In the Negev we rode camels and ate dinner beneath the stars, a Bedouin feast of couscous and spiced meat stew.
We slept in a Bedouin tent on piles of Persian carpets, piled up together like a litter of puppies. The romance of the cold starry sky and the smell of shisha pipes seemed to work its magic; I was kept awake late into the night by the suction cup sound of young couples exploring the magic of Jewish love with their tongues.
(Only later did I learn about the tensions between Bedouins and Jewish Israelis, about their displacement from native lands, the pressure to give up nomadic life and resettle in reservation-like townships and shanty villages.)
At a Dead Sea bathhouse, we females changed into bikinis in a communal dressing room, where several hefty Eastern European bubbes sat in plastic chairs nodding into their ample bosoms. The women made us think of our own grandmothers, and all of a sudden we were cracking each other up with Yiddish-tinged imitations:
"Oy, what a shayna maidel you are! The boys must be beating down your door!"
"You've got such a beautiful punim, if only you lost a few pounds!"
"Have you had your bowel movement yet today, sweetheart?" I chimed in, channeling my notoriously nosy Polish immigrant grandmother.
Outside, the sea was swimming pool clear and flat as a glass all the way across to the pink-tinged mountains of Jordan. It was cold outside, and the only other people on the salt beach were a few goose-pimply Russians floating nonchalantly in their white brief underwear.
We waded in, the hard-packed salt ground pricking our feet. The water was warmer than the air. As soon as I was deep enough, I sat back. Oh! The water bounced me back to the surface like a cork. My sense of gravity was distorted, my limbs no longer under my control. The others were having the same revelation, laughing as they slipped and bobbed through the slick, salty water. The sun was beginning to set, turning the surface of the water orange. Someone took a picture.
I called my grad student boyfriend on a pre-paid cell phone later that night, and his voice sounded thin and far-away. Next door, the boys from my bus were having an impromptu singalong with a borrowed guitar and several bottles of kosher wine. Their voices rose, rich and jocular, across the thin room divider.
Are these my people? I asked myself.
Shared Heritage, or Obligation?
On our last day in Israel they took us to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, where we filed solemnly past grim piles of shoes and broken eyeglasses.
My grandmother fled Poland in the late 1930s. Her uncle had been attacked in the street by teenage thugs hopped up on Hitler's rhetoric and their own youthful meanness. They'd cut off his long beard. My grandmother's father, my great-grandfather, saw which way the wind was blowing. He abandoned his factories, packed up his family and headed for Palestine. They got out in the nick of time. A few months later and their shoes might be gathering dust in the necropolis of Yad Vashem.
Later that evening, we met with Momo again. Once again, he spoke deeply and charismatically about Israel's splendors. The beaches! The gorgeous women! The brotherhood! But then his voice turned more serious and his eyes scanned the audience, falling upon our faces one by one.
"The Jewish culture is 3,000 years old," he said, slowly. "That culture has been passed down to you in an unbroken chain. You do not have the right to break that 3,000-year-old chain by marrying outside the faith. YOU DO NOT HAVE THAT RIGHT!"
And just like that, the spell was broken. The happy, among-my-people feeling drained out of my body like a cork had been pulled from the sole of my foot.
It was nice while it lasted, feeling like part of an in-group. But at the end of the day, I don't like being told what to do, where to go, what to feel. I don't like being told whom I should marry any more than I like being told what part of the city I can and cannot visit.
Momo is no longer president of Birthright Israel. He recently left after the organization told him to stop his speeches about intermarriage and moving to Israel. Apparently I was not the only one who found the message jarring.
I'd like to go to Israel again, this time on my own. I'll see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Muslim Quarter and all the rest of the things we weren't allowed to see on the Birthright trip. My husband and I are thinking of going next summer.
Yes, my husband. When my grandmother met my grad student boyfriend, by then my fiancé, she declared him a "lovely boy." She was dying then, and we'd gone to visit her in Florida knowing — even though she didn't — that she wouldn't be able to make it to our wedding. Later, after we'd gone home, she said to my aunt "he's not Jewish, you know." But it was OK, she said. He was a lovely boy. We were in love. She couldn't wait to dance at our wedding.
Emily Matchar travels the world researching and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. In the line of duty she's hot-wired a pickup truck, ridden up a Mexican volcano on a horse with a wooden saddle, and eaten at 13 different Memphis barbecue joints in 36 hours (not recommended). A native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Emily studied English and Spanish at Harvard University. After graduating, she hightailed it back down South to spend the next three years keeping tabs on local government as a reporter with Raleigh's The News & Observer. Now, when not working on a guidebook, she writes for travel, adventure and food publications like Outside, Gourmet, CHOW, Babble, Forbes, Away, BBC History, and others. See her professional writing at www.emilymatchar.com or read her sporadic travel and food bloggings at www.eatinghighonthehog.blogspot.com.
Photos by the author except where indicated.
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The Kite by Amy Carlson
Thai Voluntourism for All the Wrong Reasons by Gillian Kendall
Other Middle East travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: