I am the only member of my household to not have a trip to Israel between 2004-2016. Anne led several groups on alternative break trips, and Day School and Federation programs allowed both boys their chances. My last trip was old enough to be a bat mitzvah before I returned this past fall. Every trip (I’ve only been 4 times, and never for more than two weeks) has been unique in nature and content. Having the blessing of two radically different trips in the span of six months, I offer the following observations on them.
My trip this past fall with Classrooms Without Borders and The Jewish Agency For Israel was a full-on exposure to the challenges and issues Israel faces, both externally as a country and internally as a society. It was there I learned from Yossi Klein HaLevi, a leading Zionist teacher, writer and thinker, his four points when engaging Israel: honesty, complexity, anguish, and love. That trip was designed to make each of us participants uncomfortable at some point. For my progressive colleagues, the trip deep into the Gush Etzion block was challenging. For my traditional and orthodox colleagues, the visit to the masjid (mosque) in Kfar Manda was equally challenging, if for different reasons. Some of us participated in the history-making demonstration at the Western Wall. It was not a moment that prompted unity within the group then or after, reinforcing the fault line of Jewish pluralism concerns at home here in the States, and at home in Israel. The entire itinerary was an ongoing encounter of complexity covered in nuance and wrapped in flags of national aspiration and the demands of divergent (yet, so similar,) cultures and faiths. If you know me at all, you know that complexity and nuance do not scare me. In general, I loved the trip, and the opportunity to gain critical, ground-level perspective. Plus, I had a chance to spend Shabbat with Micah; after all the Shabbat services leading the family blessing for everyone else it was great to get a chance to do so with him, there.
My trip this Passover could not have been more different in tenor and tone. Most. Amazing. Passover. Family. Vacation. EVER. Every last bit was nearly perfect: the family time with Anne and Micah along with my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew was awesome; the vacation aspect with down-time on the beach and with great food (restaurants and invitations home from friends) was exquisite; the touring/traveling and grabbing the sites was always some combination of interesting, fun, beautiful, and meaningful; Passover could not have been easier, with seder at friends, and the opportunities for food from coffeehouses to steakhouse—the kosher for Passover options where everywhere…even on the beach south of Tel Aviv. The opportunity to see old friends visiting their kids in Israel from Los Angeles, and checking in with Israeli friends throughout the trip was a special joy. For my niece and nephew on their first trip, it was all new. It was special seeing their first-time reactions. The many heritage sites we visited included four places I had never been to before, and that’s not even counting the day we spent at Caesarea. I must confess that I’ve long wanted to see the view of the Med from that amphitheater. My inner geek is happy beyond description.
And, just because I respect Yossi, I sought out some of the complexity of Israel as well. As but one of a few examples, I was able to sneak in a couple hours at the Israel Museum for Ron Amir’s exhibit Doing Time In Holot. These powerful and stark photographs document the meager spaces and possessions that the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers use create to provide a sense of a place in the world for themselves, despite their liminal status and stasis over their disposition (That’s my take; don’t blame Amir or the curator for any unintended pretension). Yes, I was blown away the way I hoped I might. But the unexpected treat was the chance to catch a neighboring exhibit reflecting on Jesus in Israeli art. As Billy Crystal might say, it was fabulous! At the same time, it doesn’t reflect much of my experience in Israeli lit classes at the Seminary. Go figure.
Israel is a country in perpetual transition. I found the old joke still true: the national bird of Israel is the crane. They are everywhere, easily spotted nesting next to sparkling tall buildings of glass and steel or multi-story homes of Jerusalem stone. The entire country seems to be under construction. The tech companies are omnipresent as well. If you are thinking about Aliyah do it young, or do it from a platform of a job in tech. We spent a lot of our times with Israeli friends in the context of their families: the seder, the final Festival night for Yom Tov, and the Sefardi Maimouna feast marking the end of Passover. It seemed that the general proximity to and connection with family helps and fosters appreciation for the Israeli quality of life despite the somewhat high cost of living. It is a country perpetually discovering something new about its past, and creating the future to come in many fields. Frankly, I can’t wait for the next trip. I don’t know when it might be, but I can tell you that I am not going to let it take another 13 years! Now if I can just figure out how to convince Jimmy Buffett to gig Caesarea…