The Birthright Diaries

(from Grace Overbeke, our  director of marketing and communication, who started with us back in May.)

Grace here. A few weeks ago (five, to be exact), I got a call from Taglit, more commonly known as Birthright Israel. Birthright is an organization that partners with the Jewish Federation and individual philanthropists to provide Jewish people under the age of 26 with the chance to discover Israel. The caller informed me that someone had dropped out of the upcoming DC young professionals’ trip, and so I had, at long last, come off the waiting list.

My expectations of Israel were fuzzy. Growing up Jewish, I had of course heard about Israel constantly. At the age of seven, I sat in Hebrew school writing wishes on scraps of paper and daydreaming about what I would write when facing the real Wailing Wall. Mrs. Hami, my teacher, played slide shows of buildings on stilts and people floating in water, sharing in hushed tones that people in Israel ate chocolate with every meal (I would like to say, for the record, that this bit of propaganda turned out to be woefully inaccurate). All Seders involved the familiar chant, “Next year, in Jerusalem” (though it always made me think of Chekhov’s three sisters and their unrealized journey to Moscow). All political elections brought up that nagging but pivotal question, “But what about Israel?” It was a looming and irrefutable presence; more of an idea than an actual place.

It was this transformation from idea to place that was the most remarkable effect of my Birthright trip. The great land of Israel that had been “the mythical origin of creation” became something much smaller, much more commonplace. I don’t mean to suggest that this transformation was diminishing—far from it. By turning from an exalted idea into a visceral experience, Israel became lovable. Where I once felt awe, I began to feel intimacy. My senior year of college, a friend of mine said, “People don’t go to war for an idea- you can’t touch an idea. What people can really care about—what they give their lives for- are things they can touch.” I’m by no means a gung-ho militant Zionist. Yet, having touched Israel, and being touched by it and some of its people, I can at least understand how parents can watch their children put on a uniform without crumbling completely.

Here are some short diary entries that I wrote on the trip:

When I was 13, I read a book called “One More River,” about a young girl who moved from New Jersey to Israel. I thought about that book today on the promenade, looking out over Jerusalem, seeing the golden dome, and the Wailing Wall, and the security fence, listening to Yotom (our tour guide, who bears a strong resemblance to Adam Sandler) talk about the “Foundation Stone”, supposedly the first site of the world as God created it. He said that the golden mosque was built overtop the Foundation stone to show superiority. I find that hard to believe, and wonder how much of the story he’s not telling. I ask one of the Israelis on the trip about it, and he recommends that I read that Quran, saying, “It’s a very interesting book…a lot of garbage.” I remind him how much Judaism and Islam have in common, and he makes general, non-committal remarks. We write down our goals for the trip. I haven’t come with too many specific expectations, but I do want to get to the bottom of this “all young people have to serve in the army” rule.

My room-mates for tonight are an American named Emily and an IDF officer named Sherrona, who is beautiful to an almost surreal degree. She and Emily and I talk about boys, which somehow leads into a discussion of Israel’s representation in the American media. Sherrona is passionately upset by it, and remarks how pictures of children with rocks facing Israeli tanks are set up specifically for the purpose of making Israel look hawkish and aggressive. Sherrona seems politically moderate, but makes a comment that I’ve heard time and again from my mother, about why Israel cannot give back the Golan Heights: “It would never be enough—If we conceded that, they would keep making demands. Some things, you have to stand up for.”

Today, Yotom discussed the British suggestion to house Israel in Uganda. It would be more practical and sensible, surely. He told a story, saying, “Why do you drive 600 miles to visit your sick mother, when there are plenty of other sick old women right near you?” I don’t know that this analogy holds. If it does, it reflects an uncomfortable mixture of emotion and politics.

While hiking, I talk to Hila, a strikingly beautiful young IDF officer with dark hair and eyes—people often compare her to Pocahontas. She says that for every baby born, people pray that the baby will not have to serve in the army. Yet every baby grows up knowing that he or she will serve. While it is technically possible to avoid service (some Orthodox can get out of it by attending yeshiva, etc.), there is a great deal of prejudice against those who have found such a loophole.

There are varying degrees of enthusiasm about military service among young people. Hila describes it as ‘patriotism,’ and says that there is, generally speaking, more of it in Jerusalem than in left-wing places like Tel Aviv. In Israel, Left Wing refers to those who want to give land back to the Palestinians, Right Wing to those who want to keep it.

Vendors sell t-shirts that say, “Wherever I stand, I stand with Israel.” I’m beginning to see what an empty statement that is. Israel is as splintered as the rest of the world. It’s like that old joke goes, “For every 3 Jews, there are 4 opinions.”

Today, at Yad Va Shem (the Holocaust museum), we learned about Irmagarde, the beautiful and cruel right-hand woman of Hitler, who arbitrarily chose who would live and who would die with a point of her finger. We also learned about a woman who hated Jews (thinking they killed Jesus), but saved thousands of us, because she didn’t think bigotry justified murder. We also learned about a homeless man who somehow saved Jewish people during the Holocaust. “The Righeous Amongst Other Nations,” I think they are called. Their stories would make an amazing play. Any playwrights out there keen for an incredible subject?

Today we went to a city called Bet Shemesh, to a refugee activity center for Ethiopian children. We painted what used to be a bomb shelter, and turned it into an after-school center with games and a mud bench. I played a clapping game with a six-year-old boy who spoke only Hebrew. We painted the walls blue with Israeli flags, and sang “David Melech” together, and played “Anevet Shochar” (Duck Duck Goose). I left feeling happier than I had in a very long time.

Gidon is the only Orthodox member of our trip. He wears a yarmulke, which he keeps on with green duct tape, and is extremely strong, polite, and dauntlessly positive. He enjoys giving the Americans riddles, and then teasing us about how Israeli schoolchildren can solve them more quickly. He invites all 47 of us into his parents’ home in Bet Shemesh, and we meet his parents, who made aliyah (immigrated) from Great Britain. Gidon’s mother says that the difficulty of living in Israel is that everyone must serve in the army, but “without an army, there is no Israel—it’s important.”

Udi Krauss, a musician/producer came in tonight, to host an Israeli sing-along, and dispel the myth that Israel’s number one hit is “Hava Negila”. He was very much an artist, charismatic and comparatively apolitical, saying, “We [Israel and Palestine] both have stupid leaders, but people want peace. Support Israel or don’t. But make it an active choice. Don’t let life happen to you, happen to life.” Oddly enough, his making a distinction between the people and the government did more to motivate me to help Israel than all the political rhetoric I had encountered in the past 48 hours.

I think that this is how I connect to a place: Through artists, through individuals. I can’t support a government, because I can’t touch a government. I can’t love a government. But I can love people, I can love songs. Personal connection, the kind best fostered by art and friendship, is the key to action (for me, at least). Perhaps my many sleepless nights worrying about how to reconcile working in the entertainment industry with wanting to help improve society may be overlooking something. I may not be the only person who finds emotion a more motivating force than political necessity. At Theater J (in theatre, generally speaking), we appeal to people’s emotion to awaken their mind—to get them to think and act about important social issues.

Israel is full of panoramic landscapes. It is a lavishly gorgeous place, one where ‘man’s triumph over nature’ is demonstrated not by concrete parking lots, but by endless trees and lush plants in the middle of the desert. In Tel Aviv, I step into the Mediterranean, and the salty water prickles my skin.

At night, I sit on the beach and talk to Roi. Roi is twenty-two years old. Although he is quite tall, he looks younger than his age. In many ways, he reminds me of my ex-boyfriend Benjo—both are naturally gregarious, youthful, and enthusiastic. We discuss serving in the army, and he says, “If I had to choose, I wouldn’t do this [be at war]…When someone puts a weapon in your hands, and says, ‘I trust you with this to defend our country’ you grow up quickly.”

He learns that I work in theater, and describes his high-school play. It was a goofy exploration of when would be the best time-period to attend high school (if you attended in prehistoric times, you would have to carve your homework on the wall, etc. etc—the traditional hokey high-school humor that we use here). In this play though, the last scene concludes that the best time to go to high school is “Right here and now, when we get to go with these people, and serve in the army!” There’s something disconcerting about conflating goofy high-school plays and military service.

Today, I sat with Hila and Netaly, talking about the political landscape in America. They described George Bush as “amazing,” and were very unhappy about Obama, who has yet to visit Israel as President of the USA. The divide between the Conservative and Democrats on the Israel issue is a continuing complication. Hearing a person my own age describe George W. Bush as “amazing” and express reservations about Obama was startling, to say the least.

My room-mates tonight are Kacey and Diane. Both of them are remarkably eloquent, opinionated, and intelligent (as are most of the members of this trip. The Israelis quickly labeled us “Ch’noon” which translates into “nerds”) At night, after we turned out the lights, we had a long discussion on whether we would ever marry non-Jews. Both Diane and Kacey said that they certainly would not. Kacey echoed a statement that my mother has said many times, “I am not going to be one of those Jews who celebrate Christmakkuh.” I basically agree. Yet, at the same time, I see value in marrying different cultures, provided that you maintain both cultures. I want to be able to learn about the rest of the world through my life partner, not merely unite with what I already know. Is this selfish though? Am I pursuing my own curiosity and value of diversity at the expense of the Jewish people? Many would say yes. Gidon and the others feel that if you try to raise a child anything but Jewish, that child will be confused, and two generations down the line, the Jewish lineage will be gone forever. We’ve been through too much to fade through assimilation.

Today in a discussion of the true homeland of Jews, the issue of toleration came up. Jews have a long history of toleration, one that I’ve heard of most recently in Theater J’s production of “New Jerusalem,” in which the city of Amsterdam tolerated the Jewish population, with certain caveats and limitations. One of the girls on the trip is named Kimberly, but she prefers to be called Kimmi. She’s blonde and bubbly, incredibly sweet and smiley. She teaches special education, and she remarked, “I don’t want my students to be tolerated. I was tolerated in middle school, and I got swastikas drawn on my locker. I want my students to be accepted.” I wonder, in America, are Jews tolerated, or accepted?

Today my birthright trip encountered another trip—the notorious Chicago Bus. It was enmity at first sight. We were bus 343, they were bus….um…something else, it didn’t matter what their number was, they were Different! Having a common enemy made us come together and unify on a whole new level. It reminded me of what Roi said the army does when two soldiers aren’t getting along: Officers force them to carry something heavy together. Suddenly, they are united against the common enemy of the heavy object they both must carry. Having a common enemy truly can do wonders to unify people. Perhaps peace in the Middle East is only an alien invasion away!

Artie is a tall American who works on Capitol Hill. On the bus, he tells me about AIPAC, the biggest Israeli lobbying organization in the U.S. They lobby for defense funding for Israel, which is not a terribly contentious point. However, he says that they also tend to lobby for the US to side with Israel in all international conflicts, which is much more contentious.

“1 out of every 7 Nobel Prize Winners are Jewish, though Jews are only 2% of the population.”
That statistic was fed to us as part of a conversation on whether or not Jews were the Chosen people. It makes me slightly nauseated.

Today, we went to the “mystical, blue-painted city of Szfat” the center of Kabala. We met with an artist/mystic named Avrahm (formerly Bob) who had peios and a very long beard. His life is a funny mix of familiar and foreign. He was a nice Jewish boy who graduated from Michigan University, where he was very interested in Eastern religions and meditation. He then read a book that alerted him to the more mystical elements of his own religion. Eventually, he moved to Israel, where he married a woman from Baltimore. He spoke about how our purpose in life is to transcend our ‘selves,’ and get to a level of universal bliss. He also spoke about discovering the meaning of our true (Hebrew) names, which can take many, many years. He, personally, had spent ten years learning the meaning of his Hebrew name, and he was still at a very elementary stage. I wonder how he would react to the “What’s in a name” passage from Romeo and Juliet… My guess is, probably not well.

Avrahm was very groovy and spiritual. He dragged out words like, “Awesoooooooooome,” and spoke with a cadence that would seem stoned, but for the fact that his eyes were lively, and his demeanor grounded. It was impossible to dismiss him when he was so clearly ‘with it.’ He makes me wonder. Do people interested in mysticism have some conception of greater reality that I simply can’t see? Can you really learn to “open your mind”, or is open-mindedness an inborn trait, like talent, that can only be nurtured and cultivated, but not created? I don’t dig the groovy mysticism—I can’t really take it seriously. However, I do know what it is to want to more fully comprehend sensory reality from moment to moment.

We have a two-hour shopping break on Ben-Yehudah street in Jerusalem. I find one of the shopkeepers asleep on a bed of prayer rugs. He’s exhausted, because it’s Ramadan, and he hasn’t been able to drink water since sunrise. He’s the first non-Jewish person I’ve met on this trip—one of the mysterious Israeli-Arabs that I’ve heard of, but never encountered. We get to talking, mostly because he seems so fatigued, and looks like he needs to be distracted from his hunger. He says that he loves Israel, that it is beautiful and much safer than anywhere in the US. When I mention the threats from all sides, he is dismissive, saying, “America exaggerates the dangers that Israel faces.” I mention Hezbollah, whose explicit purpose is to destroy Israel, “Hezbollah has no support,” he returns, “If the US wanted to crush Hezbollah, they could do it easily.” His theory is that the US wants to maintain rocky relations between Israel and Palestine, because they profit from selling arms. When he finds out that I am visiting on Birthright, he grows mildly dismayed. He perceives birthright as some sort of IDF recruitment program, saying, “Israel wants to expand, to become powerful, like America.” He also expresses fear that Israel will destroy mosques, saying, “It says so in the Quran. They will destroy the mosques. They did it in 1972, and they will do it again.” When I clarify that the IDF was presented to us only as a defense force, not at all as an attack squad, he says that he is extremely relieved. He then bemoans the state of Gaza, saying that not only is there no food allowed there, but the residents are not allowed enough land to grow their own food. The more we speak, the more his words make me uncomfortable. He is positive that Israel means harm to the rest of the region, that it wants to expand territory and destroy the Muslim population. I try and assure him that I’ve heard no such thing from any of the Israelis I’ve spoken to, but he insists, saying, “They won’t tell you. They only tell the big heads.”

What makes you “Jewish?” I have always thought of myself as a Jewish person, albeit an agnostic Jew. I connect to Judaism through secular Jewish values, like Tikkun Olam (healing the world), Tzadaka (charity), a spirit of curiosity, a willingness to question everything, a determination to laugh even when suffering, a spirit of survival and determination, and a constant respect for others. I know that these values aren’t exclusive to the Jewish people, but I think they are necessary, if not sufficient. I think it was this idea of Judaism encompassing these particular secular values that Lenny Bruce referred to when he said, “Negroes are all Jews. Italians are all Jews. Irishmen who have rejected their religion are Jews.”

The last night of the trip, I spent a long time talking to Gidon, which is always illuminating. He says that what makes you Jewish, really, is following the word of God. When asked if we were the Chosen People, he said that he believed we were, because “God said so.” Yet he also stressed the importance of questioning everything. I have so many questions for him, so much to learn before I can understand his perspective. One of the most provocative things he said was that,

“The Jews’ place is in Israel—in our own nation. We’ve tried to assimilate in other places; in Russia, in Germany, now in America, but it didn’t work, and it won’t work now”

Of course, I flinched at the idea that the Jewish people’s situation in America is at all similar to that of those in Russia or Germany. Surely we belong here, surely this “works.” Not all Jewish people can live in Israel, and not all Jewish people should live in Israel. I’ve always thought that having a healthy Diaspora community is important to healthy nation. As long as American Jews feel close to Israel, and make a concerted effort to work on Israel’s behalf, then our presence in America, far from being a misguided attempt to assimilate which ultimately weakens the Jewish nation, will become a tremendous asset. I never felt close to Israel before, never really felt an obligation to take an active interest, or work on its behalf. I feel both of these things now.

While traveling around Israel, we’ve been accompanied by Eitam, an armed guard who protected us with weapons, muscles, and an appropriately intimidating mien. On the ride to the airport, I sit with him, and he teaches me to write my name in Hebrew. I learn that he loves photography, and plays the guitar. He had a girlfriend for four years, whose name was so similar to the name of his puppy that when he would call the dog, she wouldn’t be sure which of them he was addressing. On the bus, we play MASH, and tic-tac-toe, and plot to take over the world, figuring out what our first acts as megalomaniacal rulers will be. First on the agenda is peace in the Middle East. Second is banishment of mosquitoes.

I have so many questions. Thank goodness for email.

So….that was my diary from my Birthright trip. It is my no means exhaustive, I had many more conversations and many more experiences than I recorded. Look out for an upcoming interview with Roi, who grew up in Haifa. We’ll talk about that amazing city as it relates to Theater J’s upcoming production of The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s Return to Haifa. It’s fitting, I think, that I return from Israel to Theater J. Both are small but mighty.


2 thoughts on “The Birthright Diaries

  1. What a terrifically honest, wide-eyed, appreciative yet fairly discerning diary you’ve shared with us, Grace! We learn about Taglit/Birthright in a very clear-eyed way. I want to learn even more from your perspective: Tell us more about “The Chicago Bus!” And what about the huge final “Mega Event.” Where was yours set? An outdoor stadium? An indoor auditorium? Who spoke?

    There are theatrical impressions of the birthright experience that I’ve been interested in tracking down. Birthright alums themselves have come together to great a tapestry of Taglit Tales — I believe there was even an evening of stories presented in our Goldman Theatre. I inquired about a script, but I don’t believe I ever got one.

    There’s also this pretty irreverent, but also quite vivid and clear-eyed theatrical portrait by Saria Idana, the author and actress, ( who took the opportunity to expand her visit by going to the West Bank to meet with people there. She transformed the meetings she had during the trip into a play in which she embodies many of her interviewees, similarly to the work of Anna Deveare Smith, but with her own poetry, movement and staging to bridge the interviews. Joel Plotkin shares with us that Saria has performed the piece twice at the Nuyorican Cafe in NYC and is just starting to try to get more bookings on the East Coast. A video clip of her performance can be found here:

    Grace, we look forward to hearing more! And welcome back.

  2. I LOVE that Grace shared her diary with us all here! Thank you!
    It’s honest, insightful, and touching — she contemplates and struggles with so many of the things that so many of us have and continue to. I appreciate her courage to do it publicly.

    My favorite part —

    “I may not be the only person who finds emotion a more motivating force than political necessity. At Theater J (in theatre, generally speaking), we appeal to people’s emotion to awaken their mind—to get them to think and act about important social issues.”

    — is right on. In Chip & Dan Heath’s newest bestseller Switch they talk about the need to connect people’s hearts and minds to the emotional story of an argument, not just its logic. Much of what Theater J sets out to do is to capture that soul, story, and emotion of a greater political narratives.

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