Friday, January 12, 2007

Eizeh Yom, Eizeh Yom, What a Day - Jerusalem, Sunday December 24

"8 days ago we were all learning each other's names at the airport. Now we're sitting half-naked in a giant hot tub giving each other massages? This is some trip."

I don't think you can summarize what it felt like to be nearing the end of the Birthright experience any better than that. After dinner on Saturday night, we put on bathing suits and went off to another kibbutz for a soak in a hot sulfur springs bath. Within minutes, a massage train snaked its way through the whole thing.

The kibbutz pub is closed so we make our own party. More vodka and tapuzim and shitty Golan Heights wine. We huddle close together with blankets and we take pictures and we put off packing for one more hour. By next morning we're singing and dancing on the bus with regular frequency. We can't get enough of each other. I'm obsessed with these people.

"Dani, do you have 'Don't Stop Believing' by Journey on your iPod?"

Of course he does. What kind of trip leader would he be without it?

"Just a city boy. Born and raised in South Detroit." I don't really use song quotes in my writing. I guess that's an example of why. Let me try again.

"Yerushalayim shel zahav, v'shel nechoshet, v'shel or, halo l'chol shirayich ani kinor. Jerusalem of gold, of bronze and of light, behold, I am a violin for all your songs."

After a week of experiencing Israel, we have returned to Jerusalem, awakening to the light reflecting off the stone and the sound of Naomi Shemer's anthem to the holy city. It's one of those perfectly timed moments that I won't forget.

Our first stop of the day is Mount Hertzl, where we will begin our formal tour of Jerusalem (last week, it seems, was just a quick, post-Shabbat glimpse) Mount Hertzl is Israel's version of Arlington. I like the sign that reads "to the tombs of the great leaders of the nation." In addition to the great leaders of the nation, there are hundreds upon hundreds of military graves from all of Israel's wars, of which there are too many.

At the top of mount Hertzl is, well, Theodore Hertzl. Hertzl was the man who, in the late 19th century, first envisioned the modern state of Israel in his 1896 book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) and is credited as the father of the Zionist movement. He also wrote a romantic Zionist vision, Altneuland, "Old New Land" in English, or "Tel Aviv" in Hebrew. Hertzl died in 1904, more than 40 years before his dream was realized by David Ben Gurion and the crowd at Independence Hall in the city that took its name from his book.

Hertzl proved to be an accurate predictor of the future of the state of Israel, and for that reason he is Israel's Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and you name who else all in one. And it is also for that reason that his bones were moved to Mt. Hertzl in 1949, according to his wishes.

"I hate this place," Rami says to me, as we are walking among the hundreds of military graves. The modern reality of "this place" is that every Israeli knows somebody buried here. Rami visits Mt. Hertzl 3 or 4 times a year. "To visit friends," he says. As we leave, Rami stops us. "You have to wash your hands. To get wash it off." We wash our hands, and leave Mt. Hertzl.

I call Annie when the bus pulls in near the Zion Gate to the Old City. As we plan a place to meet, I walk past literally dozens of tour buses, some birthright, some other tours, and I feel like I just stepped off of a cruise ship, except I'm not being hustled into a taxi. But the purpose is similar.

One of the reasons the Israeli government has continued to contribute to Taglit Birthright Israel is what's about to happen here in the old city - shopping time. Each year, Birthright participants pump millions of dollars into Israel's economy by buying stuff. And I have found I'm happy to spend money on food and things to bring back all in the name of helping Israel. The free trip helps loosen the purse strings, too.

The best part of the trip to the old city for me, though, is getting another chance to see my best friend and wander around with her for a couple of hours. It isn't hard to see that this place is very special to Annie, and I'm thrilled she was able to share that with me.

We say our goodbyes, and I rejoin Double One for our tour of the Old City.

The archaeology of the Old City is fascinating. All around evidence of past civilizations in Jerusalem has been uncovered and left exposed as a living tribute to the city's history. There are roman columns and old walls and all sorts of other markers serving as reminders that this city has been the center of everything for a long, long time.

We see the new Menorah, ready to be placed in the Third Temple just as soon as it's built, which won't happen in my lifetime and probably won't happen in my children's or grandchildren's lifetimes either. The reason why is waiting to greet us upon our return to the Western Wall.

The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is all that remains of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. (The First Temple, for the record, the one built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians) Above the wall, sitting on the site of the altar from the Temple, is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic monument and holy site. And that's why I'll never see the Third Temple built. So we have the Kotel.

A week before, I stood at the Kotel in awe, not quite knowing what to do, eventually approaching the wall, putting my note in between the stones, saying a short prayer and walking away. Now, a week later, with a full week of new experiences to consider, and with a new love of Israel and a deeper understanding of my own Judaism, I still don't quite know what to do here.

So instead I follow Oren and Cobi to the far left edge of the wall, the part closest to the location of the Holy Ark, pick up a prayer book, and participate in a Mincha (afternoon) service led by a man who walks around chanting the prayers and nicely helps others do the same. It's an incredible experience. Every now and then I glance up from the book and look up at the wall and think "wow." Then I look at the book and realize I've lost my place (it's very hard to keep up) and Oren points me back to the program. It all goes so fast, and in about 10 minutes I put the book down and walk out, thanking Oren and Cobi for their help.

And that was it. We had some time at an outdoor market where I picked up some chocolates and things to bring back home. Then some hot chocolate at a little cafe and back on the bus to our farewell dinner at Moshav Tirosh, where a Moroccan food-poisoning awaited some of us. For others it was just more hummus and pita and chicken.

Then it was time for some final reflections, tears, hugs, one more bus ride to Ben Gurion airport, more hugs, and a 12 hour flight back to New York.

I'll have some final thoughts, but it is my intention to leave this as an open-ended experience. I plan to return to Israel eventually, and not just once. I plan to stay close with my new friends from Bus Double One. And I plan to keep the silent promises I have made myself and to Israel.

As Ran tells us, "Remember, in Israel, you don't say goodbye, you say L'hitraot - I'll see you again soon."


1 comment:

Dani said...

Wow D. Very poignant stuff. I really didn't know the writing capabilities you possess but then again, a man with your background and work experience, I wouldn't expect any less. Congrats on a fantastic summary of our experience. I still have yet to get throught the rest but I am excited. Don't Stop Believing indeed...