By the time you read this, my journey to Israel will be coming to an end. I will have visited Jerusalem and Eilat, and am now touring the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. To say I am anxious to come home Thursday evening would be an understatement. This is not to suggest that I didn’t find the experience to be fascinating, eye-opening, and unique. It was all of those things, but it was nothing close to the spiritual experience I have heard it has been for others.
To be fair, my capacity to embrace the sanctity of my location was seriously limited by my circumstances. I was traveling with colleagues from work along with a delegation of others I did not know. And despite the fact that our itinerary included some of the holiest places in the world, the experience felt somewhat clinical. We were all on our best “business casual” behavior which – for the uniformed — does NOT include epiphanies. So I kept mine in check.
Truthfully, I didn’t need to hold much back because the great deliverance just wasn’t there. The experience was nothing short of mesmerizing – but also well short of a pilgrimmage. Aside from the tour guide and our Israeli hosts, I was the only Jew in our delegation. Our tour consisted of a 50/50 mix of Christian and Jewish sites. So I had the opportunity to become a student, which was indeed a treat. I found the story of Jesus to be truly fascinating. And the chance that I was walking on the same ground that he may have walked on more than 2000 years ago was pretty stellar no matter what religion I ultimately believe in. Shit, I get excited when I see Wanda Sykes from a distance. So my capaxity to be star struck by the famous ghosts and timeless sites that drive so many people’s behaviors and beliefs in modern times was already ingrained.
Jerusalem is a very haunting place. How could it not be? The city was built around centuries of war, death, fighting and differences. Almost every stop on our tour involved some sort of battle, murder, execution, destruction or betrayal. And the people take everything very seriously. Whereas in the U.S. we commemorate and celebrate our wars, the Israelis mourn them. My sense is that it has something to do with being on the winning (or losing) end of these battles. I think that we would be less likely to have people dress up and re-enact George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware if it didn’t end as well as it did. Or if we were still fighting the British. The fact that the battle in Israel remains ongoing certainly clouds the atmosphere.
While I never felt threatened or unsafe during my stay, there was always feeling of instability. Before boarding the plane to Eilat, I was interviewed for several minutes about my activities in Israel. Every question made me feel as if I was doing something wrong, although I understand it was for my own safety. When, at the next security station, I was asked why I had a small piece of duct tape on my laptop cord, I was worried that my answer (which was that it came that way) was wrong. And I had my 473rd vision of being thrown in an Israeli prison. But I was able to move onto the next level of security where they scanned my entire suitcase for something bad. Let me tell you — you haven’t really lived until you see an Israeli security agent dump your birth control pills out onto a metal table for the entire world and my business colleagues to see. Good times.
Our tour guide, Ikka, had a joke which we repeated throughout our stay. Whenever he would stop to give a lecture about the site we were visiting, he would invoke “occupied territory” which meant we needed to find the best spot (under a tree usually) and hold our ground. It was a wise strategy as the space was very, very crowded and full of tourists from all over wanting to inhabit the same area. We complied and did quite well in securing the best locations for Ikka’s often long lectures. But in many ways, the entire trip felt like a fight for space – physical and spiritual.
My trip to Israel was crowded. It was aggressively scheduled (we started at 7:00 a.m.) and went until after midnight each night) and my mind was overloaded with anxiety about my surroundings, itinerary and circumstances. Even down in Eilat which can best be described as Israel’s Atlantic City (without the casinos and salt water taffy), I was out of my element, being intimidated by event he smallest of local children who speak Hebrew and move about as if they own the place. I missed that level of comfort – something I have always taken for granted.
As I wrote last week, I was hoping for that Aha! Moment while I was here – and I got it – but it was not what I expected. At some point on day 5 of 8, I realized how much my family completes me – and that most of my discomfort came from being so far away from them. There wasn’t one moment when I didn’t wish that they were with me. There was no one there to take silly pictures, comment on the level of fiber in the Israeli food, or debate which button to flush on the toilet. There was no one to complain to about petty things, discuss the merits of devout religion, or wonder what Hassidic Jews do for fun. Without them here, I was in occupied territory that was not my own.
So the question remains, am I glad I went to Israel a few short weeks before our family vacation here? The answer is a resounding Yes! My hosts were the kindest and most generous – and I felt truly cared for during my stay. I was reminded how much I enjoy learning and how long it has been since I digested anything of true intellectual substance. All the uncertainty that plagued me in the days leading up to this trip are behind me. I know the drill and that gives me tremendous comfort. But most of all, I have a new appreciation for what “home” really means – and it has less to do with the territory you occupy and more to do with who you occupy it with. I think I understand now what the Israelis have been fighting for — for so very long.
When we return to the country in just a few weeks, I imagine it will be a different experience altogether. Maybe then, with those I love around me, Israel will feel like home. But until then, I can’t wait to get back to mine.