Waking up as the tour bus crawled to a stop on the shoulder of an otherwise empty Israeli highway, I opened my eyes to see eight strangers piling their luggage into the bottom of our bus and climbing up the steps. Clad in identical olive-shade uniforms differentiated only by their multi-colored berets, they walked down the aisles among the 40 wide-eyed Americans, taking the empty seats we had left for them.
I shifted over to the window seat, quickly adjusted my wrinkled University of Pennsylvania T-shirt and ran a brush through my hair — you know, just in case the male Israel Defense Forces soldiers lived up to their reputations. Felix, a 20-year-old and perfectly sculpted immigrant from Russia, sat down next to me, and within minutes we were somehow discussing Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” in broken English. Not that such a thing — a serious conversation about a literary classic — couldn’t happen with a guy from the States. But it was my first real sense that there was something different about Israelis.
It was midway through my Taglit Birthright Israel trip — June 1, 2007, to be exact — and the eight soldiers around our age had joined us as civilians for the remainder of our time in Israel. We were all reaping the benefits of the free 10-day journey available to all diaspora Jews under the age of 26, funded by private donors and the Israeli government.
Only two weeks before, I had walked through the wind tunnel of Franklin Field in Philadelphia arm in arm with the girls who had been my best friends for the past four years, following the plush red running track that would lead us to our college diplomas. Looking around me and waving up to applauding relatives, I remember being struck with fear. Not fear about graduation — I already had plans to attend journalism school — but fear that I might never make it to those plans because I had finally caved to peer pressure and agreed to go to Israel. Sure, I was an Ivy League grad and relatively proficient in Middle Eastern politics, but as my dad kindheartedly reminded me, “Don’t expect to come back from Israel alive.”
Despite having grown up in a largely Jewish community in New Jersey, all I seemed to know about Israel was war, terrorism and suicide bus bombings.
But I made it there in one piece, and on the first night, our bus pulled up next to the Zion Gate just before sundown, where we made kabbalat Shabbat near the 24-karat gold menorah that overlooks the Kotel. Outstretched in front of me was the Western Wall of my ancestors, a refuge of hope and prayer for thousands of Jews everyday, and I was stunned by the fact that I was actually there, in this place that I had been so afraid of for so many years.
Yet it wasn’t until the five male and three female soldiers joined our group that my understanding of Israel began to deepen, eventually turning to a passion for the small, embattled country.
I had gone on Birthright with my friends Ruth and Evan from Penn, and when we first arrived in Ben Gurion Airport, we found ourselves thrown onto a bus of rowdy Long Island 18-year-olds guys wearing backwards caps and gold chains, and female 20-somethings who insisted on hiking with Prada bags. Ruth and I strained to hear our tour guide Ohad over the uproar of the Long Island brigade, who preferred to make crude jokes among themselves and eye the chatty cliques of women in our group. Meanwhile, my notoriously unreliable stomach had a bit of trouble adjusting to Israeli food, as I was unaccustomed to such inordinate amounts of hummus and falafel.
After the first couple of days and, admittedly, a phone call to my mom begging to come home, my stomach settled and I made friends with some of the other Birthrighters, probably somewhere between seeing the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) for the first time and hiking through the mountains near Haifa.
But when the eight Israelis joined us on that Friday morning in June, they conveyed an aura of maturity far beyond their years, which ranged from 19 to 21. Their tough exteriors, male and female alike, were shaped by years of growing up under perpetual threat, dangers they viewed simply as a given in their lives. They laughed and smoked and didn’t worry about the days ahead. Much more than American teens, they seemed to live for the moment. One of them, a female soldier named Liron, would eventually become a close friend.
The initial gap in maturity, of course, crumbled a bit that very same evening, when the soldiers swapped their uniforms for civilian clothing and blended seamlessly into the rest of the group, be it sipping beers on the Tel Aviv beachfront or pelting each other with onions during a kibbutz volunteer program. But I remained intrigued by their personalities, by the walls they put up to safeguard their emotions. Sitting in a circle of plastic yellow chairs that evening, we discussed life, drank Goldstar and stared at the starlit waves.
The next morning I found myself teaching three Israeli men — Felix, Daniel and Bar — how to play American football in the ocean. They could jump from airplanes and handle machine guns, but they couldn’t throw a spiral like I could. And in the darkness of a Tel Aviv club that night and under the influence of a free drink or two, I found myself with the agonizing decision of having to choose between Felix or Daniel.
We all remained friends, and I’ve learned that men come and go whether they’re Israeli or American. More importantly, chatting that same day on the beach with Liron, I knew I had made a great friend, one who has since become a guide into the complexities of Israel. And despite the distance between us, we share so much in common — a passion for Israel, the same introspective takes on life, and, alas, the same troubles with men. Her family in Haifa has become my adoptive Israeli family.
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Since my Birthright trip in 2007, I have visited Israel four other times — for both vacation and work assignments. Each time I land back at JFK or Newark, I have the urge to return. My enthusiasm for Israel even brought my parents to the Jewish state for the first time this past April, and will likely bring them back again. Though a self-proclaimed non-believer, my father found Jerusalem to be one of the most historically enchanting places in the world, and he felt perfectly safe. For her part, my mother began to understand the depth of the Israeli character that draws me back to that country time and time again.
Five months after returning from the Birthright trip, I began dating Lior, an Israeli who was studying in New York, and I was quickly immersed further into Israeli culture, making a swarm of new Israeli friends through him – both here and in his hometown of Ra’anana. With him, I began seeing the nooks and crannies of Israel not available on the tourist maps — I climbed and tumbled off a tank in the Golan Heights, I ran a 10-kilometer race through old Jaffa and Tel Aviv and I ate the best shwarma that the Herzilya Marina has to offer.
Through both Lior’s influence and my work at The Jewish Week, my passion for Israel grew, and I enrolled in a Hebrew class in Manhattan. And while that relationship eventually ended, Israel continues to flow in my blood.
When I returned this October for a visit, as a free agent, so to speak, the country was just as enchanting as it had been. As I squeezed into the crowded sheirut (shared taxi) that would bring me from Ben-Gurion to my friend Liat’s apartment in Jerusalem, I felt like I belonged. Looking out on the lamp-lit highway, I envisioned a life for myself here and wondered if aliyah might be in the cards for me.
This time, I saw even more — not just the Jewish sites that were familiar to me, but the alluring spices of the winding Arab shuk in east Jerusalem, the beautiful relics of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the sweet taste of malabi, a chilled rosewater and milk combination found in the Arab shops of Jaffa.
Since the Birthright trip, my understanding of Israel — warts and all — has grown in ways I never could have expected. But I will always remember that first journey and, most vividly, our last day together, when our new Israeli friends again donned their uniforms to return to their bases, while we prepared for our flight back to America.
On the way to the airport, we stopped for an hour at Mount Herzl cemetery, where the soldiers showed us gravestones of their friends who had died the summer before in the Lebanon War. I will always remember my friend Noa’s face the most, as she broke down in tears, despite her initially tough exterior. All of us — soldiers and entitled Americans (myself included) alike — cried together. Israel was our home and we would seek to protect it.