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The building is shaped in the design of half of the Star of David. This symbolizes the missing half lost in the Holocaust. Entrance into the granite gray building starts out incredibly tall and narrow but becomes wider and brighter as you exit back into the desert sun. We spent most of our time talking about the years from 1933 to 1940.

As I walked on the actual cobblestone street from the Warsaw Ghetto, I felt lost. Hearing about the holocaust in movies or literature is one thing, but to actually walk on that street, realizing that could have been my family, myself, my friends, my butcher, my doctor, all a prelude to being sent out to slaughter, is something you can’t fully comprehend from any History Channel documentary. For this to happen simply because the minorities, mostly Jews were being used as a scapegoat for Germanys problems after the first World War, made me question the idea of religion or a deity altogether once again but also illuminated my cultural essence.

The Jews of Europe of that time were laughed at, segregated, slaughtered by the masses but out of all the ash, a rose still blooms.

What put a final sense in my lack of religious belief was the fact that even with the anti-Semitism of the Nazi philosophy, Israelis themselves are pretty unwelcoming to Muslims and vice versa. It is easy to judge as an American tourist. I did not have to live through perpetual war, go into a bomb shelter as a preschooler, lose a best friend to shrapnel, or ever have to concern myself over why a man is wearing an overcoat in 106 degree weather.

Yet I can’t help but smell the hypocrisy when a rabbi tells me to love my neighbor but then says his old street in Montreal was so much better “before the Muslims came in.”

On another day, we took a two-hour lecture on what the middle east conflict is. The lecture was unbiased and absolutely intriguing. Covering topics like ISIS, US/ Israel relations, Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin. Kids from the group took it from many different angles. Some said there could be peace one day, Israel must give up the settlements to Palestine, Israel needs to stay out of Syria, others said there will never be peace.

My perspective on the discussion is that there will probably never be peace in that area. The saying in Israel is “Not if there is another war, but when.” Israel has tried to give back settlements in the Oslo Accords but nothing has prevailed. I spoke to one of our soldiers who had to guard a section of the West Bank and saw thousands of Palestinians crammed into squalid quarters no bigger than a piano bar.

The state of Israel is sharply divided between the left and the right. The left favors more of a two-state solution while the right refuses to give up a meter of land. Which shows how can there be peace if one country itself has internal conflict? Just like our own country facing the upcoming election.

This trip opened my eyes in ways I could not expect. I saw geography unbeknownst to me as well as some seriously old architecture. Miami tends to define a structure as archaic if it surpasses 50 years old. Seeing structures in Israel hundreds if not thousands of years old puts Miami architecture in perspective.

We visited an air force base and I saw the military-industrial complex firsthand that proved how a country the size of New Jersey has survived for so long and like it or not, will continue to flourish.

At first I thought Birthright failed because I am still not going to attend Shabbat. If it didn’t work by me placing my hand on the unusually warm Western Wall it isn’t going to work in Miami. But the Birthright didn’t fail nor did I. We both won. I may not be religious and I do favor a two-state solution for some haphazard definition of “peace” but I am proud to call myself a Jew. Just instead of finding it in the Old Testament, I found it by experiencing the silk sands of the Mediterranean behind the skyscrapers and clubs of Tel-Aviv. 

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