Many things happened today and it would be nice to recount them all, but as you may recall, my phone’s charging habits have been questionable, so some selective highlights will have to do instead.
The Mediterranean sun greeted us this morning standing on our room’s balcony. The interplay of sunlight with the misty, Tel-Avivian air was a breathtaking sight to behold and on the balcony next door the swaying of our religious instructor in his morning prayer interfered with our attempts at capturing panoramic photos.
After a breakfast that puts many a restaurant’s to shame, we left to do some volunteer work in an Israeli food bank. It’s not as if I was given a choice, so the involuntary volunteer work began. The rhythmic and monotonous separating of onions – rotten from really rotten, the former of which will be fed to the poor – turned out to be really therapeutic and the physical movements involved made for a really good morning workout.
From there we left for Ceasaria, the place where the really good, but simultaneously really bad, Judean king Herod built impressive structures in honour of his Roman overlords. An intense discussion on the journey resulted in my rethinking of important aspects of Zionist history, to not so favourable conclusions. Jesu… I mean, Hertzl! Was that intense!
In the evening we arrived at our new living courters, just in time as my body was about to run out of its chemical fuel. After dinner, seconds and thirds we had some Jewish songs contests, which I won for my team by performing a rendition of an old Chassidic song in Yiddish which encourages the listener to keep on drinking vodka, lest they die and forfeit the ability to do so.
Thus ends the story of how I came to be anti-socially blogging on my phone at this very moment, whilst my newly-made friends seem to be carrying on with their social life. I better return to them before they find out that they don’t need me. Yalla, bye!
Today social anxiety finally kicked in. Through my experiences the point at which that happens to me is the point after which the initial introductions have been made, names and occupations exchanged and now real relationships will need to form. Unlike many others, I find initial encounters quite straightforward and easy. What I struggle is taking the next step in the befriending process.
As ever, I spend too much time thinking about myself, so I have had the chance to come up with a couple of theories as to the reasons for this phenomenon. The hypothesis that the evidence seems to be supporting at the moment is that it is the fear of rejection and judgment that is at the heart of my inhibitions. During first encounters people are unlikely to be rejecting, as they make an effort at first impressions, and it doesn’t take more than a simple defence system for me to hide behind in order to be comfortable that I come across well enough to someone who doesn’t know me. From then on however, people start letting down their initial politeness, rejection becoming an ever looming threat, and, likewise, my defences get gradually eroded as people get to know me better and the obsession with how I am being judged starts taking roots.
Of course, as a straight, single male in a pool of available girls, sexual tensions and anxieties run high too, but I feel less comfortable discussing it or expressing it due to societal and psychological reasons that are forever beyond my reach.
In a corner of an adjoining room, strategically situated in a location with maximal Wi-Fi exposure, two co-travellers are watching the latest season of Game of Thrones on the Chromebook that I have lent them. The mix of High Vallerian and Dothraki emanating from my device’s loud-speakers are – quite ungratefully – distracting me in my writing attempt, but I am yet to tell you how and where we spent the day.
Brutally and prematurally awakened from a crucially replenishing, and – according to my roommate – a snoring-filled, night’s sleep, we headed to the Golan Hights, where – the background sound of shell and mortar explosions notwithstanding – we enjoyed a spectacular mountain hike, during which I could almost watch my tan darkening. My wrist-watch, besides for faithfully keeping me up to date with the time, also serves as a living testimony for this, as when removed it exposes some pale, Ashkenazi skin.
At lunchtime we got to taste wine and make cheese. Both were awful, but at least for the wine we could blame others.
In the afternoon our hot and sweaty bodies had their first taste of water. Rafting in the Jordan was fun, although my belly almost burst open when I tried jumping in from a tree swing, just to hit the water flat on. You don’t need to know much physics to understand that that was painful and embarrassing.
Back in our hotel, after a talk on the regional geo-politics that I found to be unexpectedly impartial, I am about to sign off for the night to get some sleep, or, should I get a beer? A beer it is! See you again tomorrow.
ISRAEL LOG 5: Saturday, 26th August
From Religion to Independence – מדת לעצמאות
It’s been a while since I checked in with my log, which means that some of you must have been driven to depression. As I don’t want blood on my hands, here I am back to give meaning to your life.
With boundaries breached and barriers broken, my social situation has improved beyond compare. Of course this means that I have less time to write, being busy jumping on beds and in beds, but it also means that my anxieties have ceased: bad for you; good for me.
As for my sickly phone, well, I had less time to be on it – of course other than during our multi-houred karaoke session last night when it sadly passed away whilst I was looking up the lyrics for Elsa’s Let It Go. At that point beer no longer did it for me, but – no worries – some of his stronger relatives were there to the rescue.
It was back on Thursday morning in Tell Aviv and we went to see Independence Hall. The setting of the place where Israel declared independence on the 5th of Iyar 1948 has been preserved and the experience of singing there Hatikva was immensely powerful.
Something about the Jewish story of the last two-three centuries is immensely inspiring to me as a formerly religious, secular Jew. I see my journey from religious fanaticism to secular enlightenment as a micro-history of the modern Ashkenazi Jew.
The transformation of Judaism in the Jewish enlightenment from a superstitious, Yahweh-worshipping religion, to a secular humanistic peoplehood culminates in the establishment of the secular Jewish state of Israel. Judaism hasn’t died out, but it has heen reformed, transformed and restored. I think that amongst the host of my fictitiously constructed identities, this myth would rank pretty high.
Gotta run now. More rambling later.
ISRAEL LOG 6: Sunday, 27th August
Dance of Joy – ריקוד של שמחה
I’ve always loved dancing and the opportunity for free self expression that comes with it. Of course the Chassidic dance is very different to modern party dancing and they each have their advantages. In the circle dance there isn’t so much room for expression of individuality and creativity, but there is the kind of inclusion and embrace of everyone involved that is lacking in the clubs where one has got to work in order to be seen.
Last night, in a club in Ben Yehuda, feet really lifted. The friendship-acceleration process endemic to a trip like Birthright, ensured that dancing with people whom I hadn’t known a week ago felt like a neo-chassidic dance.
Going back to Thursday, we left the Independence Hall and arrived at the Taglit Innovation Centre. It was interesting learning about Israel’s technological and scientific achievements and the word ‘boastful’ took on a new meaning. As the Israeli entrepreneur lectured us about his achievements in the ‘start up nation’ I dosed off, the fact that I was sitting in the front row notwithstanding.
On Tel Aviv beach a little bit later in the day I undressed to discover that all my anxieties about my beach-imperfect body were unfounded, not because I have magically developed abs overnight, but because my idea of a perfect body came from a tiny, over-represented minority in society and it evaporated as soon as some regular skin was seen.
Now we’re on the way to Yad VaShem holocaust museum and to Mount Hertzl and as a matter of respect and reverence there’ll be no beer consumption today. But I swear that if my phone plays up I’ll bury it alongside its fellow Jewish fallen.
ISRAEL LOG 7: Monday, 28th August
Holocaust and Heroism – לשואה ולגבורה
Hey world, this is actually me, up and awake – who would have thought that I would ever be capable of breaking up with my bed so early on in our night’s relationship. We’re off to Masada and perhaps our tour guides are trying to get us into the suicidal mood that its occupiers were in. They’re not far from succeeding with me.
Yesterday was spent in Jerusalem on Mount Hertzl. We somberly walked through the Yad VaShem holocaust memorial and museum with our oldish guide who was inappropriately funny for the occasion. We then spent some time with the remains of the leaders and fighters of the modern Jewish people, Hertzl, Zabotinski, Channah Senesh and Rabin amongst them.
I had learnt about the holocaust a lot before, so the experience of reliving the tragedy wasn’t as traumatic for me as it was for others in our group, but at Hertzl’s gravesite and memorial my emotions were overflowing. I also connected a lot with the Jewish and human heroism shown by resistance fighters like Mordechai Anilevitch and his fellow Warsaw Ghetto brethren. This was a part of holocaust education that they didn’t teach me in my religious education, as it doesn’t fit the narrative of Jews as submissive sheep surrounded by aggressive wolves.
Of course my type of Jew now is the sheep-turned-lion, who stands up to the bullies and fights back for her dignity, even if to the death and that is one of the things that I find so inspiring about the Zionist narrative, whether real or fictitious.
Hertzl was my kind of Jew: proudly Jewish and yet passionately universalistic, faithful and committed but enlightened and secular. He didn’t see Jewish nationalism as conflicting with his liberal humanistic values and neither do I. He saw Jews not as better or special, but as unique in their own way – so do I.
It’s nice floating around in the realm of idealistic mythological identity – especially from my moderately comfortable coach seat, but I’ll soon be brutally brought back to reality with the burning salt of the dead sea on my numerous cuts and bruises. Not looking forward.
ISRAEL LOG 8: Tuesday, 29th August
Identity Narratives – סיפורי זהות
We’re on the way back to Jaffa for our final night on the trip, my hands constantly travelling to my back to scratch off the peeling skin from my sunburn on Tel Aviv beach. Earlier we have left S’deh Boker where Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Guryon lived towards the end of his life and where he is buried.
Identity narratives that we tell ourselves are fictitious reconstructions of historical events, where objective reality is used to forge subjective meaning. Reality is far too complicated to be given to precise characterisation and stories are too short and simplistic as to accurately reflect complex, non-linear events. And yet, we need these identity narratives and on a broad and holistic level they sometimes do give us a rough idea of overall historical trends and journeys.
An example of such an identity narrative for me is Zionism. By a retrospective and selective reading of historical events, a really moving narrative of human courage, resistance and hope unfolds. The narrative is based on historical events, but is largely an idealistic reconstruction. I don’t need, or want, the injustices and wrongs done in the name of the Zionist idea as part of my narrative. I don’t need complexity and accuracy as part of my narrative. All that I need is a simplified and purified version of events to aid my identity, as identity narratives belong in the realm of myth, not history.
It is in that sense that Ben-Guryon stands out as the lion fighting for his people. As an atheist in love with the Hebrew bible, he surely understood the power of mythological narrative. He didn’t need the Tanach to be perfect in order to love it and I don’t need Ben-Guryon to be perfect in order to love him. And besides, he might not be perfect in history class, but he’s perfect in my fictitious mythology.
One thing to be careful though when dealing with mythology is that they are recognised and identified as such. As fictions they can’t be used to support any claims about reality. They are there for the sole use of providing us with meaning, identity and a sense of belonging, but cannot guide us in matters of right and wrong, true and false. Many don’t follow this principle, abusing the purpose of mythology. Mythology is a dangerous weapon in the hands of literalists.
ISRAEL LOG 9: Wednesday, 30th August
Jerusalem the Beautiful! – ירושלים, היפה!
It’s been a long and exhausting day and I am resting my tired feet on the bus towards my accommodation in my mate Amir’s flat in Hebrew University’s halls.
The Israel Museum, located right next to the Knesset and Supreme Court, closes at nine, making my wish to stay there overnight to nourish my soul with its historical, cultural and artistic specularity impossible. My four hours there were enough to send me into a euphoric trance though.
Jerusalem has awe-struck me with its beauty. If God were to exist this would no doubt be the place on earth He would choose as His dwelling and if the term “holy” has any meaning, its meaning will have to be Jerusalem.
It’s been an emotional day for me on another level as well. Earlier this day I had to say goodbye to a few tens of people whom I have met only ten days ago but who have nevertheless made me feel as if I can’t live without them. I’m consoled by the hope that I have made some long-lasting and meaningful connections and that I’ll get to see some of them again shortly.
I am attaching some photos of our trip yesterday to the Ein Avdat Canyon, where hundreds of millions of years in the geological record unfolded in front of our eyes, as well as some beautiful scenic pictures of the old city of Jaffa, where we experienced beautiful and hope-infusing coexistence and baseless love between the Arab and Jewish populations of the city (photos not attached in blog edition – see Facebook).
(ISRAEL) [PALESTINE] LOG 10: Friday, 1st September
Blurring the Boundaries – טשטוש הגבולות
I want to start writing about yesterday, but there are so many thoughts and feelings that I don’t know where to start. What a transformative day it was! What a contradictory day! What a confusing day!
I started off the day by ascending the Temple Mount, or – as the Muslim serviceman corrected me, denying any historical Jewish presence in the area – Haram esh-Sharif. The only other time in my life when I felt that my identity as an atheist would be safer than as Jewish was at the Humanist convention earlier this summer.
I then made my way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a priest ordered me to remove my hat before entry. At the Western Wall I was asked the opposite – to cover my head – but there I did not conform, as I don’t think of the Wall as a religious site, but as a national one. It was also in protest for the Orthodox monopoly on what should be a monument for the whole nation. Here at the church, however, I removed my hat and enjoyed the beautiful architecture and art that God absently inspired in partnership with His Son.
After being told by virtually every Israeli who we discussed it with that we will not return alive from Ramallah, my friend Flo and I nevertheless decided to go. One Israeli who mistook us for romantic partners told us that if we want to get married to each other we should value our lives and not go. When we corrected him that we are friends he said, “if you ever want to get married to ANYONE, don’t go!”
The local residents were exceptionally friendly – granted that we did not reveal our Jewish identity. We got invited in for tea and got taken around. With one exception of a young resident who refused to call murderous attacks against Israeli civilians terrorism, all other people we were talking to seemed to be balanced and non-violent peace seekers.
At the Yassir Arafat Museum we got to learn of the other side of the conflict. The narrative was obviously one sided, but not more so than the Zionist museums in Israel.
Back in Jerusalem, after a theological debate with an orthodox friend over some beers, my day was coming to a close. It is going to take me a long time to process what I have taken in on this day; for now I am not jumping to any conclusions, just learning, listening and taking in.
ISRAEL LOG 11: Saturday, 2nd September
Freedom from Religion – חופש מדת
It’s shabbat in Israel, which means that there is no public transport. I’ll either have to walk places, or I’m stuck at home. It upsets me that religion is enforced here in this way; is Israel a theocracy or a democracy? But rather than wallowing in morbid thoughts, I want to catch up on a day in our trip that I haven’t covered yet.
Last Friday we started off by exploring the area around the ancient Jewish temple, where the Temple Mount and Western Wall are located. We saw the remains of Jewish life and ritual, evidence of a period of Jewish sovereignty in the land. Whether or not that justifies modern Jewish control there is a good question, but denying history – like so many anti-Zionists do – is simply wrong and unhelpful. Obviously, the same goes to denying historical Islamic and Palestinian presence in the area.
As we entered the Western Wall Plaza, the girls were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Apparently God can’t handle a pair of sexy knees. As I always thought of my own knees as sexy in their own way, I decided to cover them and put on a skirt as well. The Modesty Patrol didn’t seem to like the idea though.
We then went to Mach’neh Yehuda market, where we bought our Shabbat needs and ate an overpriced lunch.
Later in the evening we returned to the Western Wall to welcome the Sabbath. We sang and danced euphorically and I got myself into trouble for using my device to capture the moment. Many of the worshippers – it seemed – had strong opinions about using electronics on shabbat. I generally believe in respecting others’ sensitivities, but I think that I get some lee-way when it comes to the ideology that physically and mentally abused me. I’d much sooner be respectful towards Mormonism and scientology than towards Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, not because the latter is crazier than the former, but because the latter abused me where the former have not.
After Friday night dinner back in our hotel, we drank and partied like crazy, but I have already written about it in a previous log (5).
ISRAEL LOG 12: Sunday, 3rd September
Sea, Mountains and Desert – ים, הרים ומדבר
ISRAEL LOG 12
I’m on the “public taxi” service on the way to Tel Aviv to meet up with my mate Eylon. Later in the evening we will be partying in Tel Aviv in what My Israeli buddies predict to be “lit”. My ass – or as they call it here, yashvan – is one big rash from today’s adventures, which I want to tell you all about, but first I must repay a debt that I owe from last week Monday.
We got woken up at 3 and rushed to the dining hall where there was cake and coffee for us that we were all too tired to eat anyway. After reaching the bottom of Masada with the bus, we climbed the mountain in the dim light of pre dawn. The world truly looked like a purer place at that moment.
With trepidation we awaited the magnificent Mediterranean sunrise, the beauty of which exceeded all our expectations. We then toured the site of the last Jewish resistance against the mighty Roman army in the early years of the common era, discussing what moral value to ascribe to their desperate choices.
Still in the early hours of the morning we arrived at the dead sea where we got to float in what felt like a boiling, salty soup – my many rashes and wounds causing me to shout out in agony as the salt sucked on my blood.
In the afternoon we stopped in the Negev for what was going to be our “Bedouin Tent Experience”. After a cultural exchange with our Bedouin host, we all jumped onto the back of his camels who grudgingly – it seemed – took us on a ride around the encampment.
As night fell we went out to the hill for some meditative star-gazing, which was a powerful experience for many. Before laying our exhausted bodies on the tent floor for some sleep, we sang and told embarrassing stories about ourselves around the campfire, all the while chewing on half-roasted-half-burnt marshmallows.
By now I have arrived in Tel Aviv, so I’m going to sign off. See you in my next, and perhaps final, Israel Log.
ISRAEL LOG 13: Wednesday, 6th September
Difficult Farewell – פרידה קשה
Big Busy London grimly welcomed me last night as I stepped out of Heathrow Airport. My 17 day adventure sadly came to an end, but I can’t say that I’ll miss living out of a stinky, mold-scented suitcase.
My last few days in israel were a blast and this is what this 13th and final log is about.
On Friday evening I attended a beautiful egalitarian kabbalat shabbat at Kehilat Zion with my newfound friend and radical Yael. Afterwords we had a heavy-discussion-filled dinner at her hilarious mom’s Nicky.
On Saturday afternoon I wondered around the Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, where – in keeping with ancient biblical law – I literally got stoned for using my phone to take some pictures. (Yea, you didn’t know this, but they had phones in biblical times.) I then joined a counter protest for religious freedom and secular democracy.
On Sunday at the crack of dawn my mate Amir and I headed out on a bikes from Netanya with the intention of cycling down the 25km trek to Tel Aviv. By he time we arrived in Hertzelliah it was past 9 and it was too hot to continue, so instead we stopped there and cooled off in the local beach.
Monday morning I woke up just to discover that my wallet with all my money and cards has gone missing. I was totally fucked, but the experience has taught me never to underestimate the tranquilising power of a good wank. After cancelling my cards and borrowing some money from a friend, I went to the Yitzchak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv where I shed some tears on the peace that was murdered by religious fanaticism. At Yad VaShem I didn’t cry, on Mount Hertzl I didn’t cry, but here I cried for Rabin and for his heroic idealism.
Yesterday morning, hours before my flight, I visited the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. It’s an informative and content-rich museum, but also very run-down and neglected – the symbolism was unavoidable.
And thus my great Israeli adventure comes to an end. Now I am headed home from the Yachad Students Conference, where we discussed pro-Israel-pro-peace issues; what a way of returning to the diaspora!
Stay tuned for my next post in which I will be sharing some final thoughts and impressions about the issues that spoke to me during the trip. See you then!