Where to begin?

Or rather, HOW to begin.

How do I begin to describe 10 days that felt, in all honestly, like ten months?

I heard from everyone before I left that I wouldn’t sleep on the trip, that that wasn’t the purpose of the trip, and that I could sleep when I got back. Yet sleep deprivation, jam-packed itineraries, foreign food, and airplane air will quickly run you down. And that’s without the spiritual and inter-personal exchanges going on.

How do I answer my family and coworkers’ questions of how the trip was? My family cares about me, knew what this trip meant to me, and wants to know if it was everything I wanted. I want to be able to answer, but I’m still chewing on so many sites and questions that I can’t find a way to respond.

For coworkers it’s harder. We generally get along and they were all excited to hear about my plans. But when they ask me how Israel was… they don’t understand how this trip isn’t like a week in Hawaii or Paris. Israel is different for Jews, even for totally secular, or totally disconnected Jews. So I throw out some details tailored to the coworker out of polite obligation and try to move on through the mountain of work I have on my desk.

So for this blog, for the few readers that make a point of checking in…I’m still not at a place where I can begin to describe everything that I experienced. Yes, I will absolutely post later on about specific days or visits that hit me the hardest, that forced me to challenge my beliefs, or that served as strong confirmation and affirmation that resonated deep in my soul.
For now I am left with:

People

There were moments when the Rabbi leader of our trip really spoke to me as a Jew with deep insights into Torah, humanity, and living in a secular world. There were other moments when I questioned my right to be on the trip. Now, days after, I feel myself drawn to the tension he brings to me life. I’m still not sure why, but I have a feeling I’m supposed to learn something from him. If I haven’t already (and just didn’t realize it…maybe it will come in the coming weeks), I am supposed to keep in touch with him for a reason. I wish I knew why.

The madrachim were one of the most delightful couples I’ve ever met. The husband was a Disney animator. Listening to his journey, not only through his career, but also his Judaism, brought lots of questions and expectations (for myself) to mind. In the course of conversations, I learned that he spoke about why he cannot accept my conversion as valid to other trip mates, but he never treated me differently. And if I was your average Reform/Conservative convert, I never would have recognized his subtle, respectful way of handling the wine I brought for Shabbes. He’s a a Mensch. His wife was truly delightful, one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. There is something about Orthodox women that make me feel like a failure as a human being. Not that they ever intend this, but sometimes it’s just hard to feel like you’ve ever done anything worthy in their presence. She is that awesome of a person and her children are so, so lucky to have her as a mother. The Israelis I met really forced me to question my “standards” for the term friend. How do you feel so attached to people after 10 days, while abroad, when it can take you weeks and weeks to open up back home? That is what I spent most of the flight home thinking about. I don’t know the answer.

The tour guide made this trip. He put everything into showing us why he loves his country, and it was hard NOT to accept his infectious enthusiasm for this place. He was so capable of running around silly one moment and then deeply responding to one of your tough questions the next. Our guard entertained us with her beautiful voice, the sad tale of growing up in Southern Israel, and her mini-ulpanim. The Israeli soldiers loved showing us around and yet watched with awe as we explored their home for the first time. I remember laughing after we were given our time at the Kotel on Shabbat; one of them was so surprised and humbled that we cared about the Wall. Really? What must he think of American Jews?

My trip mates were overwhelmingly frustrating with a few saving graces. Many had not travelled abroad. Many were quite JAP-y, sorry to say. A few quickly formed a “cool kids” clique that was hard to break through. I was so tired of them by the second day that I quickly turned to my iPod and journal. There is a girl from my city that I really connected with, a girl from another Southwestern state, and a guy from up in the Northwest. It’s kind of disheartening to realize that 40 randomly selected Jewish young adults… and you can’t stand 35 of them. One of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip was to connect culturally and people-y, beyond religion-ly to Judaism. I’m left with a lot of questions of why I have a hard time connecting to Jewish peers, and I do mean beyond the difficulties I have with my peers, period, introvert that I am.

Israel

I’ve never felt my own country was inadequate before. Yes, the USA has disappointed me on many fronts. But it hit me like a thud on the third or fourth day, while travelling around Israel’s boondocks, that even in Podunk Israel, it was easier to be a Jew than in New York City or Los Angeles. Everything I saw had a hecksher on it. Every restaurant had a sink with a two handled bucket. Every door had a mezuzah. I heard mean shouting “Mincha, mincha!” in parking lots of gas stations. I will never find that in the US. I will always be the minority.

And then I think of all the things I can have in the US that I will never have in Israel: no conscription. Ability to marry a non-Jew if I wanted. No PTSD. It may not be a fair trade-off, but it’s one I’m willing to make.

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5 thoughts on “Where to begin?

  1. oy I understand!!! I do, I do!!! Wow… would it be OK to say who the Rabbi and his wife were? Who the tour guide were? So curious if I know them! Wow do I understand you.

    • I suspected that in many ways, engaged Jews would be one of the few groups of people that could understand all that’s rumbling around inside my head.

      Rabbi Yonason Quinn is the Aish Ha Torah rabbi for UCLA/Los Angeles. His wife is from England I think. They have four kids, all born in Israel, and they visit his parents, who live there in Beit V’Gan in Jerusalem, multiple times a year.

      The madrachim were Saul and Marion Blinkoff. He has an IMDB page if you’re interested in his career, and he apparently does a lot of talks around college campuses about following your dreams while being an observant Jew (raised slightly Conservative growing up). Marion I think grew up in NY to a totally secular/Reform-ish family. I’d say they’re both “BTs” in the common understanding of the word even if they’d reject the label themselves.

      The tourguide was Zev Saslow. His family is from Baltimore and made aliyah about 25 years ago. He’s the only person that has made me say to myself, “Dude, find this guy a nice Jewish gal. He deserves it.” Since when am I a matchmaker? He’s just such a great guy that I want him to be happy. And of course I assume that means a wife lol.

  2. Sounds utterly incredible… and I totally understand the feeling you describe. The idea that you can walk down the street without having to hide your identity and not feeling like a minority for once. Must be a wonderful feeling.

    Looking forward to hearing more!

    • I’m a middle-class white woman in America with WASP-y/Irish Catholic roots. For most of my life I’ve been in the majority in my country, but it’s crazy how quickly my Jewish identity has managed to become so central to my sense of self. The bus driver of our “second home” on the trip, the passport stamper, the shop owner whose goods I just walked away from… holy Moshe, we’re all Jews. And so are 4/5s of the people I see in the streets. Where we can wear kippot and tzitzit without fear of stares or threats or teasing (well men at least).

      In some ways, I think Israelis take their Jewish-ness for granted in a way those of us in the Diaspora do not and simply cannot. In that sense I consider myself privileged to be able to choose Judaism in the Diaspora.

  3. Don’t worry about not being able to talk about it! I’ve been back for months and still can’t fully articulate the experience. It’s good to chew on it for a while, don’t feel obligated to tell anything you don’t want to or don’t have the words to share.

    Welcome back!

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