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This is my final project for my Women's Life Writing Class.

 

The Second Most Humiliating Experience of My Life

 

 

            This was exactly what I'd expected Israel to be like from my perusal of the tour's website. Skyscrapers only a few miles away followed through on promises of Tel Aviv’s vibrant nightlife: their shiny windows winked knowingly at the sunset. We could see the city from the beach, yet the beach was as pure as a Beach Boys song or surfer movie’s idealization of a beach: the deep, aggressive blue of the Mediterranean invading the bleached sand that was not quite hot enough to burn the soles of my feet, but hot enough to make me think about every step. I'd come here to find out how glamorous it was to be Jewish. I’d come here to fall in love with my own reflection by seeing faces similar to my own and my relatives’. I'd come here to feel like my life was more like a movie. That glorious late afternoon on the beach, though, didn't really prepare me for the genre this movie actually belonged in.

            Supposedly, the tour kept us so busy and sleep-deprived that we would become brainwashed Zionists (that is, not necessarily but optimally religious Jews, and political supporters of Israel) and populate the world with Jewish babies (a goal that’s tough to quibble about, less than a century removed from the Holocaust). I read that on a website after I took the trip. I don't know if it's true. It's almost like a technique you'd hear about being used in Guantanamo. But by the time we got to the fake Bedouin camp, we'd spent an exhausting day shopping at a dreary mall with a food court that served excellent falafel. Since my abusive boyfriend had “borrowed” all my spending money, I’d spent the day window-shopping instead, which may have contributed to my bitter attitude. Then we’d traipsed through sand dunes and caves, which were eerily reminiscent of hikes I’d been on in Tucson.

Now it was time for another "adventure," when I would have been ready to trade my soul for a nap and some bottled water. I had to refill my bottle with tap water. There were things floating in it. Too big for an amoeba, I would assure myself every time I took a swig. Probably harmless sediment.
            I was in Israel thanks to the largess of a program called Birthright Israel, funded partially by the Israeli government, partially by private Jewish donors, which provides young adults of Jewish ancestry with a free 10-day tour of Israel. To qualify for the trip, you merely need to say that one or both of your parents is Jewish. I qualified in a five-minute phone call. I’m not sure how rigorous the process is for people without a “Gubernick” in their surname, though. You can tell there’s a political agenda by the “Birthright” in the name. Almost as obvious as calling a program working with Native American youth “Operation Reverse Manifest Destiny.” We'd get in touch with our heritage by doing things like, well, camel rides. I asked if I could skip it. They said no. We had to do everything as a group; we were always accompanied by two soldiers and a medic. Strange how much less exciting guns and uniforms and orders were, in this context.
            There were twice as many Jewish tourist kids as there were camels. So half of us followed the camel riders down a trail; they explained that we'd get to ride back to camp as the others walked. Right when we arrived at the camel-switching point, I was seized with a "bathroom emergency." Considering the foreign country and upset bacterial balance, yadda yadda, this attack of diarrhea was neither unexpected nor unique to this trip. However, this was the only time I suffered this indignity without access to a toilet, or even toilet paper. There wasn't so much as a tree to hide behind! Instead, the tour guide, rolling her eyes, so tired of putting up with me, just like my parents, just like my boyfriend, told me to content myself with climbing down a hill a little ways away from the rest of the group. And...not being able to wipe. At all. There were no leaves - just rocks!
            So...time to return to the camels! I protested, weakly, that I wasn't in the mood for a camel ride. Having been something of a poor sport the entire trip, everyone basically insisted that I participate. I hopped up on the camel, hoping no one could see the brown spot that I was sure was spreading over the seat of the pants, and proceeded to bounce and squish back down the trail, in what felt like an interminable journey back to camp.
            I feel bad for the camel, first and foremost. There was no saddle, and I imagine any shit transferred might have been difficult to detect, and remove. I also feel embarrassed about the possibility that anyone else in the group might have seen the recent pile of diarrhea, lurking not too far down a hill that everyone walked past. But man, the shower afterwards? The cleanest I had ever felt.

They continued the routine with some "Bedouin hospitality," which consisted of sitting awkwardly on mealy cushions while drinking too-sweet tea and listening to boring stories. At first, I'd found this terribly tortuous, but after about an hour, it became soothing; it was almost ritualistic. It was like being read a cultural bedtime story. We were empty, naive American vessels to be filled with messages of cultural tolerance, but especially tolerance for our culture.

During this trip, we spent time with the friendly Arabs, the Bedouins here, and later the Druze, but never met a Palestinian. Most of what I knew about Arabs, I’d learned from my boyfriend, whose father was from Iran. I hate even setting this down in type; what a stereotypical relationship we had.

We went to the Wailing Wall; there were no atheists or agnostics on this tour; I was, but I had started to wonder if maybe I had been worshipping the wrong things instead. We went to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, and I was the only one who cried. The empty naive vessels were numb and glassy-eyed from hard drinking that, as 18-year-olds, they seemed less used to than I was. I was feeling positively clear-headed from drinking without smoking pot. Everything smelled so clean, even the disgusting tap water, even the camels. Everything smelled new.

            After a long, taxing day, you'd think that at least I got a good night's sleep in our faux Bedouin tent. Nope. A scorpion stung one of the boys. Things got ugly. The kid threatened to "sue you Birthright motherfuckers." He cried. He railed. He was afraid he was going to die. He wanted to go to the hospital; they insisted that their medic was up to the challenge. I was too tired to care. If it was a Guantanamo-esque, dehumanizing experience, perhaps that explains why all I could think was, they're going to wake us up at three, jerk!
            They woke us up at three in the morning because we were supposed to watch the sunrise from atop Masada, an ancient Roman ruin. Although I was super grouchy from sleep deprivation at this point, sort of a young, Jewish, female, non-crippled, non-Vicodin-addicted Dr. House, I was looking forward to seeing Masada. I'd seen a movie of the same title. Before I’d had to drop out of school to support my boyfriend, I’d been a Classics minor (studies that I’ve since returned to). I was fascinated by anything that has to do with Ancient Rome. Even if it was, you know, this creepy Jonestown-esque scenario where my ancestors would've rather drunk the special Kool-Aid than submit to Roman rule.
            The ride to Masada was nauseating. Our tour bus driver wasn't the most reliable driver in history. Truth be told, he'd literally gotten in an accident leaving the parking lot the first day of the trip. He glibly accelerated around bracing turns. Two of my tour-mates threw up. As we stumbled out of the bus into the darkness from which we were told rose the ruins of Masada, the tour guide helpfully informed us that Israelis call that stretch of highway "the vomit road."
            There's a contraption that takes tourists up and down Masada. Sort of like a ski lift. I can't really describe it in better detail, because we didn't get to take it. All the way up, I was sure I was going to die of being a fat kid climbing stairs for two hours. All the way down, I was sure I was going to die of acrophobia. Perhaps that sounds impressive to you. A medical condition of some kind that you can pity me for, and rejoice that I was able to survive. Well, it's just the term for fear of heights. Sadly, there is no more specific Greek word for "fear of slipping on unpaved path and plunging to your dusty, sweaty death." 

            Yet the time that I actually spent on Masada was one of the most perfect mornings of my life. The sunrise was as beautiful as the hype had promised, and afterwards, the way the sun warmed the ancient ruins thrummed and droned in the back of my consciousness like a didgeridoo. We listened to stories of martyrdom and religious zealotry, but they didn't bother me; these may have been my ancestors, but were as distant from me as Genghis Khan, who is said to be an ancestor of a third of today's humans. I stared harder than anyone at the faded, dusty colors, cornflower blue and brick red, on the Roman tiles in the baths. I imagined bathing in Roman baths, speaking Latin, speaking Hebrew. Our tour guide taught us a curse word in Hebrew: kusit is what you call a pretty girl. It comes from the word kus, or "cunt." If you want to flatter a pretty girl in Israel, you call her a cunt. Then again, wasn’t that a lesson I’d been taught in English for years of my life?

            That evening, we went on a cruise. There was some dancing; I did not dance; the water made me feel sick and heavy. One Puerto Rican couple danced so glamorously they reminded me of Gomez and Morticia Addams. I wanted to be that in love with someone some day. I sat off to the side and gossiped with Micha, a teacher from San Francisco who encouraged me to dump my boyfriend and embrace the homo half of my bisexual roots. I took sneaky glances at and exchanged music recommendations with a boy with whom I’d been drinking and flirting the whole trip. Micha pointed out that either way, I’d be better off dumping the jerk. I remember the night as being bright and starry, like the snapshot posted to the trip’s website. Simultaneously, I remember it as being foggy and overcast, choking me with moisture, swathing my too-casual, too-poor dress in vague humidity. I would like to live in the world of 1984, I think. I would be amazing at Doublethink.

            Another personal victory, especially after confronting my fear of heights, was climbing a thousand-foot waterfall. I'd never been okay with climbing so much as a ladder. Yet somehow, I managed to clamber over slippery rocks in my ill-chosen sandals, and still smile when I see a picture a friend took of my Mohawked, NIN-shirted self trudging up like I was leaving Hell.

            On the way back, I lagged behind the group, next to the medic, who kept encouraging me to keep going. He barely spoke English, and barely spoke to anyone except the tour guide and bus driver even in Hebrew, so when he looked back at me and muttered something, my first reaction was to flinch: was he cursing at my slowness and fatness and general spoiled American indolence? I remembered a night a few weeks before, when I’d locked my keys in the car outside an Italian restaurant, where I’d enjoyed what was supposed to be a romantic date night with my boyfriend. “It’s no big deal,” I’d said. “I got a hide-a-key, see?” But the little faux-velvet box, the only box of that kind that I’d see during my time with my boyfriend, had swung open over some bump in the rode: empty. We waited about half an hour for my parents to rescue me with the spare key. My boyfriend excoriated me the whole time for my stupidity and thoughtlessness. My parents pretended not to see my tears, or my fresh-and-fading-alike bruises. It isn’t until I type this, now, that it occurs to me that perhaps what he was really angry about was wrecking his car and losing his license and having to ask me to drive him everywhere. I could have left him so easily, then.

            In any case, when the shy tour guide repeated himself, I had been completely wrong. “Your hair,” he said. His fingers danced in a rebellious, somewhat mischievous spike, miming a Mohawk. “I wanted to tell you. Beautiful.”

            The next day, we visited the Dead Sea, where the water was too salty to allow you to submerge yourself, and too bitter to let in your eyes or mouth or “open wounds;” the girls who shaved their legs that day suffered. If we had visited it on my first day, I too would have suffered, although I probably would have been too ashamed of my “open wounds” to undress and go in, despite the healing reputedly promised.

           A few days later, I got my first and only tan. Here in Arizona, the sunlight is so intense that I'll burn in minutes, whether I'm slathered in sunscreen or not. On my Birthright trip, I stayed at a lush resort in Jerusalem, with sumptuous gardens, an Olympic pool, tastefully decorated suites, and lounge chairs that I spent hours sunbathing in one Saturday. That’s right: Birthright JAP (an unkind, somewhat outdated term that stands for "Jewish American Princess"). The fanciest place I’d ever stayed at before was a Motel 6!
            We were effectively under house arrest - already hamstrung by the lack of freedom on the state-sponsored tour (we couldn't wander off by ourselves, and were accompanied by armed soldiers for, ahem, our safety), we were informed that we couldn't leave the hotel for the duration of the Sabbath. They told us that the entire country effectively shuts down between sundown Friday and Saturday, although I suspect that if left to my own devices, I might have been able to locate a heathen dance club in Tel Aviv. We had a big Shabbat dinner, and then retired to our rooms to do what any group of teenagers staying at a resort for free do - drinking games! For some reason, the only beer we could ever find in Israel was Heineken. Maybe they were a sponsor for the tour. The next day, our breakfast was cold and delicious - bagels, cheese, fruit, vegetables. We had the same meal for lunch, since cooking on the Sabbath is verboten. My tour-mates and I wandered, similarly bored and hung over, everywhere from the gardens to the sauna to the pool. Micha and I treaded water and traded coming out stories. My roommate, who had met me only a week before, told me that I was the most honest person she knew; she clearly didn’t know me at all.

My fondest memory of the day was absorbing the sun's soothing warmth in a lounge chair while reading a mediocre horror novel. I hated wearing bathing suits; my family had always teased me for being fat, which, ironically, I had not been at all as a child or teenager: I was anorexic and didn’t weigh over 110 pounds until I moved in with my boyfriend. Even when I could get over feeling fat, though, I would still hate feeling naked and on display. Here, though, it didn’t matter. I was among strangers who found me interesting and cool and, apparently, “honest.” I enjoyed feeling physically present in my body. I enjoyed having nothing to cringe from.

            As the sun went down and we had to gather for some educational candle-lighting boorishness, everyone commented on how much sun I got. I imagined the figure of speech literally: reaching out and greedily taking the sun, all for my own, rubbing it along my face and back and arms until I glowed with lasting warmth. I was optimistic, despite their warnings that I'd be burnt in the morning. (Since my sunburns are generally of the instant variety, I had a feeling something better would happen.) I was used to brushing off warnings at that point. I wasn’t used to my apathy coming true: I woke up the color of a sabra, the color of a warrior, the color of someone new.
            When I returned from Israel, I was fifteen pounds lighter (thanks to mandatory physical activity and those yummy breakfasts) and the color of a normal human being. I don’t just mean that my skin was tan. It was unmarked aside from bruises and scrapes earned honestly through fun physical labor, not from the kind of “games” that left me nauseated and self-loathing afterward.

I didn’t discover a “birthright” in the sense that I became a Zionist, or even more religious than I had been before. I didn’t even discover a backbone, in the sense that when my boyfriend picked me up at the airport, in my car which I’d let him borrow during my trip, he spent an hour yelling at me for my inconsiderateness in making him come get me in the middle of the night, after my flight was delayed, and I spent an hour apologizing. After sleeping for a few hours, I was dreaming of having sex with the boy from the trip; I woke up and heard myself moaning in a way that I never had before. I realized it was just my boyfriend, feeling me up. I cringed. Again. Maybe the Dead Sea hadn’t healed what was broken inside me, after all. I was still floating, trying desperately to get my head underwater, like a mermaid drowning in too much air.

Within two months of this trip, though, I’d left my boyfriend and moved to Phoenix. If I hadn’t spent those ten days alone, I wouldn’t have believed I could spend the rest of my life without him. If I hadn’t ridden those camels, I wouldn’t have realized that I don’t enjoy humiliation nearly as much as I thought I did for those marijuana-hazed desperate years. If I hadn’t climbed Masada, maybe I would never have remembered how much learning is important to me; how important it is to give up futile battles and learn from the past. If I hadn’t climbed that waterfall, I couldn’t have driven a hundred miles away from him.


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