What brought you to Israel?
In January of 2012, my grandparents asked me if I was still deeply interested in archaeology. Ever since I was little, I obsessed over mineral books and ancient archaeological discoveries, watching Indiana Jones with a fierce glint in my eyes. I smiled and said, ‘Yes. Why do you ask?’
They asked me, quietly, in the corner of a chaotic New Year’s party, if I’d like to go with them to Israel. Cue the widening of the eyes, the cheeky grin, and the half-quiet gasp; I started my research then. Though our initial trip – in January of 2013 – eventually fell through, December of 2014 found me exhausted and buzzing with excitement in a passport control line in the sleek Tel-Aviv airport.
Israel felt like an invitation home, even more so in the world today. It was as though the Earth extended a firm hand, and said, “Here I am, in a small summary.” Israel gave me the world in its chilled hilltops, glimmering waters; its stoney, weather-worn streets – back alleys shrouded in a safe kind of shadow – were just as compelling as the wind on the open road of the north. The locals are filled with an unnatural kindness – and a clever eagerness – tikvah (hope) glimmering in their hearts and souls.
It is safe to say, that in two weeks time, I had been everywhere from the Syrian border to the Negev Desert.
Did you have any ties to the region?
I myself am Christian, so the religious yearning has been there since I was old enough to understand the details of my faith.
What expectations or assumptions had you made about traveling in Israel, and how were those met or subverted?
The media haunts Israel – it haunts the whole of the Middle East, really – warping it into a barren wasteland of danger and constant, vicious anger. When I stepped off of the plane, I expected to be assaulted with this lingering unrest, like I needed to be glancing over my shoulder, as though there was a constant presence trailing behind me. I’d bought into a seemingly harmless misconception: whatever can happen in Israel, will happen in Israel. The news portrays the Middle East as a soup of revolution and discouragement, and its embellished words, admittedly, got under my skin.
Western media tends to focus on the worst of radical government and terror organizations, while brushing the hopeful, compassionate people to the side. The standard Hebrew greeting, “shalom”, literally translates to “peace” in English. Despite the troubles they face, Israeli people offer up goodwill – they gather you in their deliberate words, and you become a part of their family.
Describe the climate and the energy of the region.
Wherever you may find yourself, it seems as though everyone is softly buzzing – filled with a humor and a brightness that is settling and inviting. Their world is steeped in intriguing religious symbolism and joyful, reverent dedication – even the weather has a meaning for the Israeli culture. For example, a wind from west blows across the earth, spreading saltwater, and fertility, and a changing of tides. The shadow of the hills bring refuge and life – a shelter from the fire of the sun. There is beautiful growth in darkness, my guide, Tsippi, promised me, in the fields beyond Jerusalem. The same is for us, as humans and as a nation. We grow in times of trouble.
Did Israeli culture influence the way you traveled?
The Israeli people are familiar. To them, family is not in a constant, reigned-in state, it is a metamorphoses – ever growing and ever changing. It’s a cultural custom that when you build a family, you prepare a home big enough for growth, and mighty enough to sustain memories. To the people of Israel, their country is home for everyone. You are a prodigal, and these are your people: your mothers, and fathers, and children, and friends.
When you are side-by-side with the villagers and city dwellers, the streets are your family. Traveling down the country’s roads, along the winding rivers and looming hills, feels like a homecoming.
What did you learn about Israel that you want to share with others?
No matter how cruel the world becomes, the Israeli people still cling to a determined faith. There is power behind their eyes – they are as innocent as children and as clever as snakes. Despite the pain they feel throughout their daily lives, whether it be natural disasters or political conflict, the 8 million people of Israel take their troubles and transform it into hopefulness. The people are poetry – full of truthful depth and bittersweet longing.
The shadow of the mountain is a great thing, and the shadow of death brings terror sometimes, they say. But the shadows of the hill are a protector from the sun, and these bones will surely rise again.
In the meantime, their hope will guide them through the valley of the shadow.
Three favorite moments or places?
No. 1: The Dead Sea, to the southeast of the West Bank, is a dusky, silver legend, all stillness and serenity among the luminous waves and gray sand. Pale skies touch the wide-spanning waters, and the whole scenery is saturated in utter tranquility. I can honestly say, while floating aimlessly on the turquoise waters, I have never felt more content.
No. 2: The Shepherd’s Field in oh-little-town-of-Bethlehem is a marbled, hallowed fairytale, with white stone against a chilly sky, emerald plains stretching on and on. Golden Latin inscriptions encircle and bleed through the architecture and sculptures, and songs like laughter echo through the sunlit church.
No. 3: In the Old City of Jerusalem, you find curiosity, streaming like sunlight through the shadowy bazaars and beckoning alleyways. The streets I wandered are littered with crooked, honest grins, beautiful craftsmanship, and an abundance of fresh pomegranates, lingering on past the lavender hours of the evening. Buy yourself a colorful scarf from a local vendor, because its patterns will tell a million stories, even when you’re finally at your home terminal.
What was the takeaway from this experience?
No matter how troublesome things get, we must always try with all our might, because there is forever a reason to hope. Even though the shadows are keeping you from the light of the sun, walk through the midst of them. The streets of Israel taught me that it is all right to not know where I’m going. The hallowed cathedrals taught me that God is not just in your books and your prayers – God is a protector. The Mediterranean seaside reminded me that the world is so wide, yet so small.
And it’s just fine.
This piece was originally published on March 28, 2015.