So I went to Israel. NBD. I also haven't written here in almost a year. So here's my journal excerpt (if you can call this novel an excerpt). Keep in mind I wrote it for my grams, so it's a bit more descriptive than I might normally be.
I landed in Israel today. What a long day of travel. Had the most frightening interview when checking in at the airport: the attendant at El Al asked about my Jewish heritage and traditions (sure I've celebrated Passover and Hanukkah lightly with family - insomuch as I know I hate Gefilte fish and love Matzo ball soup and latkes), have I ever been to church (uh oh, does the reenactment of Jesus' resurrection on Easter every year of my life count?) the 10 passover items (wait there are 10 right?)...UHMM...sweating hardly covers it and those women are NOT friendly. My five minute mini-study of Jew-pedia on my iPhone before my turn hardly made up for my lack of bat-mitzvah. I think I confused challah (a braided bread) and unleavened bread (Matzo cracker) in my stuttering distress which disgusted my interviewer even more. She also asked if I had reason to believe that my Israeli-US power converter could contain a bomb. They really take it seriously and I feared I wouldn't even make it to the security line.
Some of the people in our Taglit group of 40 are really peppy, but I suppose you have to admire the energy after a 14-hour flight. It's turned out to be great that all of us are from the Bay Area as we instantly have something in common. Most are friendly and don't know what to expect as much as I don't. I met a kid named Spencer who is a sweetheart and I could tell instantly he's my kinda people. After a long bus ride we arrived at the Kibbutz, which is a community of people that kind of socialist; they all grow the food they eat, raise the children in one place and have an even playing field when it comes to money and education. They also rent out rooms to the public similar to a hostel, and we had wifi surprisingly which meant my dad was able to locate his ipad and send me a photo of my location, in the middle of the desert.
We all ate in the dining hall and the hummus is amazing as you might expect, but there was far more neon colored food than I'm used to (bright purple?). Spencer and I talked at the bar, which oddly was decorated in a Western theme with a large John Wayne-esque mural, about travel to Cambodia and India. It was nice to bond with someone in that way and know that we have similar passions.
As I'm writing there are LOUD jets flying overhead - the Kibbutz where we are staying is near the Gaza strip, which we will be seeing tomorrow. I have no idea what to expect but I'm excited and a little nervous.
Unfortunately it was extremely cloudy today so we didn't see much in the way of views on our hike nor when we went to overlook Gaza. We pulled up to the Anzac Memorial (which reminded me of Anzac Day in Australia, when we had holiday from work. I asked about it and was reminded that there were many Australians that travelled far to fight in WWI and WWII). There was a cluster of armed IDF soldiers who stopped us from taking photos and prohibited us from climbing up to the view point. Hagai, the guide on our tour, spoke in Hebrew to ask them why not - to which they said "we have stuff up there". He kept joking that we didn't want to disturb their "stuff" with air quotes - you could tell the soldiers were struggling to balance being loyal and secretive servants, and being young men very interested in the group of Americans.
Hagai laid out a map of Israel weighing down the corners with nearby rocks and began to give us our bearings. Israel is only roughly the size of New Jersey and he tried his best to simplify what is a lengthy and complicated political situation - Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians...TBC
Today we went to the Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem. We entered a hall that was shaped like a triangle. At the front was a film collage meant to depict normal daily life for Jewish people in the 1930's-40's. The video seemed to float down a street sidewalk peering into the windows of apartments where families were eating, children were playing, musicians were musing. There were rooms on either side of the main corridor, the design being such that you could not walk from one end (where the film was screening) to the other (a vista of present day Jerusalem), until you walk through and acknowledge the events of the Holocaust.
We talked about the Righteous Among the Nations, people who risked everything durring a very difficult time in history, to help Jewish people survive. The most famous of which is Schindler of course thanks to Mr. Spielberg, but there were artifacts and stories from a whole variety of people, even a thief who knew the underground tunnels so well that he was able to help people escape the ghettos. They used to plant a tree for every Righteous person whose story came to light, but they ran out of room so their name can still be engraved along the pathway.
The first several rooms were right out of the books of my high school history classes - although how intriguing to see the real Nazi flags and propaganda and huge Mein Kampf books hanging all together on the walls to give the affect of what it might have felt like to experience Jewish people through the eyes of the arian Germans. Namely as rats, thieves, gluttons, parasites, and worse. Scapegoat is a term they weren't aware of at the time but I guess in hindsight there is so much that's painfully obvious.
One of the rooms we went to was dedicated to a camp in the Czech Republic, Theresienstadt or Terezin, where my friend Rachel and I had tried to visit when we were in Prague in 2006 (See blog about Americans lost in Czech countryside.). Her grandparents had been and there so she had wanted to visit but we never quite made it. Apparently there was a large group of children in that particular camp so the visuals were quite disturbing. One young man had envisioned what it would be like to go up into space, and as a tribute to his life and imagination they took his painting up in a shuttle. Unfortunately the shuttle didn't return but it's symbolic I guess if you're willing to overlook the pathos.
Our guide had time to share only a few stories and anecdotes as we made our way through the museum - how can you cover all those years into just a couple hours? While it was unfortunate to walk briskly by so much information with the voices of survivors and their memories echoing through the rooms, it was also a relief to be excused from experiencing the heartache over and over again. The guide told us about a young woman whose mother had handed her her glasses as they exited the train car before their were hastily split into separate lines, heading to separate work camps. At the time the girl didn't know she'd never see her mother again, but I can only imagine that moment as the time passes, when she started to accept and realize that reality. How many regrets must she have had for not being able to say goodbye. The girl managed to keep the glasses tied to her clothing and through the years they turned into just bits of plastic in a cloth pouch. It was the only physical item she had to remember her mother by--no photos, no letters, no family. Walking by the case you could seeing the skeleton of the glasses, the fragments of rose colored plastic arranged as if trying to display an ancient relic. It's a story I think everyone can relate to; what it would be like to lose your mother and how tightly you would hold on to any memory you had. I got teary eyed because so much of what happened is unimaginable but seeing a pair of glasses is so much more tangible than the almost sub-human photographs of skeletons in the camps.
The museum was packed with tour groups and high school students, but amidst the bustle were people sitting with their heads in their hands. Maybe they're tired. Maybe it's too much to take in. At the end of the museum is a room like a cave with photos in a cylinder above. Jewish people of all ages and walks of life. When you look down into the well below, their faces are reflected above our own. The guide said this is like our memories, faded but ever-present. The room is full of bookshelves holding 2/3 of all the names of those who died in the Holocaust. She said it's important to remember them as faces, names, people with lives and individual stories. Not just a number, 1 in 6 million.
We filed out of the memorial cave and into a small auditorium where we listened to a survivor, Rina Quint, who was 3-9 years old while she was in the camps. She was passed from "mother to mother", she explained, after she ran from a synagogue being attacked in the ghetto. In a way it's a mitzvah (see what I did there) to have been so young and to still have lived a full life. But how difficult to have gaping holes in your memory. To not even know what your parents look like. To have had 5 different names every time you are passed to a different family. The scariest part for me, is that when I was learning about this at the age of 15 I truly thought to myself "that was SO long ago, it could never happen again." But it still does. I stood in the killing fields in Cambodia where the ground is littered with the colored shirts of the dead and I walked through the classrooms that had been turned into prisons and torture chambers. What do we do about it?
One of the things that Rina said about being a tour guide at Yad Vashem and visiting thereafter, is that people always walk around the shoes of those sent to the gas chambers. They are displayed underneath glass in the floor, and there seems to be an unspoken respect as if it were a gravesite.
After the tour we went to Mount Herzl where the Israeli politicians and military are buried. The first tomb we visited was Theodre Herzl of course, who is considered the Father of Zionism: "The national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty". Of course as Hagai says, this was not a "new idea" - at the end of the Passover seder it says "and next year in Jerusalem". But it was Herzl who said, why do we keeping waiting for a Jewish state? Next year and next year?
There is a politician named Yitzhak Rabin who helped to give territory to Palestine and was assassinated during a peace rally by a fellow Israeli who disagreed with his plans of "land for peace". Our guide Hagai read the speech his 17-year old granddaughter read, after Bill Clinton, at his funeral. It being an emotional day I couldn't help but think about my own grandpa - she spoke about how she missed his hugs and how her grandma cries and it is like a Holocaust for her family:
You will forgive me, for I do not want to talk about peace. I want to talk about my grandfather. One always wakes up from a nightmare. But since yesterday, I have only awakened to a nightmare -- the nightmare of life without you, and this I cannot bear. The television does not stop showing your picture; you are so alive and tangible that I can almost touch you, but it is only "almost" because already I cannot.
Grandfather, you were the pillar of fire before the camp and now we are left as only the camp, alone, in the dark, and it is so cold and sad for us. I know we are talking in terms of a national tragedy, but how can you try to comfort an entire people or include it in your personal pain, when grandmother does not stop crying, and we are mute, feeling the enormous void that is left only by your absence.
Few truly knew you. They can still talk alot about you, but I feel that they know nothing about the depth of the pain, the disaster and, yes, this holocaust, for -- at least for us, the family and the friends, who are left only as the camp, without you -- our pillar of fire.
Grandfather, you were, and still are our, hero. I want you to know that in all I have ever done, I have always seen you before my eyes. Your esteem and love accompanied us in every step and on every path, and we lived in the light of your values. You never abandoned us, and now they have abandoned you -- you, my eternal hero -- cold and lonely, and I can do nothing to save you, you who are so wonderful.
People greater than I have already eulogized you, but none of them was fortunate like myself [to feel] the caress of your warm, soft hands and the warm embrace that was just for us, or your half-smiles which will always say so much, the same smile that is no more, and froze with you. I have no feelings of revenge because my pain and loss are so big, too big. The ground has slipped away from under our feet, and we are trying, somehow, to sit in this empty space that has been left behind, in the meantime, without any particular success. I am incapable of finishing, but it appears that a strange hand, a miserable person, has already finished for me. Having no choice, I part from you, a hero, and ask that you rest in peace, that you think about us and miss us, because we here -- down below -- love you so much. To the angels of heaven that are accompanying you now, I ask that they watch over you, that they guard you well, because you deserve such a guard. We will love you grandfather, always.
We went to the cemetery of the soldiers where on the graves are "pillows" carved of stone and a lantern for a candle. Hagai told us about the grieving process when someone dies: they are buried as soon as possible, hold the funeral, visit the week after the date of the funeral, then in one month, and then only once a year on that date. Hagai said that to go more is to "trouble them" to come down from heaven to sit with you. I think it's a really healthy process that we as Americans could learn from, removing some of the stigma around grieving, we say "everyone has to do it in their own way", but who really knows how? There is a whole section of the military dedicated to maintaining the burial sights and lighting the candles.
We walked over to particular section where there was a unit of men who all died in a helicopter crash. Unlike the uniformity of the others (even the soldiers ranks are not written on their headstones because each life is considered equal), these had photos and trinkets and flowers instead of rocks that normally indicate that they have been paid a visit. Omer and Neev, the Israeli soldiers who joined us on our trip, spoke about the soldiers in the unit whom they knew. While they spoke Yanni was knelt down over a grave behind us paying his respects emotionally which was somehow beautiful. Sometimes we can be so detached from anything real because we don't want to hurt or feel awkward. I wish I could have taken a picture to capture it. There was a poem written by the mothers of the soldiers about how their children will never come home or become the person they were meant to be, never take the car out again, or see their friends, or have children of their own. The Israeli's sang their national anthem, the tone and cadence was very somber. As we were leaving Omer told us about a solider who jumped on a grenade to save six other soldiers. In the two seconds he had to make a decision that was his instinct. Who of us would do that?
In Israel, their Memorial Day starts with a siren and everyone stops to pay their respects. The whole day everything payed on TV and on the the radio is Zionist - related to the Holocaust or the wars and all the music is Israeli. In Israel, the memory isn't some distant person in history who died in a different country, for each person it's only 1-2 degrees of separation to someone who has died. At the end of the mourning, the alarm sounds again and even people who are driving on the freeway will stop their cars, step out, and bow their head in silence - and then return to their vehicle and continue driving. They day after Memorial Day, they party and celebrate their independence so it's a reminder of what they died for.
Hagai's daughter was only 5 years old when she asked him 'Dad, do you know why we are silent? It's to pay respect for the soldiers who have died". He was probably both proud of her and sad at the same time that it's part of the rhetoric from such a young age. He said that all the parents promise their children they wont have to serve in the army but so far it's a promise none of them have been able to keep. Each Israeli citizen, men and women, serves for 3 years in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and they get called for a month once a year for their reserve training until they are 42 years old. What a different world for militia and battle to be so entrenched in daily life. Even walking through the bus station there are soldiers with AKs slung over their shoulders as gingerly as I carry my purse.