Israel. Culturally, it might be one of the more unique places on the planet. Founded by secular zionists, raised with a foot firmly planted in Jewish orthodoxy, and scarred by war, strife, and the most dynamic shift in demographics the world has ever seen – the loss of 6 million Jews in World War II. The roots of Israel’s people go back further than 3,000 years, but the Jews spent 2,000 of those years pushed out of the homeland by persecution at the hands of… well, just about everyone.
Today, Israel is an island of progression in a tragically depressed Middle East, which is torn asunder by infighting, war, bigotry, fear, and pain. I haven’t even begun to understand the political dynamism of the Middle East, but my time in Israel showed me a small part. Luckily, there’s a positive side to even the most battered countries in the world, and I was lucky enough to experience it during my time there.
I visited Israel on Birthright with Taglit, a special program for anyone with direct Jewish heritage. My trip was led by an Israeli guide, and I was paired up with 50 perfect strangers, including eight other Israelis, for the entire 10-day visit.
I went into Birthright with metered enthusiasm. I revel in travel, and I was certain there would be a lot to see and a lot to explore. I wasn’t excited about being stuck on an itinerary, and I was certain there had to be a strong religious purpose to the Birthright trip, which I’ll admit I was not excited for. It’s the reason I hadn’t signed up for Birthright in the past, despite being eligible since I was 18.
My expectations were so completely surpassed, it’s hard for me to even remember a time before the trip. My life changed in ten days, and I feel like a very different person. I think it’s unlikely I can translate the experience fully, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
We got on the plane sometime in the early afternoon, and our guides casually informed us that we needed to sleep on the plane. When we landed in Israel, it would be 5:00AM, and we had a full day starting immediately. I tried to sleep on the plane, but I was so worked up with anticipation, I maybe slept a half-hour.
In the moment, it felt like a pretty brutal way to start the trip. But, in hindsight, an all-nighter is a great way to start a trip, since you’re basically forced out of jet lag right off the bat. I felt pretty good, all things considered.
We started our trip exploring an ancient Roman amphitheater, bathhouse, fortress, and harbor, built under the reign of Herod the Great in around 25 B.C. The ruins complex was not remotely what I had pictured when I imagined my trip to Israel. For all intents and purposes, it felt like we were in the ruins of ancient Greece.
For a desert, Israel certainly has a lot of green. Since we were starting in the more northern, higher elevation areas of the country, the landscape was lush and verdant. We visited the Rothschild gardens; all the plants feel vaguely familiar and completely alien at the same time.
The following day was the first of several hikes. We were in the Golan Heights, an area that has been hotly contested by different countries for decades. It’s a strategic point for the defense of Israel, since most of the modern conflicts have rocket attacks as their hallmarks. We could hear airstrikes in the distance as we picked our way around the sharp volcanic rocks, cattle fences, and thorn bushes.
Talk about duality. Liran, our fantastically knowledgable guide, explained parts of the geopolitical history of the region. I experienced this beautiful, completely foreign landscape in my favorite way (hiking in the outdoors!), with the emotional weight of war sitting as close to me as it’s ever been. I’m lucky in my naiveté; for Israelis, conflict in the homeland is part of daily life.
We started on high ground, and over the course of several miles, we descended into a valley, where things became increasingly green as the elevation dropped. The variety in this short section of hiking mirrored the variety of landscapes across the country. Despite approximately matching New Jersey in size, Israel has an incredibly varied landscape.
The walls of the valley towered over us as we moved deeper into the dense jungle at the core, where natural springs left beautiful pools carved into the rock.
I fell right into my old role as trip documentarian, and shot hundreds of pictures. I loved it!
The group was very capable; since this was the Israel Outdoors version of Taglit Birthright, everyone came in with the expectation that it would be a very physical trip, and the hike proved very challenging.
The hike took a lot out of us, and the rest of that days’ itinerary was pretty relaxed. The following day, we headed for the highest city in elevation in all of Israel, the city of Safed.
Safed is one of the four holy cities in Israel, and is the epicenter for Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. Yes, Madonna’s religion. Safed is a coin with two sides. On the one hand, it’s a very religious city, the center of a faith and a hub for religious observance. On the other hand, it’s a cultural diamond, a mecca for artists, musicians, sculptors, storytellers, and aesthetic enthusiasts.
The city was gorgeous. It’s hard to describe just how incredible the energy of these streets felt. My late cousin Ellie Koplow was an artist and spent much of her time in Israel, and I felt her walking around in Safed.
We met a rabbi named Avraham, an artist and mystic that hailed originally from Michigan. He had the biggest grin on his face for every second we spent talking with him about Kabbalah. My mental image of a religious Jew was shattered; Avraham was wearing hiking boots, slim-cut khakis, and a gray sweatshirt along with his Tzitzis and Yarmulke. His art was modern, vivid, digital, spiritual, and absolutely beautiful.
Creativity runs deeper in my family than anything else. I come from a long chain of artists and musicians, and I have always been a musician, artist, writer, and photographer- it’s part of who I am. In Safed, I found a new side to being Jewish that cut me right to my core. This city was my first moment of pure clarity in Israel. I saw myself in a new light; as part of this amazing tapestry of culture. Yes, I cried! I couldn’t help myself.
Israel was embedding itself somewhere deep in my heart. And we had only just begun!
Stay tuned for Part II!