Serious fun

Birthright Israel’s supporters should proudly embrace the moniker ‘tourism,’ and challenge the skeptics whose dour vision of Jewishness has no place for a little amusement.

Birthright 311 (photo credit: Taglit Birthright)
Birthright 311
(photo credit: Taglit Birthright)
The summer tourist season is here. For the 10th summer in a row, the Birthright Israel visitors are back. More than 20,000 of them this year.
When Birthright was launched a decade ago, skeptics dismissed the 10-day tours of Israel as little more than a free party for privileged college kids. It was an unfair critique, but it gained traction because it combined the ever popular lament about the “youth of today” with an equally curmudgeonly suspicion that something so fun could not actually be serious.
Surprisingly, many supporters of Birthright still buy into the critique even as they seek to rebut it. To defend the program against the charge of frivolousness, they distinguish “tourism” from “education,” portraying the former as flighty, the latter as substantive, and insisting that the program has little to do with Disney and everything to do with Dewey.
After a quarter-million participants, and years of evaluation research documenting success, it is time to stop ceding ground on the issue of principle. Instead of running ashamed from the label “tourism,” Birthright’s proponents should proclaim with pride: Tourism, is serious, meaningful and even profound.
Even the aspects that are the most derided – souvenir shopping, simulations and photo snapping – engage people deeply in an essential way.
Take photography, for instance. Through the camera’s lens, tourists build an aesthetic relationship to the country. As they frame their shots, they become artists for the moment, attuned to the beauty of the landscapes and cityscapes that surround them.
Or consider simulations. Birthright tours are rife with them. At Independence Hall, visitors listen to the crackly radio broadcast of David Ben-Gurion declaring the establishment of the state, then stand to sing “Hatkiva.” Dressed in period costumes at the Kfar Kedem biblical village, they play at living the pastoral life of Jews in the mishnaic era, grinding wheat on stone mills and then baking it into pita on a taboun.
Simulations are often lambasted as kitsch, but at their best, they are springboards for imagining oneself into a story. They facilitate role playing, which in turn helps to generate empathy and understanding of lives very different from the ones that tourists lead. Is it the same as the real thing? Of course not, but everyone knows this. Authenticity is not the issue. Just as audiences at a movie willingly suspend disbelief, the participants in a simulation do the same. But in contrast to theater-goers, tourists in simulations gain the benefit of being both actor and audience.
Of all the aspects of tourism that have gotten a bum rap, souvenir shopping has probably gotten it worst. No surprise, for shopping in general has long been stigmatized as an act of self-indulgent materialism.
But as advertisers have long known, and as scholars of contemporary life are increasingly coming to realize, we often use shopping as a way of expressing our deepest sense of self. From the books we place on our shelves, to the food we stock in our cupboards, to the clothes we drape on our bodies – we use our consumer choices not only to tell others who we are, but to tell ourselves, and to help ourselves become who we want to be.
On Birthright, the most popular souvenirs include IDF T-shirts, necklaces with kabbalistic markings, mezuzas, shofars and other forms of Judaica. Those who buy them may not be soldiers or mystics or religious virtuosos. Still, in searching out and choosing to buy these particular souvenirs, they are engaging in an act of Jewish self-affirmation.
No doubt, many would dismiss this as second-rate Jewishness. Better to serve in the IDF or study Kabbala or worship in synagogue on Rosh Hashana, they might say. But this argument ignores how important consumption is to identity in the modern world.
Throughout the democratic West, the self is largely constructed through our choices in the marketplace.
We are what we consume.
By embracing tourism, Birthright Israel taps this dimension of modern life as few other forms of Jewish practice have. By engaging Diaspora Jews as souvenir shoppers, landscape photographers, felafel tasters and inveterate sightseers, the tours give them a powerful opportunity to express themselves as Jews in a consumer society. This is nothing to dismiss.
How is it that those who have criticized Birthright as Jewish-lite have been so deaf to the classic message, reiterated every Purim, that there is such a thing as serious fun, and that Judaism has a place for it? It is time to drop the defensiveness about the 10-day trips.
Consumption is not always empty or frivolous. Role playing often matters.
Birthright Israel’s supporters should proudly embrace the moniker “tourism,” and should challenge the skeptics whose dour vision of Jewishness has no place for aesthetics, consumption and a little amusement.
The writer is assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press, 2010).