Once I was lit by moonbeams

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

A couple of weeks ago a student of mine returned from spending the Passover holiday with his family in Israel. He’s American, short and stocky with red hair. His older brother and sister are currently serving in the Israeli army. When I asked him what they did for Passover, he said they went “glamping,” the term for “glamorous camping.” Apparently, his family’s version of glamping meant staying at the famous, and expensive, King David Hotel in Jerusalem. His week in Israel also included, he told me, visiting The Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), which he’ll be attending next year, for “an eight week academic experience,” as described on the website. AMHSI is a high school program based in Hod Hasharon, a small town 25 minutes outside Tel-Aviv, founded in 1972 by Rabbi Morris Kipper and the Miami Jewish Federation. Part of its mission, the Jewish Federation website says, is for “students [to] visit all parts of the country for first-hand experiences and learning, helping to create a lifelong love and attachment to the Jewish homeland.”

I attended AMHSI in 1986 when I was 16 years old–my first trip to Israel–during the summer in between 11th and 12th grade. Max, a friend of mine from the Zionist socialist Jewish camp we attended, Habonim, persuaded me to attend the program. “It’s like camp,” he said, “but in Israel.” It seemed a natural progression to go from the Jewish camp that simulated living in Israel to the real thing. After years of nationalist foreplay at the camp in Michigan, I’d finally consummate my love by setting foot on the land. I sold the trip to my father by emphasizing the “academic experience” part of the eight-week program. We’d study in the mornings, I explained to him, and then visit the places we learned about in the afternoons. I could even get high school credit, I told him.

Although I knew we weren’t poor, I also knew we weren’t swimming in money. All the years of sending me to the Jewish camp had been expensive; later, I overheard him complain to my mother that he couldn’t believe how much the Israel trip would cost. I was sitting on the stairs in our home listening to them talk in the kitchen. After I heard him complain, I tiptoed back upstairs so they wouldn’t know. Both of my parents grew up working class, and though they were thriving in successful careers, they had to spend and save wisely. Their relationship to money was very different from many of their friends who had tons of it and spent indiscriminately.

My father agreed to send me to Israel–mostly because he knew how much I wanted to go, and partly, I’m sure, to show off to his friends that he could afford it–if I got a job to help cover the spending money I’d need. I found work at Kosher City, the local kosher deli down the street from our house. On Sundays from March until the week I left for Israel in June, I cut heads off fish, weighed cheese, and sliced meats. I was paid $3.75 an hour under the table. I made a few hundred dollars, but my father led me to believe that my work significantly helped fund my first trip to Israel. I would be out of my league financially, though, once I arrived and met the others. I had brought $300 as my spending money–the equivalent is about $700 today–to last the eight weeks, whereas others’ parents wired that much every week, most of which was spent on alcohol. Girls in the dorm laughed at my worn suitcase bought at JCPenney–borrowed from my father–as theirs showed off new monograms and shiny colors by designers I hadn’t heard of.

At the school, I was the nerd who loved the coursework. Others blew it off and were excited that Israel didn’t have a drinking age. I took copious notes in the different booklets we were given. In the classroom, we were often put into groups with special names that represented different parts of Israel: Galil, Golan, Judea, Samaria, Kineret, and Shomron. I was in the Golan group. Seth, from Boston, with long black hair and round wiry glasses, whom I soon developed a crush on, was in Galil. The curriculum had eight units: Biblical Period; Bayit Sheni (Second Temple) and Talmudic Periods; The Middle Ages, Emancipation, Haskala and Zionism; The State on its Way: 1914-1947; Hasho’a (The Holocaust); Medinat Yisrael (The State of Israel); and The Appendix.

I wrote my name on the top of each booklet–often inside of a heart I drew around it–and marveled at all of the resources in each one. I believed the curriculum to be truth; after all, each booklet was full of primary documents that backed up everything we learned. The teachers, Yoav and Jonah, constantly supported the claims they made–all justifying Jews’ right to the land of Israel–with evidence from the texts.

In Unit 4: Emancipation, Haskala and Zionism, we read a selection by Margalit Ornstein under the heading “Cultural Zionism.” Ornstein, considered the “founding mother” of Israeli dance, immigrated to Palestine–the word Palestine was used only in reference to pre-1948 Israel–in 1921 from Austria, wrote:

On the flat roof among the many and mighty Judean mountains, lit by the moon beams and covered by the rich suede cloak of dusk–a man and a woman express in dance their heart’s desire; through their movements they express the eternal truth which cannot be uttered in words. And here a large flower garden, shining and glorifying in majesty and variety of colors. It is full of children, many and beautiful children, with solid and flexible bodies. Their skin is a golden velvet from the sun’s kisses, made gentle by the wind and pure air. They dance and sing with a happy and free rhythm. Behold our liberated and renewed nation in its dance.

We youngsters from the diaspora, too, had solid and flexible bodies. We, too, gazed at the Judean mountains lit by the moon beams. Having arrived in Israel, we also moved differently, as do the children of Israel in Ornstein’s passage. Her words–terribly Orientalist and colonialist to me now–made us feel deeply connected to the land even pre-1948, “which means it’s undeniably ours,” our teacher Yoav said. But this was one passage in one booklet out of the eight booklets that had thousands of passages just like this one. We were sold.

Soon after reading this section on Cultural Zionism, we made our way at night to Tel-Aviv, dancing at the Dolphinarium–later bombed in 2001–drinking and moving our bodies like the free Zionist spirits we had read about earlier. I was much more comfortable studying in the classroom and visiting the “ancient and historic sites”–all indigenous Palestine, I would realize later–than dancing at a nightclub. I went to follow the crowd, though, and also because Seth (from the Galil group) went, too. Soon, however, we both found ourselves outside, frustrated that the others only came to Israel, it seemed, to party and hook up. I would do those things later on subsequent trips to Israel, but that particular summer, my first time there, a virgin in Israel, I was very serious about learning all I could. Years later when I was ready for relationships, I’d discover I was at a disadvantage. I’d have no idea how to make real connections with flawed human beings, for I’d fallen in love with an ideal. The idealized Israel I’d been in love with for so many years–the one presented to me–had prevented me from real love. My crush on Seth was innocent, but I was too distracted by Israel to do anything about it anyway. I was busy learning my history.

Sometimes in class instead of drawing my name inside a heart, I’d draw it inside of a mini Israel. I had become skilled at sketching the country; I wrote the “L” in the west near Tel-Aviv, the “I” on top of Jerusalem, and the “Z” in the east, near Jordan. We hadn’t visited Jerusalem yet. I was getting antsy. It was our second week into the eight-week program. Jerusalem needed time; our teachers had much to tell us while the anticipation grew. One night on the campus after a long day of learning, Seth attracted a crowd. He had discovered a eucalyptus tree–whose leaves were, as Ornstein wrote, “lit by the moon beams”–and was sitting under it with his guitar. He was singing the famous Naomi Shermer song, “Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus” (“The Eucalyptus Grove”). After the song, he pulled some of the leaves off the tree and rolled them into a cigarette. I pushed my way past Maddie from Boca Raton–still wearing her Calvin Klein bright pink bikini from the afternoon’s hike to the Galilee–to try to get closer to him. We passed the cigarette around like it was a joint. Seth was serious about the land too, I could tell, as we both pulled the smoke–the land of Israel–from the cigarette inside of us.

The next week we were finally going to see Jerusalem. During class the morning before we boarded the bus, we read a section in Unit 2: Bayit Sheni (Second Temple) and Talmudic Periods. No author is cited for this passage from page 35, titled “16 Important Facts About Jerusalem”:

For three thousand years, the Jewish people have been inextricably bound to its capital, Jerusalem. This tie has been sustained through war, strife, persecution, exile, dispersion, and holocaust. In their darkest hours, Jews turned in prayer toward Jerusalem, for redemption. The twentieth century has witnessed both the rebirth of the Jewish state and the reunification of a sovereign Jewish capital in Jerusalem.

This claim to Jerusalem, I realize now, couldn’t exist without victimhood. This tie between colonization and claiming victim space is even clearer in what follows:

“Yet the meaning of that rebirth and reunification has been little understood, and Jerusalem has become the centrepiece of political and military conflict involving states distant from Israel.”

The marriage of power and victimhood that Israel has become was unbeknownst to me then. I believed tiny Israel to be a light unto the nations, and thought everyone else in the world wanted to destroy her.

I was ready for the 45-minute ride up to Jerusalem. I entered the bus with my fanny pack strapped to my ripped and faded Levi shorts and my canteen across my shoulder. Some students, like Zach, from New Jersey, filled their canteens with vodka. Seth and I would roll our eyes at each other, annoyed. Seth shook his head and we both scoffed at their immaturity. Seth was so practical, I mused, as we both drank our water, hydrating ourselves for the sunny city. As we ascended towards the Jerusalem, I thought of Ornstein’s description. Our skin, like the skin of the children of Israel she described, was also golden velvet from the sun’s kisses.

When we entered Jerusalem from Highway 1, I was hooked. By the time we got to the Old City, I was in love. The smells of olives and za’atar and lemon and mint wafted through the corridors of the Old City like a fast rush-hour bustle, as the store owners–I knew they were Palestinians but they were like background to my idealist love affair with Israel–opened the doors of their shops and set their items out for the day. I relished stepping on stones we had studied about. We spent days walking the city. Each afternoon at the end of the day, the light would hit the stones of the Old City like the cheeks of a young girl blushing. The stone was a light rose–my name!–and I would squeeze my fists when no one was looking as I tried to make the dusk last. One shop owner gave me a dirty look when he saw me sitting, pausing, looking at the rose tinted stone. “Dumb American,” he mumbled as he swept the garbage away in front of his shop. I thought the glow of the stone on my face made my skin look really good.

That summer, when we’d be in Jerusalem, I would prefer to be alone than with others, even Seth. I felt like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie, in “Sex in the City,” walking proudly alone at the end of an episode late at night in the middle of a Manhattan street. She walks down the center of the road like she owns it. She doesn’t need a man when she’s got the city to spend time with.

A couple of weeks ago, when I told my student that I had gone on the same AMHSI program, his eyes widened and he looked at me differently. “I can’t believe my teacher went on that program!” I heard him tell a friend as he left my classroom. “That’s just so cool,” he said in the hallway. He thinks we’re bonded now, connected to the same lover. He’ll do anything to protect his love, I can tell. I remember feeling this way too. During the teenage angst-filled years of high school, I enjoyed loving something so much larger than myself. I was living for something huge, and it felt selfless.

This is the brilliance of Israel, of course, that upper middle-class spoiled suburban American teenagers can participate in the displacing of indigenous Palestinians, support an ongoing occupation, plant trees on Palestinian villages masked as parks, mystify the whole experience as love, and feel deeply in their souls that they’re being selfless, working for a vision bigger than themselves. I had fallen in line as a good Zionist Jew and thought I had discovered it on my own. I’m behind now, learning what real love is, and understanding that the ideal as it was presented to me is really backdrop for walled-off cities that function as open-aired prisons, lack of water and movement and dignity.

I did finally tell Seth that I had a crush on him, but on the last day of our “eight week academic experience.” I slipped him a note as we all said goodbye at the airport. He wrote me a letter a few weeks later once he was back in Boston. I was in Chicago, depressed, slogging through my senior year of high school. Loving Israel and plotting ways to go back helped me get through the year. I desperately wanted to return to Jerusalem for a gap year after I graduated. “Oh, no,” my father balked. “You’re going to college.” I would get back to Jerusalem four years later, when Hebrew University would be the only graduate school I’d apply to. My father was excited about that. In Seth’s letter to me, he said he had liked me, too, but that he was also shy. I seemed very focused, he said, and he wasn’t sure if I’d be into him. “I should have told you,” he wrote. “The summer could have been very different indeed.” Seth went on to become a cantor, and the last I heard, he was divorced and raising his daughter in New Jersey.

I remember when I scribbled a note to Amy, from Miami, during class. “I think I like someone in Galil,” I wrote on the back of one of our units. It didn’t matter, though. Seth wouldn’t have had a chance with me. We were going to Jerusalem.

In the last several years, I’ve experienced a recurring dream about my paradigm shift from a Zionist to an anti-Zionist worldview. It felt like vertigo. I was alone, maybe standing on a hill or mountain–a Judean mountain, perhaps?–and I couldn’t look behind me. Everything I thought was real disappeared. I was nauseous. My knees buckled. I felt like I was spinning as I finally understood Israel as Palestine. Not settlements, but all of it. Palestine. And then I knew that young Jewish guys like Seth, sitting under trees with long hair playing guitar didn’t only happen the summer I was 16, but happens every summer Jews go to Israel and fall in love. They play the role perfectly in the farce without ever knowing they’re performing. In the dream I realized that all of the experiences I thought had been real were all manufactured–a mask we all wore participating in the charade. We thought it was real, but it was all folly. Then, in the dream, I grasped Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine in one hand, Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine in the other, and with a third hand–it was a dream, after all–Yitzhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism, and I jumped.

I found the booklets from attending AMHSI in 1986 a couple of years ago when I moved. They’d been sitting in the basement, in a box written “Israel stuff.” My student’s excitement prompted me to look through them. Now, I’m so angry about the propaganda I mistook for truth, and I feel sad for the child I was who was fed this narrative as gospel. I was taught a one-sided nonsense by those I loved and trusted the most. And my father worked so hard to send me.

No one in our family was ever as passionate about Israel as me, and now I’m the most critical. He can’t deal with the swings. Sometimes I wonder if he hates who I’ve become, though he’d never admit it. I know it’s been confusing for him, given how passionate he knew I was for Jerusalem when I was young. I begged him to support me. Now, as an adult watching him age, I want to beg him to understand me. I don’t know if he’ll be able to do it.

Last week, when my student talked about Israel, he had the same glow I had when I was his age and had just returned from my first trip to Israel on the same program he’ll be going on. Like me, he’ll read Ornstein and Herzl and Ben-Gurion and Meir and Jabotinsky and all the others who will speak to what he knows is truth. As he talked about going back next year, his face glowed like the stones of the Old City during dusk. I wonder about the relationships he’ll have. It will be hard for anyone to measure up to that kind of love.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

This fascinating account reminds me of Chris Hedges’ account of attending an elite boarding school on scholarship. He was stunned and appalled at the arrogance of the rich kids toward the non-rich, including their servants who were older than they were. Wealth bigotry is just as bad as race bigotry… Read more »

liz rose, you knocked it out of the ballpark with this essay. thank you so much. This is the brilliance of Israel, of course, that upper middle-class spoiled suburban American teenagers can participate in the displacing of indigenous Palestinians, support an ongoing occupation, plant trees on Palestinian villages masked as… Read more »

Instead of moonbeams’ glow, alas, searchlights and magnesium flares now cast their stark glare on Israel/Palestine.

Thank you, Liz Rose. Very moving.

Some will choose moonbeams. Others will choose populist causes just in order to fit in and all the while ignoring the evil that oozes and has oozed out of the side they have chosen. It’s hate and destroying what others have build on the one side, and it’s moonbeams on… Read more »