Hello dear friends and family!!! It sure has been a while, eh? Well, here is what I hope will be at least a quasi-entertaining account of events and observations as of late.
Israel. The cradle of civilization (as it were). I arrived in Tel Aviv coming off of refreshing cold in the Windy City and ten days in LA surrounded by overwhelming talent and general loveliness. The climate shock from the mid-west to the Middle East was welcome. A little jolt to the rusty nerves is sometimes the best medicine.
My first three days in Israel were spent in Tel Aviv adjusting to the time change, trying to not catch a stomach virus from my dear host, Eitan, and walking around the city with Oren. Between the coffee-drinking, European inspired architecture, and a charming British roommate, I might have gotten confused as to where my plane had actually landed. Of course, recollecting the security in the airport helped to remind me.
Despite this aforementioned stomach virus, Eitan, like a hero, came to get me from the airport and then we went straight to his Aunt and Uncle’s home in the city, a stunning apartment with a balcony looking at part of the colorful Tel Aviv skyline. My arrival was coinciding with the end of Passover, so the general energy in the city was slow and relaxed. The only murmured complaints wafting through the city were that of the endless matzo being consumed, or rather the lack of bread and beer. Not surprisingly, it was easier for people to keep off the bread than the beer. I won’t name names. The end of Passover was welcoming. We celebrated by eating Matzo “French Toast,” which Eitan made. It was pretty good but I might be so bold as to rename it Matzo “Oatmeal.” We also were lucky enough to be invited over for Mimouna, which is a celebration held by the Moroccan Jews. This included a crepe-like dish, which was slathered in one’s own choice of topping. It’s traditionally with honey, but there was also a date-honey spread, and from a tiny peak inside the house, the ever-present Nutella. One can’t really go wrong. We also enjoyed it with some Coca-Cola, but it somehow always tastes better in these tiny plastic cups that are everywhere in Israel. Each cup holds about three gulps, and it’s pretty satisfying.
Feeling a bit less ill, a little more time-adjusted, and that itch of exploration and travel, Eitan and I set off for Jerusalem. Only two buses later, and two seats on the bus floor, we had reached our destination. It has been remarked many times that Israel is really not such a large country but this statement was made reality on the very short hour-long journey from Tel Aviv. We set-up our sleeping arrangements first thing at a friend of Eitan’s (because in Israel you have a friend anywhere you need a friend) and then set out for a little evening drinking. My first introduction to Araq, the Anise liquor of Israel, was after I beat a member of the Duvdevan unit in a chugging contest. Now let me break this down for you. Duvdevan is one of five Special Forces units in Israel. It means cherry and is therefore appropriate “because the president once said we were the cherry on top of the whipped cream.” I’ve also heard the men in this unit could break me with a single pinky finger. So, you can then imagine how incredibly proud I was to win this chugging contest and be rewarded with my beer free and a shot of Araq. My competitor could barely believe it and avoided eye contact with the table for some minutes. Victory!
The next day, with not enough sleep and a bit of a hangover, we headed out to the Old City of Jerusalem. Eitan leading deftly through the maze of cobbled streets, we stopped first at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is said to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and also his place of burial. Regardless of personal religious beliefs, being in this place that has been so venerated over the centuries, surrounded by people making earnest pilgrimages, I found myself overwhelmed. This sort of emotionally and historically charged energy was nothing like I’ve felt before and for that I am grateful. We were on a time limit, as we were heading to the Dead Sea in the afternoon, so we hurried on to the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall. It was dumbfounding to finally lay eyes on something you only ever hear tales about, to see something that means so much to so many people, something that’s caused so much joy and heartbreak. I found it impossible to gaze upon it without being imbued with some version of what must be called reverence. But it was also a bit fun. The men and women’s sides are separate. However, we were there on a day with many Bar Mitzvahs so the women were standing on chairs to gaze over the separating barrier and take part in the merriment. Integration and segregation are forever holding hands.
Hours later, after having rented a car and being told I needed to learn Hebrew (great, thanks, toda. .תודה), we were on our way to the Dead Sea. We went to a spa in Ein Gedi, a town right next to our incredible destination. We marched our haggard selves down to the mud bath and I learned the healing powers to be had. Covered in mud that we let dry and start to crack off, we got under perfectly warm sulfur showers. Apparently, this is the only way to get all the mud off. Already feeling like a brand new person, the main show was waiting down a long dirt path. My friends that have been to Israel told me how fun it is to float in the Dead Sea but I didn’t realize how right they truly were. No matter how deep you go, the floating is so intense that without treading water one’s head and shoulders are always bobbing out of and breaking the surface. I spent at least the first ten minutes laughing, as a small child laughs at a glorious new discovery. Not to mention that right on the other side of this tiny sea is Jordan, and right down the road is Masada.
We set up camp on the rocky desert floor with a view of the sea a couple hundred meters to the east, the mountains to the west and a dry river bed 10 meters south of our tent in which our car was parked. This is camping in Israel apparently. No campsites. Just set up your tent where there are the fewest rocks, and good luck. Eitan was thrilled to be camping and to eat like he did during his service. Therefore, we (he) built a fire and warmed up our canned tuna and peas and carrots for dinner. I’ve actually, no kidding, never enjoyed eating straight out of the can and sleeping on rocks more than that night. Something about getting the whole experience was so satisfying. What was less satisfying however, was waking up at 4.30 by the rain falling though the tent because we didn’t put on the rain guard. Now, this was totally our fault, but to be fair it was beautifully clear when we went to bed. “Laurel! Laurel! Wake up! We gotta put on the rain guard!” Well, we got up, got the rain guard, and then discovered that one of the metal supports for it was missing thanks to one infamous Richard A Stadig. Apparently this is his thing. Borrowing stuff, then fucking it up. There’s even a “Richard’s a Dick” jar that people put money into every time Richard’s “done it again.” I might mention that his friends also dearly love him. Now, I’ve never met Richard, but I could presently contribute with honesty and experience to this jar. Way to go, Richard, you’ve started affecting third parties.
We actually wake up pretty damn rested the next morning, all things considered, and head north. We drive for several hours, mostly along the border of Jordan, through tiny Arab villages, listening to the Israeli military radio Galgalatz. This radio station is mainly a mixture of Hebrew music and popular English music. I fell in love with this station on our drive, as it was really the perfect soundtrack for an authentic experience and the DJ knows what’s up. After some time we were cruising past the Sea of Galilee, and getting into some more hilly areas, nearing the Golan heights and the Lebanese border.
Arriving at our final destination, the kibutz called Malkiya, Eitan’s joy was palpable. These kibutz in Israel are basically small communities, which are, incidentally, very communal. I hesitate to call it a commune, but it is somewhat like that. Eitan stayed in this kibutz during his time in service and it is very much a home for him. We showed up on a Friday so it was Shabbat Shalom. Most of the soldiers only come home on the weekends because otherwise they are at base camp. The soldiers at this Kibutz were all foreigners who decided to join the Israeli army. On Friday, everyone gets together to talk about their week and the trials and tribulations of integration and service. Sitting in on this, my understanding of Israel and its fight deepened. I’m sure I’ve only cracked the service of understanding but now it’s not a scary foreign entity. It’s something much warmer than that. War is always something for me that is very hard to stomach. So coming to visit a country so entrenched in and focused on their military might was daunting. Fortunately, through the eyes of these lone soldiers, I realized why the Israeli military is called the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces. That’s just it. It’s a defense force. Israel has bombs coming in not only from the Gaza Strip but also from Syria right now. If they let down their guard for just a moment, it’s the difference between life or death. My idealism about just stopping the violence is incredibly naïve and that’s hard to swallow. In addition, the opportunity that Israel affords to Jewish youth all around the world is astounding. No money where you’re from? No chance for school? No future? That’s fine, c’mon over to Israel, we’ll take care of you! And it’s true, it’s really true. These young people are really taken care of, are proud to do their military service, and love living in Israel (of course, for the most part).
Next day, we went on a beautiful hike with cave-pocked mountain faces, wild sage, moseying cows, and birds abound. Then there was a casual dip in the Jordan River with a swing rope, which was very fun. Later that night we went to a Druze village and got the local eating fare, Sambusac, a delicious fire-baked bread with herbs and cheese and fresh squeezed lemon juice. It was the perfect goodbye to this beautiful place in the north.
Tired and happy, we drove back to Tel Aviv the next day arriving just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day. There were speeches telecast and made by political figures and survivors. Songs and anthems sung, and respect given. The next morning a siren went off for a whole minute in the city and everyone stopped, still in silence and remembering. Then I headed to the airport and left with a certain joy of warmth and learning and friends. Despite sounding trite, we are all friends and should hold hands in humanity. Don’t tell yourself you can’t go somewhere because you’ve been told it’s not safe or that it’s different from you. If you have ever felt that way about Israel know that it is a beautiful place that is due a proper respect; that it is a place in which one can delight and be welcomed. Yalla!