If you [write] it, it is no dream: "Unpacking" Birthright

At the end of my best trips, I put off unpacking my suitcase as long as possible. Part of me believes that if I don’t unpack—or at least if I don’t do the laundry—then the trip isn’t technically over. 

The way I feel about writing this post is the way I feel about unpacking a suitcase, that if I don’t debrief it, perhaps it won’t have to end. Could I float on the surface of memories as effortlessly as I did on the Dead Sea? Could I live life captured midway through a Sabbath song or a prayer at the Western Wall? Could I linger in the interstitial between sleeping and waking, safely curled into a soldier's shoulder until the following stop on a seemingly-eternal bus ride? 

If only those bus rides were truly eternal. Those 10 days slipped away too soon. 

I could leave the suitcase unpacked, but then there’s this risk to consider: the luggage occupies a corner, days pass and dust collects as my life gets lived, and the rolling bag becomes a stationary fixture, motionless and about as meaningful as another piece of furniture. By the time the next trip comes, I'll finally open the luggage to unleash its contents but forget the existence and significance of everything interred within it. To me, suffering the apathy is sadder than daring to unzip the suitcase and admit it’s over. And so I blink back the tears as I get my head, hands, and heart around the clothes soiled with memories, the tchotchkes spontaneously purchased with my last coins at the airport, and around the heartbreaking sight of the bag, completely emptied. 

No matter what I do, I will never do this trip enough justice in writing. I will never be able to fully express everything this experience was for me. But I owe it to myself to capture these moments at their remaining richness and I feel like I owe others at least some answer to the question of “How was Birthright?”

This is what I have to say.

~~~~~~

Much like the State of Israel itself, my being on Birthright was pretty much an impossibility until the day it finally happened. When I boarded the Blue Line toward Boston Logan Airport on December 20th, it was a quiet triumph. 


Growing up “a good girl” for the past 25 years, save for not pursuing an investment banking career at Goldman Sachs, I had never found the courage to go against my father, even when I believed the stubborn, volatile lawyer who makes up half my genetics was truly and deeply wrong about something. But somewhere along the last six months of my decision making process in going to Israel, a little voice in my head started gaining traction in my thoughts: “If not now, when?” it asked. I didn’t have an answer for it, but that didn’t stop it from bothering me until I found myself finally opening one of many Birthright emails I’d written off as spam for the past two years and applying for my “Free Trip to Israel!” 

By Thanksgiving, this voice, which had started as a question and as a whisper, had become a resolute shout: “You’re going on this trip. The worst thing that can happen is you’re miserable for 10 days. You don’t know what’s the best that can happen.” 

The last time I planned to go on Birthright, in January 2014, I had just started a business, was still working my day job, and was inordinately reliant on my family for financial support in Boston. This time I had no excuses. I had nothing planned for winter break. I had a job offer in writing. And—15 years of therapy later—I had gathered enough chutzpah to disregard my dad and go abroad without telling him.* The fear of never going on this trip had outweighed the fear of my dad’s rage, and I was determined to choose my vision for my life over his.

All the marketing says, “Birthright is a gift.” This was the gift to myself. This was also the overweight baggage I was carrying with me to the airport. 

By the time I arrived at the El Al counter, I was already exhausted—and this was just the beginning of ten days of me being tired and sleeping in and on strange places and people—but I was proud. Three months of keeping things secret and the last three days of tying up loose ends in Boston had brought me to where I was standing: propped up on my blue suitcase, small talking amid the 40-something people I vaguely recognized from 2 on-campus orientations, waiting impatiently for my check-in[terrogation]by the airline representatives. When I finally touched down in the trilingual terminal of Ben Gurion airport, none if it felt real, but the words in Arabic, Hebrew, and English made me feel welcomed home. 

The organizers made our group, newly joined by 7 Israeli soldiers, link arms and shuffle in a circle shouting “Brothers! Happiness!" in Hebrew. Catching my breath in what proved to be a more athletic exercise than I anticipated, I had two thoughts:

  1. "Now I know why everyone says Birthright becomes a hookup trip for college students. How are all the soldiers so attractive? Does the Israeli military screen for hotness when staffing Birthright trips? Why didn’t I go on this trip when I was a senior in college, sexually semi-frustrated and single?" (At 25, this is the closest I’ve ever felt to being a cougar, checking out a bunch of 21-year-olds.)
  2. “Brothers? Happiness? Uh, I doubt we’ll feel like brothers and sisters at the end of this trip, let alone be happy with each other or the State of Israel after hours caged on a bus or on a highly-confined itinerary."

Over the next ten days, I definitely witnessed Thought One in action as some people began to pair off—myself, platonically and emotionally, included. Thought Two would be dashed and defied. After hiking three mountains, swimming around a sketchy, sulfur-filled hot spring, painting each other with mud from the Dead Sea, and smuggling materials to party together after hours, how could we not feel like friends? After sleeping together and eating together in a range of modest to marvelous accommodations and supporting one another through some of the most wrenching sites and stories in Jewish and Israeli history, from Yad Vashem to Har Herzel, how could we not feel like family? By day 10, I’d even find myself performing a rap** I’d written expressing the degree to which our group had bonded, shared in our final moments as a “mishpacha" on the bus together back to the airport on December 31. 

Business school has left an indelible mark on me. Being at MIT, in particular, has oriented my mind toward data and using it as the sole factor to make reasonable decisions. Even as a former engineering student and closeted math nerd who can appreciate a beautiful proof, this is not a worldview I find particularly elegant or romantic. Even as a future product manager writing stories for different categories of users with shared needs and preferences, I don’t believe in treating people as numbers or in technology’s ability to totally decode the whims of the human heart. 

This trip divorced me from technology and put thousands of miles between the person I thought I was and the person I forgot I had in me: the former, the constantly-striving, led-by-her-head, wildly-ambitioned Erica who would stop at nothing to reach the top of her field; the latter, the spontaneous, led-by-her-heart, spiritually-inclined, Me’i’ra who would stop at nothing to speak to the world in all its tongues and scale every mountain at sunrise. Needless to say, I came home with an identity crisis.

Israel was a portal to renewed reverence, faith, hope, and love. By Christmas, in Grinchlike fashion, my heart had already grown three sizes. By the time I got on the plane home, I felt sore and stretched by the spectrum and depth of emotions I forgot I was capable of experiencing. As for what I will remember, all these things and more: 

I’ll remember basking in the glow of the Negev moonlight and in the peace of a desert sunrise after a sleepless night under the stars. I’ll remember the “postpartum” joy of planting the two carob seeds I’d held onto since I was ten that I hoped to bring to Israel one day and finally planted in a JNF nature preserve. I’ll remember Shabbat morning I spent in Neve Shalom, sugar high on hot chocolate, never feeling more inspired from writing and never feeling more tired from a run with two trip-mates in the hills outside Jerusalem. And I’ll remember the insurmountable dread in my stomach hearing that a second soldier could get called off our trip and back to base. 

I’ll remember feeling big and hopeful and connected to the world speaking Portuguese with another Birthright group around a campfire and Chinese to some Hong Kong tourists on top of Masada. I’ll remember feeling small and impossibly insignificant, enveloped in the "mausoleum galaxy" of the children's Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem.

I’ll remember the warmth of embraces and the feel of the tears on an “Angel Walk,” being heard, affirmed, and supported by my peers and giving back that love in spades. And I’ll remember the energy and connection shouting our opening chant once more before parting at the airport, our voices echoing before being silenced by the noise of security sensors and plane engines.

~~~

I’m now back stateside, a week since returning from Israel, experiencing withdrawal. Save for the chatter of WhatsApp correspondence, the closest to Israel I’m getting for now is indulging in photographs, eating mediocre hummus, finding a Rasta bar in Brooklyn reminiscent of the one I visited in Tel Aviv, and visiting an aroma espresso bar in TriBeCa, though I know its signature chocolate won’t taste as sweet as it did sitting with no-longer-strangers in a strip mall in Israel. 

Life is beginning to go on. The pain of missing people is easing. I'm bringing back pieces of my experience by practicing my Hebrew more and giving myself an actual "Shabbat" where I truly rest from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. 

But for all the returning to "normal," welcoming in this new year on a wave of self-discovery, there’s only two thoughts I have and things I know for sure after this journey.

  1. Israel kept a piece of me
  2. Whatever it takes, I must go back.

~~~
*At the point of writing this, I still don’t have enough chutzpah to tell him and may not for some time. Without getting too far into it, my father had (and at this point still thinks he has successfully) bullied and manipulated me off of the trip. 

**Yes, a rap, because somehow freestyling and rap battles a la ‘8 Mile’ had become part of the group identity on the trip.