Shawarma, the Dead Sea, camels, Tel Aviv, food poisoning, Jesus, propaganda, acceptance, love, temples, Bedouin tents. These are all words that come to mind when I think about my trip to Israel a couple years ago while I was on Birthright.
For those of you who don’t know, Birthright is an all expense paid 10-day trip for people ages 18-26 to visit Israel, with the hopes of meeting a Jewish husband and making aliyah which means moving to Israel. The trip is designed to make you have the time of your life so you can see that Israel is an amazing country with many things to offer. Some see it as a “propaganda” trip, since the purpose is really to encourage you to move to Israel and keep Israel the homeland of the Jewish people.
Let me just preface by saying, I didn’t grow up traditionally Jewish. My mother is Jewish by blood, but grew up in Communist Russia where practicing religion was essentially illegal. When she met my dad, he converted to Judaism simply because he was fascinated by it. We celebrated Hannukah when I was young, but that was about it.
When I got to college, I got more involved with Jewish groups on campus, mainly because there were always a lot of cute boys and free food and it was a great way to be a part of a community outside of theater. That being said, when I found out there was a Birthright trip, I couldn’t pass up a free chance to travel and visit Israel, so I signed up to go with Hillel. There are a lot of different trips with different focuses, but the one I went on was more culturally Jewish and covered the classic things you do while on Birthright!
Here are a couple highlights from my 10-day trip to Israel.
Israeli food is undeniably fresh and delicious. Almost every day of our trip I had shawarma which is basically a pita filled with gyro meat, tomatoes, hummus, lettuce, and french fries (nice touch). In the photo above, you can see a bowl filled with hummus and falafel. The menu titled it as “Hummus with Falafel” which I thought was hilarious, because in the states falafel is usually the main dish, not the other way around, but Israelis take their hummus very seriously.
Israel also has a lot of open air markets where you can buy everything from mountains of candy (as seen above) to nuts, spices, challah bread, meats, veggies, you name it.
Another couple favorites were Israeli salad (fresh salad with mainly tomatoes and cucumbers) and shakshuka (the classic Israeli dish with eggs and tomato sauce).
They also don’t have Starbucks in Israel. Instead, they
have Aroma which has some of the best iced coffees ever. After I got back to the states, I craved this all the time – luckily I found out they have stores in NYC and LA. Since we went in the middle of the summer, it was about 100 degrees every day, so cooling off with one of these was heaven sent. They are sweet and don’t have that much caffeine in them.
Obviously this was going to be one of Merm Ley’s highlights 🙂
But really, the Mediterranean sea was one of the bluest and SALTIEST sea’s I’ve ever swam in. It burns your skin and eyes at first since we are not that used to such salty waters back in the states. It was also so WARM!
We got to spend an entire afternoon swimming in the Caesarea Sea which was so much fun!
My favorite city was Tel Aviv because the beaches here were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The climate of Israel actually reminded me a lot of California. Very dry, lots of palm trees, and lots of mermaid blue waters. There is a town outside of Tel Aviv called Bat Yam that translates to Mermaid. We didn’t get to go but I will be back to Israel mainly to spend more time in Tel Aviv and to go to Bat Yam since during the trip, we only stayed in Tel Aviv for one day.
In my experience, the people of Israel were very warm, friendly, and loved to party.
Part of the cool thing about Birthright is that for half of your trip, you get to meet and travel with 6 or so Israeli soldiers who are currently serving in the IDF.
This was one of the most eye opening experiences for me. Since Israel has been in a constant war since it’s founding in 1948, every person is required to serve at least 2-3 years of military service after high school. I can’t even fathom being REQUIRED to serve in the military. That sounds like my worst nightmare, but since it is an accepted part of their culture and everybody has to do it, it is very normal for them.
The crazy thing was that these soldiers were all our age and they were no different than us. One of the soldiers in my group was named Yarden and people kept getting us mixed up because everyone said we were basically twins. Our personalities were also extremely similar and I felt like I had met my other half. I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had grown up in the states living a privileged life, while she had grown up in a war stricken country that was constantly under attack and had to do mandatory military service. Despite this, Israeli people are some of the most joyful and loving people I have ever met.
The Western Wall
Our visit to the Western Wall in the holy city of Jerusalem was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. People travel from all over the world to see the wall, which has been around since the 15th century. It is an area of rich history and is part of the deep conflict between Israeli’s and the surrounding Muslim countries. Being in a place of such history and conflict, while it also being one of the most religious sites in the world was crazy. The energy was literally throbbing in the air. As I walked up to the wall, something overtook my body and I started uncontrollably sobbing. No matter your beliefs, the amount of energy in the air was undeniable.
People stick notes and prayers between the cracks of the wall believing it is going directly to God, so it is completely covered in people’s deepest prayers and wishes which I found so beautiful. It’s very conservative, you have to wear a shawl to cover your shoulders and a skirt to cover your knees, and there are separate male/female sides.
One of the nights we were at the Kotel (Western Wall) a group of women starting a singing and dancing prayer circle. It was very joyful, we were all dancing and laughing and singing different prayer songs. After about 15 minutes of this, someone came over from the male side and ordered us to stop singing as it was “tempting the men”.
At this moment, I was struck with the complexities of religion and how females were still having to be submissive to men and have to do things like cover up their hair and not sing just so they don’t “tempt” men and distract them from their praying. The way I feel is – it’s your fucking problem if you can’t keep it in your pants, don’t squash my joy because you think with your dick.
Okay, that may be harsh, and I don’t want to be disrespectful of other’s beliefs, but seriously it’s just ridiculous to me. Alright, moving on…
The Dead Sea
Who wouldn’t want to float in the Dead Sea?
The sea is technically described as a salt lake and is 400 m below sea level. It was definitely a highlight of my LIFE stepping into this water and then feeling your body float to the top as if you weighed nothing.
It was like 120 degrees when we went to the sea and I was recovering from food poisoning I got from a bad piece of chicken in a kibbutz, so I didn’t stay outside that long. I’d love to come back when it’s maybe a little less hot.
The classic tourist thing to do is buy mud from one of the shops and cover yourself from head to toe in it. It was a little on the pricey side so I probably wouldn’t do it again, but it was worth it for the picture and experience 🙂
I never thought I would ride a camel, but going camel riding in the desert is one of the classic things you get to do on Birthright! It wasn’t too different from riding a horse. Camels are very gentle and slow. It was definitely fun, but I wouldn’t prefer it as my mode of transportation 😉
Some of the other amazing things we did included kayaking down the Jordan River, hiking to the Banias Waterfall, going out clubbing and experiencing Israeli nightlife, tower of David light show, a welcome Birthright orientation/concert with thousands of other Birthright attendees from all over the world where I discovered my favorite Israeli singer, see a view of Syria and Lebanon from Mt. Bental, sleep with over 40 people in a Bedouin tent in the Negev Desert, visit the ancient city of Tzfat – the center of Jewish mysticism and much, much more. They certainly pack a lot in just 10 days, but at the end of the 10 days it felt like I had been in Israel for 2 months.
As you probably already know, Israel’s history is extremely controversial and complex. I can not ignore the war and bloodshed it has been a part of over the last 70 or so years.
While I will not take a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I will say that the media definitely construes things in a biased light and not a lot of people get the entire story, so it’s very hard to say which side is “right” and which side is “wrong”. In my opinion, both sides have done horrible things.
Despite all the political and religious conflict going on, Israel is undeniably a very beautiful country filled with great food, historic sites, gorgeous beaches, and fun loving people. I would very much like to go back, but you won’t catch me moving there any time soon 😉