The guide from Galilee

Meet Ilan Livneh, a kibbutznik tour guide who shows the US to Israelisof all hues - including this writer.

ilan livneh 88 224 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
ilan livneh 88 224
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
A few years ago when Ilan Livneh finished his army service, he followed a well-beaten track to the US hoping to find work, save money and travel on to South America and wherever else his fancy and finances would take him. Livneh was doing what thousands of young Israeli adults did before him, flying out of the physically compact Israel to see and experience life beyond the Mediterranean shore. No doubt, many thousands more are planning to follow suit. These days, the 24-year-old from Kibbutz Lotem in the Galilee has completed two lengthy stints of travels in South America, financed by seasonal work during the summer and early autumn months in the US. But unlike many of his peers working in the US and Europe, Livneh does not wait tables or stand by a wooden cart for hours in some upmarket shopping mall trying to sell anything from Dead Sea products to acrobatic flying toys, particularly during the busy pre-Christmas season. Nor does he schlep furniture and household goods with Moshe Movers, Solomon's Shifters or similarly named Israeli companies. Born in San Diego when his father was working there for the Israeli armaments company Rafael, Livneh earns his way by guiding groups of Israelis for the popular travel company HaMetayel. The fact that Israelis are not easy people to deal with - especially when holidaying abroad - is no state secret, but Livneh tackles the challenge with an ever-present smile, sense of humor and abundance of knowledge about American history, geography, topography, its peoples, birds, bees and everything in-between that is part of the great story known as the United States of America. As well as the owner of a phenomenal memory, he is a talented storyteller and quick-on-the-draw joke teller. Asked when he found the time to study and absorb the seemingly never-ending wealth of information stored in his head, Livneh - who served a full three years in the IDF prior to beginning his travels - was modest with his answer. "I haven't actually studied, but as long as I remember myself I've read a lot and practically everything is of interest to me," said the tall, longhaired and charismatic Galilean kibbutznik gone walkabout in the Americas. The 35 holidaying Israelis he was guiding presented quite an interesting cross-section of Israeli society. They included a mature 17-year-old who got bored visiting relatives and so decided to hop on the six-night, seven-day tour to Upstate New York, Niagara, Toronto, Philadelphia, Washington and back to New York, although he left in Philadelphia after Israeli relatives living locally plucked him out of our midst. There were also a couple of young ladies who had worked with American Jewish youth in camps over the summer getting in a bit of tour time before returning home and continuing with their studies, as well as four young religious girls who recently finished their national service in Israel, spreading their wings before also settling down to studies back home. Then there was a young policeman from Afula and his fiancée, a lawyer. He was the joker of the pack. Every group has one, it would appear. During the initial introduction where everybody said a few words, he kicked off with, "I lock up villains and my girlfriend fights to let them out again." An aviation engineer and his teacher wife from Tel Aviv were also part of the group, as was their pre-induction daughter. There were also a Negev-based scientist in his mid-30s hard at work on a research project and already holed up in a New York university for a number of months who said he "needed a break," an elderly couple from Jerusalem who didn't know a word of English and had spent years saving up for a trip to America, and another older couple who were religious and rather preoccupied with where they would be able to find suitable food to eat en-route. There were also a number of America-based Israelis accompanying visiting members of their families on the tour, and another large family from Yokneam with their about-to-be-in-uniform son, his friend and younger siblings. The 'star' of the group was definitely a young Israeli Haredi bar mitzvah boy by the name of Michael on holiday in America with his very proud parents, both former Americans. When Livneh discovered while chatting to Michael's parents that their son had taken second prize in the Haredi equivalent of A Star is Born, he handed over the microphone to the round-faced, fair-haired, sweet-voiced youth who belted out Adon Olam as we traveled through Upstate New York's breathtaking greenery, abundance of water and miles of grapevines. Michael entertained periodically during long stretches of the journey, and the Chinese-American bus driver Tommy became an ardent fan, joining in a chorus or two as the rest of the passengers of what was fast becoming a musical mitzvah tank clapped, sang, cracked jokes and playfully made fun of each other as only Israelis know how. I will always now connect "Am Israel Hai" with Tommy the Chinese-American bus driver's finger tapping energetically on the bus steering wheel! While in Philadelphia, Livneh led the group to see the Liberty Bell and, only a short walking distance away, a number of sites of Jewish interest including a memorial to Entebbe hero Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu, who attended high school in Philadelphia when his scholar father undertook academic research work there. How fitting that the Liberty Bell and memorial to the New York-born Netanyahu, who died in 1976 fighting to free Jewish hostages in Uganda, should be in such proximity to each other. As Livneh vividly recounted one of the most daring of rescue missions mounted by the State of Israel, older members of the group added to the pool of information from their own memories of events at that time, and two passersby stopped to listen. Philadelphian Louis Balcher, Director of Academic Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in the city, just happened by with a visitor to town, Tabby Davoodi who held the same position as Balcher at the Los Angeles Israeli consulate. Listening to Livneh describing the raid on Entebbe and the who-was-who of the IDF and Israel's political leadership at the time, Balcher commented on how impressed he was with the knowledge and presentation of the youthful Israeli guide. He also contributed to a very moving experience by describing the effect the Entebbe raid and death of Yoni Netanyahu had at the time on the Philadelphian Jewish community - among whom the Netanyahu family had lived, worked and studied. The Netanyahu memorial stands outside a building where the National Museum of American Jewish History is housed, as well as the Congregation Mikveh Israel synagogue. A new museum is presently being constructed elsewhere as the collection has far outgrown its present premises. A large sign outside states: "You CAN take it with you! The National Museum of American Jewish History is taking its collection to a brand new home to be built on the corner of 5th and Market Street, opening 2010. In the meantime we're here, and open so come in. You'll look a little. You'll shop a little. You'll have a good time!" In many ways, that summed up the whirlwind six-night seven-day tour led by the young man from Kibbutz Lotem. However, we also learned a great deal and were left with an appetite for more. As much as we would have liked to take Livneh home to Israel with us, like so many other young Israelis on the global road, he has yet to decide where he is going to eventually settle down. "I don't know if it will be Israel, but I definitely do know it will not be America," said the walking, talking, charismatic verbal encyclopedia from the Galilee.