“The Last Falafel”: Broadway in Israel 2011, Day 8

4 07 2011

Tuesday, June 21: Our last day! Because of Ron’s detached retina, several of our tour plans were canceled – but we were thrilled that Ron and his family would be able to join us for the final dinner that night. And quite honestly, I think our tour group welcomed the break from being bussed around the country. As exciting as our guided tours had been, especially with Ron’s encyclopedic knowledge of Israel, we were glad to explore Tel Aviv in our own way.

After breakfast, we met Rabbi Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox Jew originally from NYC. He spoke about the frustrating lack of separation between church and state in Israel and shared stories of how his non-profit ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center helps individuals navigate legal issues of marriage, divorce, burial, etc. Jewish ceremonies are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and often require overly-complicated proof of Jewish identity, which has a highly contested definition. How do you prove you’re a Jew? What does it mean for Israel to be a Jewish state? Rabbi Farber was a passionate and engaging final speaker for our tour group, and I also appreciated ending on a religious perspective of the country. I was surprised by how many Israelis considered themselves only culturally Jewish – and yet their identities, their major ceremonies and life milestones, must pass through this strict rabbinical order. Rabbi Farber refreshingly advocates for a wide array of Jewish identities, religious and secular. “All of ITIM’s services are free guided by the principle that everyone deserves a sense of independence and dignity on their Jewish journey.” Incredible.

Our tour group finished packing, checked out and stored our bags, then a group of us met at 10:45am to visit the Arts and Crafts Fair. I wandered with a friend, talking about the separation of church and state in Israel — and the US. The lines between church and state are increasingly blurry with the rise of the religious right in America. I am Christian, but far from an evangelical. I believe religion should be about asking questions rather than knowing all the answers. Invoking God as a reason for action is, more often than not, an excuse to avoid counterarguments, to ignore different perspectives. It shuts down conversation. And if anything, this trip was all about opening conversation.

A group of us stopped to stuff ourselves with “the last falafel” in Carmel Market. Delicious. I bought a few gifts for friends in the cheap shops lining the streets. We returned to the hotel and reconvened by the pool to soak up a final few hours in the sun. When Manny heard about our morning adventures in Tel Aviv, he decided that the book chronicling our journey should be named The Last Falafel, hence the title of this blog series. (Book to be written … later.)

Late that afternoon, we spent time shopping in Old Jaffa and the nearby flea market before our final feast at a Muslim restaurant – joined by our indomitable tour guide Ron! Ron even climbed onto the bus afterwards to escort our group to Ben Gurion airport. After inundating us with information and posing challenging questions every day, Ron would conclude, “But we’ll discuss that later.” There was always so much yet to be seen and yet to be discussed. We never did get around to that long list of unfinished conversations. Next time …

Security was tight at the airport – and I was pulled aside for extra questioning. “Why did you visit Israel if you aren’t Jewish? Why are you flying back to the US on a different flight from your group? If you are a grad student, how did you afford this trip?” Apparently, short hair makes me suspicious; I received the same sort of questioning when I arrived a week earlier. On the other side of security, I reunited with the NYC-bound group for a final drink and chat at their gate. Around 11:30pm, I said my final goodbyes to this incredible group,  then headed to my gate for a flight to NC.

I have been visiting family the past week. Relaxing and recovering. Writing and remembering. And collecting contact information for our Broadway in Israel group, because we have to stay in touch. No one else can quite understand the past 8 days. Manny had warned me several times before: “You will be frustrated when you get back, because there is no way to fully articulate what you experienced.” He was right. I had dinner with my grandparents the day after my return and left the restaurant feeling like I had told them nothing meaningful about my trip. I spent a week at the beach with my family, taking long walks and sharing each day, which brought them closer to understanding – but still, there is a gulf between my reality and their perception of it. In blogging about the trip, I left out many of the remarkable personal conversations I had on the journey – and the conversations and experiences that I did detail felt flattened out. I was reducing the complexities of hour-long conversations and debates into neat and tidy sentences. So much was missing!

But then, I realized that any attempt to chronicle “Broadway in Israel” may feel flattened out to me — but sharing these stories is an act of opening up for others who haven’t been on the trip, who haven’t seen these sites or engaged in these conversations. However impossible it would be to share the fullness of my experience, it was important to try. For those of you who have followed my journey via blog, thank you for listening.

“Any conclusions?” Manny asked as we lounged by the pool that afternoon in Tel Aviv. Every conversation had opened up a new perspective, a new complexity, a new angle that deserved attention. I was leaving Israel with very few answers, but so many more questions – and a desire to return and learn more.

I don’t know that much. Which is why I’m here.

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