By far, dear readers, these were the days that I both anticipated and dreaded the most. That I knew I would get the most out of, and have the hardest time.
These were the days of Tzfat, Tzippori, the Bedouins, Massada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. These were the days of the most strenuous activity and the most spiritually moving.
Day seven dawned bright and early, and I found myself much refreshed and less angry than I’d been the night before. Many of the people involved in the incident apologized, surprising me in their eloquence of how they knew it was wrong. It made me wonder if they’re reading my blog (hello, if you are!) alongside me. Breakfast was boring but edible, and I admit I was a bit late to it because of how much more sleep I seem to need, here. Still, I was on time for the bus and we left, traveling to the mystical Tzfat, one of the four holy cities of Israel.
Tzfat is the home to Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, which is near and dear to my heart. Without the pursuit of the mystical world of Judaism, I would have lost any faith that I had long ago (and, indeed, crises of faith seem to be part of being Jewish in modern America). By exploring mysticism and different ways to connect to God, Kabbalists hoped (and hope!) to help repair the world (a concept known as Tikkun Olam in Hebrew). Indeed, my own forays into mysticism (including but not limited to the Tarot) has been in an effort to find myself closer to God and to provide a path for others. Thanks to Kabbalah, I’ve managed to create a world-view that is uniquely mine, but still soaked in Judaism.
We received a breathtaking tour of the Jewish quarter of Tzfat, stopping at many sites along the way. We started at the great divide, created by the British in order to separate the Jewish and Muslim quarters when political tensions became high. Our guide told us many stories here, about war, about peace, about the Romans and the Muslims and the Jews. Afterward, we began our (very quick!) tour.
The first stop was a synagogue that was ancient. The founding rabbi, whose name I’ve lost to an incident with a bursted bottle and soaked notes (!!! More on that below), was essentially the leader of the faith at Tzvat for quite a while. He collected a personal library that still resides in the synagogue, unable to be moved because they can’t afford the cost of restoration (and fear that moving the books may damage them) and compiled the majority of the Jewish laws, passed orally through the Mishna, into one giant book which we still have today.
If you’ve ever wondered why modern orthodox and especially Chassidic Jews continue to follow the traditions and laws that they do even without a holy temple, this man’s compilation of laws is why. It was said that they “closed the book” on the law, so that they would no longer change, creating traditions that have lasted centuries. He was so brilliant and dedicated to the study and interpretation of law, that he once got distracted while leading prayer, leaving his congregation to wait patiently while he contemplated whether a donkey’s sweat accidentally gotten into grain meant to make Matzah would cause the grain to be considered leavened.
This rabbi, of course, was also a mystic. It was said that he prayed with Elijah (the prophet, long dead by the time he was around) himself when he made his individual prayer.
It’s funny, because while we were discussing and learning about him and his ways, another group entered the synagogue, clearly annoyed at having to wait on ours. They interrupted our tour guide, who said it would be another few minutes, and eventually started yelling loudly “it’s over, it’s over” over his words to shoo our group out of the synagogue! Our tour guide, flustered, said that was not usual; generally guides helped each other out.
The next synagogue that we attempted to stop at was occupied. Since Monday is a day to read Torah, it was a day for Bar Mitzvot, and of COURSE a famous synagogue was booked almost solid! It was a real shame that we missed this opportunity because from the outside, the synagogue was gorgeous.
Our third stop was another synagogue which was uniquely Sphardic in origin. Indeed the decorations weren’t the usual blue and white, but browns and greens and reds so vibrant that they nearly shined. The decoration of the holy arc was nothing short of gorgeous, integrating Kabbalistic symbols with traditional Jewish symbols and clear Christian and Islamic influences. The artist, of course, was not Jewish!
Unfortunately we were harried, again, by the group that had rudely interrupted us before. I couldn’t understand most of what our tour guide said.
The discussions in Tzfat that we had along the way, about Kabbalah and mysticism and tradition and Judaism in general, were very special, though some of the group was beginning to succumb to boredom. I wish we could have spent the whole day learning about Tzfat.
There was something different about the air, like it was charged. Tzfat felt very close to God for me, like if I reached out and closed my fist around the air I would hold something tangible and real, the fabric of reality to put on my back like cloak. I felt powerful and connected and very, very hungry.
We were released to go shop and find lunch on our own for only an hour! An hour! Ah, it was tortuous. First I went to Safed Candles, which I’ve read about online, and looked at their wax/candle sculptures. I bought, for my mother, a candle rose to add to her growing collection of artisan flowers my brother and I have been getting her. I then decided that I needed to find an ATM, for the first time on the trip (!!!) for more money for food and souvenirs. This adventure took me the better part of the hour of free time that we had.
First I had to find an ATM. This seems like, in a city that’s practically built for tourism, it’d be a simple prospect. Dear readers, that assumption was dead wrong. I had to traverse ALL of the steps up the great divide and then turn into the Muslim quarter, walking and gaping at all of the shops and stands. After about 15 minutes of walking without finding the promised (by signs!) ATM, I asked the advice of a vendor, who pointed me to a mall.
My card didn’t work.
I have never been quite so angry in my life. You see, about a week before I left for Israel, I’d emailed my bank to let them know I’d be traveling abroad to Israel! As I may have mentioned in previous blogs, my card was denied in Moscow, but I didn’t think much of it because I’d not mentioned Russia in the email.
Well, apparently that block never lifted. I called the international number (which was a collect call, luckily) and the woman on the other end of the phone helped me as best she could. Apparently there was NO marker for travel at all for me! None. I’d emailed in vain! She set my account up right and I was able to take out money.
This left me with about 20 minutes to find lunch and get back to the bus (which was all the way at the bottom of the divide, a climb that had taken me 10 minutes!). Luckily, I’d seen a pizza stand with “the best pizza in Tzfat!” written on it.
Readers, I don’t know if it was the best pizza in Tzfat. It was, by far, the best pizza I’ve ever had, though.
After that I headed quickly back to the bus, stopping only to purchase some gellato (OMG yummy) on the way there. I arrived EARLY despite myself, and ready to go.
Of course, not everyone on the bus can say the same. It’s really sad how little punctuality is cared about in our group.
Once we got on the road it was a quick trip to the ancient ruins of Tzippori. These ruins were FANTASTIC and a really great study in what life under the Romans was like not only for the Jews, but for everyone. The quality of the restoration/preservation of some of the mosaics is absolutely pristine. I had a lot of fun learning about the history of the site.
We then began the (long) drive to Kfar HaNokdim, one of the northern Bedouin groups that has set up a tourist site to experience “the hospitality of the Bedouins” for groups such as us. I’d been to the Bedouins before, though we went to the Negev desert. I was anxious about what to expect.
Once we got there we were quickly shuffled off of our bus to the donkeys and camels. I’d already resolved not to ride with the group because I’d ridden camels before. I didn’t know there’d be donkeys. Thankfully, they let me ride a donkey the entire time (instead of switching like the rest of the group), and I had a lot of fun. I MUCH preferred the donkeys to camels, let me tell you!
Afterward we went quickly to deposit our bags, then dinner in the Bedouin style. We ate from communal plates where there was rice, meatballs, pita, hummus and vegetables. The pita and meatballs (all I’d really eat) were very yummy! After that we met in a tent for a talk by one of the heads of that community, learning about the ancient Bedouin culture and their ceremonies revolving around hospitality, tea and coffee.
For some reason our madrichim didn’t think it was late enough at that point (almost 9:30pm and we’d be waking up at 4am for Massada) and we had another program from our new Israeli contingent about the “heart and soul” of Israelis. I stayed for as long as I could, but between my medications and the need for sleep, I had to leave early to bed down.
Day Eight started before dawn and ended after dusk.
I guess I’d been anticipating that we’d be awaked around 3:30am, to make sure everyone was ready for 4? Whatever my expectations, they were not met as we were all hurriedly woken up at 4 to go dine on crackers and coffee and pack up and change for the day. Very few (if any) of us got showers in, and I was sadly not able to fit one in, myself.
Massada, though. For Massada I can skip a shower.
We went up the “fast” way, which is a lot of stairs and very steep while also starting about halfway up the mountain. Even I managed to make it well before sunrise, though my arthritis was singing. As we sat near the center of Massada, the madrichim led a combination yoga-service (which, again, I was struck by the inappropriateness of the combination, both for the location and the concepts, and how disrespectful I thought the service was) and we experienced the sunrise of Massada.
I took pictures and sent them home to my mother and brother. Massada is something that we all share in heart, though I’m the only person who’s seen the sunrise.
The moment of the initial crest of the sun drenches all of the mountain in red, and blood can be tasted on the air. Immediately I’m sent back into the past, to those 900+ men and women who are contemplating their existence, contemplating whether to die as free Jews, or to submit to Roman slavery.
The history of Massada is almost tangible. It hangs over the place like a living thing, breathing and shifting with the progression of the day. It was, perhaps, more moving than the first time I went.
Massada raises difficult questions to the Jewish faith. One such that rose from the group was “is murder really better than suicide or were they playing with the letter of the law instead of obeying the spirit of it?” Another was “are they really heroes or cowards for what they did?” Another was the question of validity of the claims.
To me, Massada is both a history and a fable. That 900+ Jews died in one night before sunrise is not a question, but the questions of how and why are important.
The story I believe is that the headmen drew lots, selecting the ten angels of death among them who slew the majority of the garrison, including their own families, then falling upon themselves in order until only one was left. The one sacrifice to god. The one person who would not only taint his soul with murder but also suicide.
I see this as a tale of desperate men, trying to protect the souls and the divinity of their families. Better to be slain by a father than kill yourself, for the father has more guilt than any child or wife.
I think the moral and ethical implications of the questions are important, but also so vast that it’s impossible to encapsulate in one short blog post. I view what happened there as tragic martyrdom. Avoidable, deplorable, understandable.
We travelled all over Massada learning about its history and I won’t bore you with those details here; they’re well documented elsewhere. When it came time to leave I elected for the cable car, along with two others, rather than take the “long” route (the Snake Path, so named because of it’s shape winding back and forth down the mountain) down. The cable car was a thrilling experience and a gorgeous view that took all of three minutes to take us to the bottom, where we walked to the Massada hostel where breakfast would be served.
While we waited for the majority of the group, I did something silly. You see, dear readers, I had an allowance of 100MB of data for $20 on my phone and I noticed apps needed updating and I was on my data plan. I went from 2MB used to 67MB used in under five minutes.
Breakfast was delicious; fried eggs and french toast were my choices, though by far the spread had more. After breakfast we took a short bus ride to Ein Gedi.
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect at the Oasis. I thought that there would be no walking, just a wading pool and water falls. I know I didn’t expect a full hike (including stairs that were steeper and more difficult than Massada!) in order to get to a pool of water less than a foot deep. I was not the only person uninspired and annoyed by this stop, which just seemed there to make us busy.
Afterward we took a bus ride to the Ahava Outlet store, which is a company that makes products from the Dead Sea. I bought a great exfoliating body wash and hand creams for my mother. Shortly afterward we got back on the bus and trekked the short distance to the private beach that our visit to the store afforded us for free!
And we got to float in the dead sea. Even I took part (which I think surprised some of the group members), and floated. To the surprise of the guide, I managed to get sun burned despite being at the lowest point on Earth and wearing 80SPF sunblock! Luckily it’s just my shoulders and upper back, unfortunately I DO have to carry my little backpack around the next few days, which might prove… difficult!
Many of my group members covered themselves in the dead sea mud, though I couldn’t bring myself to. We floated for what seemed like hours before heading back to the bus for a good bus ride to our new hotel in Jerusalem.
Beit Yehuda is the name of our hotel and, dear readers, it is SWANK. Very modern and cool. I took a shower almost immediately once we got here, getting any last vestiges of the dead sea OFF. To my surprise, the aloe spray that I brought in case I got burned burst in my bag, ruining my itinerary, my notes, and my copy of my brother’s card game and rules (which I’d brought thinking I’d play, but never really got the gumption to ask anyone if they were interested). After spraying/pouring some of what was left on me liberally, I dressed and searched for dinner.
This hotel’s meal did not disappoint. Succulent chicken, excellent fish (NO BONES THANK GOD), tender beef, juicy turkey… I was in heaven. I ate myself so full I didn’t even touch the bread I’d gotten.
Afterward we had a “program” where we split into gender-based groups. Annoyed, I didn’t raise a fuss (even though I’m out as trans* and non-binary) but went with the men.
And the topic was EXTREMELY on point. Alcohol. Flirtation. Touching. It always surprises me when grown adults need to be talked to about basic concepts such as “you signed this binding document, stop breaking it,” and I’m fairly sure one of the group will be (rightly) kicked off the trip, even though it’s two days early. For those who can’t abstain from alcohol for 10 days, I have nothing but pity and wariness. The former because this trip is about creating a connection to Judaism. The latter because of my experiences as the child of an alcoholic for whom that would have been difficult.
It’s clear, of course, that a majority of this group do not take this trip as seriously as I (or, indeed, as the taglit foundation) do. Many cop to not reading about it because they wanted to be surprised, to knowing NOTHING about Judaism or birthright.
I had a conversation today where I said that I wish I’d have gone on a more conservative trip. Me! The tarot-reading, song-praising, queer-to-a-fault, gender anarchist, practically (but not actually) blasphemous Jew! Honestly, the only reason I signed on with the organizer I did was for their LGBTQ trip which, of course, was cancelled. We aren’t allowed to select different organizers to pick and choose from. And then I find myself plopped into the middle of an otherwise entirely heteronormative, cisgender, heterosexual (seeming) group?
It’s a bit of a disaster, honestly. I feel very alone and scared to open up to these people, relieved that the end is close because I will be leaving this unsafe group to head back into the loving bosom of my queer (or at least queer-positive) family. At the same time, I’m terrified of going home and becoming the only (realistically religious) Jew. If there’s one thing this trip has taught me, though, it’s that my queer identity is leaps and bounds more figural than my Jewish identity. I feel no kinship here, over Jewish roots. At home I feel connected to my friends because of our queer (among other) roots in common. It’s a phenomenon that happens often in intersectional social justice and diversity psychology, where someone feels they must “choose” an identity.
And while Judaism is a core of who I am, where I come from, and how I live my life? It is not as defining as being Queer.
For that discovery alone, the downsides of this trip are unilaterally outweighed.
I need to go to bed! It’s ridiculously late and another early morning tomorrow.