To Israel And Halfway Back

***Written years ago for a travel writing class in college, I recently reread this story and realized its potency and relevancy in the world of today. It highlights memories that still blaze true, and are even more reflective now that my sister is living in Israel.***

Seventeen is a tender age to visit one’s homeland.  In a place where the sun rises and sets on some of the holiest places on earth, my memories of Israel are a haphazard collection of adolescent love affairs, fabulous mountaintop sunbathing and nights spent taking vodka shots out of empty film canisters.  At the time I promised myself that I would write in a journal every one of the thirty-four days that I was in that tiny strip of exotically landscaped history; but when reading that journal today I find misspelled Hebrew names of the landmarks we visited, plenty of gossip on who slept in whose sleeping bag last night and whether that strange kid actually attempted suicide with the plug-in wire from the iron.

I remember nameless places and sweat drenched complaining.  I remember techno dancing in bomb shelters and mysterious eggplant meals.  But most of all, I remember those sunsets.  The most alluring and heart stopping moments that stun you back to life, running on the cracked, barren ground toward the ends of the earth, just to make the magic last a few more precious seconds.

Visiting the Bedouins and following them camelback through the desert was the most authentic, yet somehow luxurious experience I had on my israeli adventure.  Knowing that this group of people were vagabond types who slept in tents far away from civilian cities, I reluctantly dragged my hundred pound wheeless suitcase towards what looked like a circus tent made of rain resistant tarp.  I groaned as we stumbled over jagged rocks and looked around at the vast and empty expanse that surrounded our hovel for the night.

Pulling back the plastic shower curtain of a door to get inside, I ran into a few of my fellow group members who stood fairly agape at our Indiana Jones accommodations.  It was so unexpected that you had to take a minute to shake off the surprise of finding Persian rugs sprawled across the floor and miniature round tables set low to the ground, crowned with lit candles and surrounded by soft, white pillows.

It was warm and glowing inside the corners of the three-walled abode, and on the left side you noticed that there was no curtain enclosing us from the world outside.  Ten feet from where we were sleeping was a fence of 4’ boulders all snuggled up against one another, attempting to keep warm amidst the evening desert wind.  Beyond that protective barrier, the earth dropped off into nothing.  Miles below the land looked like a feather stuffed quilt, its colors and designs rolling up and down against the twilight sky.

It’s hard to breathe standing in a place like that, where the wind is tempted to blow you right off of your crest and into the waves below.  Everyone has colorless eyes, reflected against the wash of pinkish grey, cascading down the boundaries of the world.

Israel is like a whirlwind game of Jumanji, where a new set of challenges and adventures are awaiting you around every turn.  In a country that is only 280 miles long and about 85 miles wide, it seems that the eclectic landscape of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are the only thing residing peacefully together in the cramped quarters.

Five years ago when I boarded my midnight Tel Air flight to Israel, over 500 other anxious adolescents were joining me.  In a time of so-called peace, there was only one suicide bombing that happened in Jerusalem during the month I was traipsing around, and I probably only stopped for a second to be thankful I wasn’t near the attack.  Now, most of the youth group trips to Israel have been cancelled. Any young adventurers are left to endure a hundred year sleep plagued with nightmares, patiently waiting for prince charming to sword through the decades of war’s undergrowth, and let back in the dreamers.

We were the dreamers, the schemers and troublemakers taking over the gawky tour buses that summer. Seventeen, free from parents, and legal to buy alcohol and cigarettes, get tattoos and piercings, we skirted around every rule and took full advantage of all our opportunities.  Trekking through the sandy sun drenched Negev, I lit a cigarette while riding high atop my new camel friend, Abu.  There were so many clothes, sleeping bags, and other random supplies stuffed into the side pockets of Abu’s sporty fanny pack that my inner thighs were stretched in gymnast like directions.  I just looked down to my far-from-Moses-and-forty-years-in-the-desert-friendly companions and laughed, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were smoking a Camel on my camel?!”

By noon the heat in the desert is too intense for laymen to be bumming around in, and our Bedouin guide led us to a giant rock structure that seemed to rise out of the barren landscape at exactly the right time.  It was a twenty-foot alcove that tucked us inside its cool, stone walls, and we scattered like mice to find the best shaded hiding places that might lull us into mid-afternoon sleep.

No air conditioned hostel before, or cushioned mattress after, would offer the kind of sleep we found in that sprawling old piece of God’s architecture.  I lay there with my head resting on my water bottle, looking out into the starkly blue and brown landscape, peacefully unappreciative that it would be one of the most serene moments of my life.

When you first think about camel trekking through the desert, Aladdin-like images are conjured up full of rolling orange sand dunes and magic carpets.  But our abandoned dune seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood singularly majestic amongst the miles of flat, cracking, rocky desert floor.  After a breathless climb to the top, I expected to look out over that imaginary sea of blowing stand, but instead was accosted with more of the rocky, ungraceful terrain we had previously traversed.  So I sat atop my lonely beach castle and entertained myself in the evening sun, watching handfuls of sand slalom around the stiff brown hairs on my unshaven legs.

For millions of people around the world, Israel is the religious mecca, and some spend all their lives trying to make one trip to see the birthplace of their beliefs.  When I tell people that I spent over a month in the holy land when I was only seventeen, they always ask me, why?  I tell them that it is sort of a tradition.  I tell them that my parents did it when they were teenagers, and it was their plan to send their children to experience the same sort of adventure.  I tell these people that it was my right of passage, my good fortune, to be sent away to have such an important and life altering experience.  Sometimes I wonder what I have to show for such a lucky break besides remnants of the vulgar songs we used to sing on the bus, and photographs of the vicious sunburns we managed to incur.

People look at me in disbelief when they find out that I spent so much time in this war torn country at such a young age.  I find it impossible to explain that it hasn’t always been this way, that there have been times of peace, that Israel is a stunningly beautiful country perfect for any type of fantastical vacation or getaway.  I see the confusion in their eyes and know that they are wondering how it is possible, after all of these bombings, that anything beautiful could be left behind.

I remember how we used to sit in only our bras during the long trips up the coast, and pluck our eyebrows to pass the time.  I remember how we begged to go see Armageddon one night and I cried the whole movie through.  But most of all, I still remember those sunsets.  We ran on the cracked, barren ground towards the ends of the earth; watching the dragon-fire sun sink deeper into the dusk, with tears in our eyes from the stinging dry air and my camera long since gone.  I stared in disbelief and promised myself I would never forget what that moment felt like.  The most alluring and heart stopping moment, that still stuns me back to life.

The Taylor Swift Confession—A Musical Interlude

I have terrible taste in music. I always have. Those of you that know me are currently nodding your head in agreement, perhaps sighing audibly over the assault your eardrums suffered the last time we rode in a car together, or the horrifying compilation of artists you viewed when recently perusing my playlists. I find that owning up to my general lack of musical maturity makes it a more easily forgiven offense—people view it as a charming idiosyncrasy of my personality and inherently understand that it is their responsibility to introduce me to more, shall we say, lofty artists both past and present.

Go ahead! I gladly welcome the helpful suggestion of your new favorite indie band, or that classic Pearl Jam album that I just have to reconnect with. And usually I find these new offerings pretty awesome and try to integrate them into my daily soundtrack. But try as you might, you won’t be able to rid me of that instinctual, threaded-into-my-veins attraction to utter crap pop songs and sobfest ballads. I will remain forever weak for the likes of Britney, Tori, John Mayer, Jon Bon Jovi, and little miss breakups herself…Taylor Swift.

Oh yes, I downloaded her latest album the day it came out. I’ve memorized at least 12 of the 16 songs and have listened to the cd in its entirety every day since it’s release. You might pass my cube at work and see me bobbing my head jauntily with track 9, or worse, catch me gesticulating emphatically to track 5 while running outside. My feet pounding the pavement with every drama soaked chord, my chest heaving at the effort of lip synching the words while still maintaining a reasonable breathing pace.

The high’s and low’s of loving Taylor are a daily grind. One moment my best friend (who works at an acclaimed newspaper and always knows the hottest music critics) is telling me that the album is highly rated, therefore making my recent obsession completely valid, dare I say, hip? The next moment I’m offering to burn the album for my friend’s 8 year old daughter, assuring her that “she’ll really, really love it” and coming face-to-face with the fact that I share the same music tastes as a second grader, not to mention I just used the word “hip”. Help.

Oh TayTay—your lyrics can really tug at the heartstrings! Why do I find myself so drawn to your redundant, boy berating music? Why am I not more embarrassed to be singing along loudly to a song about another dude with freckles and green eyes who broke your heart? It was always kind of a mystery that I loved such dramatic breakup songs. While I’ve had no shortage of disinterested crush objects in my past, no one ever ruined me so terribly that I had grounds for such intense anger. And yet, more than once I’ve been found tearfully belting out the lyrics to some tragic tune like a love-starved spinster with 6 cats, a carton of Ben and Jerry’s and pajama jeans.

Like, one time, at a sleepover in 7th grade, I thought it would be really moving if my friend Jenny videotaped me singing “All Out Of Love” by Air Supply while I was lying desolately on a pile of pillows in her basement. I think I even managed to squeeze out a tear—one tear that represented all my lovelorn adolescent angst about the fact that Arik-with-an-A wasn’t going to attend my Bat Mitzvah party.
Or that night after our first senior dance in high school, the one where we took shots of peach schnaaps in Dana’s old Honda, and then and then slow danced in Ryan Hansen’s basement. She and I proceeded to sing loudly to Barenaked Ladies “Break Your Heart” while three boys sat on the couch and watched in varying degrees of abject horror, fascination, and possible sexual frustration.  One of whom asked, after the song ended and we had regained our composure, whether either of us had ever even been cheated on. No? So? Can’t a girl commiserate?!!

So is it really any wonder that even as an adult woman with a husband and child, that when Swifty croons “that magic’s not here no more, I might be ok, but I’m not at all” I find myself getting a little choked up? And I may or may not have just paused typing in order to flip to this song on my iPhone and hit play…

Don’t judge. I swear I won’t try to foist my dismal taste upon you, even if you happen to mention in passing that you too attended that Lifehouse concert in 2008. In fact, I’m usually hard-pressed to throw together the randomly requested mix-cd because I’m so nervous that the intended recipient will be sitting around later while listening to the carefully chosen songs thinking, What. Is. This?!

So I’ll send out a real apology now to that mysterious drunk person who “broke into” our apartment in college, (I say this lightly because the back door was never locked. Super responsible) and walked out with a couple of waitress aprons and my cd case. I’m sorry that you got home, opened it up, and found the soundtrack to Bed of Roses, Def Leppard’s Greatest Hits and at least one Ani Defranco album.

And to you, Taylor, keep on churning out those hits. The 17 year old in me will always cheer your inexhaustible efforts to find love in the unstable and unlikely world of celebridom. For those of you who cringe at my egregious errors in music, feel free to look the other way. Or better yet, turn that scope inwards…can you really tell me that you don’t have a secret affection for some crappy nineties artist like Third Eye Blind, or have a poster tucked away from that awesome Mr. Big concert you attended back in the day? Did you really not get a little misty-eyed when Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert won the CMA for “Over You”,  a song about Shelton’s dead brother, and were both crying while accepting the award on stage? What are you? A robot??

It’s ok if you won’t admit it, I’ll take one for the team this time around. Just don’t complain when I request “Like A Slave” to be played at your wedding. I’ll keep the dance floor packed.