(By Lara Robinson)
I am sitting on the second floor of a Loveat café on Nahalat Binyamin in central Tel Aviv. A rust-colored dog wanders over, sniffs my hiking boots and gobbles up a piece of feta that fell out of my sandwich. I have been in Israel 230 days.
I landed in Ben Gurion Airport for the first time in 2012. Like many young Jewish-Americans, I participated in a Birthright trip. Before, Israel was nothing more than a place on the map, but during my trip I discovered a vibrant land. The sights, the food and the parties bowled me over. And who can forget the soldiers? Fierce, statuesque young women with sleek ponytails blowing in the wind like a horse’s mane, and handsome men, towering columns of olive green, veiny, muscular arms clutching the Uzi slung over their shoulders. Didn’t each and every one of us, the pathetic university students we were, yearn to shed our nebbish, neurotic skin to be rebuilt into that paragon of masculine, heroic beauty? Israel was branded into my flesh. Once home, I headed for the library to read about Israeli history and society. I realized quickly I was unable to get the full story on my free, ten-day trip. I started to feel as though I had returned from a tour of Jewish Disneyland. Furthermore, I was at a crossroads in my life: out of school, unemployed, and alone. I decided it was time to get out of my rut. It was time to go on a journey both spiritual and physical. It was time to join a Masa program and move across the globe for ten months. ONE day in. My journey begins in Jaffa, where Tikkun Olam’s coexistence track is based. Tikkun Olam—“Repairing the World.” I was at the height of my do-gooder delusions when I chose this program. I thought I was going to solve the Middle-East conflict, but how can I promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs when my flat-mates and I can barely coexist with each other?Moreover, a part of me will be haunted by Jaffa for the rest of my life. No one is simultaneously more revolted and compelled by Jaffa than I.On Birthright, we were only exposed to the quaint and inoffensive Old City and Port. But there is another, more fascinating side to this city. A hotbed of racial tension, poor Christian and Muslim Arabs are increasingly unable to afford to live in Jaffa as young, Jewish Israelis gentrify the neighborhood. All that remains is resentment and reconstructed Oriental architecture. I suppose if I hated my municipality I would throw my garbage in the gutters too.It’s easy to be critical, but I am also grateful. I picked Tikkun Olam because I knew it would reveal an aspect of what it’s like for some of Israel’s most marginalized populations making their way in this country. Working with these populations increased my sensitivity to the socioeconomic, racial and religious challenges Israel faces. 26 DAYS IN. My relatives invite me over for Sukkot. “They live outside of Jerusalem,” my grandma in Los Angeles told me.“Oh, they live in the West Bank?” Barak replied when I mentioned I was headed to Efrat that weekend. The West Bank? My relatives are settlers?Dismayed, an image of a disgruntled Jew sitting on a hilltop clutching a machine gun, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, conjured in my mind. Barak laughed and told me to have a good trip.
I board the Egged bus from the Jerusalem Central Station to Efrat. The separation barrier looms in the distance. Half an hour later, I arrive in a suburb not unlike one found in the States. I am greeted by large houses of Jerusalem stone and red-shingled, pointed roofs. My relatives, all fifteen of them, turn out to be some of the warmest, well-adjusted, and loveliest people I have ever met. All my preconceived notions were turned on their head. 202 DAYS IN. The sun is coming out of hiding. I take a shared taxi to meet up with my friends on the Israel Teaching Fellows program in Netanya. The sun shimmers on the toasty, golden sand and dances off the glittering crests of the calm, aquamarine waves. The sky is a dazzling azure. With a bottle of diet coke sweating next to my towel, I welcome the sun’s warmth sinking into every inch of skin. I can’t tell if I am in a beautiful dream or if the heat is going to my head. I decide it’s a bit of both.122 DAYS IN. Danny and I are on our way to Jerusalem for the apocalypse. It’s December 21, 2012. We decided the Western Wall would be a fitting place to usher in the world’s destruction, whether literal or metaphysical. As a remnant of the outer walls once surrounding the Temple, it is the most significant site in the world for Jews.We take three buses from Jaffa to make it to the Western Wall. Arriving at the plaza, we split up and enter into opposite sides of the barricade separating men and women. I take my folded-up note out of my pocket and slip it into one of the cracks amongst all the other tiny pieces of paper. I extend my small, raw fingertips out to the vertical expanse inches from my face. I flatten my palms on the icy, yellow rock and sigh heavily. Crisp, chilly air tickles my nostrils. Muttered prayers and the soft cooing of pigeons reverberate in my ears. My body vibrates with millennia of hopes, dreams, wishes, and pleas. I rest my weary forehead on the stone, trembling. It is the presence of the Wall from antiquity and the sense of history and human interconnectedness that most acutely ties me to this land. ISRAEL is a place that must be witnessed firsthand to be believed. It is impossible to acquire an accurate picture from the media or a 10-day, all-expenses-paid tour. There is a multifaceted, flawed, brilliant, human side of Israel hidden in the cracks and darkened alleys that cannot be unearthed without intensely immersing oneself inside it. And, as Jews in a global society, there is a richer, wiser, more-authentic self within each and every one of us that will only emerge from the deepest depths of our souls after engaging in a meaningful, extended journey across this land. Sure, I thought I would be a healed, charismatic, self-actualized person by now. I’m not, but at least I ate a lot of Bissli and got a rockin’ tan.