The shape of our Birthright Israel trip is taking form, and it resembles the classic three-act structure of any good yarn. In Act I, there is an initiating action and a rough encounter—in our case, arriving in Israel, closely followed by an epic amount of hiking and an epic lack of sleeping in the harsh southern Israeli desert. In Act II, by contrast, the hero (that would be the 48 people on the bus, including the Israeli soldiers) retreats, quietly meditates, lulls, usually reforges some kind of broken weapon, and prepares for the climax. That might describe the past 72 hours in Jerusalem—minus the weapon.
Thursday night, we arrived in time for a late-afternoon viewing of the Old City from Mt. Scopus. Friday morning, after meeting the soldiers, we went to the Mahane Yehuda market for some pre-Shabbos purchasing of rugelach. Friday night in Jerusalem? What do you think we did Friday night in Jerusalem?
Yoav, our tour educator, methodically took us through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in his patented style of moving us along, point to point, landmark to landmark, using the various locations to advance his larger narrative. We entered via Zion Gate; stopped at the Hurva Synagogue, with Yoav explaining why a synagogue would be called “Ruins”; and by the time we had reached a replica of the ancient Temple Menorah on a platform overlooking the Kotel, we felt not a little like ancient Jews who would light their candles before making their way, as we were doing, to the Temple. After some personal time at the Wall, the walk back to the hotel took over an hour but was agreeable in the brisk night air.
Saturday was … a day of rest. We did not have to be up until roughly 11 a.m. (our next latest wake-up call, in six days, has been 7 a.m.), to prepare for the b’nai mitzvot you’ve read about. Duly, Friday was the night that most closely mapped onto the Birthright stereotype of partying: People scattered about the hotel, in the basement and in rooms; wine and whiskey, purchased at the market, were consumed. But to our “reporting,” nobody was rowdy or even particularly drunk. I chalk this up less to the dire warning we received on the first morning about getting drunk and more to general buy-in to the trip’s ethos of cramming in as much as we can, with the knowledge that hangovers could get in the way.
That said, on Shabbat, you are only permitted to cram so much. The afternoon saw us with several hours of free time, with many walking through the lobby of the nicer hotel next-door to sneak into the pool (and a few less fortunate souls caught by security plunking down 100 shekels to take a dip).
Saturday afternoon contained perhaps the trip’s high and low points right next to each other. Let’s start with the low: The journalist Amotz Asa-El is an impressive guy, but as our special Shabbos guest speaker he just could not hold the room. Additionally, he’s only one data point, but extrapolating from him into a General Theory of Birthright Politics would indicate that Birthright Israel wants us to think of Israel as a problem-free Start-Up Nation of beaches and culture and constant progress. It’s not that he minimized problems like the settlements, economic inequality, African migrants, etc. etc. etc. He elided them altogether. The good news, if you’re keeping score, is that not even the least informed of participants, I would suspect, came away from that chat buying his line. They did come away from it, however, well-rested.
By contrast, immediately before that talk, we did something remarkable. We walked about 10 minutes to the rose garden overlooking the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. As other groups of tourists took pictures, we formed our own little Knesset and debated fundamental political issues in a way that was civilized and thought-provoking. Yoav offered two statements, and we split into one of four groups—disagree, disagree strongly, agree, agree strongly—developed arguments for a few minutes, and sent representatives to present our cases. His carefully chosen and phrased propositions were: “The Israeli government, being a government of a Jewish state, should consider itself responsible for the lives of all Jews throughout the world,” and, “The future existence of the Jewish people, defined as a Jewish people, depends on the future existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.”
At the end, Yoav, who later confided his personal opinions to me (which will wait for another post), asked probing questions of each side. As a political blogger used to hourly point-scoring and entrenched positions, I found the whole experience invigorating and refreshing, and it made me rethink some of the fundamental things I write about every day. It was exactly what Shabbat should be. And then it was capped of by a quick Havdalah service with freshly plucked rosemary and dinner on Ben Yehuda Street.
Yesterday was Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl, the Holocaust museum and the military cemetery, located together on one hill as though to make life, the universe, Zionism, and everything more coherent for the tourists. Which is what I cynically would assume were the case if it weren’t for Yoav, who makes it seem credible that Israelis, too, believe in the country that American Jews like to imagine. More on Mt. Herzl—and Yoav—tomorrow, if we find the time to relate it among our hikes and whitewater rafting in the finger of the Galilee in Israel’s far north, a few miles from the Lebanon border. Act III, our final act, begins.