Finding Myself In Israel

For Part I of this adventure, click here.

It’s been almost a year since my last update for this trip.

When I got back from Israel last June, I had a couple of weeks to prep for a 30-day bike trip across Iceland. This story got lost. I had it in the back of my mind for months to finish this trip with a Part II and am only now getting back to it.

Memory is a funny thing. Some names, cities, and events are now lost to me, but a lot of my feelings and reflections are clearer now than they were when I had just gotten back. I think there might be some benefit to the distance between my first post and my last. I’m in a different place with Israel now, so perhaps my new perspective will bring something I might’ve otherwise missed.

Excuses, excuses! Let’s go back to Israel…

We left off in Netanya, Day 4.

Birthright is a pretty well-organized experience, and unlike a lot of other guided trips, there’s a significant effort made to bring the realities of Israel to life for visiting Americans. In Netanya, we met seven Israelis our own age that would join us for the remainder of the trip; they were open books for us to learn from, to get a feel for the real Israel.

We took a beach day and a night out on the town in Netanya, and then headed to Jerusalem, the holy city, our group now pushing forty-eight twenty-somethings.

Jerusalem is a remarkable place: completely unique, ancient beyond comprehension, heavy with duality, and very, very beautiful.

Judging by the attitude of our bodyguard, Mike, it’s also a bit more dangerous. Jerusalem was a major conflict area during the Second Intifada, a period of intense violence between Palestine and Israel a little over ten years ago. That violence did eventually break to peace, but tensions between Palestine and Israel run high to this day. The city is split organically into different quarters for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and our guides kept us mostly to our own quarter. These ruins are one of the oldest excavations in Jerusalem, the ruins of the First Temple of the Jews. It’s almost 3,000 years old, over 400 years older than the Parthenon.

The Western Wall is one of the holiest sites in Judaism, and I felt the weight of this place even through my own non-religious lens. Spirituality is hard to miss here, even for those who don’t practice religion. I felt vicariously connected to this place. I guess you could say that watching the experiences of everyone else was a spiritual experience for me. I’m really appreciative to have shared this moment with everyone, especially Tommy and Sarah.

After the Western Wall, we headed for Jerusalem’s marketplace, The Shuk.

The Shuk is an ancient open-air marketplace with hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors, both local and tourist alike. It’s a vibrant, chaotic place, noisy and jarring and exciting. I wandered around the Shuk by myself, for a while. Since there were 48 of us wandering, I’d bump into familiar faces in the crowd every so often. Mostly, I just took everything in.

The locals knew how to operate, so I tried to follow their lead. I got a few things, all bought with coins I had to count six times to be sure I got it right. I’m sure the vendors are used to bumbling tourists. With my camera held over my head in a very un-stealthy way, I risked snapping a few pictures. Nobody bothered me at all.

The Shuk’s wares are displayed in the most enticing way possible. You can buy anything at the Shuk, but I couldn’t identify half of it. Spices, teas, nuts, raisins, bread, meat, fish, and fruit lined the indoor/outdoor spaces. Small cafes were tucked behind food stands, impossible to find without stumbling between racks of pineapples and dates.

Somehow, by some miracle, our group managed to come back together after a couple of hours. In the very American view I have of class field trips, the moments of independence on this trip were surprising. All 48 of us rejoined without a hitch, albeit a half-hour behind schedule. But, who’s counting?

This was the time of our trip where we visited the Holocaust museum in Israel. Out of respect, I did not use my camera there. The experience was very difficult for me. I felt a lot of pain thinking about what happened during that war, the extent of the human loss based on an identifier that I carry, too; being Jewish. It’s difficult to put into words what this experience was like. I encourage anyone reading to visit a holocaust museum in their closest major city, or pick up one of the many histories written on this period, and reflect on it for yourself.

On Friday night, we settled in at a Kibbutz for Shabbat, a traditional 24 hours of rest for practicing Jews. In Israel, everyone at least partially observes Shabbat, religious or not – it’s completely normalized in Israel for buses, shops, and workplaces to shut down after the sun sets on Friday, until the evening of the following day. We refrained from using our phones and our computers, but I did break Shabbat to use my camera. Most of the Israelis in our group weren’t observing, either.

The Kibbutz, a sort of agricultural commune, was situated just downhill from an ancient Crusader fortress. In Israel, these ancient features are not glorified or protected; they’re embedded right into the countryside, in every corner of every town. In the arid desert climate, they last and last. The whole country is ancient, and two-thousand-year-old roman ruins are shockingly commonplace.

Exploring the fortress was fun. Since this hike was optional, only a handful of people went. Most of our companions were wiped out from six days of nonstop activity, but I felt like I only wanted more.

A bunch of folks went with a second hike led by Yours Truly. I asked Liran if he minded; he didn’t. At this point in the trip, I was very passively helping out on some of the hikes, keeping an eye out for people when the group stratified. It’s easy to fall into old habits on hiking trips — Alex, our river guide, wore his river guide hat when we paddled the Jordan.

After dinner, we took a stroll to a meadow just outside the complex, and relaxed until sundown. This was wonderful beyond words; in the golden hour, surrounded by green fields and smiling faces, the entire trip slowed down. The whirlwind of places and experiences finally had a chance to settle in.

The rest of the trip was almost a blur. Taglit Village is one of the most exciting nights for the younger age groups, with live music and neon lighting and Bedouin camping. All the Taglit groups mixed together here, hundreds of young people in the same camp.

I enjoyed it enough, but we all felt pretty lucky when we heard the moaning and groaning of the younger groups. The 22-26 age group we were part of seemed to have a better appreciation for the cultural aspects of the trip, and our experience here showed us just how particularly special our group was.

There’s things I’m leaving out here – the cactus farm, paddling the Jordan, the scorpion hunt, and so much more. On one of the last full days, we hiked Ben-Gurion’s Tomb National Park, and this is absolutely my favorite hike of the trip.

I don’t want to draw the easy comparison to the Grand Canyon; this place was unique. The white sand and sedimentary rock of the desert was hewn by a riverbed cutting hundreds of feet down.

What a hike! Here’s a few more pictures, but they don’t do it justice.

Getting vertigo on cliff edges, belting opera into caves with 75-foot ceilings, dipping our toes in the water. This was unlike any other place I had ever seen.

I was overwhelmed; just thinking about it now, I feel that way again. What a spectacular place!

These caves were cut out from the bare rock walls. The interiors were lit like candlelight from the sun reflecting off the white rock outside. It was noticeably cooler, and quiet. Amazing.

Liran told us the history of Israel’s secular foundations, Ben-Gurion’s legacy for the Jewish people. The Zionist roots of Israel are strong, but that strength is constantly tested by equal claims to the homeland from people who spent thousands of years living in the same territory. The map-lines are still being drawn today.

This picture encapsulates a lot of the feeling of the latter half of the trip. I started with a picture of just a couple of people in front of the mouth of the river; Tommy, Sarah, Tal, and Jessie. Clara and David and May jumped in. I took a new picture. Then the other Tal, Francesca and Natalie, Rebecca, Rachel, Zeke, and five other people gathered. I backed up ten steps. I couldn’t squeeze everyone. Our group was so tight, like we had all been friends for years. Everyone felt like part of the picture.

People passed back and forth across cliques, across friend groups. There was a lot of flirting, unwavering inclusivity of every single person on the trip, and strong friendships that were constantly growing. Forty-eight of us, all connected together by our journey here, and all connected by the energy of our guides and our new local friends.

I feel really lucky to have been a part of it.

Sunrise on Masada. This ancient fortress was built by King Herod the Great. The monuments to his hubris and vision dot across Israel, still standing tall after thousands of years. Of all the ruins we had seen on this trip, Masada was the most impressive.

I only have shots from on top of Masada, because after nine days of hiking, a bunch of us sprinted to the top. The Israel Outdoors group was eating up the physical activity — we all did this for fun back home. In this photo, you can see a square off in the distance where invaders set up fortresses, trying to bring Masada to its knees.

There was one really special moment on Masada; I had my Bar Mitzvah!

Liran helped me pick my Hebrew name, Mazor, the Hebrew word for bandage. In the context of my name, it means that I’m always striving to help others, and to be a leader and guide for the people around me. I feel it fits me well, and I’ve never had any other name but Max. Mazor is a nice addition to my identity.

My identity. I thought I had a pretty good idea of who I was before Israel. I had just graduated with my Master’s, I knew Kelley was a permanent fixture in my life, and I had made a home for myself in Amherst. I never felt incomplete.

Yet, Israel, for me, was like turning over a new page in my story. I had no idea what was in store for me over the nine days spent in this amazing country. I had no idea what being Jewish meant to me. I wasn’t religious (and I’m still not), I didn’t have any experiences in temple or school or with other Jewish people that built from that side of myself in a significant way. Being Jewish was only relevant a couple of times a year, when my mom’s family shared our heritage with us through holidays and stories.

Israel had a profound effect on the way I see myself. Experiencing all of the history, the pain of loss that is embedded in the Jewish people, the conflict and duality of the region’s many occupants, and the connections formed with the people I shared this journey have all redefined what being Jewish means to me.

I don’t think I really figured out what being Jewish meant until many months later. A week ago, I went to an inter-faith Shabbat dinner at the Hillel house in Amherst with my housemate Hannah, who I met on Birthright. I felt a very familiar feeling that I had not felt since this past summer… I felt home.

All of the people I met in Israel are still with me today, in my heart and in the way I see myself. I know, it’s really cheesy, but a big part of who I am is being a part of this culture, with the beautiful people I shared my time in Israel with and all Jewish people across the world. I have a connection to a place I have never previously experienced, and I feel like I’m a part of an international, interfaith, intercultural, and unified family of Jewish people. It’s part of me!

And then, with even greater intensity than it started with, my trip ended.

Looking back, the people I met are the most crystal-clear in my memory. Those experiences stick out the most. I feel very lucky to have met one of my best friends, Hannah, on this trip, and I’m so lucky I get to reminisce with her and Eva and everyone else through Instagram and Facebook. It’s so wonderful having a family all over the world.

I want to thank Liran, Dara, Mike, Daniel, Adal, and our Israeli locals for making this experience so unforgettable. Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for making our group so special.

Thank you, Israel! I miss you, and I will be back!


5 thoughts on “Finding Myself In Israel

  1. That was beautifull…
    A perfect reflection of a process that started a year ago and still continues to this day.
    I thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and reflections after almost a year.
    I’ll see you again when you come back 😉

    1. Thank you for encouraging me to finish it! Most of my posts take a few hours to write. This one took two days!

      I think about Israel all the time. I’m very excited to come back, and I promise to visit. Thank you again, Liran! Be well!

  2. I’ve been waiting for this second part. And oh wow, such beautiful pictures.

    Thanks for showing me a physical, emotional & spiritual side of Israel. That’s something beyond the headlines and polarised opinions. Those shots of the landscape at Ben-Gurion’s Tomb National Park look fantastic.

    My parents, as devout Christians, will be heading to Israel later this year, as part of a religious tour. I hope they experience something similar to what you felt as Masada.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! It’s a very spiritual and amazing place in person. I have no doubt they will have their own special experience.

      Best, Max

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