For those who have asked about my experience in Israel, and for those who were there. I did not share my feelings with everyone during our last night together in Tel Aviv – these are what they would have been had I the energy to compose them or the gumption to share them at the time. You will notice redundancies in the explanation of my state of being… for that I make no apologies.
I had no expectations preceding this trip. Now I’m sitting down in quiet for the first time after returning to the United States and realizing that reflecting on ten days of Israel is a relatively overwhelming and exhausting endeavor, both emotionally and philosophically. People I have spent as little as a day with have contributed profoundly to the shade of my perceptions of the world and what I’m doing in it. Places I have stood for as little as an hour. Places I have stepped and waded. Stone I have kissed.
The adventure was inaugurated by the 50-some sleepless hours which wrapped up finals week, and an immediate two-day whirlwind tour of New York, and after those four days alone my body might have appreciated a brief coma. Unfortunately for my body, I do not experience rejuvenating slumber on planes. However, given the circumstances of ten hours airtime, I learned not only to force several twenty minute intervals, but to overcome my fear of being sucked out of the plane by the toilet. I am now entirely invincible.
The Negev desert, after a solid 3 hours sleep at the Sde Boker kibbutz, was profoundly gorgeous. In a place where the salt and drought of the soil let almost nothing live, I woke up from whatever crude lethargy I was in. The climb, the hike, the height… every time I looked up from my feet my chest swelled with this nearly indigestible energy. I have salvaged peace of being in the ocean, and under forest canopies, but I have never felt a restoration like this. We hiked for only three hours in Machtesh and I knew how the Jews could feel alive in the desert for so long.
Camping that night in the Nahal Tze’elim, and following a particular talk around the last red coals of the bonfire with the few of us who were still awake in the wee hours, I took in exactly with whom I had embarked on this adventure. We were all here at some manner of turning point in our lives looking to re-grasp a piece of internal transience, or looking to determine our connection to Zionism or Judaism or the pluralistic nature of Israel. I was not alone in the Ignostic/Taoist tendencies of my Judaism which struck me both awkwardly and comfortably – a state of belongingness that I can define no better than that. Further still I was not alone in my unconditional fascination and love for the world, and for the family to which we (this Taglit group), however distantly, attach ourselves; the Jews. I feel as though all 40 of us realized this very quickly about one another during our introduction (or return, for some of us) to Israel.
Waking up to our first daylight exposure to the Negev cliffs leading to and around the isolated plateau of Masada was bombarding. This was a place where lived and died the extremist remnants of the Zealots in rebellion of the Roman Empire. And in the footsteps of both our ancestors and their enemies we tread. How fitting and somewhat sardonic that at the foot of this great plateau, beneath the ruins of what was once a supposedly great splinter of civilization lay the Dead Sea… in which we had floated earlier in the day and quite sufficiently dehydrated ourselves prior to a sun-beaten hike up the roughly 700 stone stairs of Masada’s Snake Path. Brilliant. Looking out over the desert below brought up much of the same waves as did hiking in Machtesh the day before. At 4 in the afternoon there was complete quiet atop this mountain. It was a panorama made dynamic by the presence of the wind. It was like hearing the ocean crash and roll out in the middle of the desert, and it was this collision that took me off the ground. It would have been the first peak on the seemingly endless emotional rollercoaster of this experience, but, if I’m being honest, the ruins of ancient civilizations, no matter their historical significance, typically mean very little to me in and of themselves. Yes, I can imagine these walls in their completeness. Yes, I can fathom a society functioning on this desert plateau and fighting for their faith against armies four times their numbers. I can even appreciate their fates… but I find no belongingness here. Ruins are the foundations of the stories of everyone’s people; they don’t raise personal connections or emotions for me. Perhaps were I an architect…. And if String Theory is correct and the tenth dimension reveals that all life is connected by some physical thread then I should regret this feeling but I excuse myself because… well, frankly String Theory is a little beyond me and even if it supports itself I am terribly skeptical that it would claim to reach through both space and time. As what seems now as if a matter of course, but at the time was a surprising blow, this changed for me in Jerusalem.
The Old City. The Kotel. Shabbat. If I think for too long about what happened to me that evening I exhaust myself and begin to invite a seizure-like hysteria in my brain. I have no spiritual tie to the Wall – it did not invoke tears, nor did it excite a strong religious rising. What did happen was a surging appreciation, and an overwhelming wave of respect and admiration for what this 60 feet of stone represents. It may have been brought on by placing a note in the crevice of two stones accompanied by prayers from countless others. It may have been provoked by the dancing, singing and celebratory activities into which we were invited so naturally by the other women on our respective side of the Kotel. It may have been the eventual retire to the steps of the site to observe the continuance of activities in which I had briefly participated, and to remove myself from the magnitude of what I had just experienced. Irrespective of the hierarchy of influence these events held, my person was unfolded and exposed to itself, and for some reason, this ruin – this strip of stone which is the center of such incredible holiness – inspired a belongingness that I had previously decided was possible only in the presence of loved ones. This was a family. The Jews. From every place of residence, from every class of religious practice. There was a love here not particular to Orthodox Judaism, or even Israelis. This place and this Shabbat celebration were a toast to life.
The market did me in. I stood in the middle of a bustling intersection and knew that I would be back in this place, inevitably. You get a feel for where you can live in a functional manner by the way the surrounding pace rubs you. I’ve got the Kibbutzim Sasa and Lotan in mind (*Sasa is the original community which started the Anne Frank Haven for multicultural integration and education of foster youth in the Galilee, and Lotan does Ecodesign).
I don’t know that I can fairly address Har Herzl. There is a particular mental indigestion from which I’m still unable to recover. The symbolism of Israeli architecture itself is outstanding, let alone the presence it created for political leaders, Zionist progressives and Israeli soldiers of every rank and victims of terrorism. Herzl’s lone grave at the top of the mount looks down to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) as if his memory accrues some anthropomorphic responsibility to hold the hand of the legacy of so many millions of anti-semitic deaths. The symbolism of the rise of the Holocaust’s devastation to a successfully declared state of Israel does not escape notice. Neither are headstones formed after pillows, personal garden beds or identical epitaphs among soldiers lost for peaceful and unifying significance. The disquieting glare of spaces waiting to be filled strikes eerily in the terrorist victims memorial, and echoes more discretely but no less unnerving in the tunnel dedicated to civilians including young children. There was no sense of patriotism in this place for me, because it is a word that includes a degree of willing blindness. What could be felt in this cemetery was a love seemingly booming through stone from every grave on the mount for this infant country and its father. All founders of societies pursue a place through which to recover from some manner of oppression. All soldiers of war are, seemingly, strongly unified in their passions toward the land and ideas to which they give themselves. What felt different here was the quietude of pride, and the bellow of familial strength.
Golan Heights and Tel Aviv were rescuing in both wonder- and alcohol-induced capacities… respectively. As these were the final extravaganzas of the trip, they made me stop myself and wish that I had been more appreciative the people around me. We got to the Ben Gurion airport and started to say good-byes and I realized that in as much as the ten day whirlwind tour of the country had created and insatiable craving for Israel, I had developed the same sentiment toward our group. I had not recognized it.
Our flight from Boston got into PDX around 2am Pacific today. At 3am my mother was wide awake at the creak of my suitcase on the floor of the entryway – I leave the details of the reception to the imaginations of those who have met her. I had a breakfast meeting with my lab four hours later and you bet your ass I am still on East Coast time. Of course, they asked about Israel before the subject of Charlie’s recent grant acceptance was even mentioned. I had attempted in the four hours prior during which I did not sleep to compile some sort of short-winded capitulation. Even as it was during that time that I started writing this sentiment, I failed miserably to convert it to speech. So now that I have actually finished regurgitating my thoughts, and have thoroughly convinced myself that language is not the primary vehicle of thought no matter what Donald Davidson says, I can say this: it was remarkable in the way that only peculiarly profound things can be.
My thanks and love to all of those who made it what it was.
For those familiar with my situation prior to the events of this winter, and/or who have known me all my life, you can more immediately understand the particular enormity of this trip for me. Ask me who I am. It might blow your mind. Or not… depending on how well you know me already…