“You study economics?”
“Yeah. It’s not as hard as it sounds.”
“Please. I’m in the army—that’s easy! You study economics? That’s tough!”
- “New York, New York” started to play on the bus as soon as the Israelis were settled. That was a moment to remember. It was so perfectly placed—the people, the music, the scene—that it seemed to be out of a perfectly choreographed movie. Here were these people, and here were us, no different except the land that we grew in. And the only reason is because one side’s ancestors decided to head to New York, and the other decided to head to the Promised Land. In one of the last scenes in Fiddler on the Roof, the residents of Anatevka leave for the next chapters in their lives. Some went to New York; some decided to make “next year in Jerusalem” a reality. Now their descendants are on a bus, reuniting for the first time in history.
- We were waiting for the Israelis, more peacefully than anyone had ever waited for Israeli soldiers before. We were anxious, yes; we were told that they were more so. Apparently it is a great prize to be the soldiers to go on the Birthright trip.
- It didn’t take long for the Israelis to make themselves at home—after all, we were the ones in their home. We spent a night out in Tel Aviv this night, which was wonderful. As we were driving in, a sight weirder than I could even imagine caught my eye:
Yes, in case you can’t believe it, that’s GIR—from Invader Zim, a show that ran for about two years—perhaps the greatest character ever conceived in the entirety of Western Civilization, graffitied on a wall near downtown Tel Aviv. I feel like Rick Blaine: Of all the characters, in all the shows, in all the cities, they chose GIR in downtown Tel Aviv. What.
- We went to an Irish Pub for dinner. They sat all 11 of us, and the Real Madrid game was on. The most important thing to remember is that the drinking age in Israel is 18; I, and everybody on Birthright, are 18 or above. It made for a fun trip.
- So, there we were, in an Irish Pub in downtown Tel Aviv, looking for the beer with the most alcoholic content. We found some Israeli beer and just pointed to the menu when the waiter came. Then, something amazing happened. The music turned to something I recognized inherently, as if it was a nursery rhyme from when I was young. I and another member of my trip, Sam, started looking up, shifting in our seats to the music. And then we sang “Hotel California” in an Irish Pub in downtown Tel Aviv, wondering how in the world this song was playing here, in this place.
“When are we going to see Ben Gurion?”
“Ben Gurion is dead, my friend.”
- And yet, the people didn’t seem despaired. Sure, they were poor. But two teenage boys—probably 13, 14 years of age—made obscene gestures at the possibility that we were gay. And maybe that’s because they blame Americans for the state of their homes, but I also, as I was walking down a literal Hell on Earth, heard “Free Bird” in one of the stores, in a place where chain stores don’t exist.
- We were near the area of the Gaza Strip the next day, if you want to know what it’s like to take such a 180 in terms of mood. It may have been the most harrowing experience of the trip, and I’m including Yad Vashem, the most famous Holocaust museum in the world. The playground the kids of Sderot played in had a bunker underneath it, in case the rockets were fired while they were busy doing unimportant things such as making memories: who needs memories when you’ll be blown away tomorrow?
- Or, perhaps that is the time when you most need memories, when you most need to live in the moment. We spent a good two and a half hours in Sderot, which is on the front lines of the most hostile place on Earth. The buildings have rocket residue on them from last summer. Why bother cleaning when it’ll happen again? Spend your time elsewhere, your energy more wisely.
- David Ben Gurion’s gravesite is beautiful. You know how in the movies you always hear how, when the character knows he or she is about to die, they’ll always say something along the lines of: “Of last sights, I could’ve done worse”? Well Ben Gurion could not have done better. He’s overlooking the scorched-earth beauty of the Negeve Desert by day, and is being bathed by a sea of stars at night. Also, he is laying by his wife for all of eternity.
“You left your phone at Ben Gurion’s grave?”
“Oh my god—instead of putting a rock on his grave, she put her phone.”
“That’s by far the funniest thing you’ve ever said.”
- The first thing of Day 5 was the Gaza Strip; the last thing was the camels. We arrived in a Bedouin campsite and rode the hell out of these camels. It was amazing. I can’t even describe it in words. It’s just one of those things you have to do: you have to fly to Israel, party with some Israeli soldiers, and then go to a Bedouin camp and ride some camels. You just have to.
- One of the Bedouins welcomed us in a huge tent and told us how they made their coffee. That may not sound like much, but I have to emphasize: their coffee is the greatest coffee I’ve ever had in my entire life. There was a huge process to make it, and he told us this for about 30 minutes. What was more interesting to me was what he was wearing:
But I kept wondering, what does he do? Everyone in the world has a job, and his is obviously coffee, but does he have friends? Does he do anything besides coffee? Does he leave the camp? Does he have a purpose to life other than the coffee?
- A man known as the Scribe was sitting in a glass room. His only job in the entire world is to rewrite the Old Testament again, and again, and again. I thought of him much the way I thought of the Bedouin. Does he have a family? Does he have bad days? After work, does he meet friends at a bar and discuss the Talmud? Does he leave his work at his job and talk about something—anything—else? Or did he long ago give up any semblance of a meaningful life outside rewriting the words of men who long ago decided to kill themselves rather than continue the legacy he is?
- We spent the night in a huge communal tent in the Bedouin camp. It was freezing. You didn’t wear clothes so much as you hoarded sleeves and hoped that the snakes and spiders stayed away, or, at the very least, they weren’t poisonous. (We survived the night.)
- Day 6 arrived, and so did Masada. Masada’s an interesting place, because, depending on your perspective, it is either a place of great pride or great stupidity for the Jewish people. It was on Masada where 930 Jews committed suicide as opposed to being enslaved by the Romans. Their point was that it was better to die a Jew than to live a slave. And that is true, to some extent, but their actions did leave a Middle East without a Jewish presence from 73 CE to 1948, which is when Israel formally became a state. The Israeli flag was flying over Masada, which is amazing to think about given the actions that occurred in 73 CE. It just goes to show: the universe corrects itself, even it takes a millennium.
- We left Masada and headed straight to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest place on Earth. And yet, when you’re in it, you’re an astronaut. You float, and your feet don’t touch the ground, and you get the feeling that they never will again. You never need them to, certainly, because you’re in the Dead Sea, and the water’s warm, and the sun’s shining, and you might as well be in space.
“LeBron hit a buzzer-beater.”
“Are you kidding? After Rose hit his?”
“So is the series 2-2?”
“Yep. Wanna see the shot?”
- This struck out to me for one reason, and one reason only: I’m from Jupiter, which is the town in the city of West Palm Beach. Two other members of this Birthright are from the same town, with one of them living on the opposite side of the same neighborhood as me. As I was walking down Masada, a man stopped me and asked if I go the UF; I said yes, because I do. He graduated from there in 1974.
- On Day 7, we visited Mt. Herzl, named after Theodore Herzl, the man whose brain invented the concept of Israel. It’s a military cemetery, so the soldiers took the lead. It was one of the more emotional parts of the entire trip. One of the stories we heard was a young American 18 year old, who made Aliyah to Israel, joined the IDF, and died in battle. I kept wondering, what peace can his family possibly make with his death? He didn’t have to die. And yet he did for his country—not the one of his birth, but the one of his spirit. How much peace that brings, that’s up to yours.
- It was in the shuk—outside marketplace—in Jerusalem where a bizarre thing happened. One of the five of us walking around was wearing a University of Florida shirt. A man came up to us and asked if we were from Florida; we said yes, because we are. We asked him where he was from: West Palm Beach was his reply. He made Aliyah 10 years ago and left West Palm Beach.
- I tried to calculate the odds that all these things would occur the way they did: the man from West Palm Beach decided to be at that spot in the shuk the day and time when we were; the Class of ’74 Gator who made a trip to Israel and picked that day and that time to climb Masada. There are two paths to climb Masada, the Roman Ramp and the Snake Path. I was walking down the latter as he was walking up it. I walked up the former. The odds are too astronomical to consider, that these occurrences would happen, that they would purport to make even the smallest degree of sense. It is coincidences masking as life events, concealing the true meaning of the way you live your life until you’re ready to view it from 100 different angles, as opposed to the first one you witness. But, then again, that’s Judaism.