Thursday, August 27, 2009

Concerning Birthright

Standing at Masada at sunrise, overlooking the Dead Sea and the Jordan highlands. I'm wearing a shirt that I got at the Bedouin camp the night before.

It sounds too good to be true, right? A free trip to Israel for 11 days? Round-trip airfare from JFK to Tel Aviv, guided tours, trained security escorts, meals, hotels, museums, hikes, tours, a camel ride, swimming in the Dead Sea, side trips, discussion groups, concerts, travel assistance, and more...for free?

When I first heard about this Birthright thing, I was very, very skeptical. How could it possibly be free? What does this "Taglit" organization get out of it? What's the catch? Am I obligated to go to some kind of "Jewish re-education" or pledge money or become assimilated into something? What are the hidden fees? Am I even eligible?

I'll tell it straight. My mom isn't Jewish. My dad is Jewish...ish. His family comes from mostly Jewish heritage, though he personally never had a Bar Mitzvah, and neither did I or my brother. Still, we always celebrated Chanukah every year, and most years we would go to my grandmother's house for a Passover seder dinner. However, that was almost the entire extent of Judaism in my life while I was growing up--ask any orthodox Rabbi and I'm simply not Jewish. My mom comes from a Protestant family, and though I went to a synagogue no more than three or four times total in the first eighteen years of my life, I've probably been to church at least a hundred times, not to mention having been inexplicably baptized at age ten. Even so, with all that Lutheranizing and acolyting and communioning, not to mention the continuing Christmas tradition (and yearly Easter baskets of chocolate as a child) in my family's house, I grew up feeling more at home in the company of Jews, even though I was even less Jewish than pretty much any one of my relatively very secular Jewish friends.

So what's the deal here? Did I fool some bizarre organization of questionable motives into giving me a prize package worth thousands of dollars that I didn't deserve, using my own questionable motives? Not at all.

The Taglit organization's stated purpose (they're the money behind Birthright) is simply this: they believe that it is the birth-right of all Jewish people to visit Israel. Therefore, they endeavor to make it possible for young Jews to visit Israel in the best way they can--and tons of them come back with positive experiences to report. In Taglit's words:

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.

So what does that mean? Basically this:
If you are a young adult who can consider yourself Jewish, and you have a real interest in traveling to Israel, you are eligible. So when I went to the Tufts Hillel to find out whether this program is for real, I met with the Birthright coordinator, and I gave it to him straight. I told him that I'm technically half-Jewish (at best), though I would love to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity to go to Israel. I continued, saying that my Jewish heritage from my father's side of my family had always been an intriguing sort of comfort to me, and I would like to find out more about it and sort of test how well I connect to it.'s a FREE TRIP TO ISRAEL. So that's basically what I said, and that's also basically what I told Shorashim as well, when they did their phone interview with me (which is really just a get-to-know-you sort of thing, to make sure you're genuine). "Genuine? What does THAT mean?"

From their website:

Q. Will this be a "religious" trip?

A. You may apply for the Taglit-Birthright Israel gift regardless of your Jewish background or affiliation. All Taglit-Birthright Israel programs will provide opportunities for participants to celebrate Jewish life together. Some Trip Organizers represent different religious movements, or Zionist ideologies. To learn how to choose among all the Taglit-Birthright Israel-approved trip organizers, please go to 'How to Choose a Trip Organizer'. By asking some key questions like, "How will Shabbat be observed?" will help ensure that the program you are choosing is right for you.

Q. This gift sounds too good to be true, what's the catch?

A. There is no catch, no strings attached. Participants are only responsible for a $250 US deposit, fully refundable upon their return home after successfully completing the program. Participants are under no obligation to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which finances the trip, or their Trip Organizer, who implements the trip, for any future activities or financial obligations. Of course, should participants decide to become more involved in the Jewish community, go back to Israel or explore other aspects of Jewish life, we encourage them to regularly check out the rest of the website for resources that may fit their needs.

Simply put, in ten years, this organization has taken over 220,000 (yes, two hundred twenty THOUSAND) young people from over 50 countries on free ten-day trips. What do they mean by "free"? I paid for only the following:
• Plane tickets to and from New York
• About a third of the meals
• Souvenirs
• A $250 deposit that was refunded about a month after the trip ended
• Return trip extension fees so as to accommodate my trip to Russia after the Israel program was over (not a required expense of course, though they make it VERY easy to extend your trip however you want by up to three months, not to mention MUCH cheaper than what the airline would usually charge)

But what about safety? "Israel is too dangerous--I wouldn't feel comfortable there" or "My dad/mom would never let me go" or "I'm afraid to go to the Middle East" -- let me share the following with you:
• I never once felt unsafe during the trip.
• We had an armed guard with us the whole time. TWO armed guards when in more rural areas.
• The organization carefully plans routes and checks conditions before going anywhere.
• They have taken over 220,000 young people on these trips, and I'm told their safety record is impeccable.
• It's in everyone's best interests to do their absolute utmost to keep everyone safe.
• Taglit lists all of their other safety precautions on their website. So does Shorashim.
• Chances are, you know other people like me who have gone on a Birthright trip and had an amazing time.
I understand that back in January, with the Gaza offensive going on, it was probably not the best time to be there. But during my time there, things were quiet. I would hate to think that anyone would be kept from going to Israel because of fear of attack. Besides that, El Al Airlines (one of the most popular airlines used by the program, and Israel's national airline) has probably the best safety record of any airline operating. I suspect you're in a lot more danger driving on a freeway or visiting many areas of many US cities than you are on a Birthright trip. If there's not a war or anything going on, that's no way to miss out on an incredible opportunity.

So what about my own experience? I will say that my trip to Israel affected me much more than I could have predicted, and I really felt a strong connection to the place that I couldn't have expected. I am more interested in Judaism, and I'm even thinking about having a Bar Mitzvah. "AHA!" you say, "THAT'S WHAT THEY WANTED, ISN'T IT!"
Well, yes, isn't it? I wanted the free trip to Israel, but isn't that sort of because I was curious about it? I was interested, and now that I've been, I've learned a lot. Besides that, it's no secret that Birthright is designed to make everybody happy. Certainly the Israeli government wins, because they get tons of tourism dollars and a lot of great press. Wouldn't you want young people visiting YOUR country and then going back home to tell everyone what a great time they had? The Birthright organization wins, because they are fulfilling their stated goals. And certainly, the young people win, because we get an amazing free trip to Israel. "BUT WHAT ABOUT PALESTINE??" you might ask. That's actually a great question--and I'm glad to say that nothing about my trip felt like being indoctrinated or proselytized. In fact, we had frank and critical political discussions many times, during which we learned a lot of history, got many different perspectives, and learned about the great complexities of the situation. I can't speak for other trip providers (so I highly recommend Shorashim), but I left Israel with greater respect and understanding for both Israeli and Palestinian peoples. I also truly became friends with several soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, and I have immense respect for them.

So it's legitimate, and it's true. I strongly recommend the Birthright program to anyone who is interested and remotely eligible. What do you have to lose? You just might discover that you have a lot more than you knew about to gain.

Check out the trip provider Shorashim - they're the group I went with, and their whole philosophy on the trip is extremely well-balanced, not to mention packed-full of awesome activities and and very welcoming to everyone.

When you sign up, tell them that I referred you, too. "AHA!!" you say, "SO YOU'RE GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF ALL THIS!!! TREACHERY!!"
Yes, it's true, they will give me a bit of money if I refer people to them that end up signing up for a trip, and there's even a possibility of me getting to go BACK to Israel for free (AGAIN!) if I get enough people to sign up. But why would I help Shorashim out if I didn't believe in what they're doing? I had a truly amazing time, and deciding to go for a Birthright trip was one of the best decisions I've ever made. If you have any questions, please email me or comment on this post.

2) TO REGISTER: Go to ISRAELWITHISRAELIS.COM (website for Shorashim)
3) Mention my name on the registration form! And send an email to saying that I recruited you!

The Return

(Pictures to come--it will be more interesting then)

7-9 August: Last days in Saint-Petersburg. Final exam, final meals, final grades, SKA hockey game, walking around the city, Lenta-Fest part 2 and subsequent picnic, jazz club, watching the bridges, sunrise, making Uzbek friends and discussing shwarma across borders, great times hanging out with Russian friends Viktor (BROTHERRRR) and Ruslan (the wizard), the Central Naval Museum, trip to the airport, and the airport itself. My culminating ultimate moment in Russia came at the end of the band's set at the jazz club--I had finished my delicious drink and was starting to think about leaving, but a random guy struck up a conversation with me (in Russian of course):
Random guy: "Hey, do you know who else plays here?"
Me: "No, I don't know--it's my first time here. I think there's a calendar hanging on the wall over there."
Random guy: "Oh, it's my first time here too. Are you from Petersburg?"
I HAVE ARRIVED!! I thought to myself. My last night in Russia, and I am mistaken in not only appearance but also in language--for a local!!

I was detained and interrogated for at least 40 minutes by El Al Airlines personnel because apparently I was suspicious for several reasons: having such a ridiculous itinerary, only planning to be in Israel for one day, not being able to produce proof of where I would be in Israel and for how long... but I made it through. It was sort of cool actually because I knew I had nothing to hide... but I suppose if I'd had something to hide, it would have been hell, and with security like that, how could anyone pull something off?

10 August: Israel again. An amazing day, all around--it's so wonderful to have friends all over! I got a ride from the train station in Tel-Aviv to Pri's house, where I had one of the best breakfasts EVER. Fresh egg, fresh-baked cake, a fresh REAL cappuccino, cottage cheese, Israeli salad, and other cheese and other food that I simply didn't have room for. Her mom took me into the city, and we had a great conversation regarding culture and politics and everyday life along the way. I spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon walking around the city, exploring markets and shops and taking lots of pictures before I headed to the beach. There's a pretty big Russian population there too, and I found a couple of Russian bookstores. On the beach, as I was setting up and preparing to sun myself, an attendant came over and started telling me in Hebrew about how I need to give him a certain amount of money in order to use the benches and lounges on the beach. I understood what he was getting at, though I asked him whether he could speak English. I did actually learn a few Hebrew phrases, one of them being "I don't speak Hebrew." I wanted to ask him whether I could simply lie on my towel on the sand for free, but he didn't understand me, so I asked him in Russian, and he understood! It was an amazing linguistic experience. And so I sunned.
I lay on the beach listening to kids next to me speaking Hebrew and cursing in Russian until Pri arrived, so then I swam in the Mediterranean while she watched my bag. Warm sea is wonderful!! Made me want to visit a tropical island sort of place. After that, we headed over to pick up other friends, and then spent the evening hopping around cafés and bars and restaurants in Jaffa, and I had some wonderful falafel and Goldstar beer (yes, legally!). It was so nice to hang out with them, talking about life, but by the end of the night my exhaustion from traveling caught up with me (and I suppose the Goldstar didn't hurt) and I slept in the car on the way back. It was a great day.

Then it was more travel--car, train, plane, bus, van, bus, car, in that order, all in one day, from Pri's house in the Ramat Gan suburb or Tel Aviv to Rachel's house in Lexington, Massachusetts. I studied Hebrew on the plane to New York, and found that I really enjoyed it. No problems with US Customs:
Customs Officer: (Reading my declaration form) "You have food?
Me: "Some packaged snacks."
Officer: "Go to the red lane."
Customs Officer (Red Lane): "Do you have any meat?"
Me: "No."
Officer: "Go ahead."
I hefted my luggage out to the ground transportation curb, and immediately was greeted with a sort-of seedy private "cab" driver, who said something like "Hey buddy, need a ride?" and I ignored him, a response that would have been normal in Russia. "HEY, YOU COULD AT LEAST SAY NO!" he yelled at me once I had passed, apparently hurt. It made me think of basic human interactions across cultural boundaries, and, well, a lot of other things, but that's coming up in a future post.

Hanging out at Tufts and around Boston for two days was a ton of fun. I really wanted to do it, because I knew that by spending a year studying in Japan, I would be forfeiting a lot of time spent with Tufts friends. Fortunately, many of them were around campus even though it was three weeks before the start of classes, and I got to see a whole lot of wonderful people. I felt for the first time that I am really starting to appreciate my university. It's amazing what a couple of months abroad can do. I'll post pictures later.

Then it was overnight Greyhound (oh, yes) to Washington, DC, to spend three and a half whirlwind days with lots of family. There were actually a lot of Russians on that bus, though I was tired and didn't talk to them. Let it be said that Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan at 3:30 in the morning is not a fun place, but I really don't mind--I've gotten quite used to carrying luggage and waiting and making connections. Actually spending time in Washington was really wonderful, and I got to see three aunts, my grandfather, my great-uncle, a great family friend, and more--an awesome 98 year old friend of my grandfather (and his wife) had us over for coffee and lent me a book of essays by Amos Oz, insisting that she carry the tray herself. The woman speaks four languages--English, Spanish, Russian, and Yiddish. I also got to have brunch, courtesy of some kind and apparently connected family members, at the Cosmos Club by Embassy Row. What a meal! And then it was the Air and Space museum too, dinner in Bethesda, and a diner in Virginia. Finally, I got to Dulles, and it was strange to know that I was heading back to my parents and the house I grew up in. For the first time in my life, I arrived home to a house that really didn't feel so much like my home anymore. I guess that tends to happen.

I've now been back in Los Angeles for about eleven days, and I've been back in America for two weeks. It was strange to come back to New York--I was sitting next to a couple of Orthodox Jewish guys on the plane, and I was happily studying Hebrew from one of the books I picked up while there, with Dostoevsky in my bag. I arrived to another different culture, and America that looked significantly different from the one I had left.

What a month it's been. What a couple of months. Hell, what a year! I've been so busy running around Los Angeles in the past 11 days or so that I've hardly had time to reflect, but I've got my computer back now (thank you, Apple!) and I have a lot to say. Expect more updates and reflections over the next month, leading up to my departure for Japan.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Back in America

Wow, what a summer it's been. I've been living out of suitcases for the past 11 weeks. The past six days or so have been insane--that itinerary I posted before it working out beautifully. I am now posting from my grandfather's house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, USA, just outside of Washington, DC.

I had an amazing time returning to Israel for a day and also visiting Tufts and Boston for two days. Friends are awesome. Now I'm enjoying time with family in Washington before I will return at long last to California (and figure out how to get a working computer!).

I had a wonderful conversation this evening with a 98 year old woman. She speaks English, Russian, and Spanish, and she's more active and spry than more 70 year olds I've seen. I hope I'll have even some of that kind of longevity!

So much to say, but this will only be a short update. What a summer this has been!

I will say, quickly, that I have been learning so much. I've had so many amazing experiences, and I've gained so much perspective on things--life, the world, me, everything. I really feel that I have been growing up a lot, and I feel less anxious and stressed. I've also made a ton of new friends. Anyhow, it's all a great experience!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Literally, this word means simply "action" or "deed" -- something that one does. However, its connotation is of something profound or great, something significant.

It's the end of my Russian summer, and this will most likely be my last post while in Russia. I have the rest of today, then tomorrow and Sunday to spend in the city, and then Sunday night at 9pm I'm heading to the airport.

I had an invitation to go to Moscow for a night, but I chose to spend that time here instead, seeing a couple of museums that I wanted to see (The Arctic/Antarctic museum, the Maritime Museum, and maybe the Railroad Museum), seeing the city, and mostly spending time with some of my new Russian friends. I wonder whether a younger me would have jumped at that chance to go to Moscow. But now I have friends in Russia, and most likely whenever I return here I would make a trip to Moscow. I'll see it eventually. Like I said several weeks ago, I'm starting to see the bigger picture as something not quite so intimidating and scary. I suppose that tends to happen as people grow and age, deal with life and experience, and begin to comprehend existence.

I had a good conversation with one such friend a couple of days ago as we walked around the lines and prospekts of Vasilevsky together, concerning the steps that one takes in life. He mentioned the word поступок, the title of this post, and he told me about an American short film he had heard of that concerns a young man (not older than 25) who decides to leave his job and ride a bicycle around America for a year, armed with a video camera. (I'll find the name of the film later, as I must go to lunch very soon.) Such a drastic thing to do, yes! But I told me friend (Sasha is his name), I understand that somewhat. In some way, all young people go through this process when they go out into the world, and it can be something like that poem Ithaca that I posted here last month. For me, I simply knew that I had to go out into the world, a feeling that I couldn't avoid. Russia for me has been a great experiment, and I will wrap up that idea further when I get home.

This is the end of my summer in Russia, but I have gained so much from the experience. All that's left now is a couple of days--exploring this afternoon, clubbing tonight, museums tomorrow, packing, spending time with friends, and that will have been two months. Where did these months go? I'm left with an ability to speak conversational Russian, some random souvenirs, over a thousand photos, memories, thoughts and epiphanies, perspectives, and many new friends (I met a guy from Hong Kong yesterday and we ended up talking for three hours). One day I will return here. I've learned so much!

I spoke with my 89-year-old grandfather in Washington DC yesterday about some of these things. He's experienced so much in his life; I can't wait to see him next week.

On to the next adventure.

But first, our last Russian Table lunch!