Eretz Yisrael

I just returned from a ten-day trip to Israel and wanted to dash off some quick thoughts about it before I forget! As an aside, I am currently downloading pictures from my camera, so they won’t be in this post. But they’re coming, I promise!

I haven’t traveled internationally since returning from China in January of 2009. 12-hour plane rides and the enormous jet lag that follows are not my idea of a good time, but when my cousin invited me to her wedding in Jerusalem, I jumped at the chance to visit the holy land. (part of me wanted to capitalize that as Holy Land, but I didn’t. Hm. Should I have?) I am not a religious person, but I feel very culturally Jewish (this attitude, I’ve come to find out, is very common among Jews these days — at least those in my social circle) and I’d missed my chance to go to Israel for free with the Birthright organization (which provides free trips for 18-26 year olds). Also I would be turning 30 on December 21st, and my office essentially shuts down from Christmas to New Year’s, so a winter wedding would be the perfect trip to make.

Plans didn’t get settled down until September or so. I talked with my parents, who would also be going, to coordinate our schedules. It was agreed: we’d take advantage of cheaper airfare on Christmas to leave that morning, putting us on the ground on December 26th in Tel Aviv, where we’d made arrangements to take a taxi to Jerusalem (about an hour or so drive). My aunt knows several people in Israel; she lives in a very Jewish neighborhood in Maryland, and several of her neighbors have made aaliyah (which is what it’s called when a Jew from abroad chooses to settle in Israel). Through these connections we had access to both a taxi driver and a tour guide, both of whom we used extensively. It is so nice and pleasant to hit the ground in a foreign country knowing you have locals to guide you around.

My parents made plans with these folks and others, and it was settled. We’d visit the Old City of Jerusalem on the 27th. On the 28th, we’d visit Masada, the Dead Sea, and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). The 29th was the wedding. (We ended up visiting the sprawling Israel Museum that morning, also.) Friday the 30th was a free day, but here’s the kicker: in Israel, many businesses close Friday at 2 PM in advance of Shabbat (which starts at sundown). This is especially true in a religious city like Jerusalem. So we weren’t entirely sure what was going on that day.

I did not want to go all the way to Israel just for five days, and I also wanted to see Tel Aviv, which had been described to me as a modern, hip, happening, fun city. So I made plans to travel to Tel Aviv on Saturday the 31st and stay there for a few days, leaving on January 4th. Which is exactly what I did. My parents and some other family tagged along, and we all made a big date of it.

Here are some quick observations in advance of the pictures:

Being Jewish

  • It started at Newark airport at the departure gate for the Tel Aviv flight. I’d not seen so many Jews in one place in such a long time. Many people I could tell were Jewish just be looking at their faces. It is a stereotype, but the prominent (‘big’, if you wanna be a dick about it 😉 nose, full lips, and dark hair are features that many of us share. Of course there were many men wearing kipot, many with black hats and beards, many with payot (extra-long locks of hair on the sides of the head), many with tzitzit (fringes of prayer shawls) poking out from under their shirts, and women with headscarves. These people obviously were much easier to identify as Jews 🙂 In addition some of us just have a certain way of speaking that is recognizable to me.

    It felt … odd but comforting to be around so many people with a single purpose of going to Israel, ‘back home’. Many of the men davened (prayed) before the flight. This must have been their observance of the afternoon prayer service Mincha. Again, it was strange but also comforting to see this going on in an airport lounge. Since I am a Bar Mitzvah, I was able to help form the minyan (quorum) necessary for prayer. But I just stood there feeling awkward.

  • It was strange but familiar seeing so much Hebrew in Israel. I am used to seeing, hearing, and speaking Hebrew only in a religious context while praying — not calling a cab or ordering two cups of coffee in a restaurant or remarking on the weather. Luckily for us, unlike China, good-quality English is prevalent among the Israeli rank-and-file.
  • I learned Hebrew growing up as part of my religious education leading up to my Bar Mitzvah, but that was a long time ago, so my Hebrew is extremely rusty. But if you put some words in front of me, I can sound them out — so long as those words have the vowels in them. (Vowels in Hebrew are not separate characters but diacritical marks below the letters.)

    But everyday Hebrew in Israel, on signs and restaurant menus, doesn’t have any vowels. So I was unable to read most of the Hebrew I saw, leaving me feeling a little — just a little — ashamed and embarrassed. After all, this language is my heritage, even if I don’t use it to worship (or to ask where the bathroom is!), yet I can barely read it and certainly cannot understand it. I understand logically that I am not expected to know Hebrew. Not even my parents know a lot of it, and they are more religious than I am. But still.

  • Similarly, it was strange and yet familiar, let’s say ‘oddly comforting’, to be surrounded by so many Jews. In America I am used to feeling like the oddball when I say things like “oh I’m visiting my parents for Rosh Hashanah” or whatever. Actually, above, when I talked about people praying at the departure gate, I am sure that the security guards were looking on with curiosity. (But maybe not, since I’m sure they are used to seeing that.)Many people in America have never met a Jewish person, or if they have, they haven’t seriously inquired into the Jewish faith or holidays or anything like that. They are concerned with their faith, meaning most often Christmas and Easter and so on. When you add to that all the stereotypes of Jews that I constantly hear, you are reminded daily that Jews are a minority, often a curiosity, in America. I have come to accept this feeling and even relish it a little bit, but it is there nonetheless.

    So obviously that’s not the case in Israel. You can assume that anyone you meet is Jewish. Now this doesn’t mean they are devout Torah scholars – in the same way that most of my friends in Austin are Christian but not Bible worshipers – but again these people are Jewish.  That realization immediately put me at ease. I felt like everyone was my friend because we had something in common. I’d be walking past people on the street, passing people, and just being like “He’s Jewish! She’s Jewish!” was a delightful feeling. Especially in Jerusalem, which has more religious overtones that Tel Aviv. But even there, I’d be talking to a cabbie and when they learned I was from America, they’d be like “I’m Jewish, are you?” Yes, yes I am. Haha. It was a nice feeling.

  • Chanukah was everywhere. Tinsel menorahs attached to the streetlights (the way you see tinsel Christmas trees here), big light-up menorahs in plazas, stone menorahs at the entrances to buildings, bronze and silver menorahs displayed in window shops, “Chanukah! 50% off!” sale signs, sufganiyot in bakers’ window displays — you name it, there was a menorah attached to it. Contrast this with the obviously Christmas-centric nature of America, and you have, for me, an interesting experience.

Security

  • There are armed military everywhere. They might not be on patrol (officially); it might be one IDF (Israel Defense Force) member walking to a bus station with their gear, but it was very common to see men and women with assault rifles walking down the street. Even at my cousin’s wedding they had to hire security; there was a kind of schlubby looking guy with an assault rifle or whatever just walking around. This is par for the course, I was told, at any gathering of Jews in Jerusalem. Perhaps less so in Tel Aviv, as I didn’t see very many military there. But I was assured they are around, many of them in plainclothes. When I was waiting at the airport I tried to play ‘spot the army’. Any thick-necked guy reading a newspaper or just chilling leaning against a railing by himself was a candidate!
  • Along the same lines, many stores, shopping malls, tourist spots (like the Western Wall), and public street markets have metal detectors and security guards (not military) out in front. You can expect to have your bags searched a few times each day as you wander around — even if you just walk into The Gap! And there are outposts on the major highways leading to and from the cities, surrounding countries like Jordan, and especially the airport.

    The guards will be less uptight if you are white and maybe have a big Jewish nose, like me, but still you will be searched. This is called ‘racial profiling’ and it is a cornerstone of security in Israel, while if you tried it in America, you’d get crucified. I’m not commenting one way or the other — I just think the different tactics are interesting. I’m sure they don’t help Arabs feel any more dignified, though.

  • Everybody warned me about airport security. Coming in, it was not so bad. At Newark Airport, there is a special, more secure gate for a flight to Israel. This is after you pass through regular security. When you get to this gate, they pat you down and wave a metal detector over you. Then your carry-on luggage is searched by hand. All this while your passport and boarding passes are scrutinized not once, but twice.When I went through immigration I was subjected to a quiz that was only a little more intense than what I got coming into China. ‘Where are you from, what is your purpose in Israel, what is your cousin’s name, where is the wedding’, etc.

    Leaving the country involved a more thorough exam. As you enter the airport, before you get to ticketing, you have to put your baggage through a scanner and get quizzed by a security officer. This guy went into much more detail ‘What were you doing here, where did you grow up, do you attend synagogue, in what congregation did you have your Bar Mitzvah’, etc. Then you get to ticketing, then you go through security, and then you go through immigration again (I guess at this point it’s actually ’emigration’). At each point you’re subjected to more questioning before being let out in the main hall. It doesn’t take a lot of energy, but again, I think it’s interesting. And the security record of Ben-Gurion Airport speaks for itself.

The Charedi

The Charedi are a sect of ultra-Orthodox (meaning, extremely religious) Jews living in Israel (and abroad as well, but obviously concentrated in Israel). The name “Charedi” means “to tremble” (as in, in fear of God). That should give you an idea of how they think.

The social, political, and religious conflict with the Charedim is interesting to me. They devoutly follow scripture and one of their main sticking points is the separation of men and women. To give you an idea of the depth of these beliefs, there was a scandal some years ago when a Charedi newspaper printed a picture of the Israeli cabinet that included all male ministers. This might not have been a problem, except there are two female members who were changed to men in the picture! Ads aimed at Charedim will never show women. Women must dress modestly, long sleeves and dresses, cover their hair at all times, etc. There used to be a city bus line that ran between mostly Charedi neighborhoods – these buses were officially segregated between men & women.

Israel seems to be struggling to integrate Charedi into a modern society. Charedi men generally don’t work; they study the Torah all day. They are exempt from compulsory military service. And due to the “be fruitful and multiply” belief, they have many many children. Yet because of the pious purpose of their lives, they receive government stipends on which they live. For these reasons they are sometimes perceived as a drain on modern society. I heard more than one Israeli opinion along these lines. (Of course I would have heard opposite opinions in a Charedi neighborhood.)

Anyway, I bring this up because there have been a series of recent incidents involving clashes between the Charedi community and the less-religious-but-not-quite-secular population. I read the Jerusalem Post most mornings at the hotel and these incidents were front-page news. You can read about this conflict here. It mostly revolves around the segregation aspect. There is even an ‘Israeli Rosa Parks’ story, a women who refused to sit at the back of a traditionally segregated bus!

What is perhaps most fascinating to me is that on NYE, a bunch of Charedim gathered in Jerusalem to protest this secular push into their religious community. As you can read in the Wikipedia article linked above, several of them dressed in Holocaust-style garb (yellow star that says ‘Juden’, etc), likening their to treatment to that of Holocaust victims. This choice of dress seems likely to widen the split further. You do not invoke the Holocaust lightly in Israel, for obvious reasons!

The whole thing seems very similar to how evangelicals seem to feel in modern America. Like they are the ones who are sane in a crazy world, beset on all sides by the forces of evil, including the government of the country they live in. It’s the kind of feeling that leads to partisan factions shouting at each other and sometimes violence.

I am all for people worshiping how they want to worship, unless it infringes on the freedoms of others, which Charedi customs do. Additionally, it’s scary to me to think that such beliefs can come to dictate policy, such as in the largely-Charedi neighborhoods or towns in Israel. I just don’t understand all this religious domination of women by men. It comes in all shapes and sizes and permeates many religions. It makes no sense to me. In other ways, it is oddly comforting to know that Jews have their fundamentalist zealots just like all other religions do.

Anyway, that bit about the Charedim was longer than I’d planned, but the issue is fascinating to me. I typically don’t think of Judaism as an extreme religion. But it seems you can’t have religion, beliefs of any kind really, without having a split between traditional fundamentalists and modern liberals. People seem unable to take the ‘you do things your way, I’ll do things my way, and even if I don’t agree with you, I respect your right to do so’ route. We seem to want to tell everyone that what they are doing is incorrect and misguided. Silly humans, diversity is for microorganisms!

I don’t really have a conclusion to this post 🙂 I just wanted to get some things out of my head and into my blog. Stay tuned for pictures and perhaps another few posts talking about some of the specific places / things I did while in the motherland!

4 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Ryan. I traveled to Israel when I was 10 and have more memories of that trip than any other. Your post brought back many of those memories. I remember conspiring with my sister to try to get the Charedim to look at her while on buses, to try to “catch” them at being bad or something.

    Your thoughts on identification (“Being Jewish”) are revelatory and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to seeing pictures.

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