Friday, November 2, 2012

I am not my MASA program

It’s four a.m. and I’m sitting on the curb outside the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. It’s not the safest place to be waiting for a sherut (shared taxi) to start running so I can finally get home. “Coma dakot?” I ask in the general direction of an Israeli who looks like he might have some sort of authority on where and when the sherut’s operate. “Coma dakot!” He shoots back.

I’m confused because I asked, “how many minutes,” and it sounds like he made my question an answer and I should just accept it. I look over at the metered taxis, I already failed negotiating a price from 40 sheckles to 20, so I continue to sit stubbornly. An African man speed-walks past me, what does he have to be anxious about? The Central Bus Station is his territory.

Exhausted, frustrated, a bit defeated, I need to reflect on why I put myself in this situation; and why I continue to seek out potentially dangerous, ill-planned, mostly solitary adventures. Hours earlier, I was in a pressure cooker of excited, frenetic, Jewish Zionist enthusiasm. I was shuttled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with 80 other participants of my paid-for, all inclusive, five-month program in Israel. All of us had paid a decent chunk of change to pretend to feel like real people on this program, living and working in Israel, but with the comfort of an organized group. It is the opportunity to assimilate into Israeli society without the full commitment of making Aliyah or without the stress of finding work. Going about my everyday business in this country, I really started to feel like I was fitting in. But a shadow continued to follow me. It's the shadow that says “You fell right into their hands, build the Jewish state, you are doing exactly what they want.”

I had kept the shadow behind me these past couple of weeks, shopping, working, seeing friends, I was starting to feel like I fit in. But walking into the MASA opening festival, all my insecurities of being an American Jew in Israel were thrown back in my face. I was confronted with the reality of who I am and the stereotypes I fulfill. I am the drunk teenager, exploring and testing my limits, feeling untouchable. I am the easily impressed American, swooning at the sight of an IDF soldier. I am the desire to come to Israel to be closer to Judaism, a sense of solidarity among Kippas and religious songs. These things are part of me, I just didn’t want them to define me. Even worse, to watch them reflected back to me in a hot mess of MTV styled video testimonials. A reworked pop-musical performance to mention Israel, Zion and Jews complete with backup dancers and a smoke machine.

I was overwhelmed. I needed to reassert my independence. I needed to show that I am not a blind follower. All I kept picturing was a situation-style room with a round table of rich Jewish American’s plotting how best to grab hold of the minds of the youth. “Let’s make Judaism and Israel the hottest club to get into. Strobe lights, house music, dancing. The only stipulation to the bouncer at the door, they have to be Jewish, everyone else gets turned away.” I never was one for the club scene.

Eleven p.m. Jerusalem. Shuk party. When do you ever really hear those words? Walking through the Shuk at night is like being in an empty theater. The vibrations and energy of the day can still be felt in the discarded cardboard crates littering the floor, or the bruised pears too far gone to sell, too much effort to throw away. It's the feeling of being able to be behind the scenes, that the sets are an illusion, and the actors are stripped down of their makeup and wardrobe. I wanted to get back to the real Israel, not the Zionist reality TV show I felt was my life. The bar we went to stood on its own in the empty alley. We sat on milk crates with cushions. I ordered a small stout beer and the DJ played indie tunes from 2004. As far deep as I had traveled into Jerusalem-hipsterdom, the conversational circle I inevitably found myself in was like-minded American Zionist Jews. The boy-girl couple next to me was studying at the Yeshiva. She had been here for four months and hailed from Seattle. Minnesota was home to the boy, go Vikings. Across from us, a young beautiful girl sat, she had converted and just made Aliyah. Sitting next to her was her friend from Taglit. Coming to join in on our circle, a young man, who resembled a 90’s heroin addict with a confusing neo-nazi haircut sat down and started rolling a cigarette. He may have been drunk, also overly excited, he had just come from the same event as me and was totally jazzed on the music and feeling of Jewish connectivity. He was also on a long term program, working on a farm not too far outside Jerusalem.

The image of the people before me wasn't me, but the familiarity of why we are all here was still present. It’s the reality of being an American Jew in Israel. The decision to come to Israel is a conscious one, laden with subconscious desires. I can’t deny that birthright shook me and awoke a desire to explore myself and people like me more. I also can’t deny I fit within this stereotype of impressionable, excited Americans. It's a stereotype because it contains a nugget of truth.

At 2:30 am I sat in a sherut waiting with three other people, they were two Israelis and an Asian girl. We were waiting because a group of young, drunk Americans were trying to decide if they could handle splitting their group up to go on the sherut back to Tel Aviv. They were loud, they were indecisive, and they were interjecting American-accented Hebrew in their English. The Asian girl leaned into her Israeli boyfriend and complained as to why we all have to speak in English even though we’re in Israel, as she said this in English. I leaned over and asked “What language do you want to speak in?”

“Any other language,” she continued to whine.

I was losing patience with her. The kids outside the sherut continued to argue amongst themselves, their speech drunkenly slurred. Even though these kids represented everything in the night that I wanted to distance myself as far away from, I knew that I was part of them. We are loud, we are annoying, we travel in packs. But we are here to explore the Zionist and Jewish dream, and want to have fun doing it at the same time. I can critique, judge and second guess myself, but I’ll never apologize to anyone for being me.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved this. Have you tried sending this somewhere??