September 25, 2018

Birthright, 13 Years Later

Traveling is always an adventure, the anticipation of which always inducing a certain amount of anxiety in me.

I am experiencing that now. Exactly one week from today, I will be on an El Al Airlines flight to Israel. I am traveling with my family: my parents, my sister, her husband and their son. We are traveling to the Holy Land for my sister’s best friend wedding.

This will be my fifth time in Israel and the lead-up is making me reflect on my first time there. I was 18-years-old and had just finished my first year of college at UC Santa Cruz. It is hard to believe that was 13 years—a whole bar mitzvah—ago.

I was traveling with the Birthright program, Israel Outdoors, with my friend, Daniel, who I grew up with in Los Angeles. Prior to the trip, we sat down with our fathers at Coffee Bean on Beverly Drive and talked about what we could expect. Beyond the ten days of the Birthright Israel trip, we were extending our time in the country and also visiting Greece and Italy.

Indeed, we hopped around the Greek Islands. In Italy, we went to Venice, Florence, Rome and Pompeii.

Our Birthright trip, however, is what stays with me. We hiked up and ran down Masada. Foolishly, I did the hike in Converse sneakers. I spent way too much time before the trip agonizing about what kind of shoes to bring and in typical fashion I settled on something hip and completely impractical.

Other highlights were camping in a tent among the Bedouins; joining a random family for tea in their home; posing for a photo in a tunnel at an archeological site with all my bros from the group. Of course, I fell for a girl, Rachel, a brunette from Kansas City, but I was too dumb to do anything about it. One of the guys in the group, a married, skinny 30-something-year-old with a baseball cap and a cool attitude who worked in the entertainment industry, came up to me and the other guys my age during breakfast in our hotel one morning and asked us why none of us were trying harder to hook up with any of the girls. In normal me fashion, rather than enjoying the present, I was focused on the future. I had talks with this guy on the bus about how unsure I was about what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I was thinking about a job in entertainment but I did not think I had the social skills to make it in that networking-heavy field. He told me I was crazy for thinking that.

Two of the guys in the group, who were my age, teased me for my other footwear, flip-flops, which I wore almost everywhere, even on nights out. They called me “hippie.” I am sure I wore those flip-flops while singing “Bye Bye Bye” by N’Sync in a karaoke bar in Jerusalem. My friend Daniel and our American guide, whose name I can’t remember, sang it with me.

It is unfortunate I can’t remember our guide’s name; I liked him from the beginning—and when Daniel and I drank too much one night and behaved inappropriately, even for a Birthright trip, he showed us mercy, could tell how sorry we were, and let us off the hook even though the powers that be were thinking about sending us home.

A lot of people criticize the Birthright program for being this indoctrination into blind support for Israel. I did not experience any of that. All I had was fun, and it is a shame that I don’t think about the trip more. Instead I focus on my job, or relationships, or money, or how I need to catch up on the latest Netflix show or I won’t be able to talk to my coworkers about it.

Before the trip, I had my layover at JFK Airport, where everybody from all over the country came together before the chartered flight to Israel. We were getting to know to each other, going around the circle at the gate sharing something about ourselves, and our American guide said he was a Phish fan. I nodded at Daniel in approval.

During the long flight to Israel, Daniel and I passed the time by engaging in our favorite pastime, coming up with fictional band names–Gelato Aficionado was and still is my favorite.

Music has always been a big part of my life. In the Old City in Jerusalem, I bought a Phish T-shirt from a souvenir shop. The shirt spelled out Phish in Hebrew.

How many guys my age have visited that souvenir shop and purchased that very Phish T-shirt while on their Birthright trip?

During that trip, I was tanner and thinner than I will ever be. We were swimming in a waterfall up north near the Golan Heights and Rachel’s friend complimented me on my Vs.

The hike near the Golan, and the military outpost looking out into Syria, are forever in my memory.

I have not thought about these experiences for years. I have had such great experiences in Israel, but I allow these memories to fade in favor of the meaningless problems of the day.

This upcoming trip will likely be the first of many times my two-year-old nephew travels to Israel. He’s lucky to go at such a young age. Even though he won’t remember the trip, one day, perhaps as he is preparing to go on Birthright and freaking out about what shoes to pack, his parents will tell him how he has been to Israel already—and was just as difficult to deal with then.