Thanks to the generosity of Taglit-Birthright which pays for young American Jews to travel to Israel for the first time, I spent 10 days in the Motherland, with stops in Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, the desert, and the Dead Sea. While an organized tour was a change from the weeks of independent travel in China and New York, it did give me a chance to bond with young Israelis I might not have otherwise met. So rather than describing the trip from a tourist perspective –for that, try your Jewish friends’ online photo albums— I’m going to let Maya, Kobi, and Yoav take the reins.
Maya Joshua is finishing up her military service. Her dad is Israeli but mom is American. She primarily grew up in Israel but moved to the States in high school. Since then, she’s been going back and forth until she decided to enlist. “I’ve always been really torn about my identity,” Maya explains. “Israeli’s are like ‘you’re not completely Israeli because you speak English so well and you fit into that culture so well and you didn’t grow up in an Israeli household’ but I’m definitely not completely American because I miss so many of the references in both cultures. So I was like ‘where do I belong?’ So I had this urge to come here and serve in the army and find out what it was all about.” Maya’s learned that the army hasn’t been for her, but she doesn’t regret the experience. “The army is an intriguing system in Israel because it’s such a big part of our society. It’s not just that everyone has the experience, there’s a language, you know? Like, there are all these acronyms people use and all these stories, it floods over, it spills into civilian life.”
As military service is (with few exceptions) compulsory in Israel, it’s a topic that almost invites itself into conversation. Kobi Cnaany has finished his service and is a biomedical engineering student at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. We talked about what it means to live in a country surrounded by potential threats. “I don’t feel any threatened by living in this country,” Kobi assures me. “I know there is a constant threat upon us but daily life at the moment, I’m two years after my military service, I’m living as a student up north which is next to Lebanon and Syria which people would say is a “hot” area, I should be afraid and stuff like that, but I just feel secure.” For Kobi, it adds to the mark of the Israeli character. “That’s why we’re living here. Even though we know that there is a threat somewhere I just think that this country is more, like, chilled and that makes Israelis to be very cynical. We laugh about everything.”
Yoav Hermoni was the guide of our ten day tour, a man with infinite patience, and a slightly left-of-center sense of humor. At 36 and with a wife and kids of his own and playing tour guide in countries around the Middle East and South America, he offers a unique perspective. “Israeli’s are getting tired now of the politics. A lot of the people now, these recent years, have no confidence anymore of the politicians. It’s not the way it was when I was a child that people were motivated in their ideology, they felt they were part of something, they felt loyal to the party, you know, now people do not believe anything…Which is very dangerous, which is not good, but this is how it is.” On top of that, Israel is a very expensive country to live in. “This generation is working hard and is feeling that, everybody is working very hard and doesn’t get the same as our parents, or as the same as people that were in our position twenty years ago.” Maya echoes that idea. “You run into all these bureaucratic like issues and it’s just like you feel sometimes like you’re running really, really fast and you’re standing in one place.” For Yoav, it’s gotten to the point where action needs to be taken. “And that’s the reason last year, there was a big wave of social protests here in Israel and I also joined this protest. I went to the demonstrations because I felt that it’s a justified cause to protest against the government that is taking care of the ultra-Orthodox community and we have a lot of people that are not working in Israel and we have to subsidize them.”
“In terms of the future,” Yoav says, “Israelis are very skeptical. That is also a dangerous thing. We have a hope for a better Middle East during the 90s and now this hope is gone, really gone. Like, there is no one that talks about it anymore. We see what’s happening around us. We don’t have a lot of optimism, let’s say, in the Middle East. But still, we are optimistic about ourselves.” He reiterates that Israeli’s are cynical, can be stubborn and impolite. Likewise, “Israelis have a lot of initiative. And I can see that everywhere. I can see that when I’m traveling. If something doesn’t work as it should have worked, so we find a way that it will be okay and others can’t. This is something that is very, very strong in our mentality.”
While it’s always great discovering the minute details of cultures from around the world, there are (spoiler alert) things that tie everyone together. “All the people that I’ve met so far [Israeli’s or Palestinians],” Maya says, “are normal people who want to wake up in the morning and see their kids wake up in the morning and go to work and know that their kids are safe at school and come back home and put food on the table and do homework with their kids, and occasionally go out with their husband or wife and live to have grandkids.” Kobi reverberates this sentiment: “Some people just mark us as a military country that fucks up with the whole world…I just think we want to live.”
After the trip, I keep asking myself: have I changed? Beyond the idea that everything changes everything, you can’t step in the same river twice, etc. Have I changed as an American Jew? At this point in my life I’m a staunch atheist, not so much polemical, but I just worry myself with other things in life. While I didn’t leave a note at the Western Wall, there was an intense and profound energy of all the religious Jews around me during Shabbat that most rock bands I write about strive for but fail to conjure. While it was a great experience to witness, there was a great disconnect for me also. My existential side tells me that “l’existence précède l’essence,” so as I never participate in Judaism consciously, can I consider myself a Jew? Simultaneously, as I know there is Jewish blood in my veins, I can’t separate myself entirely. It may just be my Jewish guilt kicking in, that I need to get something deep out of a free trip across the world. If nothing else, I am thinking more critically about my connection to and place in history, to the land of my far back ancestry. I’m looking more inward than I’ve been already, but I don’t rely on any scripture for answers. It may just be hard for me to grasp the fact that I was just a tourist, that I’m feeling that famous Jewish guilt over not finding out anything deep about my Jewish connection over a free trip.
Overall, the three Israelis agreed about importance of connectivity, less so technological connectivity, but between the past, between family, and between the world. While Maya’s family was thankfully never personally affected by the Holocaust the way many Israeli citizens have been, she still remains poignant on the topic. “To live in a country,” she says, “where the Holocaust is part of the shadow that follows us everywhere, and to see that and to hear about that and to be a part of the people that went through that means that we get the right, that now that we have a state, no one is taking it away from us.” “We are very connected to our families here,” says Yoav. “This is a very familial society, very much. For us, the fact that we live in Israel is part of who we are.” While the state itself is important, it’s an international attribute for Kobi: “My Judaism, I’m Jewish as part of a nation, the nation of Israel, and also the nation of the Jews which is something worldwide.” That is something I’ve definitely come to agree with. For the significance that Judaism has played around the world, Jews make up approximately 0.2% of the world’s population, less than 14 million people. Not that its an exclusive club that people are flocking to join, but for those of us already here, it shapes our identities probably more than we realize. While we were given a window into a culture and place that still seems very foreign to me, it was only a glimpse, standing on my tip-toes at the sill. What I can conclude is this: the people I met were good people first, Jewish second. L’Chaim.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His previous essays in this series discussed bikes, beer, and baozi, Beijing nightlife, and New York (before and after Hurricane Sandy). He wants to reiterate his thanks to the many friends he met in Israel, especially Yoav, Maya, and Kobi, for giving him insight into how and why people live, and an extra congratulation to Maya, who finishes her military duty on November 15th. The final essay in this series will appear next week.