Friday, December 29, 2006

Doom! Hass! Tak! Together!

I take a break from the chronological order of the trip to talk about how a group of 40 Jews in about 5 days became a group of 40 very good friends.

Bonding as a group had a profound effect on the Birthright experience. Many people on the trip were like me - coming alone and on the assumption that I would meet people. But this doesn't happen automatically, and I will admit that I had my doubts in the early days of the trip about the group as a whole. Today, I can't believe I'm writing that sentence, because I can't get enough of the post-trip emails and the plans for more reunions and get-togethers like the one we had this past Saturday night.

How did it happen? Foremost, our guide, Ran, gave us an identity. We couldn't be Israel Experts Discover Israel 22+ Bus 2 because that doesn't fit on a t-shirt. And we couldn't be Bus 2, because that implies that there's some group that's better than we are. And so, we are "Double One." How Double One grew into its new identity was the result of a very carefully constructed chemical reaction that went something like this:

First, we Drum.

Night 2 at Kibbutz Gonen featured a lesson in Darbouka playing. The Darbouka is a traditional Arab drum played to perfection by our instructor for us, as well as for the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. He also does Jewish summer camps and, of course, Bar Mitzvahs.

Sitting in a circle, each with our own drum, I watched as our group gave this man its undivided attention, getting more and more enthusiastic about the music we were making together. It began with a simple beat in the center of the drum, the Doom! Then the Tak, a higher-pitched rap on the rim. And finally the Hass, a quiet muted thud on the upper rim of the Darbouka. The actual musicians among us took an immediate liking and found they had a knack for this drum. But they had nothing on our instructor, who took the time to show off.

At the beginning of the lesson, we were told that CDs were available, and many of us scoffed at the idea. At the end of the lesson, we bought everything he had. One of us even took home an actual Darbouka (I got one for my brother, Adam, later in the trip) What I saw here was that we were becoming comfortable with each other. There was no longer a concern that this was too cheesy, or that someone among us might think we're not cool or something.

Next, we Drink.

Yes, there was some alcohol involved in the process of becoming a group. But it wasn't just the mere act of drinking or getting drunk that brought the men and women of bus Double One together.

On night 2 at Kibbutz Gonen a group of three guys took advantage of the well-equipped accommodations and threw a "house party." Instead of being slave to the music, beer, and mixed company of the Kibbutz disco for a second night, we gathered cups, vodka, tapuzim (orange drink) and Israeli wine (a step above Manischevitz - a small step) from a mini-mart in the Golan Heights and brought it back to Cabin 109 for a Double One-only fiesta.

Putting 40 Jews in a room with alcohol was a start, but it was the game of Kings-turned-never have I ever that destroyed whatever ice was left among us as a group. The game wore on, and we got more and more comfortable and revealed more and more about each other.

It turned out that the game was just the beginning. Once the game dissolved and we were through learning about the physics of dance-floor sex and exactly what type of disorderly conduct will get you arrested, the floodgates were opened. We were free to share anything with anyone at anytime, and I don't believe there is a truer definition of friendship than that.

But the process wasn't quite complete.

Then, we Dance!

Naturally, the events of the party in Cabin 109 were pieced together and re-examined the next day - a day that included a return to Zefat and a visit to an Israeli Arab village that was, for me, an unexpected highlight of the trip. (I'll come back to this, I promise)

By nightfall, we were in Tel Aviv and our trip was half over, amazingly. Candle lighting for night five of Chanukah was followed by a surprise Israeli dance lesson from Dani, one of our American staff.

There are two ways this dance lesson could have gone:
1. We all could have thought it was cheesy, that Dani was a total dork, and that we were too old, too cool, too whatever, to have any fun with a silly Israeli dance. You mean, we're in Tel Aviv and instead of going out, we're in the basement of a hotel doing this??

2. We could learn the dance, get really into it and have a lot of fun.

I think earlier in the trip the possibility of #1 was much greater. But by Tel Aviv, after the Darbouka and the Never Have I Ever, nobody was too cool for a little Israeli dancing.
So we got into it, big time. The spirit in that room was awesome. And I don't think I ever thought I could have so much fun Israeli dancing, and I think everyone would agree.

Ran, our guide, was most impressed with our enthusiasm, and I think it set a tone with everyone for the rest of the trip. We'll dance in the Bedouin tent, we'll dance on the bus in the middle of the desert, we'll all massage each other in a giant hot tub, we'll put together a giant map of Israel with the energy of a group of third graders at recess. And we won't be embarrassed about any of it. Why should we be embarrassed? We're among friends.

Finally, add Israelis. Mix.

The timing was perfect. By Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, the newly minted friends of Bus Double One were about to meet 7 of the nicest people on the face of the earth - our Israeli soldiers.

Every Birthright trip is supplemented with a group of young Israelis who board the bus about halfway through and stay a while. Our soldiers joined us in Tel Aviv and immediately fit into the comradery we developed over the previous five days. And they joined us in time for all the things you wouldn't want to do with strangers, like sleep in a giant tent or hike at sunrise, or dance up and down the aisles of a bus.

So the trip really wasn't half over. More like we still had 5 whole days left. And there I was, on a hill in a park looking out at the Mediterranean Sea, having lunch with all my new friends.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Israel at War - The Galilee and The Golan, Monday December 18

Each day of our trip, a different person was asked to write a blog entry of the day's events for the Israel Experts website. Monday was my day, and so I've copied what I wrote that day below.

If you'd like to read the rest of these blogs from the trip, click here:
I'm proud of the way our group came together, continually asked intelligent, probing questions, and reflected eloquently on each day's events. In other words, I'm glad that each blog isn't just about how much we drank the night before (though there's some of that in there, too, if you're really that curious.) Enjoy these blogs, they're really great. Here's mine:


Day 3 was dominated by stories of Israel’s past military triumphs and reminders of its continuing military struggles.

In the early 20th century, Israel’s pioneers, or chaultzim, recognized that self-defense for the new state of Israel was an imperative. No longer would Jews be forced to move from place to place at the whim and will of their host governments. We met these pioneers, so to speak, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee this morning. There at the Kinneret Cemetery, we listened to Joel Goldman tell the story of his “best friends,” the chalutzim.

The chalutzim were an impressive group of young (a 20-year-old was a senior citizen) Jews who came to the Kinneret to transform the landscape of the long-neglected Holy Land. The stories of the pioneers – their hardships and their passion – was left in volumes of personal accounts and diaries. Mr. Goldman retold them with an energy and spirit that would have done the chalutzim proud.

And the stories can tell us a lot about ourselves. Joel charged us with two tasks. One, to retell the stories so the lives live on forever, and two, to go home and ask ourselves “Does what I do make me want to leap off the haystack everyday,” a reference to the enthusiasm with which the chalutzim faced each day, in spite of the malaria, the heat, and the apparent futility of their dreams.

Their dreams are today the State of Israel. We took their stories with us and continued our exploration of the country they made. Our bus wound its way up into the Golan Heights. Our day in the Golan featured a number of stops to discover Israel’s military tradition. At the Peace Overlook, we gazed into the valley at the pre-1967 Israel-Syria border, and heard about how Israel’s small but mighty army defeated Syria and captured the Golan Heights in the Six Day War. Next, we went to the top of the Golan to see the current Syrian border. The border is closed and has seen no combat since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. By seeing the strategic necessity of this place, it is hard to imagine why Israel would want to return the Golan to a bitter enemy.

A bitter enemy that supported and probably supplied the barrage of rockets that rained down on today’s itinerary only 6 months ago. Our final stop of the afternoon brought the reality of Israel’s most recent war. We stopped to see a new memorial to12 Israeli soldiers, complete with all of their pictures and pieces of the Katyusha rocket that snatched them from their families, their friends, and their country.

As the days go by, we are beginning to learn it is our country, too.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Undeniable - Jerusalem and North, Sunday December 17


My former-vegetarian best friend is taking me to a meat restaurant in Jerusalem. "Have the Jerusalem grill," Annie says. "It has chicken hearts and livers and things and it's really good. Hey, do you think I'll like lamb?"

She liked the lamb. We ordered tons of food without knowing it. A carnivorous feast, all of it delicious. And the company was even better. I was happy to separate myself from the bonding process of my birthright group to catch up on high school reunions, rabbinical school applications, and whatever else my best friend of 20 years and I could squeeze into a few precious hours before I rejoined the trip.

Sunday morning, we loaded and boarded the bus early and drove to Yad Vashem, Israel's National Holocaust museum, for a full morning of seminars and tours. It began with a talk with a holocaust survivor - a woman named Margret who survived 3 years in the Tereisenstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia. She told her story with poise, lightening the serious events of her early life with an eternally optimistic and even humorous take on the twists and turns of her 80+ years on earth. And she imparted us with our first inside joke of the trip - "If you want to catch a husband, girls, get on your knees and smile."

The tour of the actual museum couldn't match the experience of listening to Margaret's personal account. Unfortunately, our museum tour guide was terrible, far and away the worst speaker of the entire trip. He spoiled what should have been a powerful morning by taking too long to explain too much. And doing it in monotone.

It feels awkward to criticize any attempt to remember the atrocities of the Holocaust in the wake of recent events. Strangely, the Holocaust can be held partially responsible (and partially is the key word, as Theodore Hertzl first called for the creation of a new Jewish State 50 years before Hitler came to power) for the existence of Israel. If not for Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews, the European Jewish community might still be thriving, and the call for a Jewish State in Israel may never have been answered. This is the kind of argument Iran might employ, which brings me to the bizarre use of the Holocaust as a political weapon today.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently held a "summit" on whether or not the Holocaust happened. He invited Holocaust deniers of every stripe, including an American former head of the KKK and orthodox Jews opposed to the existence of the State of Israel, and called the conference a display of free speech. Interesting how one can be a beacon of free speech and in the same breath deny Israel's right to exist.

So while the guide at Yad Vashem droned on, I looked at the mountain of evidence by myself. I wanted to go get Mr. Ahmadinejad and bring him here, then fly him to Washington and Berlin and Poland. But I know what he would say - "it's all part of the Zionist conspiracy." Welcome to Irrational Argument 101.

In Germany, you can be arrested for denying the Holocaust. In the US, no such law would ever be deemed constitutional. So instead, we allow Ahmadinejad to come on TV and explain himself, and we hope that the majority of viewers can see that this guy is crazy, scary, and very smart. And he should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. And when he gets everyone to go nuts over the politics of Holocaust denial, he successfully distracts us from the undeniable truth - this guy cannot have nuclear weapons.

Of course the Holocaust happened! He knows it, we know it! So don't let him catch us tying our already-tied shoes while he builds up a nuclear program that could wipe Israel off the map. This man is Israel's worst nightmare.

What about the Palestinians? That's just "the situation." The drive from Yad Vashem up to the north brings us past part of "the fence," the newest security measure set up along the border of the West Bank a year and a half ago. Fence isn't quite the right word. A fence is what we had built in our backyard so the dog wouldn't run away. This is a fucking concrete wall.

Saturday night, Joel Perlov from Israel Experts spoke with us about the ever-changing map of Israel. Aside from stellar skills with masking tape (taped off the West Bank border flawlessly in 10 seconds - amazing), Joel had an informed and detailed perspective on the entire history of Israel. His view of the situation and the fence was concise - "I hate the fence," he said. "Thank God for the fence."

The fence is terrible. It keeps innocent Palestinians from freely and easily traveling to jobs and school in Israel, breeding anger in the occupied territories.

But the fence undeniably works. It keeps Palestinian militants from freely and easily traveling to shopping malls and restaurants in Israel and blowing up innocent Israelis. It's an ugly concrete mess, but it makes me feel safer as we drive by it.

On route to Zefat now, past the fence and into the northern part of Israel, where we learn a new Hebrew word - P'kak. A P'kak, as our guides explain, is a big part of Israeli life. Don't get any ideas, people, a P'kak is a traffic jam. And we were stuck in a big, long P'Kak Sunday afternoon.

The P'kak allowed for an extra long look at the difference between Jewish towns and Arab villages, separate but hardly equal. And we also get a look at a mountain where Jesus once walked, according to the New Testament, which explains the monastery on the hill. Our evening destination is Zefat, home of Kabballah. Thanks to the P'kak, Zefat is closed for the most part by the time we arrive, and it's hard to see much of anything. This isn't the experience that Ran, our guide, was hoping to give us. He's going to try hard to get us back to Zefat later in the trip, he says. An early indication that this guy is special and is working hard for our group.

Cabins with hot tubs and NFL Football on TV await us at Kibbutz Gonen, our home for the next two days as we tour the northern third of Israel. Dinner, Chanukah night 3 and a night out at the Kibbutz disco (read: frat house basement) close out the day that was highlighted by the bizarre yet undeniable realities of Israel's past and present. More to come, for sure.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First Night - Jerusalem, Friday December 15

Over the next weeks I will recount my experiences in Israel from December 15-25. While in Israel, I kept a detailed outline of the trip and took some of the 15,000+ photos that Israel Experts Bus 2 (Double-one) took to document our amazing 10 day adventure.

This first entry was written on the actual first day of my arrival in Eretz Yisrael.


Christmas has been left behind in the states.

My first night in Israel is also Shabbat, and the first night of Chanukah. It's almost too much to combine with the jet lag and the fact that I haven't eaten since...was that breakfast? It was a little bagel and cream cheese and really strong coffee that I'm sure I'll have to get used to over the next 10 days even though it makes my stomach hurt. Or maybe that's the hunger.

Before we eat, however, it's the first night of Chanukah, it's Shabbat, and I'm in Israel. On Shabbat in Israel, many orthodox Jews check into hotels like this one in Jerusalem so that they don't have to sit in the dark all day at home. In their hotel rooms, lights are on timers and turn off automatically, and the elevator stops at every floor so they don't have to push any buttons.

This Shabbat, there are 80 American Jews checking in and sharing the day of rest with them. And the elevator is small, and it stops at every floor. Chanukah and Shabbat and food will have to wait patiently as the elevator brings 3 people at a time to the second floor, third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor, you get the idea...

Finally, it's time to light the menorah and have Kabbalat Shabbat. Part of me feels like I could be anywhere. I'm in a lounge in a basement of a hotel with mostly Americans. Nothing about this says "Jerusalem." But then I look up at the exit sign in Hebrew on the door, and I look behind at our Israeli medic with the automatic rifle slung casually over his shoulder and I know this is not America.

And then I hear "we're not sure what direction we're facing." At home, we're taught to face Jerusalem when we pray and we face east. But now I'm in Jerusalem, so where are we facing? Apparently, we face the old temple, so depending on where you are you might face east, west, northeast, south southwest, whatever it takes.

The service ended and it was finally time for dinner. Not a traditional Israeli Shabbat dinner, I don't think. The orthodox staying with us seem to have the monopoly on the traditional. Everything is well arranged for them and their huge, huge families for a restful Shabbat.

And as it turns out, our Shabbat is pleasant and restful too. Aside from finding myself awake at 5 am, I slept well and late - up for breakfast at 9:30. Breakfast was followed by our first exploration of Jerusalem outside the hotel. We take a short walk to the Knesset and a nearby park. Now I feel like I'm in Israel for sure. Not a cloud in the sky, sun reflecting off Jerusalem stone buildings. We sit in a circle and talk about what Israel means to us and our Jewish identity.

For me, Israel seems to be the missing piece of my Jewish identity. I live a Jewish American life, fairly observant and very connected to my Jewish community at home, just as I was at Syracuse. But when people talk about Israel and supporting Israel, I have little to say, and I don't feel a connection. Now, sitting in this park, I'm eager to explore the missing piece. And I am amazed at how comfortable I feel here, even on the first day.

A day confined to a hotel is not my idea of a raging, whirlwind 10 day tour of Israel, and the trip is definitely off to a slow start. But it is Shabbat, and on Shabbat, Israel is at rest. So we wait until Havdallah. The Havdallah ceremony separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week, and with it separates the life I vacate for 10 days in America from the 10 days I will experience in Israel.

I'm starting to sound like Annie. Who, by the way, I will be meeting for dinner in an hour, finally able to connect after a long Sabbath Day.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Now What?

Eventually, I will get over my obsession with establishing a purpose for the existence of The Full Circle.

I want this to be about little moments, like the Stranger than Fiction thing. Like this morning, there were a ton of people on the Subway platform and the train came in, and I was weaving my way down the platform trying to find a place to insert myself into the crowd on the train. And when I finally found one, I turned around, only to be staring directly at the Stranger than Fiction billboard. Again.

This kind of stuff is what The Full Circle will be overrun with. Those of you reading as a courtesy are sure to abandon ship soon. Those who actually enjoy my writing, just hang on for dear life and I promise it gets better.

Stuff like this: last Saturday night I had to go pick up milk from the supermarket at 11pm. There was a line. The couple at the front of the line bought two giant jugs of iced tea and a small block of cheese. The guy in front of me bought Reese's Peanut Butter Cup minis, Reese's Peanut Butter Bites, and a jar of Nutella. What motivated these people to go out at that hour and make those purchases? Will I soon read about a peanut butter-chocolate-nutella-bomb prison break or a car that runs on cheese and Nestea?

I'll also get serious, as in the next few weeks, when I will relay a journal of my trip to Israel. But before I do that, I have to go on my trip to Israel.

Until then, I encourage participation. Iced tea, cheese, Nutella, Reese's (two kinds of Reese's, even!). Discuss.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Circular Reasoning

For months, maybe years, I've been thinking about starting a blog, but I couldn't figure out how. How do you start blogging without sounding cheesy or pretentious?
Instead of start a blog, I thought about starting a blog. I just kept the idea in the back of my mind and let it sit there and fester. And I was fine with that because I knew, somehow, when the time was right, I would just start.

It was like trying to negotiate a traffic circle. Whenever I come to a traffic circle (a common occurance in my home state of NJ), my worry is twofold; 1. how to enter this centrifuge of cars whizzing past and flying in all directions like atoms in a particle accelerator, and 2. how, upon becoming an atom, I get out of the circle and continue on my way. Without, of course, looking stupid or dying in a fiery crash.

But one day this week, I decided to make my move. It's time to get where I've been wanting to go. There was nothing special about this day and anyone but me might find that my epiphany was silly at best.

At 8:45 am I was waiting for the 1 train in my usual spot at Penn Station. The spot is toward the front of the Uptown local track, where right now there hangs an advertisement for the Will Ferrell/Emma Thompson film Stranger than Fiction.

In September I interviewed for a job as an assistant to the Director of the Producer's Guild of America East. The job was part time, paid $10/hr and the Director wanted a commitment of at least 4 months. None of this worked for me, and I told her as much. She understood, told me that she would stay in touch, and that she would put me on a list for free screenings. Whatever. Well, two couple months later, I started getting flooded with emails for free screenings of movies. And I took one such opportunity to see a pre-release screening of Stranger than Fiction.

As I suspected, the movie appealed greatly to my sensibilities as a writer and as a sucker for a quirky romantic story. After the screening, the film's writer and producers addressed the crowd and took questions. The writer described his work ethic as sporadic and impulsive, and it made me think of all the people who say you have to write every day to be a writer and prescribe all these other rules. This guy wrote the screenplay in bits and pieces over the course of two years, he wrote when he felt like it, when stuff came to him. I thought "that's me!" And all I could think was "I need to write more. I can write when I feel like it but I still need to write more. I need to go home RIGHT NOW and start writing." And then..."I need to start a blog. But how?"

And then back to this week, where I get on the Uptown 1 train at 8:45 am in front of the Stranger than Fiction ad. And I go to work, and I go have dinner after work someplace in the Village. So it's later than I usually go back to Penn Station, it's around 8:30 and I'm on the Uptown 1 instead of the Downtown A/C like usual. And by some magical twist of fate it's 8:45 pm when I step off the train, right in front of the Stranger than Fiction ad on the Uptown 1 track.

And I've come full circle. And I think "I need to start blogging."

So I did.