Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mayanot 443 Trip Report: on seeing the world with new friends

I really need a vacation, and now I'm on one (fist pump in the air as I write this on the train) I want to hug the middle aged couple on seat across from me and tell them how beautiful a day it is sure to be. This train will take me to New York, where I meet my group and we fly to Israel. My mind is open. My expectations are delebritely vague, but they exist.
We know from the getgo that our group, Mayanot 443, is a winner. Everyone is kind and interesting. I make a few first-impressions that will turn out to be both straight-on accurate and completely unwarranted.
(In Hindsight) Today never happened. Between the 4 hours on the train, the 5 hours at JFK, a 9 hour flight, a short layover, a 3 hour flight and a time-zone shift it is already the day after tomorrow. At points during the flights we're excited and I feel like myself but mostly I'm mush and it's all we can do to stay patient as we try to speed up the time between now and when we land, board the bus, and cruise to our hotel in Tiberias. When we eventually arrive it's dark out. We don't notice that we're right next to the Sea of Galille or that we're at the foot of a mountain. Shalom Yisrael. 

Breakfast isn't much different than what we eat in the US, but it's our first meal of the trip that's not schnitzel. We hop on the bus and then hike Mount Arbel. The mountain is lush: the top is hot and sunny but in the canyon there's a stream and crooked trees cover us in shade. The two guys I'm rooming with-twins from Phoenix named Daniel and David- are like monkies hanging from trees over the water. The group had seemed to form clicks right away everyone was worried about not having friends- but today out in the sun they have already un-clicked. We're all in this, whatever this trip is going to be, together. 
Back on the bus we head to an old spiritual city called Tzfat. We meet an artist- Avraham - who tells us about his spiritual journey that started in Detroit and brought him here. He talks about how amazing it is that it was prophesized 2000 years ago that Jews would return to Israel as one united spiritual people. Avraham talks about how people find spirituality in an active (reading, asking questions) or passive (going through something heartbreaking) way. People struggle to try to wrap their heads around the idea that they will someday leave the body and turn into infinite goodness. He thinks this is amazing (and read that "amahyzziing" because he pitches up certain words and lets the last syllable carry for an extra second.)
We eat lunch and then Aaron- our resident Rabbi- takes a handful of us to a holy spring where we disrobe and take a cleansing, naked dip called a Mikvah. Aaron stuns us with his ability to be both a rabbi and a normal young dude. 
After a quick tour of Tzvat we are on the road back to race back for the first Shabbat as a group. 

Shabbat is the antithesis, or the answer to, our stress-addled city attitude. Shabbat is the recognition that there should be time to rest and connect on a person to person level rather than over emails and Facebook. Don't go anywhere. Don't do anything that is required during the week. Rest and reflect and and tell stories. Our first group shabbat falls on Adam's birthday and includes bottles of celebratory vodka in the warm Tiberias night.

We have a group chat about being Jews locally and how that fits into the global responsibility that we carry. Aaron says the entire world is neutral and we assign what is a good and bad onto objects and events. Rain and traffic and flight delays all can be good. We discuss what we can and can't change about ourselves. We can ignore or deny certain things, but if those things are what make us into individuals then it's impossible to pretend they were never there.
The Rabbi talks about how Jews are lamp-holders. Only 1 out of every 512 people is Jewish. 1 out of every 4 Nobel Prize winners is Jewish. Jews overachieve. Later, the Rabs and I will have further conversations about the soul*

Anyway, it's Shabbat so we hang around the hotel. We lunch then play "get to know you" icebreaker games and make skits. We hang out in the sun and took an evening stroll to hear about Tiberias before Havdalah: the closing of Shabbat. 
We take the bus downtown and eat a quick family-style dinner. A group of us slam a bottle of vodka outside on a sidewalk table (I miss you Paris and your acceptance of public drinking) then go to club on the waterfront where we find another Birthright group from Israel Outdoors. They will cross our paths several times over the next week.
For a bunch of white jews, we dance pretty hard. No, I'm not a good dancer, but everyone should dance more often, especially us bad awkward-footers. We stay up most of the night smoking hookah and talking. We dub the hotel bar "club ramone" in honor of the creepy bartender who sneaks into rooms and takes pictures of girls sunbathing. He overcharges us for bottles, Birthright must be real good for Ramone's business.

We wake up early and meet a group of soldiers that will be accompanying us for the next four days. One by one they get on the bus. We cheer and holler and they reply with a blush drenched in shy happiness.
Our swelling group goes rafting. Our boat (Mike, Jason, Daniel, Erica, myself) lazily floats and takes in the beautiful trees and tropical-esque flowers. We lose a paddle and proceed slowly. The other rafts are steamed that they had to wait on the bus for us. There's a lot of complaining the first few days of the trip considering we're here pretty much for free and are having a life changing experience. The complaints are endearing, not nagging. Everyone is mostly kidding...I think.
In some ways, it's quicker to get close to Israeli soldiers than with the Americans. You can't assume anything about people you don't understand. You need to ask grandiose questions and you usually get very simple answers. 
Our afternoon border stop is a big hit. We hear from a crazy guy (anyone remember his name?) He's a retired farmer on a kibbutz. He talks about leaving Ohio for Israel and how to have a meaningful life. I sincerely defend my use of the word crazy but he's an uberintelligent hardened badass expat. He makes extremest statements but backs them up with clearly-studied (albeit onesided) information and solid enough logic. According to this guy, we were born jews and only live in the USA by accident. Our birth and death aren't events where we have any choice or say. The broader idea he gives us is this: we owe our family/friends respect and love, but our lives are our own. We should do what we want instead of what is expected of us.
Back at the hotel we change the room arrangments to accomodate our soldiers. I will be bunking (and by bunking I mean lining up three beds to form a superbed) with Mike and Moshe. Downstairs, we watch the Euro Cup final and then I hang out on the roof with Erica. She's beautiful and kind and warm. We have the kind of talk that reminds me of the Lugz and makes me itch for more conversations where people listen rather than waiting for a turn to talk. She reminds me of the everything I like about New York.
Later in the room Mike, Moeshe, and I talk about culture and manhood. One of us references big breasts as "bombs" and then we realize this might not translate to a soldier who isn't a native English speaker. We talk about how much quicker Israeli men grow up than Americans, but Moshe doesn't hold it against us. We talk about girls and about what we want out of our lives. Mike is an extraordinarily smart and fun guy. He's our jcd (jewish common denominator.) Everyone on the trip already loves him. I go to sleep reflecting on growing up in a suburban dreamland with a loving family. I was/am privleged. If I had a harder childhood, what new version of myself would I have turned into?
Hiking Gilabun, we encounter scenic views and huge rock formations. Along with the 7 soliders (six men, one woman) we have an Israeli student on the trip for the next 4 days. Note: I'll call her Z for the remainder of this blog, but that's not her name. Z's studying psychology and we click instantly. She has a gift for being very light and very serious at the same time. She's warm and beams a Megan Draper smile. 
Our two hour climb brings us to a waterfall where we swim and relax and take pictures. Later, we might realize this was a turning point for the trip. We've now experienced something in Israel that none of us have ever felt in America.
Elli- our irreplacable Israeli guide- takes us to a mountain on the Serian border where he finished his military training. He rushes to get us to Tel Aviv, where the luxury of our second hotel trounces the one in Tiberias. I shower and send a few emails from the deck. I'm a Jew on the Mediterranean- and the shadow I cast in the waining afternoon sunlight is long. 
We go out in Tel Aviv but the group can't agree on where. We're walking along the boardwalk and I'm talking to Z. I tell her- in hebrew- that she's beautiful (this sounds something like atie-afie-aphet.) The group fragments and we end up at a very loud club. We dance and have a few drinks but don't want to spend our 2-hour time allowance in a place that consists of us, another birthright group, and maybe 5 Israelis. We all reconvene at an outdoor bar with a live band. Very few people are grooving. Adam and I try to tear it up, but the locals are reserved. Some guys from our group- the 3 J's- have run up a $4k sheckel bar tab. They are rediculous, but also very generous: they want everyone to party and have a good time. They are arguing with the bartender about how much they should have to pay, the rest of us are killing time until curfiew in 20 minutes. I'm talking to Keith- a Cali stoner- and Z. She says it's lame that no one is dancing. The group conversation drags. A minute later she mentions dancing again, I pull my head out of my ass and don't miss it again. She shows me how to salsa. I make up a weird two piece line dance. We get closer, our breath mixes with the summer humidity in the inches between us. It doesn't cross my casually American mind that she's an orthodox jew and even holding my hand is something of a deal. We flirt- it feels incoherently good. We miss curfiew to dance another song, but everyone else misses it too. Adam drunkenly knocks over a motorcycle moped on the way back to the bus.
Z and I hang out on the hotel's back deck. It's a full(ish) moon. Israel has clear skies but very few stars. We talk about where we're from and it feels good (good= justifies everything that's happened in my life to get me to this exact place at this exact time) to sit with my arm around her. 443ers are poolside below us. They keep dropping by so we go looking for a roofdeck (which our hotel doesn't have) and get locked out on the fire escape. We hang out for another hour before wandering to find our way back inside. Talking to Z is different than American girls. Her life is so far different than mine that I have trouble filling in any blanks between what she tells me. I need to ask lots of questions. Her answers are interesting: everything she says makes 10 new thoughts pop into my head. I tell her that I want to fill in all the blanks. I want to know everything about her. 
Jenni is crashing with Mike, Moshe and I. The mood is festive and we joke and laugh and tell stories of escalating humor. Everyone goes to bed smiling.

We tour Jaffa (awesome lowkey city) and then head to a beach outside Tel Aviv. Darasa and Mike go bare-handed jelly fish hunting. The water is bath-warm, the sand is furnace-hot. During our free time, Z and I wander through an open air market. Whichever side of me she walks on is my good side. We grab lunch and talk to local artists. By the way she smiles at me while speaking hebrew, I can tell that she's making fun of me. I need to learn Hebrew. In a hipster-antique store full of canvas movie posters it's like we're trying to pass something through the skin of our hands to each other. I decide to extend my trip so I can see her for another day. I leave messages at work, I am confident in the decision. 
At Independence hall I start thinking that decisions and coincidences and how being this fuller-version of myself is more "real" than sitting at work in the US. I realize how wholly good today in Israel felt,  doesn't seem normal. People don't feel this good or get this happy- it must be a set up. I almost hyperventilate, but thank yoga for my ability to catch my breath.
That night at the Bedoin Tents out in the desert (which deserves a different word in American English. Desert makes you think of a flat ugly wasteland right? The Israeli desert is mountainous and calming, lovely.) Leiah tells us her story about moving to Israel. She talks about bold decisions and living a life you can feel proud of. 
Z and I are hanging out by the fire and Naom- one of our soldiers- pulls her aside. When Z comes back she's not the same. She sits several feet away and hardly looks at me. It rips me up. 
I have a good talk with Byron and Jared late at night, but my brains trying to figure out what Naom could possibly have said to Z.
On a painfully insufficient 3 hours sleep we rise for breakfast in the Bedoin village. We ride camels. They are slow and smelly and fun like alien horses. I think of the desert scenes in Star Wars.
We hike up Massada where a group of Jews decided to kill their families and themselves rather than become slaves of the Romans. On a day where my friends at home are celebrating independence and a lifestyle where it's easy to buy Bud Light, we talk about how the Jewish nation continues its daily fight for a home. We take cable cars down to the Dead Sea. I'm not a huge fan (it bothers my eyes) but it was interesting to float so high.
The bus takes us to Jerusalem which is glowing as we approach it from the highway. We stop for photos of the Arab side of the city then get dinner at another amazing hotel.
We hear a speaker: Michael from The David Project in Boston #smallworld about the current state of the Middle East. Everyone, starting with this guy (points thumbs to self) needs to be more educated. That might be the "least you can do for us" Birthright reciprocation: learn more about the Middle East and make everyone care. Start meaningful conversations. Think deeply.
After dinner the group has drinks and smokes hookah. Z and I go for a walk outside and park on a bench for some clarification about the peaks and lows of the past 24 hours. For two people in different worlds, we're very similar. In a lot of ways the two of us very quickly had become something, but I couldn't guess guess what. The simple obvious guesses are all wrong. I'm excited to have an Israeli penpal- someone who can help me figure out where I stand on Jewish spirituality. Maybe Israeli girls are succeptible to my can't help it combination of honesty and flattery. I am smitten and full of happiness #lifeissogoodsometimes. I want to learn Hebrew. I want to communicate better with everyone. Who knows, it's a long wonderfully scattered life.
Back in the room, Mike has some profound thoughts on introversion. We have similar feelings about the appropriate amount of risk exposure (see a few blogs ago) for young people. He lives it and I pontificate. Give me another year, I'll get more interesting. 
Random note: The soldiers can get ready (shower, dressed, out the door) in a few minutes. People waste a lot of time doing nothing.

The group's game of assassin has slowed. I will unsuccessfully try to get Aaron to say "carpet" today and am mostly playing defense. He will tell me later that he never knew I was trying to "bang bang you're dead" him, he was just too tired to lose. 
We take an AM torah study class at the Mayanot Yeshiva. The guys/ladies of the trip are segregated for the first time. Us fellas arrive in old-town Jerusalem and read a prayer to thank g-d for our safe travels to Israel. The moment we finish, quiet rabbinical students burst out into song and dance that soaks us in celebration like a blind happy drug. After the song, we greet the students and share our elevator-speed life stories. Pressed for time, we jump into a discussion with Rabbi Kaplan about how the Torah deals with relationships. Some highlights:
1) You can fix yourself but not anyone else. Too often we ignore our own faults and focus on what others should do better. We look at ourselves as the center of everything and ignore the effects that our choices have on other people. 
2) A real relationship is when two people independently accept that they want to make the other person happy. Anytime there isn't balance, the relationship changes. Having friends so that you can get food together and be entertained means you're using the other person as an object. That's not a relationship.
2a) Look outward, don't treat other people as mirrors to look upon yourself.

The formal teaching is followed by an informal talk. The Rabbi Kaplan is a totally normal guy outside of being a spiritual leader. I tell hiim I'm from Boston and he more or less tells me the Bruins can go f*** themselves (he's from Vancouver)
I had told Z that the first girl I had a crush on (holler Emily from summer camp!) had bought me a necklace when I was 11 and I loved it intensely until it broke. We walk around old-town Jerusalem and Z picks out a new one for me. I leave her my favorite hoodie. I hope it makes her think of me.

We go on a claustrophobia inducing walk through the streams that run underground in King David's city. After lunch we go to the wailing wall. Jason and Bryan, who is easily the funniest guy on the trip, have a quick Bar Mitzvah ceremony. A pile of orthodox Jews join our circle to celebrate and dance. 
We each individually take to the wall in thought/prayer/meditation. Results are mixed. As we head back to the girl's group outside the plaza we get hit with the sludehammer of saying goodbye to the soldiers and Z. Those who have something to say have an opportunity to do so.
I tell the soldiers that I see a lot of myself and my American friends in them and that we're all just different versions of a person. A few soldiers get emotional when they speak to us and say goodbye.
I hold it together for the first few partings, telling Oz and Oron that they are great young men and to be safe and that it was a treat to have met them. My eyes fill with tears when I hug Moshe and call him my brother. I mostly have breathed them away while I wait in line to see Noam. I'll reserve what I told her, but we both cry a little. I tell Nimrod that he's really just a more handsome version of me that got to be born in Israel. He probably thinks I'm a huge pussy (and might be right?) but I'm decently sure he likes me. Z takes my hand and I try to kiss her cheek but she doesn't let me. The wall covers us in its shade. Back on the bus we will have the moment of goodbye that we made peace with last night. I tell her that I think I have to marry a jewish girl, that I adore everything about her. They all get off the bus. 
10% sad, 50% grateful to have felt this intensely, 40% just so f'n happy to be me at that moment in time, I cry some more. 
Back at the hotel we get our Avraham t-shirts and Birttnay overcomes a fear and sings to us. Huge props- Brittnay you have an awesome voice.
After an emotional evening, the group as a whole rests better tonight than we have all week. This morning, as if the 8 newly empty seats on our bus don't make us serious enough, we go to Yad Vashem. We already know most of the information we hear, but it's different to hear it in Israel. 
Jews must be crafty, Jews must look out for one another. We talk about how genocide is still happening and people are capturing Youtube videos of Syria but no one really cares. People worry about sports scores and which Kardashian will create her own STD first, but genocide is far too serious for anyone to follow. It's backwards.
Our guide says that the 6 million jews that died couldn't have avoided it and that historians think the Warsaw uprising was a mistake. I disagree: while we will all die, we can control what we do until then and make sure our lives have some sort of effect on others.  
We go to the Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. It is crowded with jews perparing for Shabbat. At the Mt Herzel military cemetary I saw the grave of a guy who was born the day before I was. It makes me think what kind of soldier I would be and about the finality of death and decisions and inaction. Moments pass and get lost, opportunities don't.
I don't think people get creeped out at graveyards because of zombies or rotting bodies. It's more that most people don't like to think about what happens after we die, and being in a place that forces those conversations makes them uncomfortable.
Shabbat at the wall consists of lots of dancing with bearded men. We sing prayers without understanding them. The celebration juxtoposes the fact that we said goodbye to our new friends here yesterday. It's confusing. The guys on the group have gotten very close.
It's passover so we share a two hour walk home which is spent talking to a fellow NYUer (hi Maya) and strengthing friendships into not-just-birthright levels.

After breakfast we have a second Shabbat "ask your resident Rabbi" hour but I've used up all my good questions during the week. Aaron says that he'll have us all up to Montreal for a weekend this fall, I earnestly hope he does. 
The group spends the afternoon sprawled out by the pool relaxing. We form a circle where we talked about our favorite moment of the trip. Havdallah closes Shabbat then we all get on the bus and go out on Ben Gurion St in Jerusalem. I buy some presents and then meet everyone at a bar and then a club.

Back at the hotel we order late night pizza and have drinks and dance. We (Erica, Jason, Rabbi, Jared) walk out to look over Jerusalem and talk about religion and ourselves and the trip. It's 3AM and we're leaving at 4 for the airport. Twenty something hours later I'm in NY waiting for the train back to Boston...Things happen the way that they happen, but what am I doing back here? 
Why didn't I stay? What does any of this mean? What do we do now? Perhaps I'm caught up in the ambition of the moment but here's what I want out of the next few years:

-I want to get un-corporate and find a job where I can help people.
-I want to travel the world and play poker in the most beautiful casinos of Europe and China. I want to go for runs in the most peaceful mountains of South America. I want to do yoga in India and sleep under the stars.
-I want to fall in love several times and eventually settle down when I've gathered enough emotional intelligence to care about someone in the all-consuming way that you don't see often. 
-I want to be a good friend. I'm doing ok but I should be a friend that makes people say "f***, I'm so glad Jesse's in my life" I want my friends to have everything they've ever wanted, I want you to cry from overwhelming happiness.
-I want to be a more complete, better informed Jew. I want to read about spirituality and find people to talk to about it. I want to visit Israel again.
-I want to write more. I want to finish my book and have 1 stranger tell me that they liked reading it. 
-I want to thank you if you're still reading this. It's been a long one so no CFBE this week.
Thinking of Bet-Shemesh,

*A quick explanation of my post-trip thought on the soul. Homo-spiritual connections have been on my mind since Christopher died. Over the course of the trip I developed my own semi-jewish understanding that the soul has two parts: We're born with part of our soul settled. This part of my soul has always been connected to all other souls (and closer with Jewish souls (and even closer still with certain types of Jewish people's souls)) and there's nothing I can change about it. The other part of my soul is completely in my control. I can give it to people and add to it with intense experiences.


  1. Ok, so I did read this in its entirety first before I looked for typos. And first, it sounds like a wonderful, and eye-opening, trip. I'm glad you went, and I'm glad it's enlightened you so much. I look forward to hearing about it in person.

    Onto typos. Because this is my job and I want drinks.
    1) Delebritely = deliberately
    2) Getgo = get-go
    3) Onesided = one-sided
    4) You spelled Moshe's name wrong once (Moeshe)
    5) Privleged = privileged
    6) Waining = waning
    7) Rediculous = ridiculous
    8) Lowkey = low-key
    9) Succeptible = susceptible
    10) Sludehammer = I believe you meant sledgehammer, but I could be wrong so you can hold this one against me
    11) Backwards isn't a word. Backward is :)
    12) Juxtoposes = juxtaposes

    Do I win?

    1. Yeah, I got called out on a few that you missed but that's still more than 10 so you get a drink tonight (or at Royer's) on me.
      Plus, you just got yourself to the front of the line to look at the book. It pays $0 and the hours suck. Interested?

    2. How did I miss this? Obviously interested. You can pay me by throwing a note about how awesome your editor is/was in the Acknowledgments.

  2. Well done sir! First of all my response will be full of typos but being a man of math and science allows for these tipes of mesteakes.

    You have summed up our trip valiantly and have brought back feelings for me just from reading you're(our) story and feelings. I loved your commentary and especially loved the ending. However after reading it I realized that no amount of words can sum up the 10 day adventure that we all shared. I tried to when describing the trip to friends and family and realized that it always seemed like something was missing. The story of the trip is fantastic but i always felt like i couldn't transfer the emotions and feelings to the audience. I'm not saying this to discredit your work but am merely trying to push for a round 2. Including all who wish to accompany (jews or non jews). I really enjoined bunking with you and learning from you and your thoughts on this trip. I hope to enjoy some of your bucket list with you and others.

    I also hope to read your book someday soon. For someone who does not consider themselves much of a reader i promise a very truthful and slightly uneducated response of you're literature.

    Keep in touch,


    P.s. After a couple of drinks for you and the audience you were hands down the best dancer on the trip.

  3. Jesse, it sounds like a truly amazing 10 days. Thank you for writing about it. It must be pretty disorienting to be back at the office this week, but it's all part of the same life, isn't it?

    Take care, hope we'll see you again soon.

    Jeff and Susan