1. Old City Jerusalem, 2. Jewish Quarter Jerusalem, 3. The Negev,
The long haul over to Israel was not what you would describe as enjoyable. A large portion of the 22-hour sojourn was spent questioning what I even knew about Israel. My father was a Jew from birth, and my mother converted when she met him but for me, Judaism was a religion I had barely touched on. Our kosher meal on the Thai Airways flight looked how I had always imagined a mismatch of leftovers from Jewish functions to be. I’d never eaten kosher before, and lets just say I was a bit cynical regarding the rest of the Taglit-Birthright trip.
Taglit-Birthright is a not-for-profit organisation that sponsors a free ten-day trip to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage. The main idea behind the journey is to reconnect young people who have lost a connection to their Jewish roots and provide them with the opportunity to learn about their heritage in the Holy Land, i.e., people like me…
4. Mount Tzfahot, 5. The Kotel, 6. Spices at Mahane Yehuda,
We flew into Israel in the early hours of the morning. The sunrise glistened through the glass windows as we walked out of the airport. I stepped onto the bus that was to become my home for the next ten days. I walked down the aisle, every single face was an unfamiliar one. I picked a seat close to the back and sat alone. I unravelled my headphones and placed them in my ears to halt the awkwardness that was exuding from me. “No”, I thought. “No one will talk to you”. I quickly pulled the headphones from my ears. Within minutes, Noam, Isaac and Arial had all moved closer to my seat so that we could discuss where in the world we were off to next and how to pronounce certain words in Yiddish and Hebrew.
7. The Negev, 8. Tzfat, 9. Girls at Masada, 10. Tel Aviv,
The next day in Israel we drove up to the Golan Heights. This is a place of great political tension between Syria and Israel. According to Israeli law, they own the Golan Heights, which has been occupied and administered since it was captured in 1967 during the Six-Day War. However, according to Syria and the UN, Syria has the legal rights to the area. From the viewing point at which we stood, you could hear gunshots in the distance. It was an odd experience, going there as a tourist to physically look down upon the Syrians with the news of Aleppo so fresh in our minds. I felt my chest go hollow and my body cold as I stood there gazing out towards the world in front of me. It made me feel lucky to live so far away from this life of horror, but it also made me feel guilty for my privilege. Why did I simply get to learn about their hell, while they had to endure it? We were then quickly shuffled along to a winery… This was Taglit in a nutshell. We would witness something that would make us feel cold to the core and then we would be taken to a juxtaposing activity moments later. Our guide, Libbi, informed us this was the tactful ideology that had been put in place for a reason. That reason? So we could literally understand what it meant to walk in an Israelis’ footsteps. We quickly learnt that this way of life is simply the reality for those in the Middle East.
11. Camel riding in the Negev, 12. Mount Tzfahot, 13. Mount Tzfahot looking out to the Red Sea,
The third day in Israel marked the day my soul began to evolve. We pulled into Tzfat mid morning and we all piled off the bus. I felt the chilled air rush around my face, yet my chest felt warm. Something was different here. Tzfat is the city of Jewish mysticism in Israel. We crept through the quiet cobbled-stone streets, with blue fencing. The Hasidic Jews would pass by every few minutes holding their Torah with purpose; the curls dangling by the chin, their wide brim hat or kippah atop their head, wearing a black suit. I peered upon them with amazement and respect, careful not to stare.
In Tzfat, an artist dedicated to the practice of Kabbalah lectured us. We learnt that the Kabbalah is a set of teachings designed to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (meaning infinity) and the mortal and finite universe (God’s creation). The Kabbalah is not a religious denomination; instead, it forms the foundations of mystical religious interpretation. It also presents methods to aid understanding of the concepts and attain spiritual realisation. Essentially, Kabbalah is used for meditation and in prayer.
Here, I also learnt about Qliphoths. In Jewish Kabbalah, “shells” are the representation of evil or impure spiritual forces. This deeply resonated with me. The way I viewed myself began to change. I started trying to rid myself of my bad habits, thoughts, actions or simply “my shells”. Kabbalah is beautiful when you think about it. It isn’t God punishing you for doing bad, but your soul rewarding you for doing good. The kinder, nicer and more selfless you are, the less shells your soul has. I pondered, “Isn’t this a simple concept? Not that I am very knowledgeable on all religions and their practices and beliefs, but doesn’t this seem to be the root of them? Being kind, helpful and honest to yourself and to others”.
In the centre of Tzfat, near the shawarma stall we met eight Israeli soldiers who were to accompany us for the next five days. Each one came with a different story, just like us, and as the days rolled on we unravelled each other’s stories as we sat on the bus, and walked the streets of Israel. We learnt about each other’s lives and cultures. I had anticipated the Israeli soldiers to be very different than me. In Australia, when you finish high school you go on a schoolies trip. In Israel, you go to the army. This, I thought, had to mean they would be vastly unlike the rest of us. How pleasantly wrong I was.
14. Old Jaffa in Tel Aviv, 15. Spices at Mahane Yehuda, 16. Girls at the Dead Sea, 17. Mount Tzfahot,
They were with us when we visited the Old City in Jerusalem. The Old City is divided into four quarters; the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. One of the most interesting things I learnt regarding Israeli law was that in order to marry in Israel, you must marry someone from the same religion as you. Muslims cannot marry Jews, Jews cannot marry Christians, and you definitely cannot marry someone of the same sex. I have never been a religious person, nor felt a strong connection to my Jewish heritage before, but walking through the old streets that contained so much beauty and history, pain and happiness, I could feel the spirituality in the air. If walls could talk, these would sing.
We made our way to the Kotel. The wall is a holy place where Jews are permitted to pray. Before we entered the Kotel, Eva put on a long skirt to show modesty and respect to the holy place. She and Hila began to get emotional, tears swelling up in their eyes, and I didn’t really understand why. As soon as I walked towards the Wall, divided between man and woman, seeing everyone praying, I understood. A light within me flickered on. I watched as no one dared to disrespect the sanctity of the wall by walking with their back towards the Kotel.
For those who had never had their Bat Mitzvah in the group, we collectively decided the Kotel was one of the holiest places to have one. Arm in arm, we danced around in a circle. One foot prancing behind the other, our heads tilted back in hysterical laughter, tears forming at the corner of our eyes. In turns we lifted each other up on the chair as we sang the words “Simon Tov, and Mozel Tov” on repeat. The other visitors looked on in amazement, or perhaps amusement.
That night, we discovered just how similar we were to the Israelis. We spoke on the bus about television shows, music and politics. We made jokes, and some even shared secrets. We saw how it was to make a connection if you simply allowed yourself to. We made our way to one of the local bars and after dousing ourselves in Israeli liquor; we danced together on table-tops.
18. Covered in Dead Sea mud, 19. Sunrise at Masada, 20. Old City Jersualem,
The visit to Har Herzl with our fellow Israeli soldiers was sombre and shocking, and something I don’t think any of us were prepared for. Especially after the night we’d all had. We walked around the cemetary, realising how many young soldiers had died in the fight for freedom. The hardest concept to grasp was knowing some of our new friends had been acquainted with those in the cemetery. It was heart wrenching to know that this was the norm: war and defending your country started at eighteen years of age. A lot of the soldiers were proud to defend their country, wanted to in fact, as it was their chance to give back to the country they loved, a chance to protect their rights and freedoms.
21. Men having their Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, 22. A lone ibex, 23. Sde Boker,
Then we made our way to Mahane Yehuda, a Jewish market place, in the afternoon to prepare for Shabbat. The smell of the spices spiralled around the swarm of people crammed up against one another. Emily held onto my hand, I held onto Eva’s hand, who held onto Rotem’s hand and so forth, and we marched through the market like this ensuring no one got dragged behind. In Israel, everyone’s weekend is Friday and Saturday for Shabbat. Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening after nightfall. Shabbat is the centerpiece of Jewish life and according to the Talmud; Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments. This was my first Kiddush and I was lucky to have my new friends, Eva and Rachel sitting next to me, explaining the prayers and the processes. Our madrich, Saul, said the prayer as I washed my hands. We drank the wine and we broke the challah. The feast had begun. We turned our phones off and engaged in conversation, the way Shabbos was intended.
24. Camels in the Negev, 25. The Kotel, 26. Har Herzl, 27. Top of Masada,\
We woke early before dawn to commence the hike up Masada. Just like our Jewish ancestors, we walked in a line across the “snake path” to the top of the rock. We made it just in time to see the iridescent sunset rise from beyond the Dead Sea. The sun warmed the earth below us, the golden-yellow crevices in the gravel stretched for miles until it met the aqua-blue water of the Dead Sea. Masada is the place where the last Jewish stronghold stood against Roman invasion. The Jews chose to take their own lives rather than be slaughtered by the Romans. It is a complicated story of bravery and sadness. Standing on the earth where a defiant moment in history happened was very surreal.
After we had walked back down Masada, we made our way to the Dead Sea. I’d heard the stories about floating in the Dead Sea, but I don’t know if I believed them. They all sounded embellished. “Your skin will sting from the amount of salt in the water”, “You just lie back and float and do nothing else”, “The salt exfoliates your skin”. The funny thing is, there was no embellishment. I wanted to stay in that water and enjoy the odd sensation of extremely salty water holding me up, but I couldn’t. I was stinging from the salt and my skin felt like ice from the fresh winter air.
28. Sde Boker, 29. Old City Jerusalem, 30. Noam and Rachel at Mount Tzfahot, 31. Floating in the Dead Sea,
We journeyed down to Eilat, Israel’s southern most city. We hiked up through the rocky terrain of Mount Tzfahot. The rocks were slippery under foot and the incline was steep. When we reached the top, Libbi told us each to find a spot alone, put on some music, take in the view around us and reflect on the trip we had experienced so far. SItting on the reddish-grey rocks, overlooking the bright blue water of the Red Sea, with Jordan in the distance was mesmerising. I got lost in my thoughts for a while, and was brought back to reality by Stevie telling me we had to get back to the group. We were heading to the Bedouin tents.
32. View out onto the Negav and the Dead Sea from Masada, 33. View over the Old City of Jersualem, 34. Tiberius, 35. Rachel, Eva and I on top of Masada,
A Bedouin is an Arabic term referring to people who live, or have descended from tribes who lived, stationary or nomadic lifestyles outside cities and towns. For dinner, we were sat on the floor around low tables. We shared falafels and dipped our pita in the hummus, and experienced the true, mouth-watering flavours of Israel. The whole group, all 40 of us slept in one large tent together so that we could experience, on a small scale, how it felt to live as a Bedouin. The next morning, we went camel trekking in the Negev. Walking up to an animal with large, crooked, brown teeth that begins to make noises as you approach closer and closer is not the most comforting feeling. Sitting on the camels back, as it rose to its feet, I held on for dear life as the sensation of toppling over the front of the camel took over. Beyond the fright of getting atop the camel, I let my mind wander and peace took over as the camel set out on its course.
36. Mount Tzfahot, 37. Unknown mountains, 38. Rachel, me and Daniel in the Jewish Quarter, 39. Masada desert,
Visiting Israel was different. I think a major part of this was due to the way Middle Eastern cultures are portrayed in the media. When the average person thinks of Israel, they think of the wars between Palestine and the rage over the settlements. They think of Syria, Iraq, Iran… But they forget about the people. They forget about the history that comes with it, and that’s what it so interesting. The mixed cultures, races and religions made it the most beautiful and fascinating country to visit.
40. Jerusalem, 41. Orange juice man in Tzfat, 42. Golan Heights, view from Israel to Syria, 43. Eva, Rachel and I, 44. Tzfat,
I have never visited a country that is so entrenched in political tensions with so many countries around the world. The news often chooses a side; either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine and it was truly interesting to hear what the locals thought on the political matters. We were also in Israel when the United States broke with decades of diplomacy by abstaining on a UN rebuke of Israel, rather than vetoing it in support of Israel. The Council voted that Israel had committed a violation of international law by building settlements on the land the Palestinians want. As a by-stander, it makes me wonder if there is any hope for peace between the two nations? Or will one nation eventually have to give in and accept their fate, while the other simply rules?
My time in Israel lit a fire within me, and was grounds for a reconnection to my religion, to new friends, and to my family and heritage. No other country I have visited has altered my perspective, ignited such a feeling and created a purpose like Israel. It is truly a place I will never forget.