“The Last Falafel”: Broadway in Israel 2011, Day 4

29 06 2011

Friday, June 17: After a final breakfast in Jerusalem, our tour group packed up, checked out, and headed to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. In this socialist community, every member works to the best of his ability and the kibbutz meets everyone’s basic needs. Members eat in a communal dining hall; medical care, education, and housing are communally supplied; and each member receives an allowance for various other expenses. In recent years, many of Israel’s 270 kibbutzes have been privatized and pay members differentiated salaries; very little distinguishes them from capitalist societies. But Sde Eliyahu is an Orthodox religious community that still operates under the socialist principles of a traditional kibbutz. Even when this kibbutz “industrialized,” they maintained a focus on agriculture by developing the Bio-bee and other insects as alternative pesticides for organic farming.

For many of our tour group, a life where your work is not rewarded with a commensurate salary was unimaginable. American individualism makes it difficult to conceive of giving up one’s “autonomy,” one’s potential for fame and fortune, for the betterment of a collective. Even kibbutz members admitted that frustrations arise when members do not work to the best of their ability, or when more capable members are expected to take on added responsibilities without added reward. As our tour guide Sarah said, “We are all equal. Some are just more equal than others” a la Orwell’s Animal Farm. However flawed it may sometimes be in practice, though, this lifestyle deserves a great deal of respect for its ideals. I don’t know that “human nature” is inherently competitive; I think it could, in fact, be cooperative and collaborative – and the kibbutz advocates for such a reconception of what it means to be human. After learning about the kibbbutz, we took a bus tour of the farms and fed the donkeys who control the weeds around their crops. We then returned to the kibbutz coffee shop for a delicious organic lunch of macaroni and cheese, onion quiche, all sorts of salads and fruits, freshly-baked bread, cookies and coffee. (I could get used to this.)

After lunch, we loaded the bus and headed to Sahne (or Gan Hashlosha), a warm spring ranked as one of the 20 most beautiful sites in the world in Time magazine. I was less impressed than I had been with Ein Gedi, but perhaps this was because of all the trash in the water; I chose not to swim, but to wander the park and chat instead. Manny pulled me aside a couple of times: to show me a young Arab man praying beside a bus, and to point out the Jews and Arabs swimming together here. The Arab women wore their full, black burkas in the water. The place was at peace. And that was perhaps the most beautiful part of it.

The day before, F16 fighter pilots charged over the Dead Sea. But at Sahne, Arabs and Jews swam together. And in the kibbutz earlier that day, our guide Sarah told us how their kibbutz shared farming developments with their neighbors in Jordan – the use of barn animals to control rodents. These acts of negotiation and cooperation on local levels are oftentimes overlooked – and rarely, if ever, shown in the media. Manny says, “Interesting.” More like “Fascinating.”

After the Sahne oasis, we visited the ruins of the Beit Alpha seventh-century synagogue. Synagogues were built as temporary substitutes while the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt, but soon became a core part of Jewish life. This particular synagogue has a “naïve” and disproportional mosaic floor with the signs of the zodiac in the middle. The synagogue was a short and probably inessential stop. But what came next was not on the itinerary – and possibly the most meaningful stop of our entire trip for me.

We sang “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as we crossed the Jordan River – then pulled over to the site where Jesus was baptized. “For our Christian friends,” Ron announced. I felt like Manny had arranged this for me. (Because really, how many Christians were there on this trip … ? I know of a handful, at most.) I walked through the gift shop, took a few photos, then meandered down to the baptismal site. No question about it. I was going to do this. I passed my camera to a friend and waded into the pool of water, where I waited in a line of fellow pilgrims. When it was my turn, the priest asked my name, I bent over, and I was baptized. Again.

It was a very awkward process, I’ll admit. You enter and exit through the gift shop, where you can buy water and sand and other memorabilia from the river. (And we all did.) Down at the bank of the river, you take your shoes off, roll up your pants, and wade into the pool in a circle with a bunch of other tourists from around the world; to the anonymous priest, you are just a number in line. Someone snaps a picture to verify: I was here. Many of my fellow tourists joked about foot fungus from the water. Fair enough.

But there was also something very special about the ritual that no commercialism or fungus could wash away. The group of travelers in front of me were singing a hymn in a language we couldn’t identify – some variation of Spanish? The music added to the sanctity of the moment. I didn’t feel particularly holy during the baptism. But Manny came up to me afterwards, gave me a hug, and I thanked him for that day. For the entire trip. For the balance that I’ve found in my life since meeting him. I can’t thank him enough. Manny and I walked and talked together for a while longer, overlooking the river. When we got back on the bus, a few people asked me how it felt to get baptized. “It was really cool. I’m glad I did it,” I said nonchalantly. That sentiment was pretty accurate. It wasn’t a profound experience. But it was special – not because of the act itself, but because of who I shared it with. Because of the story surrounding it, which I can now pass on. I grew up Methodist, so I was baptized as a baby and went through confirmation in middle school. But now, it was my decision to be baptized. And that decision just happened to be during a trip to Israel with a bunch of Broadway friends. Amazing.

Manny joined me for most of the bus ride to our next hotel. “There has to be a sense of continuity in life,” he reminded me. How interesting: I wrote this just before I left for Israel – about how this trip was as much about continuity with Manny as it was about visiting the Holy Land. “There are things that bear remembering,” he also said. Which is why I listen, absorb, and write it all down.

It was only a short drive to the Ramot Holiday Village, where I soon checked into my own little cabin overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Surreal. As soon as I got settled in, Manny came to visit. “It’s something, isn’t it?” he asked. The afternoon sun glimmered on the sea. Yes, Manny. It really is something. Impossible to describe, but I still have to try.

After a couple of hours to rest and relax (and write), our group met at 7pm for dinner. We walked about a mile to reach the mountaintop restaurant – and when we arrived, were greeted by a picturesque outdoor banquet. We watched the sun set on the Sea of Galilee and shared stories for hours. Manny again pulled me aside at one point during the dinner. He walked me to the edge of the mountain and told me to take a minute and really look, because these moments pass us by too quickly. Manny took the time to get up from his table and share that moment. With me. I felt incredibly humbled and blessed.

Arriving back from dinner around 10:30pm, most of our tour group lingered at the bar. We sat outside, looking across the water to Tiberias, and talked about the future of theater. Sometimes I think the only thing more terrifying than my expectations for myself is others’ expectations for me. But that faith and support is also an unbelievable gift.

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