Israel Part 1: Taglit

Note: I understand that this blog post is shared to friends and family, but the content is not typically something I would share at Thanksgiving dinner. The following blog post contains profanity and adult themes. This is my informal take on the trip, and the views are not those of Israel Free Spirit, Taglit-Birthright Israel, or any other organization or person. The purpose of this post, and future blog posts relating to my time in Israel, is only to record my memories and serve as a guide of expectations for others who come across this post (which I don’t expect to be many). Also, I’m kind of an ass and didn’t ask anyone for permission to post their pictures or opinions, but I’m willing to edit if anyone wants to be retracted.

Taglit/Birthright consisted of 10 days.

Day 1 (June 18, PCT to June 19, IST) included meeting my bus #Bus151 at LAX and saying farewell to my mom. I assume my bro, Kevin, would have been here, but we shipped him to the Bahamas with our cousin Quincy the day before. Two other Taglit buses were taking the same flight. There was another purple haired woman, who we originally thought was on our bus, but little did I know she would be one of the best people I would meet on this trip. My plane ride with El Al was hella long. I’m talking a long ~14.5 hours from LAX to TLV. I originally got an aisle seat, but I switched with someone for their window seat so they could sit with their friend. I ended up sitting with a nice couple who shared my last name. For most of the flight, there was at least one group of people in the back talking, eating sandwiches (tuna and egg salad), and drinking. There were rabbis and orthodox Jews on the plane praying at various times. El Al isn’t kidding when they say “It’s not just an Airline. It’s Israel”.

Getting lunch at LAX before takeoff. This was a bad idea. I ended up buying 2, $14 burgers even though I ordered 1. And then they served us lunch right away on the plane.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport around 13:15 (military time to get in the spirit of Israel), but we did not leave until 18:30ish. Going through customs, acquiring visas, organizing group accommodations, and following orientation extended our time at the airport. After, we faced traffic on our way to Kiryat Shmona. It was the first of the three nights we stayed in HI Tel Hai. Dinner was nice. I enjoyed the Schnitzel. I don’t remember what else I liked, though. Dinner was pretty much the same every night we stayed there.

Day 2 (June 20), we woke up early to eat breakfast then took our bus to the Hatzbani river. There, we played the name game (which I totally dominated…) then hiked in the water. Most people swam when we had the chance, but I did not want to sit on the bus all wet (and I was on week 3 of my period that ended up lasting 4 weeks. THANKS PARAGARD!!!). We were accompanied by this dude, Sam, whose job was to see how our Taglit was conducted (I guess). He was hella nice and helped me out a lot. For lunch, some of us ate at this Hummus place our Israeli madrich, Amit, recommended. It was super good, especially their vegetarian meat-alternative.

Hatzbani Hike featuring my habibi Jessica

Next stop was Mount Bental, where our tour guide, Batya, pointed out the close proximity of Lebanon and Syria (I snapped Fadi to show him Syria). Then, we visited Golan Heights Winery where we tasted wine, fell in love with their Mt. Hermon moscato, and bought wine (that people later drank during a party in someone’s room). Also, someone took a picture of the winery representative, an older man who kinda looks like a stereotypical rabbi, holding bottles of wine in both hands and captioning something about how it was lit and I regret not screenshotting it.

The best moscato I have ever tasted. Wish I smuggled it back to the States. Will bring home in the future when I’m over 21.

The last two places were connected- the ruins of a Talmudic village and the present-day home in a Talmudic neighborhood. At the latter, all (40) of us gathered at a small home and occupied every seat and bit of ground they had in the backyard. At the end of the day, we ate dinner at the hostel and discussed our current views and expectations of Birthright. Later, a bunch of people got together in someone’s room, maybe Joey’s, and drank the alcohol they bought from the winery. Me, highly susceptible to FOMO, came to the room only to try to sleep in the top bunk. That didn’t work out too well.

Day 3, we visited Tzfat where we saw artist Avraham Leventhal, listened to Kabbalah music, and toured the city. I ate some homemade banana ice cream topped with syrup and tahini (to which Jessica, my comrade who recruited me on this trip, thought I was absolute meshugie for eating tahini with ice cream). I also bumped into Sam, who was with another group that day, and Purple Hair (I greeted her with “Hi, Purple Hair!”). At this point, Purple Hair and I exchanged Facebook contacts. Her name is Rachell (rah-shell). This was the first time I realized I should not travel alone because it is very easy to take advantage of me. I saw an older man selling his art and holding it out and I felt obligated to look at it and buy something because I felt bad.

Don’t. Fucking. Do. That.

holy fuck I ended up giving the artwork to a friend because I regretted that decision so much. The art itself was nice, but every time I looked at it, I remembered how easy it was for me to waste money and feel obligated to please others. I ended up buying some candles that were pretty nice, though. Definitely my own choice.

After Tzfat was Nimrod lookout, a peaceful sanctuary dedicated to the late Nimrod, who died while volunteering in the IDF. I think after that, we went back to the hostel, ate dinner, then started a folk dancing lesson? Dancing was fun, and surprisingly I had enough energy for it even though I was pretty tired that night. Nonetheless, I ended up staying up and partying with Bri then shooting hoops at the basketball court. Bri and I tried to open a bottle of wine so she could shower and sip, but we spilled it because we didn’t know how to use the bottle opener properly.

The view from Nimrod Lookout

Oh yeah, we prepared to meet the mifgashim the next day. We created social media posters of our assumptions about them. My group made a Facebook profile for Asaf.

Day 4 was the last day at HI Tel Hai. We checked out then picked up our mifgashim before heading to Kfar Blum to raft. We played a game of 1 truth, 1 lie then split up into groups to raft. It was there that I realized I’m pretty good at rowing when I’m not splashing everyone on board. Thanks to my teacher, Jessica, I ended up rowing for my group when she abandoned us. And for a few minutes, she associated me with muscle (I had been working out prior to the trip. But one day I’ll be toned like FLOTUS 44, Michelle Obama). I did not want to be splashed or dragged into the water, so I was totally crabby about getting wet. Silly, I know. One mifgash, Michael, was pulled into the water and lost his glasses. He got contacts the next day (apparently contacts are over the counter in Israel????? WHAT THE FUCK?). Also, my hand kinda slipped when I was getting off the raft and it bent forward (fist toward wrist) a bit too far for comfort, so Yuval bandaged it so I wouldn’t screw it up too much. Per Batya’s request, he sat me down and wrapped it romantically. We ate pizza on the bus and traveled to Chafetz Chaim, a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. There, we had a nice dinner, showered, then got ready to go out clubbing at the Nemal. Before we left, we sat through a Stand With Us presentation that made me think about the Israeli side of the conflict.

It was at Shalvata that my expectations failed me and I did not enjoy myself until I went to the playground with Dean and Batya and had fun playing on the equipment. We met 2 boys on this rocking thing, Noam and Ben, and we played on other equipment. Turns out, they were my age but were able to get out of joining the IDF. Instead, they were working and going to school, respectively. I kinda regret not getting Ben’s Facebook or number because he was super funny and I would’ve liked a friend to play on playgrounds in Tel Aviv.

Ready to party with Jessica and Gaya

Day 5 began with forgetting Adam at the hostel and a stroll in Tel Aviv. We watched a presentation and film at Independence Hall regarding Israel’s independence in 1948. Then, we did an activity where we interacted with strangers in Tel Aviv. I was able to get 6 people to add me on Facebook. I think Jessica and Gaya got someone to buy them coffee. No one in our group was able to get a reaction regarding a bumper sticker we presented. After, we walked through Nachalat Binyamin (it was Friday, so the art market was going on) and had free time to explore that and Shuk Ha-Carmel next door. We had an assignment to buy something 20 shekels or under for someone that we pulled from a bag and give their present during Shabbat. I received Yaala as my recipient. I ended up finding a vendor at Nachalat Binyamin who sold figures, and he wrote “Yaala” on a little sign. I think something personalized was perfect.

After shopping in the shuk, we set off to Jerusalem, where we stayed at the Montefiore Hotel. We got ready to visit the Kotel for Shabbat. The bus driver dropped us off, and we would not see him until Sunday, after Shabbat was over. We walked to a courtyard where we discussed what Shabbat meant to us. For me, I saw it was a family get together. I grew up having it centered around my parents and my brother while we thanked God for a good week, prayed for them to bless us and keep us in the best of health, and then my brother and I drank up the rest of the wine.

We then lit candles for Shabbat. Batya did the first lighting to show us how she did it. She opened herself to all of us just as she did to God. Her prayers were heartfelt; we were touched as she asked God to help her family. She shed tears- something we did not expect.

I was inspired to do the same and open myself up while praying. I grabbed candles and lit them, asking God to protect my family. And then I asked them to help me find satisfaction in myself. I am unhappy with my body, my face, and my self. I cried while I prayed, and I felt so ashamed for breaking down in front of everyone. I felt ashamed for being basic. I felt ashamed because I realized how much I hated myself. At the time, I was dealing with the fact that I did not feel like I fit in with the group. Everyone had a good time at Shalvata. Every time I drank alcohol, I could not be as happy as everyone else. I tried so hard to fit in and make myself likeable. I don’t think it worked.

Then I opened my eyes and my comrades were rubbing my back. I know Bri was there for me. Other people were, but I can’t remember who. It meant a lot to have their support, but I still felt ashamed for crying and making a scene. On our way to the Western Wall, Yaala and I took pictures together.

Selfie at the Kotel feat Yaala

Shabbat at the Western Wall was so magical. IDF soldiers were joining hands and singing songs. People joined in and sang along. I held hands with strangers, regardless of their faith, and danced. For dinner, we walked all the way to the OU Israel center. Rabbi Zaret said the prayers, then we ate while people made toasts. The walk back to the hotel was not as long.

Day 6 took place mostly at the hotel. We ate our breakfast then met downstairs in the basement for kiddush, a nosh, and an activity. In groups, we discussed 3 most important ideals of being Jewish. For me, celebrating holidays and participating in social justice were 2 priorities for me. As someone whose faith is always question (many Jews don’t think I’m legitimately Jewish because my mom is a goy), I’ve had to ask myself numerous times what I think makes me Jewish and whether it’s something I chose for myself or something my parents forced upon me. I choose to be Jewish because I love being part of small Jewish communities at school. We have similar experiences of skipping school on holidays and celebrating traditions with our families. Also, there’s a certain level of humor that only Jews understand, and a big part of that contains Yiddish, the old language of Ashkenazi Jews (and then there’s Sephardic Sagie who doesn’t understand the jokes Reese and I make).

Lunch at the Montefiore was outstanding. One of the best meals I had during Birthright. After lunch, we walked to a big park to play games. I made such a bad tahini that Lidor told me I should never make tahini again. Batya and I went to the playground where we both slid on the tall slides. Back at the hotel, we lit the havdalah candle and performed our gift exchange. Yaala loved her gift! My gift came from Dana, a bright blue bracelet (in the perfect shade of blue).

Shabbat stroll featuring Bri

People got ready to hit the bar scene near Ben Yehuda. Again, I felt lost. I walked with Jake to one bar where the dude made me a deal. If I bought a cocktail, he’d throw in a free shot, so I bought a pina colada (wasn’t that good) and took a shot of arak. Since I was now buzzed, I was hoping to be able to fit in, but I couldn’t (my fault, not anyone else’s. I just don’t vibe with the clubbing crowd). I then went to Coffee Bean and got something to drink and realized I had no place there. I couldn’t drink anymore and lose money and my friends weren’t answering their phones. I got a hold of Batya who told Amit and Leah (2 of the madrichim) to take me back to the hotel. I took a wonderful shower and had the room to myself. I went on the roof and talked to some people from Bus 150, including this dude named Joshua and a woman I later named Falafel.

I tried to hoard everyone’s tea cups when they got back to the hotel, post bar hopping.

Day 7 started with a walk in the City of David in the Siloam tunnel. That was one of my favorite parts of Birthright, walking through the water for about half an hour. It was pitch black without a flashlight. This was something I would do again. After, we visited the Kotel again then shopped around the Old City. This time, I had the opportunity to touch the Western Wall. I’ll be honest though, I just liked how smooth it was. I did not feel any spiritual connection to it. In the Old City, I bought a wooden puzzle of a temple. I’m in the process of building it right now.

We headed back to the hotel to get ready for a Balkan Beat Box concert happening that night in Rishon Lezion. We also had to pack a separate bag for 2 days because we would not have access to our luggage when we stayed in the tents the next night. Jessica and I napped in our room while Gaya, our third roommate, was doing something with the mifgashim. We were supposed to be on the bus at 16:45, but we slept in because my alarm did not go off. Matt, another madrich, knocked on our door to let us know we had 5 minutes or else the bus would leave without us.

Dinner was at a park, 5 minutes away from the concert, where we ate schnitzel and wings. The bathrooms at the park were absolutely disgusting; I could smell them from far away.

At the concert, we waited with many other Taglit buses to get in. Once inside, we received light up heart necklaces. I think mine was blue, and someone else gave me their blue heart, too. Later, an IDF solider with a white one put it over my head and gave it to me. I originally was going to sit with Gaya and Jessica, but I found Rachell at the front of the section. So, I sat with her during the concert. I found out that not only did we have hair colors in common, but we had extremely similar political viewpoints and we both loved K-Pop. I think she is the best friend I was destined to meet. She is very proud of her German heritage, and I am very proud of my Chinese & Vietamese roots. It was at the concert that I found 2 more East Asian Jews (other than Daniel from my bus, Jessica and Josh’s cousin, whose dad is Japanese).

The concert itself was fun, once Balkan Beat Box started performing, but prior to their performance, many IDF soldiers sang an altered version of Clean Bandit & Jess Glynne’s Rather Be (Glynne is Jewish, by the way) and Sheldon Adelson and Bibi Netanyahu were on stage. Taglit totally sucked Sheldon’s dick (figuratively). He’s the largest donor to Taglit… and Donald’s campaign. He makes his money from Las Vegas Sands (incidentally, my dad sold his Las Vegas Sands stocks in 2010 which paid for my Bat Mitzvah festivities). Rachell and I enjoyed analyzing the techniques used to push everyone to support and love Israel unconditionally. I freely expressed both my disdain and appreciation for Sheldon on Snapchat, to which my little Israeli fairy of guidance, Sagie, told me “Israelis chew up and spit out liberals for breakfast”. Oh well. I’ll discuss him in a future blog post, hopefully.

All the Taglit groups and IDF soldiers present danced and had a great time listening to Balkan Beat Box. It was the first time in a while that I really enjoyed myself with others in this kind of setting. Rachell and I kept talking and bonded over everything. We both felt like we did not fit in with our buses. In front of us were the madrichim and their tour guide, Brian. This bus, Bus 173, was hella lit. We started an audience wave. We chanted and cheered. The only negative I experienced was the cigarette smoke coming from right behind me (everybody fucking smokes in this country and I hate it when it fills my lungs ffs). After seeing another group do it, we went full Jew and 4 of us carried Rachell on a chair.

Day 8 we checked out from the Montefiore and made our way to Yad Vashem. I was pooped from lack of sleep the night before, so I struggled to focus on all the information about the Holocaust. The one tragedy that hit me the most was seeing the victims of Mengele’s experiments (according to discussions I’ve read, the trials were not performed properly so the victims’ suffering cannot even be used for medical advancements. In other words, these careless experiments were used for the sole purpose of torture, not research).

Group photo at Yad Vashem

We went to a shopping center for lunch. Most people stood in a long line for falafel and shawarma. I decided to get a Mega Big America from Israeli McDonald’s. I know what you’re thinking. I come all the way to Israel from America, and I order McDonald’s? That’s exactly what I planned to do. Israeli McDonald’s is not the same as States McDonald’s. I’ll touch more on that in a future post.

Next stop was Mount Herzl, where we viewed and honored the graves of fallen soldiers and others who risked their lives for Israel. All was fine until we came to a grave of a soldier about our age (this was an 18-22 group). Two outgoing, strong soldiers, Lidor and Asaf, started bawling uncontrollably. This was when the IL-PA conflict hit home. Their friend was buried below us, and they refused to believe he was gone. Batya explained to us, also shedding tears, how there is a group of graves for every age group because each generation has an operation they fought in. Almost everyone in Israel has a connection to someone buried in Mount Herzl. At the end of our emotional tour, it was time to say farewell to our mifgashim. We presented them the posters we drew for them (most of them relating to JSwipe). I also saw Joshua and Falafel from Bus 150, and I tried to photobomb their group’s photo.

We left the mifgashim to fend for themselves at Mount Herzl and headed toward Taglit Village. I hope I’m kidding; I don’t know where they went after. Anyway, Taglit Village is the “real Bedouin tent” experience pretty much every Taglit trip gets. In a future post, I’ll discuss my personal thoughts on it (especially after visiting a real Bedouin city, Rahat). On the way, we thought we saw a camel walking in the desert, but it turned out to be a cutout. There were numerous tents, and the men and women were separated. (I was surprised because I heard Bedouin tent night is when Taglit participants do the dirty while everyone else is trying to sleep???? Of course, this isn’t a prob for same-sex couples but like…) Anyway, I found Rachell again, who I may refer to as “Mawife” (a reference to her rabbi who says “my wife” a la Borat). Instead of eating dinner with my bus like I was supposed to, I sat with Mawife, her buddies, and her rabbi. The food was pretty good. I wish they gave us more hummus. I walked around with Mawife after dinner then went back to her tent and hung out. Even though I was set up in my bus’s tent, I fell asleep in Rachell’s tent.

Day 9 (Tuesday, June 27 IST) I woke up to Bus 173 staff telling everyone to get ready for camel riding. Mawife was still asleep. Immediately, I bolted to my bus’s tent. Batya saw me and let me know everyone was ready for the camels. Before she got on, one of the camel staff members told her “there’s a rumor that someone in the group is pregnant”. Keep in mind that Batya is 8 months pregnant. Long story short, our riding time was truncated from 20 minutes to 5, and I have a feeling a lot of it was my fault (Sorry, comrades). I might’ve missed a night time activity, too.

We had to eat a quick breakfast, then leave for Masada. The weather was so hot that everyone was forbidden from hiking Masada, so we took a cable car (after everyone cheered). On Massada, a bunch of Taglitmates became bar and bat mitzvahs (excuse the Heb-English spelling). It was super special for Jacob, whose grandpa came to see him. There was a magnificent view of the Dead Sea, which was the next stop. We bumped into Barak and his sons there.

The Dead Sea is a prime example that God has a sense of humor. See, any cut on the body, whether it be a scrape from asphalt or a nick from shaving, will burn in the supersaturated, salty water. What lines the shore as people walk in? Rocks. Sharp rocks. Rocks with layers of salt crystals. I had more cuts coming out of the water than I had going in. After swimming in the second saltiest body in the world (the first being my group of friends from high school), I went to the showers with Eitan. I noticed one of the faucets was not working, and this boy, about 13 years old, showed me one that worked. It was nice of him to help me out, so I walked under and started rinsing the schmutz off me. I felt hands on my back trying to wipe stuff off, which I interpreted as the boy helping me get off the mud. When I stopped, he said something that I didn’t understand because of our language barrier. I turned on the water again and closed my eyes and felt more hands on my back, wiping dirt away. They weren’t on my boobs or my ass, so at no point did I think they were sexually harassing me. In fact, I was appreciating the help they were giving me. But Eitan, whose eyes were open, sensed an ulterior motive of the boys. He stood up for me and told them to stop, and that was when I realized that these boys were possibly perverts. Eitan rinsed himself off, then we joined the others by the freshwater pool. I was so used to floating in the Dead Sea that I forgot I wouldn’t get the same results in the pool. I talked to other women, who had similar experiences to mine at the showers. We came to the conclusion they were a bunch of boys taking advantage of women. I kind of felt bad that I liked it because I thought it was help. That’s not to say their feelings of violation were invalid, though. I realize no one really goes out of their way to help a stranger get mud off their back, especially 2-3 boys.

Last stop of Taglit was the closing session in Jerusalem at the park we held our Shabbat festivities. We had some good meatballs. That’s all I can remember, besides watermelon, but I didn’t eat the watermelon because I’m repulsed from a personal experience (Kevin got food poisoning from it a long time ago and everything came out pink). We all gathered and discussed our feelings about the trip. Most people had generally wonderful experiences. I decided to be brutally honest and say “I did not have the best time of my life on this trip”, or something like that.

And looking back, I feel like I set up expectations that failed. I made myself disappointed. But I also tried hard to make everyone like me and feel included. Maybe it was my mental illness getting in the way. I felt so depressed because I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t drink like everyone else. I did not connect with most people like I saw others do. I felt so alone in my own group that, as a result, I ended up eating and sleeping with Mawife in her tent. Jessica, my closest companion on the trip, was branching out and clicking with the mifgashim and partiers (you know, because UCSB). Gaya was gone, and we both had a great time without getting drunk.

But just because I didn’t have the time of my life doesn’t mean I want to drag everyone with me. I’m super happy that so many other people enjoyed themselves. I especially felt happy for Sage, who I knew back in high school, for finding a group of people that made her feel like she fit in.

As someone who’s always struggled with fitting in, I know how precious that connection is (and for me, my 2016 UCI Inspire/Aspire group will always hold that place in my heart).

We received our group shirts, thanks to Amit, Jacob, (who else designed it? i’m so sorry), Baily, and me for coordinating the order, designing the shirt, collecting the money, and organizing the sizes.

We dropped off people staying in Jerusalem, Jessica included. I was so sad leaving her behind, and I was so frustrated with being alone, once again. Thankfully, my good comrade Daniel sat with me on the way back and cheered me up. I’m happy we are friends.

Once we got to the airport, we separated into two groups- those who were flying home and those who were staying. As we said our farewells to everyone, I broke down in Batya’s arms. I was going to miss her. Out of everyone I met, I felt like I connected with her the most. She was so much fun; we even shared our love of playgrounds. She said she knew she’d love me when she met me, especially after I remembered everyone’s names at the Name Game (Day 2), and that I reminded her of her sister. She is such a character, doing crazy things even though she’s pregnant.

A bunch of us staying in Tel Aviv struggled to coordinate our taxi rides. Fish/Ryan, Cayla, and I grouped together for one cab going to Hayarkon 48 and Cayla’s friend. We reflected upon our trip and may or may not have gossiped a little. But I felt hopeful for the rest of my time in Israel.

And that is the end of my chapter of Taglit.

Here’s the names of all the participants and staff, with adjectives to my best knowledge. May not be accurate.

  1. Bregnant Batya (tour guide)
  2. Lovely Leah (madricha)
  3. Mad Matt (madrich)
  4. Amit (does he count as a madrich, too?)
  5. Musa (bus driver)
  6. Rabbi Zaret (rabbi)
  7. Yuval (guard & medic)
  8. Silly(?) Sage
  9. Jammin Jen
  10. Mystical Michelle
  11. Magical Michelle
  12. Magnificent(?) Michelle
  13. Dangerous Dan
  14. Killer(?) Karina
  15. Cool(?) Cayla
  16. Just Can’t Remember Names Jake
  17. Jacob
  18. Adventurous Adam
  19. Rockin Robin
  20. Diva Daria
  21. Empathetic(?) Emily
  22. Emily
  23. Joey
  24. Naughty Nadya
  25. Dean
  26. Chris
  27. Michael
  28. Rowdy Renay
  29. Yolo Yael
  30. Talya
  31. Bri
  32. Ryan/Fish
  33. Veronica
  34. Happy(?) Hanna
  35. Badass Baily
  36. Jessica (I’m sorry habibi I forgot your adjective)
  37. Marvelous Maizy (me)
  38. Dirty Dan
  39. Josh
  40. Melody
  41. Amazing Aaron
  42. Nice(?) Negin
  43. Electrifying Elliot
  44. Shana
  45. Eitan
  46. Brandon
  47. Sarah
  48. Gaya (soldier)
  49. Yaala (soldier)
  50. Dana (soldier)
  51. Liel (soldier)
  52. Michael (soldier)
  53. Dan (soldier)
  54. Asaf (soldier)
  55. Lidor/Cactus (soldier)

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