It may seem odd to some of you to hear this, but I’m not in Berlin. Again. In fact, I’m in New York. Preparing to go on a free, ten-day trip to Israel. Why they made me go to New York first I cannot say, because after speaking to several lackadaisical, play-dumb, practically comatose people on the phone (and “speaking” is relative; what I was doing was really more like yelling), even I could not get an answer. But in spite of the fact that I just spent around $500 on a plane flight from Berlin to New York for a supposedly free trip, in just two days I will be getting on a flight from JFK direct to Tel Aviv, covering all that distance I just covered and then some to begin my very own, ten-day Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel.
The whole experience has been a bit laughable, and it hasn’t really even started yet. When I think about what I am about to do, my mind cannot help but wander back to all the reality TV shows I’ve watched in my day. Charm School. Real World. Fear Factor. America’s Next Top Model, even. “Forty Jews, one house, ten days,” let’s see which ones kill each other first.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. Taglit-Birthright is an organization that, whatever else you may think about it, actually takes Jews from around the world to Israel every year for free. After a barely-discernible application process, a few weeks of waiting, and a call from someone in the organization to determine whether you are “really Jewish,” you’re in, and you’re sent your flight information, itinerary, and finally, contacted by the friendly head of the group who happens to be about your age. I get, as many people before me have affirmed, that the whole thing is an exercise in reality-denying propaganda designed to convince “diaspora” Jews that they should pick up and move to Israel. I also understand, having worked with so many Israelis at Milk & Honey, what this might entail. Tony Judt’s Memory Chalet, a moving collection of essays and his final publication, had one about going to Israel several summers in a row to work on a Kibbutz as a young man in the 1960’s. These little exercises in Zionism came to an end when he realized that everyone around him expected him to drop his plans (including his acceptance to King’s College, Cambridge) to be an orange picker for the rest of his life. Realizing what was being expected of him (leaving individualism and individual ambition behind in order to contribute to the supposedly greater good of a community—which is really what Kibbutz living is all about) he promptly ended his love affair with the Jewish homeland and, decades later, became an outspoken critic of Israel’s politics.
Now, I think about that essay he wrote as I prepare to surrender my individual opinions on Israel (I’ve heard from several attendees that even mention of the word “Gaza” elicits either fake blank stares or a determined “we’re not going to talk about that”) and become one of forty “Russian Heritage” Jews going to find their destiny in the Holy Land. We are told quite early that there will be “no leaving the group for any reason” (this is indeed why I was forced to fly nearly ten hours in the direction of America only to get right back on a plane several days later and fly back in the opposite direction; apparently the tour officially “starts in the airport” and of course, there is no leaving the group for any reason). We are told that it is compulsory to participate in all group activities, except on “free nights,” of which, looking at the admittedly impressive itinerary they’ve sent along, I see there is only one. There will be, on our first night in Tel Aviv, an evening of “Program Introductions and Ice Breakers” which I can only imagine will be more than a little bit like the ones we last encountered during college orientation freshman year—only more embarrassing because most of us are four to eight years older than we were then. There will of course be educational evenings with experts about the “situation today in Israel” (no word yet on how fair and balanced this will be) as well as a night at a Bedouin Campsite that will include a bonfire and, with any luck, a lot of food. But I can’t help thinking that my decision to live in Berlin is one that may—ahem—alienate me a bit from some of the more conservative members of the crew.
If I’ve learned anything about my fellow Jews in the years since moving to Germany, I’ve figured this out: just uttering the name of the country can cause certain members of the conservative community to sputter, gag, and occasionally lose complete control of their senses. Finding out that a fellow Jew has actually made the decision to live in such a “hateful,” “horrible” country full of such “bad people” (all of these are real phrases I’ve heard from Jews of my acquaintance when discussing Deutschland) kind of makes their brains go haywire and cease to function. They just cannot comprehend the contradictory logic of this fact, and so they cease to use logic at all. I’ve told several people that I dread the encounters I will most certainly have with several members of my group, who may skip right over the part where they wonder at the fact that I live in another country and head straight for…prejudice. But actually, I’m hoping—nay, longing—for this to happen. In the end, it may cause some strife and may make my trip more of a challenging encounter with the self and less of a smooth vacation, but what I want is a good story to tell and maybe even a good story to sell. Who am I kidding? After all, I’m not here to make friends.