"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Israel Recap Part III: The Music

Music can bring people together in a magical way. I'm still doing a lot of personal writing and thinking about my Israel trip, and I keep coming back to a handful of songs in my reflections.

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold)
I remember singing this song back in Hebrew school, including during my Aleph Consecration. As our bus was riding through the West Bank en route to Jerusalem, our tour guide put on a CD of the song and I started to feel a little choked up. When we got through a tunnel and all of a sudden Jerusalem was there in front of me to the left, I shed a few tears. It brought back memories of the first time I was in Israel, when my mom cried upon looking out our hotel window and seeing the Old City. The best explanation I can give for this emotional outburst is that after saying, "Next year in Jerusalem," every year at Passover and talking up the Holy City so much throughout your lifetime, all of a sudden you look out the window and it's right there. At our trip's talent show, I was part of an air band that played Yidcore's punk version of "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," much to the delight of the crowd. On Shabbat, we all sang the song together at an observation point overlooking the Old City. I just read a Jerusalem Post article that noted that during Thursday's Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, both marchers and haredi counterprotesters chose "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" as their anthem: "For a moment, the two groups looked at one another confused, but then each began to sing even louder to claim the song as their own." If only they could've sung together!

Od Yavo Shalom
We were a "Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice" trip, and by golly, we sung "Od Yavo Shalom" a few times. The song is sung in Hebrew and Arabic and translates to "Peace will come upon us and everyone. Peace on us and on everyone." I have to admit that I only know this song because of Yidcore, but it felt wonderful to sing it as a group. Here's a video of when Yidcore played it at Berkeley's legendary 924 Gilman Street in December 2006 for a tour I covered for the Forward; I was standing right by the camera. As was later written on the band's blog, "Yes folks, skank and pogo for world peace." Here is a brief clip of our group singing "Od Yavo Shalom" together in the Old City of Jerusalem as we said good bye to the eight Israelis who were with us for half the trip.

We were all sitting on a grassy patch in Tel Aviv, just next to Rabin Square and very close to where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1994. While Rabin's legacy is complex and varied, he is often remembered for working toward peace at the end of his life. It's pretty depressing to think that this was so unacceptable to some people on the far right in Israel that one person would kill him over it. Our tour guide told us we'd sing a song together, passed out lyric sheets, and put on a CD. I was expecting "Od Yavo Shalom," and I was shocked that it was John Lennon's "Imagine." I'm pretty sure I've sung this song at peace rallies in the U.S., and it always triggers tears for me because I always cry during the scene where it plays in Bowling for Columbine, the scene that recounts the massacre. There was something other-worldly about being together with dozens of "peaceniks" at Rabin Square, dreaming of peaceful coexistence, and singing, "You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Yachad (Together)
In Jaffa, the eight Israeli soldiers on our trip "taught" us to sing the Israeli song "Yachad." Some of the lyrics translate to "Together, heart to heart we’ll open, and we’ll see the light in the sky. Together, heart to heart we’ll open, with hope for love." I never really learned more than the first few words, but the song had a special meaning to all of us because we had learned it together, and it reminded us of the Israelis who were only with us for half the trip. The talent show featured a wonderful interpretive dance to "Yachad." On the bus ride to the airport, "Yachad" was played repeatedly as an emotional farewell dance party erupted in the aisle of the bus.

Bus Full of Buber, Box Full of Breakfast
I mentioned this in my previous post, but it deserves to be written about twice. We woke up at 3 a.m. to climb Mt. Masada one day, and in a "sleepless delirium," M.C. Spigs (Michelle from the Vegetarian Choir) wrote this hilarious rap ditty. She performed it both at the talent show and on the bus ride to the airport. As funny as it is, there are some really moving parts in it that I can't get enough of. The chorus says it all: "Bus full of Jews, with our different views / How do we know what's right? How do we choose?" Click here to watch M.C. Spigs' talent show performance on YouTube. And I have just learned that there is special footage in which M.C. Spigs performs a draft of the song while on top of Mt. Masada!


Israel Recap Part II: Birthleft

"The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know."
—Albert Einstein

"Bus full of Jews, with our different views
How do we know what's right? How do we choose?"
—M.C. Spigs

"I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man's life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience."
—Martin Buber

I've been at a loss for words all week. I returned from a "Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice" Birthright Israel trip on Monday, and I've had a hard time collecting my thoughts enough to write about anything besides falafel. I went into the trip wanting answers and a clear understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I came out with a plethora of questions. I came out utterly confused, which, as I was told several times, was one of the goals of the Union of Progressive Zionists/Israel Experts trip. We were exposed to many different viewpoints in many activities packed into 10 exhaustingly long days, and it's simply not possible to wrap everything into a neat little package.

We had a fantastic group of people on the trip. Our staff included a flawless bus driver, a very personable medic and tour guide, and two very insightful madrichim. We were joined by eight off-duty Israeli soldiers for half of the trip, and hearing from them turned out to be one of the highlights for me. The trip participants constituted "a bus full of leftists," as my friend Michelle said in her hilarious rap song, which has made its way onto YouTube. Most of the people on the trip were pretty left of center, and many were active in progressive causes, including the Save Darfur campaign, Meretz USA, and the campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace. (And as I mentioned in my last post, 14 out of 39 were herbivorous heebs.) In large group discussions and in one-on-one conversations, these were the perfect people to bounce ideas off of as we were exposed to so much and started asking so many questions.

We visited a lot of major sites that I went to eight years ago with my parents and that most Birthright trips visit. I got to go to Mount Masada, the Dead Sea, the B'Hai Gardens, Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall for the second time. The beach in Tel Aviv, a strip of nightclubs in that area, and Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem were lots of fun, as was rafting in the Jordan River. We picked onions on a farm for the Table to Table program, which distributes food to poor families. Our Shabbat experiences were restful, brought us closer together, and made me appreciate the importance of Shabbat.

It was the political dimension that made this trip unique. In Haifa, when we walked past a weekly Women in Black protest against the Occupation, half my group insisted on stopping to take pictures and talk to the protesters. We took a "socio-economic tour" of Haifa. We stayed on a kibbutz, ate at another one, and had a barbecue and a discussion session at a kvutzah (a smaller-scale Socialist commune). We went to the top of the Golan Heights and looked out into Syria. We went to a Tel Aviv peace rally marking the 40-year anniversary of the Six Day War and the Occupation and got to talk to different protesters as well as representatives from groups that were tabling. We sang John Lennon's "Imagine" and dreamed of peaceful coexistence at Rabin Square. We met with a representative from Meretz, a left-wing political party, who gave us an overview of his party and the Israeli political climate. At Tel Aviv's Independence Hall, we heard a long-winded speech that many people from my trip dismissed as right-wing propaganda, but I thought it was quite important to hear it in order to frame the entire debate. Also at Independence Hall, one speaker said, "This is not a football game," meaning that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very complex and just declaring oneself as "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" doesn't get to the heart of the issues. We were hosted by an Arab-Israeli family at their home as they talked about their perspectives on the conflict. We drove along the Israel-West Bank border with Lydia Aisenberg of Givat Haviva and saw the security fence close up, looked out to the West Bank on one side and to the Mediterrean Sea (a mere 15 miles away from the border) on the other, and heard Aisenberg's stories about her interviews with Palestinians who wait for hours to get past checkpoints and who are separated from their families by the controversial fence. We attended a Parents Circle Family Forum event featuring a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man who had lost their siblings in the conflict and who shared their desires for peace. We looked out over Jerusalem and saw the security wall (only 8 percent of the barrier is a wall; the rest is a fence). We met with a speaker who urged us to consider what our connection to Israel was as American Jews.

There were so many different views, and I'm not endorsing any of them here—in large part because I don't know which ones I agree with. The only preaching I'll do at this stage is to say that it's important to listen to all sides.

I developed a closer connection to Israel. I felt like I strengthened my Jewish identity. At the Western Wall, I felt a close connection to G-d. And I certainly felt that there'd be a place for me as an activist if I ever decided to move to Israel. I just can't figure out what all this means.

It's somewhat frustrating that I came out of this experience not knowing which end is up—exhausted both physically and mentally—but I'm grateful that things worked out that way. If I went on a Birthright trip that just went to the major tourist sites and only presented one side of the conflict, I would've been significantly more frustrated and wouldn't have known where to start looking for more information. Right now, my mind is active, my reading list is long, and I feel inspired to try to start forming more sophisticated positions on the issues. It's more of a challenge than just telling people about falafel and showing them pretty pictures, but in the face of such an urgent conflict that I feel so connected to, I'm very happy to be where I am in my thoughts.


Israel Recap Part I: Vegan Wonderland

I wasn't particularly concerned about vegan food options going into my Birthright trip, but everything worked out better than I could have possibly expected. On the El Al flight over, our special vegetarian meals included soy pudding, rice milk for cereal, and lots of other goodies. I could see about six green "VGML" (vegetarian meal) stickers on seats to my left and one to the right. I knew I'd be in good company. It turned out that more than a third of the 39 participants on my "Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice" trip were vegetarian or vegan.

I met my one true love in Israel, and its name is falafel. My love affair with Israeli falafel began at lunch in a Druze village on the first day, expanded substantially in Haifa the next night, and continued to grow over the course of a week and a half. I've had good falafel in the U.S., but there was something magical about the combination of falafel and various fixin's (including "chips," tehini, hummus, pickles, seasoned onions, and delicious salads) in a pita or laffa.

I got to have vegetarian schnitzel and hummus, as I'd talked about in my previous blog post. But I was most impressed by the amount of fresh veggies and the variety of salads, particularly when we ate at hotels. In particular, a Shabbat feast at the Regency in Jerusalem was quite possibly the best meal I've ever eaten! Fresh fruit (e.g., figs) and nuts (e.g., almonds) are pretty big in Israel. I ate quite a bit of potatoes, couscous, and other grains too.

While the falafel and chips were fried, just about all the other vegan food was as healthy as could be. I had a bag of potato chips toward the end of the trip and remember thinking that it was the first time I'd eaten junk food in a week. And I think my tempeh breakfast in the U.S. today was my first time eating soy since the schnitzel on Day 1 of the trip, which is a nice change of pace from American vegan diets that sometimes rely extensively on soy-based mock meats.

Two fascinating YNet articles were posted to the VeggieJews Yahoo group while I was off e-mail. Read more about the popularity of hummus in Israel (apparently, the average Israeli consumes 22 pounds of hummus a year!) and the 50-year anniversary of Amirim, a vegetarian community in Northern Israel.