Israel Part 1: Here I come!

Before we talk about Israel, I’ll show you a few videos. The first one is by one of my favourite YouTube channels, Geography Now.

Like Barby said, no matter what I say, someone’s going to get upset and this is a tiny country that really gets people all over the world fired up.

The other one is An Idiot Abroad. This show stars Ricky Gervais’s friend, Karl Pilkington. Ricky sends Karl to random places around the world to laugh at his reactions to things. There is one episode where he goes to Israel. As always, it’s hilarious. Like Karl, I went to the Western Wall not having a clue what this is all about. Unlike Karl, I didn’t have an image of “a place where Jesus was knocking about on a donkey”.

Finally, I’ll share you the trailer for the Hanukkah classic, The Hebrew Hammer. I showed a few of my friends this movie at my very first extremely secular Hanukkah party. The party consisted of latkes, dreidel, lighting birthday candles (because I could not find proper candles in a country where 99.9% of the time I’m the only Jew in a 100 mile radius), and this movie.

One of my friends loved it and said it might be one of his usual winter holiday movies. I’ll probably reference this movie at some point, along with a couple of others, we’ll see.

For our purposes, this post won’t be political at all, just observations I made during my trip. Later on, I might share my two cents, but my opinion still is not the most informed one.

Let’s go!

Crazy airport/plane experiences:

In the previous post, I wrote about my short trip to New York City. The reason I went to New York was because that’s where the flight to Israel departed from. Let’s just say I wish I could depart from a smaller airport. The trip leader said to meet at the El Al counter. With a huge crowd of people there, I wasn’t sure where to go. I said to myself “Where the frick am I supposed to go?” and a rabbi said, “Are you here for Birthright? Go over there.”

I lost track of time and should have gotten an Uber to the airport earlier, oh well. I was one of the last people to get there, but it all worked out in the end.

In one of the briefing emails sent before the trip, they said to get to the airport four hours early. I thought it was because some people would run late so they wanted to have buffer time. What I learnt was they really weren’t kidding. The wait to get through El Al’s security was at least two hours and then at least half an hour to get through TSA.

As an American, I’m no stranger to security questions asked before check in, but the questions they ask to passengers going to Israel is a whole other world.

“Is this your first time going to Israel?” “What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?”  “Where do you live?” “What is your occupation?” “Are you married?” “Oh you’re travelling on Birthright… Do you know where you’re going?” “Are you Jewish?” “What holidays do you celebrate?” “Did you get a bat mitzvah?” “How many years did you go to Hebrew school?” “Do you speak Hebrew?” “Can you say a prayer?” This is more of an interrogation than passport control. I must have been there 20 minutes at least, some people even longer.

Let’s just say my answers were embarrassing. I went to Hebrew school for one year, when I was 10. They were expecting me to remember something from Hebrew school. How could I remember anything? I’ve been an atheist since I was 10. Even before that I never celebrated Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Passover or anything else bar Hanukkah because how could you forget that, there’s presents and food!

Then I was asked why my husband isn’t coming with me. My answer? “My husband is a Gentile.” I felt there was slight judgement. What is this, Fiddler on the Roof?

Note: Unlike Chava, I was not disowned by my parents. 

I did make it to Israel in the end, so I could write this.

My bags were not over the weight limit, whew. Now I can go through security where there’s an even longer wait. Feels like I’m at Disneyland, except there’s no rollercoaster.

I finally met up with the group by the gate and we do some icebreakers. The icebreaker this time was bingo. This bingo icebreaker was one where each space had a descriptor. You had to walk around and find a descriptor that fit each person. You could only have a person sign once. This killed some time before boarding.

Like the El Al security interview queue, boarding was also a bit disorganised. Some people were even called over to security for more questions. Not sure why. One fellow Birthright trip goer said something like “forget about organisation and logic in Israel” and that this flight is a really interesting mix of people.

With flying, it’s a luck of the draw what plane you get. In our case, this was an older double decker plane. Sadly I did not get a seat upstairs or one by the window. But it was okay. The plane was so old that it didn’t have modern comforts we take for granted, by that I mean on demand movies and USB charging ports. Isn’t that the most important thing? 😝😂

There were monitors on the back of the headrests and you could tune into different “channels” that showed a selection of movies, no touch screens either. I guess this was the predecessor to the modern on demand entertainment systems. Kind of like pay per view, except you don’t have to pay, but you can’t rewind, pause, or fast forward. Very old school. The other entertainment option was a selection of music channels that played the same music on rotation. I liked some of the Israeli pop/rap music even though I could not understand a word of it. I heard a few Hadag Nahash songs that sounded pretty funky, like this one:

And I knew this one from the movie You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (don’t judge me, teenage me found most Adam Sandler movies hilarious, I have a slightly better sense of humour now, I promise). This article explains the meaning. The title “Hine Ani Ba” translates to “Here I Come”.

Another sign of the age of the plane was the maps. On the map there are countries that no longer exist, like the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, so this plane has to be older than me because I never lived in a world where the USSR and Czechoslovakia existed.

What made this flight really crazy was as the plane was going to take off, people were still standing up and putting away their bags and the flight attendants weren’t telling anyone to sit down.

The flight was really an interesting mix of people. Ran the gamut from secular Jews to Haredi Jews and everyone in between. The interesting part was seeing all the different rituals and prayers. As secular as I am, I am fascinated. I woke up and walked to the bathroom and here I was seeing Orthodox Jewish men putting on the tefillin. This is the stuff I never learnt in Hebrew school. I haven’t even arrived in Israel and I’ve learnt more on this plane than I did in one year of Hebrew school. I guess that’s depressing for my parents because Hebrew school is expensive.

My only knowledge of Orthodox Judaism is that Orthodox Jews are really serious about Shabbat and in many other ways they live very traditionally and Ulta Orthodox Jews don’t see Secular, Reform, or Conservative Jews as one of them.

I lived in a neighbourhood with many Orthodox Jews and every Friday evening to Saturday evening, I’d see families walking outside no matter what the weather was that day. It could be a hot summer day or in the middle of a blizzard in the winter. If it’s pouring rain, many won’t use umbrellas.

My dad had this story about an Orthodox Jewish couple who stayed at the hotel he worked at. He was cleaning their room and kept the light on. The couple told him to turn off the light. My dad was incredibly confused as to why they couldn’t turn off the lights themselves.  “We’re Jewish,” the couple said. My dad was like “So am I, why is this a problem?” and then he turned off the light. He went home and asked his parents, “Why did this Orthodox Jewish couple ask me to turn off the lights for them?” My grandparents said, “Because they believe using electricity is work.”

On this flight, I was in the closet about being an atheist. I was speaking to this one woman who was quite religious and she was talking about how Israel is going to be like home for you and stuff like that. I think the conversation started getting a bit religious and I was sitting there nodding just to be civil. Why is everything awkward for me?

People watching wasn’t the only interesting thing on this flight. The second most interesting thing was the food. Because this is El Al, everything is kosher. Makes sense, most of the passengers are Jewish.

A quick primer on what isn’t Kosher: No pork, no shellfish, no mixing dairy and meat. So that means no cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza or Philly cheesesteaks. Want ice cream after eating sweet and sour chicken? You gotta wait six hours. I can see exactly why when my family came to America they gave that up. They saw cheeseburgers and said “That sounds delicious, I’ve been missing out all my life!” They wanted to eat ice cream after going for Chinese food. The weird thing is that you can mix fish and dairy. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense.

The good news about kosher dietary rules is that it’s wonderful for vegans and vegetarians. Did you know that some of the first veggie burgers in Europe were made by Jews?

People wanted to have desserts after they ate chicken or beef. So dairy free desserts were developed.

You have dairy restaurants, which are brilliant for vegetarians. You also have meat restaurants, where no dairy is served. These can still have vegan options, but some vegans, understandably, may not want to eat there anyway.

So the food came with this leaflet talking about how it’s kosher. All the meals were shrink-wrapped because of the whole kosher thing since some meals had meat, then you had vegetarian and vegan meals, to avoid contamination.

Unlike other airlines, the meals on this flight actually were filling. They brought (accidentally) vegan crackers before the meal. For dinner there was some rice and veggie dish with a bagel and hummus. For dessert there was this chocolate hazelnut pudding. I can’t believe it was dairy free! I don’t remember breakfast.

So the plane landed and we got off the plane and we went through immigration. I was surprised at how easy it was for me. My government name isn’t my (very Irish) married name yet. I still have a Jewish last name, making it pretty easy. I was expecting to have to explain everything again, but I didn’t have to.

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In lieu of a passport stamp you get this printed out permit. 

We get to baggage claim and that is where the waiting began. With Birthright, I’m going to be honest, there is a lot of waiting for stragglers. Finally after everyone got their luggage and made their pitstop, we met our new Israeli friends.

Welcome to Israel

We were told throughout the trip how special the vegan group are. We got a large grant so we could do a lot of exclusive activities that not just every group get to do. We even had a TV crew film us.

One thing that was very special was the Israeli soldiers would stay with us for the entire trip, rather than only half of it. They were especially helpful when shopping and when we had any questions about the country.

For the soldiers, getting picked to be on a Birthright trip is a reward and a privilege. They must be well-behaved since they’re soldiers, but that doesn’t mean no fun. They also don’t wear their uniforms all the time and no, they’re not carrying any guns. That’s the security guard’s job. The security guard is usually a veteran doing this to pay the bills. Honestly, it’s pretty cushy. You get to travel around the country and make conversation with tourists from overseas.

The Israeli soldiers greeted us in their uniforms with vegan snacks: bagels, pizza, and cookies. Who said vegan had to be healthy? You’re on holiday, live a little.

We did our first icebreaker at the airport where we walked around with each other’s name tags and tried to find the right person and ask what we had in common.

We had a long bus ride to Tiberias to look forward to, but it flew by because of intermittent conversations and napping. One thing about Birthright is you will be sleeping way more in the bus than at the hotel, definitely true in my case.


Your chariot awaits!

On the bus we learnt our first Hebrew vocabulary word, well sort of, it’s Arabic in origin.

“Sababa!” 🤙🏻🤙🏼🤙🏽🤙🏾🤙🏿

Sababa means cool or awesome. Or in our group, something we shout ad nauseam.

After a few hours, we finally get to the hotel and we are assigned rooms. One nice thing that they did was you would rotate roommates each time you switched hotels, to prevent cliques and let everyone get to know each other. I lucked out in this hotel and I roomed with two very nice people from Pittsburgh. If you’re reading this, hello! 👋

Coming up next… Waking up early and many other activities…

As always, let me know what you think in the comments section.

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