Seven Days in Israel: An American Jew's First Visit

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:11

    Seven Days in Israel An American Jew's First Visit to the Homeland I'd never been. I had to apologize a bunch of times for only staying a week. Most young American Jews on their first vacation in Israel spend two. Europeans, I was told, tend to hang around for a month. I'd joke that my rate of experiential intake was twice that of normal Americans, and four times that of E.U. citizens, so everything was in order. By the sabbath at the end of my week I had a collection stories for proof. For instance, on day three, while hiking in the Golan, I found out what shelling sounds like. You know when thunder seems to rip across the sky, tearing along an invisible seam overhead? It's like that but much more focused and straight?you can practically see the line of trajectory, even though the sky appears perfectly clear. Then a couple of seconds of silence, almost long enough to make you think there'll be no boom. When it finally comes it's not like thunder at all, not like the garbage truck down the street dropping a dumpster, because it sounds miles away, yet you can feel it under your feet.

    On day six, a Jerusalem resident told me she normally doesn't bother conversing with American tourists?particularly ones on very brief vacations?because they always prove to be idiotically obsessed with warfare. "Aren't you afraid of being bombed?" is apparently the first question a lot of people like me ask. It's like a Soviet visitor asking a defector if he doesn't worry about getting fired from his job, maybe, or like New Yorkers wondering how Californians live under the threat of earthquake.

    I write first of the explosions (which turned out to be part of battle exercises being performed by the Israeli army, though at the time we had no way of knowing that, and none of the native hikers we ran into proved willing to completely rule out the possibility that some kind of skirmish with the Hezbollah was going on?a scenario that seemed to me more likely than an army firing practice shots over a national park full of tourists) because they impressed me the way the Soviet might be impressed by the Stock Exchange, or the way New Yorkers gape at fault lines running along freeways and beach houses half off their foundations. As if the ground here can't shake.

    I also saw a group of Christians carrying a cross though the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, following the path Jesus supposedly trudged to his execution. On those streets today, you can buy t-shirts bearing silkscreened portraits of Yasir Arafat, and, from the very same vendors, also ones emblazoned with the slogans "Uzi Does It!" or "I Got Stoned In Gaza."

    I spent a night in a Chabad hostel in the town of Safed (pronounced "Tsvat"), a center of both Hasidism and the country's fine-art scene. In a hallway of that hostel hung a framed, computer-modified image of modern Jerusalem, but with the Holy Temple rebuilt. Guests were offered a discount on the price of a bed for taking a class, and mine used for a text a book of platitudes, allegedly extrapolated from speeches by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that as far as I could tell had about as much to do with the Torah as Madonna's most recent album.

    I observed Shabbat?another first for me?in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, a beautiful enclave of stone apartments and synagogues set apart from the city by old walls with arched gates too narrow for cars. Walking from services there in the Friday and Saturday gloaming, head covered and pockets empty, in the glow of warm singing and candlelight from every window, I felt better than I can explain. I usually hate following rules, and have long contended that community is overrated.

    I visited the yeshiva where my younger brother spends day and night learning and practicing the religion. The school is a little trailer park on a hilltop in the West Bank. I never thought I'd visit the West Bank, being against its resettlement (I'm okay with the occupation, and with trading land for peace), but I wanted to see where my brother lives, and the place is hardly what you'd call settled. Grass grows through cracks in the floor of his cold-water bathroom. There's great air up there, though, like pure oxygen compared to Jerusalem?only 20 minutes west by car?and the day I spent felt resoundingly peaceful.

    I also hit tourist spots like Masada, the Dead Sea, the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem (where plump Germans stroll about, study maps and picnic just like at every other tourist spot on Planet Earth), the Templars' Tunnel at Akko and the ruins of Herod's Roman city on the Mediterranean, Caesarea. To get up to Golan we had to drive all around the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a very pretty lake. I went to Muslim East Jerusalem and some Christian Arab towns near the city's northern edge. In Tel Aviv I partied with Jews who cared even less for scripture than American leftists do.

    Back in Jerusalem I dined in the home of a young Talmud scholar who grew up in New Jersey and earned a math degree from Yale before getting into that old-time religion. Now, six years of full-time learning later, married and wholly within a so-called "ultra-orthodox" community, he explained he's currently in the process of memorizing the Torah. Religious children learn the verses by rote starting from the age of five, but rabbis know better than to start curious college grads off at square one. Sooner or later, though, these students find they can't venture any further into the seas of 3000 years of commentary and debate without a second-nature command of the doggie paddle and the crawl. So they go to kindergarten.

    This kindergartner helped clarify for me the issue of whether Torah and Talmud could be understood as an ethical system, in the Western sense. Churchill once said something to the effect that they in fact constituted the greatest such complex ever known. My host told me that what's "good" in the Bible is what God wants, so comparing its laws to a system based on some human value that one holds dearer?say, life, or property?is only to check how well scripture measures up, and it won't completely.

    It might seem to follow, then, that for someone certain that the Torah was not penned in fire by the Almighty it doesn't matter what the scrolls say or how they were interpreted. But by this reckoning the survival of Jewishness through all of recorded history is a fluke. It suggests that we were, despite the beliefs of the observant, really no better equipped to withstand the catastrophes, military defeats, dispersions and pressures to assimilate into powerful empires visited upon all the ancient tribes. That seems to me exactly as far-fetched as the burning bush?aflame but not consumed.

    Anyway, I'd been wondering what the Torah's view of torturing rock-throwers or ignoring the plight of people displaced by wars might be. To my secular mind, grasping for an answer would be a round-peg-square-hole exercise. I'm stuck with my own, puny opinion on the matter.

    Young, native-born, secular Israelis think Americans like me and, to a greater extent, my brother?interested in the religion, thinking that because of it their rugged Middle Eastern nation has something to do with our coddled Yankee selves?are out of our minds. They laugh at us the way young Dubliners do at third-generation Irish-Americans on five-star "heritage tours." Like a lot of Irish kids they want to move somewhere they can make decent money, where there's something to sell besides dopey Americans' heritage.

    American Jews who haven't been to Israel?and according to Zionist organizations, that's most of us?more or less agree that Jews like my brother and the kindergartner have got it all wrong. It's much harder to argue that line after a visit. In fact, an intuitive sense of this might be the reason so many don't make the trip. Think of teetotalers who've never taken a sip because they're pretty sure they'd like it. At Shabbat dinner I told a former American that before I came I wasn't even sure if the whole idea of a Jewish state grafted on the Middle East in the 20th century was at all a good one, and he nodded enthusiastically, saying, "I felt the same way."

    The amazing thing about this is that there is so much that is unattractive about Israel. To make jokes or tell stories about Jerusalem's surly citizens, reckless drivers, competitive pedestrians, dirty streets, hordes of tourists, ugly buildings, looming threat of violence and general air of tension and edginess is to sound like a Nebraskan just back from New York. Jerusalem outdoes Manhattan, hands down, in all of the above, and the impacts are greater because high expectations for the Holy City are a given. Still, Jews come back from Jerusalem and tell their friends it's "beautiful." I agree, but would amend that it's beautiful more like Brooklyn is beautiful?and still would be without the riverfront or most of the good architecture, but with mosquitoes?than like, say, Barcelona is beautiful.

    Okay?just a few urban horror stories: One Jerusalemite I met had his suitcase run over by a driver who didn't want to wait for him to drag it across the street, and when he yelled at said driver, the guy got out of his car and beat him down. Another guy got in an argument over the price of a vegetable in the outdoor market, and suddenly the vendor head-butted him. I talked to a guy who'd mistakenly left his laptop on a city bus, and the bus was evacuated and the mysterious suitcase destroyed by police before he could track it down. I saw 18-year-old American boys brawling on a Jerusalem sidewalk, roaring drunk on beer they were free to buy and Israeli machismo they felt compelled to imitate. Me, I got in an harangue over places in line at Passport Control?during my very first hour in the country?that I thought came pretty close to blows (Israelis are incredibly bad at lining up). When I finally got out of the airport, met my brother and relayed what had happened, he informed me that I'd probably come much closer to the hospital than I figured. I hadn't considered that the line-cutter was probably a war veteran, quite possibly armed, and that, as my brother put it, "Everything here is contested." America is probably more violent, but Israel is so much less serene.

    The beautiful part is?like here as compared to the burbs?people aren't isolated in their homes, living lives ruled by television and consumerism. Part of the reason Israel seems coarse is simply that it's diverse and people are engaged. Nobody's posturing like a genteel WASP, or ostentatiously overcompensating for being ghetto-spawned. American Jews will tell you quick that Israelis have no class?"practically Arabs" is how one Californian friend of mine classlessly put it?but that's the very fact that makes the country something decidedly different from a Western invention. The music you hear on the Jerusalem streets is closer to Hindi-pop from Bombay than anything European. It's horrible, as are the kebab meats, the tap water, the phone service and most of the domestically made consumer goods. That's the East.

    No one can tell Americans about what's wrong with Israel better than the people who gave up their American lives to "make aliyah"?that is, to "ascend"?and move there. Most of the ones I met were very politically active. Part of their reason for being there is to make the place better. Lingering long after the Shabbat meal, conversing with some such idealists in the dark?because the candles had burned down and the Shabbat timer had turned the lights off?I realized why it's said that visiting Israel is the first step toward aliyah. For a worldly Jew to know that Israel exists is to be a little embarrassed, maybe a little proud at the same time. Mostly it's not thought about at all. But confronting the fact that the nation really exists, and is really run by Jews, is to feel those trickles of disappointment and pride swell to the magnitude of waves. Stay long enough, I imagine, and it just becomes a question of what you're going to do about them.

    I can see from my first, wading steps that the trick is to not get swept away. The ideological stance of the American liberal?retroactively opposing slavery and the Native American genocide, but feeling no more guilty-by-association of crimes against humanity than German yuppie tourists at Yad Vashem do?has almost nothing to do with that of a committed Israeli dove. It's throw away the moccasins and give your mother's house to Running Bear, for starters. Toeing a hard line on the Arabs, as most of the Jews who came to Israel from Muslim countries do, is a path of less resistance. See, Israeli Holocaust history doesn't end with the liberation of the camps. It ends with survivors flooding into Palestine, the Arab Sultanate of Jerusalem?an outspoken Nazi ally?inciting his people to finish Hitler's work, the civilian Arabs leaving Palestine in droves, planning to return as soon as the "Zionist excrescence" was wiped away as promised, and the scrappy Jewish army shocking the world by winning their War for Independence. It's a founding narrative at least as powerful and true-though-incomplete as America's, and a lot harder to effectively dispute, given the stakes. If it turned out the USA doesn't really have a right to exist, what would it matter?

    Cutting against the national grain, Israeli leftists need to be intellectually sharp. Unlike their American counterparts they must regularly defend their views in social debate against educated, articulate opponents who are also neighbors. It's not like here, where a liberal can shape his politics in opposition to rightist farmers who wouldn't merit an argument if they showed up in Barnes & Noble or the pages of the Times, which they generally don't. Israeli doves, wanting a humanistically ethical government, stand at one extreme of a continuum on which everyone else points out that such a thing has never operated anywhere in the world. At the other extreme are people who find in either scripture or history a license for Jews to be as brutal as the task of nation-building demands. Secular Zionists and religious Jews?even the ones into manifest destiny?don't agree on much. But neither of them are big on squatters' rights.

    The squatters of course are the Palestinians, whose deepest-rooted ancestors, according to my Lonely Planet, probably entered the region around the 7th century, some 1600 years after the kingdoms of David and Solomon. To some of the rather intense young men at my brother's West Bank yeshiva, this is the crux of the matter. Former Americans like the Jerusalem doves, politically active in a completely different way, they decided to drink mostly from the cup of Jewish pride, and to cast off all concern with what the rest of the world thinks. To me it's easy to say they slipped overboard into dogma. But up there, in the clean hilltop air, looking in on the most dedicated scholarship I'd ever witnessed?with me for all my schooling at least six years below kindergarten!?I could understand why and how it happens. One of those students, his mother back in the States claimed the rabbis were brainwashing him. He replied, "Mom, after 25 years in America, my brain could stand a good wash."

    I hung out with mostly men in Israel, and I think that's perhaps why I got such heavy doses of the extremes. There's a preponderance of males out in those uncivil Jerusalem streets?more proof that it's the East?and the religion prescribes sexual segregation. On my second day in the country I offered my hand to a female friend of my brother and she, strictly observant, declined to shake it. She just sort of laughed and left me hanging. A few days later, another religious woman contested that act. The rabbinic decree is indeed that unmarried men and women not touch. But that rule is only designed to make it easier to obey the Torah's prohibition against fornication. This kind of piling up of rules builds flexibility into the system?they call it "fences around Torah." My new friend told me that in the same situation she'd have shook my hand to keep me from feeling uncomfortable, as she would want me to do were we meeting on my home turf instead of hers. Of course, I hadn't offered this woman my hand because, having got it wrong once, I was determined to never be exposed as ignorant again.

    A simple overreaction, maybe, that explains why so many young Americans go overboard in the Holy Land. The U.S. is extreme. It's shocking to discover you've never really believed in or fought for anything. The natural reaction upon finding out is to want to take very decisive corrective measures.

    But just as I was surprised to find in Israel a city more sleepless and pushy, vibrant and familial, ugly and beautiful than New York, it offered glimpses of other subtle levels and folds and fences along continuums I thought I'd researched back and forth. You forget, in stable, dogmatic America, that the whole world is in flux and always has been. After a week, it started to dawn on me.