Friday, February 1, 2008

Red, White and Jew

As appeared in Tuesday's issue of the New School Free Press

Due to the fact that I'm Jewish and between the ages of 18-26, I was able to go on a Birthright trip—along with thousands of other people each year. Birthright's goal is to create more of a Jewish identity, and they do this by providing a free trip to Israel.

I spent eleven days in Israel, and had all my airfare board and most of my meals paid for. You could do the whole trip for around 200 shekels, or about $50.

We spent most of our time in Jerusalem—the largest city in the country—where we met our traveling companions: a group of eight Israeli soldiers who stayed with us for five days.

Spending time with the soldiers provided interesting insight into being a 20-year-old Israeli. When a citizen turns 18, they join the Israel Defense Force and are there until they turn either 20 for women or 21 for men. I tried asking a few questions about settlements and what life in the military is like, but it seemed that the military was the last thing the soldiers wanted to talk about. The conversation soon switched to asking Omer, the soldier who stayed with my roommate Matt and me, how to say "that's what she said" in Hebrew.

It's "Ze Ma She Hi Amra."

There are two things on the trip I'll never forget: going to the Western Wall and being in the Dead Sea. One religious, one fun, but both were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

I don't consider myself to be religious, but even I, the most secular of all the group members, could feel something when I pressed my hand against the Wall. We went during Shabbat, a day of inactivity in the Jewish religion to honor when God took a day off from creating the universe. It goes from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and during the most holy time of the week, we went to the most holy of sites for a Jew. After waiting a few minutes to inch my way up to the Wall, I closed my eyes, put my hand up to it, said a quick something under my breath, and walked back to the group's meeting point, being careful to walk backwards so as not to put my back to the Wall. I looked around and saw hundreds of rabbis and other believers swaying and chanting, and I felt a strange mixture of respect for them believing in something so much and pity because they did believe in something that much. It was my very first religious crisis!

The Dead Sea is fun for only about ten minutes, and then you realize how much it stings. After walking down a mile-long road from the pits where my friends and I slathered ourselves in mud because it's supposedly good for your skin, we got to the beach, and with a Maccabee Beer in hand, I laid on the water as if I was sitting on a therapist's sofa and just floated. Of course, I scraped my hand pretty badly on the jagged, salty floor and accidentally drank the water. But other than that, it was great.

On my flight back to Newark from Tel Aviv, in between reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and not being able to sleep, I thought about everything that happened over the past 11 days, and was left amazed that I had actually gone to Israel, my "homeland." Whether the trip changed me or not, I have no idea, but I am left knowing that I do have a better understanding of what being Jewish is about and with a desire to go back. And maybe even have another religious crisis, if lucky.