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Todah Israel

It was getting dark in Jerusalem, but Michelle and I were not going to admit we were lost. We’d gotten distracted by a little shop full of ancient books, and now we were in a part of town with no English subtitles.  We weren’t worried; we were wearing sturdy shoes.

Back at the shop I’d made my purchase and chatted a little with the dredlocked owner, who had mentioned that there was coffee and wifi upstairs. Picturing, irrationally, a sort of mystical Borders-esque interwebs utopia, we’d hurried up the narrow staircase, only to find a coffee pot on a rickety table and some pillows on the floor. It was a cool spot- there were local paintings on the walls and some college-aged orthodox jews playing chess in the corner, but the wifi signal was nonexistent. Ah, well.

Michelle and I were now marching through a dark, eerily undeveloped plot of land, and I started talking loudly about my judo moves, just in case. “Yeah,” Michelle added, “last week some guy said something I didn’t like, so I kicked his head off.” Michelle is tiny and blonde.

“I hate when I have to do that,” I agreed.

As soon as we got to a lit street, we hailed a cab.

The driver, like all Israelis, had his opinion on the current conflict, and upon finding out that we were essentially tourists, he let loose on a bit of a tirade. “It’s brainwashing! It’s inundation!” he yelled, meaning the Jewish birthright, or traditional trip to Israel. “Those tours show the beautiful things here, and they try to get you to make Aliyah, [immigrate] then you foreigners come and buy houses, spend money- it doesn’t help anything!” He was gathering momentum; “They don’t understand- the Palestinians are hurting. They’re trapped. They see more and more people coming, spending money,” he repeated; “it doesn’t help anything! You must know there are many things about Israel that are not beautiful.”

We’d seen many things that were not beautiful, and as he spoke I was remembering our trip through Ramallah a few days before. We’d had to switch to a Palestinian driver and bus to get across the border, and even then, people had stared. Half the buildings had been hollow, with stories upon stories of dark, abandoned window holes; every other lot seemed filled with rubble.

A few more days previous we’d seen the Northern border. “They’re listening to us right now.” The fatigued IDF representative had assured us. “There may even be a target on my back.” She’d pointed out the stands of Lebanese trees, presumably full of forts and hidden weapons, then we’d all turned away and taken photos next to the tanks.

Even the town of Sderot, near Gaza, had blended the beautiful and the ugly. I’d been struck by the colorfully graffitied bus stops and the cement playground structures- especially once I found out they were all bomb shelters. One spraypainted wall had read simply,“I love you,” another, “TUPAC LIVES 4 EVER!”

All I could think to say to the cab driver was, “I’m not Jewish.”

“So why are you here?” he demanded.

“I’m curious.”

Sometimes when you travel, the experience fits itself into your life. You leave what you know for what you don’t, and once there you find a way to see new things in familiar ways- to regain your balance. Other times it’s just the opposite; there are places that simply defy familiar paradigms, and they force you to fit your life into a radically new context. The experience then doesn’t become part of you- you become part of it.

Project Interchange is a program aimed at educating future communicators about the conflict in Israel. I applied with little more than a mild interest in the place, and was absolutely stunned by the wealth of information I got in return. I don’t know how they managed to gather such a range of speakers, but throughout the next week we had the honor of talking with officials, correspondents, mediators, students, citizens and religious leaders, (as well as the occasional taxi driver) all with different specialties and unique perspectives. They were Jews, Arabs, men and women- each with a story to tell, and each more open-minded and articulate than the last. If nothing else I learned that it’s just part of being Israeli to have an opinion- and to share it. It might sound dull to spend a third of winter break voluntarily sitting in what was essentially a classroom setting, but I was more engaged in that week than I’ve been in years of school.

We arrived Tel Aviv at 4AM, only 11 hours late after braving the complete apocalypse that was six inches of snow at JFK airport. The group had trickled in to New York from various delayed/cancelled flights and had congregated, haggardly, at the standby counter. It was a long and uncomfortable night, with the only sustenance being ridiculously expensive, stale sandwiches bought at 2AM from surly baristas. Luckily there are few things like camping on concrete to bond a group of complete strangers, so it was with friends that we entered Israel.

Similarly, it was with friends that we began to realign our preconceptions with the reality of the place. Who is the Jew? The Arab? The Israeli? The Palestinian? Where is Palestine? What is Palestine? We all had vague ideas, all of which needed at least slight adjustment.

One of my favorite stops on the trip was the community center in Jaffa where Jewish and Arab kids of all ages were encouraged to participate in sports and dance classes together. It was a relatively safe, comfortable building, and everyone in it seemed to decompress, if only a little. One of the things each speaker throughout the week seemed to stress was the importance of communication- of mutual recognition from both sides of the conflict- and what better way to establish connections than through childhood friendships? Of course there are still people building walls and firing missiles, but there are also people seeking to sustain contact nonetheless. It was inspiring to see.

One speaker characterized Israel as a land where “antiquity and modernity are constantly in play” and it’s true. In one day I got lost in the old city, was yelled at by shop keepers and wailing wall guards for taking pictures, broke bread with a local rabbi and his family, then ordered Gold Star (Israeli Beer) at a throbbing, smokey club downtown. I got the dead sea in my eye while a bunch of pasty tourists posed behind us, and petted one of the many parking lot camels. I even found some new friends who, like my friends at home, love nothing more than to geek out on mountain bikes over pizza and tea. Their dog was named Guinness after the beer, and we all greeted him with a hearty “Shalom!” when he came inside after his adventures in the yard. The very next day I found myself examining the curled metal petals created by hundreds of exploded Hamas rockets in Sderot.

It was the constant contrast that left my head spinning. Any given interaction could be as warm as the knowing, playfully challenging glance I got from a priest in the church of the holy Sepulchre, or as hostile as the hotel worker who wouldn’t even look at me as she handed me a replacement key. The Israeli people, as one speaker put it, are like cactus fruit. They kvetch and criticize, and they thrive on crisis rather than longterm planning, but ultimately, they’re all just trying to make the desert bloom.

One of my favorite images (not captured on film, due to the aforementioned yelling) was of a young woman at the wailing (or western, to locals) wall. She was about my height, and dressed like Avril Lavigne in a black skirt and tights, black jacket, and cutoff black and red striped gloves. Her nails were painted rave-sparkle gold, but her hands were pressed so hard against the stone that her knuckles were white. Her heavily made-up eyes were closed tight and she was muttering a prayer.

The area near the wall is partitioned into male and female sections- the mens side is about twice as large as the women’s and is essentially a mosh pit with dancing, singing and general rowdiness. The women’s side, on the other hand, is subdued. There is dancing, but it’s slower, and those nearest the wall tend to be crying, albeit quietly.

I’m not a huge fan of segregation, prayer, or reverent sobbing, but I found myself affected by the place. I wrote two words on my piece of paper and crammed it into a crack, lightly touching the polished rock and feeling the gravity of collective belief.

It’s an extremely complex conflict going on over there, and you almost have to see it firsthand to make any sense of it. Indeed, after a week and as much information as I could cram into my head, I’m still not sure if I have a grip on it, but I know that I know a whole lot more, and more thoroughly, than I could ever have gleaned from the news articles at home. It was an outstanding trip and an incredible experience, and has, like all real experiences, doubtlessly changed the trajectory of my life.

If you want to go next year, click here to check out the program.

If you want to get in touch with Israel’s best tour guide, email her here

If you want to see a cool site with both Israeli and Palestinian perspecitves, click here

Some other Media I’d recommend/that was recommended to me:

The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex

Budrus (documentary)

Barrier, Isabel Kershner

The Source, by James Michner

Startup Nation,Dan Senor and Saul Singer


  1. Lydia it sounds like you had a truly incredible experience! I was a missed email away from being stuck in JFK with you…
    Quick question. Your link to the program doesn’t work, and I’d really like to forward it along to my little brother!

  2. Steph says

    Lydia, Allison Mann sent me this link as I’m thinking of doing some travel this year (not to Israel and for probably very different reasons) but nevertheless…thank you for your frank commentary.

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