For the past month, I have been exploring one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, Israel. What does this have to do with music? Well, surprisingly, a lot.
But I’ll get into that later. Here are the basics. For the first ten days of my time in Israel, I was a participant on the Birthright trip, which is a free Israel tour for all university-age Jews. I went on Duke’s trip, and along with seeing most of the major cities in Israel, we went on a few hikes and even met some Israeli soldiers that joined our group for a few days. Then, I went on a two-and-a-half week program called Meor. Meor is an Orthodox university group that has chapters on multiple college campuses. Duke is not one of them. My mom and I found the program while we were looking online for options to extend my Birthright trip.
I won’t get into everything we did, because that would take ages. Birthright was a whirlwind of a trip. There was not a moment when we weren’t being whisked away to see more of Israel, which was both exhilarating and exhausting. We went to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tzfat, Masada, the Dead Sea, and many more. We slept in Bedouin tents, visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, shopped in the marketplace, visited the Western Wall, and did a waterfall hike in the north of Israel.
And, I found out that Israel has some pretty incredible views.
And yet, Birthright felt like the prelude to something greater. That’s why I chose to do Meor. Meor is a more religious program, being run by an Orthodox group. It’s more relaxed and more focused on learning rather than touring. A good chunk of the people on the trip had just graduated from college, and it was interesting to see where everyone was headed, since I am just starting college and the future seems very clouded right now. Anyway, the religious aspect of the trip was very strong. Most mornings, the men would go to study Torah at a Jerusalem Yeshivah called Machon Yaakov, with some of the wisest and most renowned rabbis in Israel. The holiday of Shavuot fell during our trip, and my Meor group did a traditional Shavuot consisting of staying up all night studying Torah, praying, and watching the sunrise at dawn. For our second Shabbat, we stayed with host families in an Israeli Orthodox community. It was during these experiences that I started to understand Judaism as it was meant to be.
I was raised a Reform Jew, which is the least strict movement of Judaism. Praying was never a priority for me, and Sunday school was a chore. Reform Judaism is by no means bad, but I have noticed that it definitely leads to people considering Judaism through a cultural, secular lens rather than a religious one. Secular Jews often shirk tradition, as they don’t see how something thousands of years old can have relevance in their modern lives. But if every Jew was a secular Jew, then Judaism would be no more.
I don’t want to get too preachy here, but people often forget that Judaism is first and foremost a religion. If you completely neglect the foundation of an ideology, then you are willing to let that ideology die.
This is exactly how I feel about music. How can we forget the music of the past? If you really care about music, then you cannot just pretend that the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s never happened. Truly great art will always be relevant, because it transcends time. Without discovering the roots of modern popular music, you are missing out on essential context that is necessary to understand how music really works and why it is so important.
Meor put me on the path of understanding that context in the world of Judaism. But don’t think that all we did on that trip was sit around and study. I rode a donkey in traditional garb…
Ate delicious food…
Saw some amazing sights…
Stayed in a five-star hotel…
Had a wine and cheese night with some friends…
…and found out that Israeli animal sounds are shockingly accurate (That says “Mehhh” as opposed to “Baa”).
The people on the Meor trip were incredible. On the whole, they were so invested in what they were doing, so excited to be in Israel, and so friendly and accepting. I’ve been part of some groups of young Jews where I didn’t feel like I belonged, but that was not an issue with Meor. The staff were also extremely devoted to making the experience as meaningful as possible.
Side note: I was addicted to Israeli food. They say you get tired of falafel around the eighteenth or nineteenth time you have it, but that was not the case for me.
Another side note: The cats were like squirrels in Israel!
I made some more scattershot connections with music throughout the trip. For example, one of the guys on the trip was from Portland, Oregon, so I asked him if he was a fan of Elliott Smith. He said he was, and he also told me that he knows Elliott’s sister because he went to school with her.
For some reason, this blew my mind. I think I’ve figured out why this simple statement overwhelmed me so much.
It forced me to think of Elliott as a real human being rather than a figure whose name is attached to some of my favorite pieces of music. So often we think of artists as icons rather than flesh-and-blood people. This was eye-opening for me. Elliott was a person who I feel like I know and can connect with because of his beautiful and introspective music, but I now realize that I really only know the character he presents in his songs. He was a real person, even behind the music. He had a sister, and a family. It seems obvious, but I think it’s an important thing to remember.
There were some songs that were running through my head throughout the trip. For example, at the Holocaust memorial, I kept thinking of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945”, a song about Anne Frank and the Holocaust, from their 1998 masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
This one line can sum up so much of the devastation that was the Holocaust:
“And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes”
I’ve read some interpretations of “Holland, 1945” that point out the fact that there was an intellectual Nazi resistance movement in Germany called the White Rose. This song actually made an appearance in the “Honorable Mentions” section of my Top 15 Songs of All Time.
The whole time I was at Yad Vashem, I was thinking something. What right do I have to stand here in an air-conditioned building with a belly full of shawarma, while looking at documents of Jews being starved, tortured, and murdered? Similarly, what did these people do to deserve this horrific treatment? And then I realized that they didn’t deserve it, just like I don’t deserve the privilege that I have. Life is a random lottery, completely beyond our control. Maybe that can give us some clues into the nature of the universe.
On an unrelated note, I really got into the band Girls while on my trip. But then I found out they broke up two years ago! Oh well, we still have two great albums and an EP to listen to.
I’ve also been discovering The Byrds recently, a band which I know I should have started delving into a long time ago.
Saying goodbye to everyone was very strange. For one thing, our bus driver was incessantly honking at us to get on the bus while everyone was trying to hug each other. Also, it was hard to tell who to say goodbye to, because some people were getting on the bus to the airport, while some people were staying in Israel to study more, tour more, or do internships. Leaving Israel and all of the wonderful people I met was kind of hard, so to cope I listened to a Sun Kil Moon song called “Jim Wise” from their new album Benji. It’s gut-wrenching and poignant, and I think it reflected my state of mind at the time.
The last interesting thing that happened on my Israel trip was at the Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I was in line to board the plane to Istanbul for my layover, and I was standing next to a guy about my age. I struck up a conversation with him, and it turned out that he was from Ukraine and was going to Istanbul to catch a flight to Odessa and visit his family. His name was Illya, and he worked on a commercial ship. He spent most of his time at sea between different ports in Eastern Europe. At least, I think that’s what he said. There was a bit of a language barrier. So, I asked him, what was he doing in Israel? He said a word in Russian, and I didn’t know what it meant so he pulled out his phone, and translated it with an app. He showed me the phone. It said “accidental”.
This may be the word he said, according to Google translate:
“случайный” or “accidental”
“Why?” I asked. He tried to explain, but he didn’t really have the words to tell me how he ended up in Israel. He had a few hours to kill in the Istanbul airport as well, so I said that we should hang out while we’re there. I saw him when we landed in Istanbul, but he didn’t seem interested in getting a bite to eat. So we didn’t hang out in Istanbul after all. Oh well, it would have been cool getting to know someone from the other side of the world. At the very least, I met someone new and interesting. Illya, if you’re reading this (which you’re not), good luck with your voyages, on sea or land!
All in all, the biggest thing I took away from my time in Israel is that I want to keep learning. I know that I won’t make any big changes right away, but who says I can’t become a more spiritual and knowledgable person if I put my mind to it? Hope to see you soon, Israel. I’ll be back!
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