“The Last Falafel”: Broadway in Israel 2011, Days 1 and 2

27 06 2011

I “checked in” at Ben Gurion Airport on facebook. After a 4-hour flight to Philadelphia and an 11-hour flight to Tel Aviv, my family and friends could rest assured that I had safely arrived in Israel. Yes, I would be missing the Hollywood Fringe, RADAR LA, the TCG conference, and a host of other important theater events in the LA theater community. (Guilty …) But Manny Azenberg had been inviting me to join him on this trip since I had taken his class at Duke in 2007. I had finally saved up enough money. I was going to Israel. My cab driver pointed out a few sites on the drive from Tel Aviv to the hotel in Jerusalem. ““You know the history?” he asked. “I don’t know that much,” I replied. “Which is why I’m here.”

Manny organized his first tour to Israel in response to an anti-Israeli NY Times op-ed by Woody Allen, published 21 years ago. Every year since, Manny and trusty tour guide Ron Perry have helmed a post-Tony Award trek for “show business Jews” and friends. This year’s tour group included producers, screenwriters, actors, designers, lawyers, journalists – and a couple of rogue students like me. But nevermind the disparities in backgrounds or life experiences or (gulp) salaries. On the bus, at mealtimes, and walking from site to site, I had a meaningful conversation with nearly everyone on the trip. It was a gift to share this experience with such a brilliant, inquisitive group. And the trip itself was more about conversations than sight-seeing, as we met with politicians, writers, artists, farmers, and others who live and work in Israel.

Every year, Manny’s goal is to share the complex array of political opinions, cultural backgrounds, and religious beliefs that comprise contemporary Israelis’ lived experience. My goal during this trip was to be a sponge, soaking up all the experiences – and writing them down over many sleepless nights. (Nearly a week later, I am still recovering from the jet lag and lack of rest.) Here on my blog, I offer a little chronicle of my 8-day trip: Broadway in Israel 2011.

Tuesday, June 14: When I arrived at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem late Tuesday afternoon, I checked in – and immediately got a phone call from Manny. What a comforting, familiar voice, especially since I had traveled to Israel alone. After settling in, I met up with our tour group for a short walking tour of the city. Apart from the places of worship and religious study, the site where Mary Magdalene died and the site of the Last Supper, our tour guide Ron pointed out a nearby park full of families picnicking and kids playing ball. Something Americans never see on CNN, he said. The lived reality of Israelis is so often at odds with their media representation, and Manny’s tour seeks to paint a more multifaceted picture of life in this country. After dinner that night, guest speaker Yoram Ettinger – a pro-Israel commentator and former diplomat – inspired our first major political debate. Although none of us had slept in 24 hours, our group kept up conversation until 10pm.

Wednesday, June 15: That morning, we toured the Old City of Jerusalem: entered through the Old Jaffa gate and passed through the winding and narrow streets of the city, packed with shops just beginning to open. We spent a few minutes at the Wailing Wall, where religious Jews come to pray – the closest they were allowed to the holy sites until Israel captured the Old City in 1967. The crevices of this wall are packed with tiny, folded notes: prayers. It was a beautiful sight. The women sit and pray in a constrained space to the right; the men, heads covered, pray on the left in a much wider area. I joined the Jewish women, heads buried in their Bibles, rocking back and forth, whispering their prayers to God, touching the wall. I sat and prayed a few minutes, infinitely grateful to be there.

When I returned to my tour group, I overheard a few friends saying that they wanted to feel something on this pilgrimage … some sort of connection to the past, perhaps even a religious experience … but they were disappointingly unaffected so far. For many of my secular Jewish traveling companions, sites were disenchanted – but rooted in a deep personal history of Jewish diaspora. My own background is quite different: I am not Jewish, but Christian and an intellectual – which can be seen as an odd, incongruous combination. (This is perhaps why I have such an affinity for C.S. Lewis.) During our visits to the holy sites, Manny would often pull me aside to share an extra detail or comment; he knew these sites meant something different to me than to others on our tour. Some of my family were a little disappointed that this was going to be such a “historical” tour of the Holy Land – but the intersection of different cultural and religious backgrounds made for some of the most rewarding conversations I had on this trip. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

After visiting the Western Wall, we entered Temple Mount. A few of the ladies in our group had to improvise longer skirts and sweaters out of scarves, because the Muslim guard strictly enforced the dress code. Surrounding the shining Dome of the Rock were small groups of Muslims, praying and studying in groups. The few Jews inside the holy area were escorted by Muslims, to ensure they wouldn’t pray during their visit. Once a year or so, a fight breaks out in this area – and makes headlines across the world. But on a daily basis, it is a peaceful tourist site. Just beyond the Dome of the Rock lie the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. We left the Muslim quarter by the Via Dolorosa and walked the stations of the cross, overridden with tourist shops, and made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified.

All times exist in the present. The weight of history is palpable in the Old City of Jerusalem, where ancient stone walls encase a modern tourist attraction. Led by a tour guide, we sipped on a Diet Coke and retraced Jesus’ footsteps. Our tour group chatted about ancient history, modern politics, and the latest reviews of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.

Our next stop was the Knesset, where we met with conservative representative Ms. Anasatasia Michaeli (a former model and TV personality, now a politician and mother of eight) whose platform is primarily women’s rights and educational reform. Ms. Michaeli was strangely silent on the Israeli-Palistinian conflict – but our next guest speaker, one of the Knesset’s most liberal members, was more open to discuss his optimism for reconciliation with Palestine. Mr. Nitzan Horowitz advocates for peace, the separation of church and state, and civil rights; his party is also open to negotiations for a Palestinian state. But despite his alleged optimism, Mr. Horowitz seemed politically weary and openly acknowledged that no one has all the answers.

The Holocaust still palpably shapes contemporary Israeli life – and our next stop was the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Many of our tour group’s relatives died in the Holocaust, which gave a deeper resonance to the museum. Yet quite honestly, I found the museum overly technological; I felt inundated with videos, images, words. The more simple and austere displays impacted me the most: a cart that carried prisoners’ bodies, gently worn Stars of David cut from gold felt, dirty concentration camp uniforms. Personal stories. And a class of elementary school children touring the museum. How do you describe the Holocaust to children? Then again, how can you neglect teaching the Holocaust? Our tour guide Ron said that not a day goes by without the Holocaust being mentioned in the Israeli newspapers, on TV, on the radio. The Holocaust has a tangible grip on the present life of this Jewish nation, actively shaping their politics today.

Dinner that night was a stunning follow-up, as our guest speaker was Gabriel Bach: one of the prosecutors in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. During the Holocaust, Eichmann managed the logistics for mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. Instead of recounting details of the case, Bach shared more personal, affective background stories to the trial – stories that are rarely found in the history books. I thought of taking notes and even pulled out my pad and pencil. But once Bach began speaking, I knew I needed to experience these stories in the moment, to give my full attention in the here and now. This was living history – and for Manny, this was the most important conversation of the entire trip.

Couples held hands to comfort one another and chills shot across the room as Bach recounted Eichmann’s plans for exterminating the Jews, his total lack of regret after being captured, and even his wish that he could have accomplished more. Bach shared tales of Holocaust survivors who served as witnesses during the trial, tales rife with excruciating detail. Bach himself had a fascinating history of moving from place to place as a child, just one step ahead of Nazi invasion. He calls it luck. Others might say he had a purpose: to one day be a part of Echmann’s trial, as well as the ongoing process of healing and remembrance.

When asked what it felt like to look in the “face of evil,” Bach rejected the term. Although he says that Eichmann deserved the death penalty, he recognizes that people are never “one thing.” They are multiple things and cannot be pinned down so easily. Bach’s generosity was stunning and inspiring.

“Sarah, are you writing some visceral responses to this?” Manny asked me after dinner that night. Yes, Manny. This blog series is only a fraction of my journal from the Israel trip. I continued the conversation with a dear, visiting Duke friend after dinner. Then I spent another 2 or 3 hours writing, as a spur to memory, a chronicle of the sights and sounds and smells and stories surrounding me. And there is more to come …

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One response

27 06 2011
Jen Fingal

I am SO HAPPY that you are posting a day to day of your trip =) I’ve been so excitedly waiting for it! The experiences sound absolutely phenomenal. . . i cannot wait for you to come home, ❤ ❤ ❤

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