Over Interterm, a contingent of Jewish Amherst students begrudgingly suspended their bitter antagonism to join a group of Jewish students from Williams College and participate in an Amherst-Williams Birthright trip to Israel.
Birthright is a ten-day trip to Israel free to any young adult with Jewish heritage. It unites about 30 kids from across the country with ten Israeli soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). IDF service is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, so the soldiers are ordinary Israeli citizens around our age.
Each American participant comes with different motives. Some want to establish a connection with the Jewish homeland, some are in it for the free travel, and still others go out of boredom. With a culturally Jewish upbringing, a love for travel, and an available Interterm, I was a mix of all three. I didn’t quite buy our Israeli travel guide’s assertion that Israel would feel like home by the end of the trip, but I was hoping to feel something.
Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult to relate to Israel and its inhabitants. The vast differences between the American students and Israeli soldiers seemed almost insurmountable: most of the soldiers had never been to America; most of the students had never previously visited Israel. For them high school graduation meant the beginning of the army; for us it meant either entering the job market or continuing school. They had no control over the next few years of their life; we had at least some freedom over what to do next.
Surprisingly, what allowed me to overcome this awkwardness was shared femininity. On the eighth day of the trip, as we strolled along the streets of downtown Tel Aviv, I chatted with Michal, the female soldier whom I had bonded with the least. I asked her questions about her home, family, and military service: anything to gain some insight into her very foreign life. Finally, I stumbled on a story that helped to break down the barriers to communication.
Michal was bemoaning the uniform shewas forced to wear on duty. She found it ugly, shapeless, and unflattering. The army prohibited any alterations, but after months of suffering, Michal could just not take it anymore. On one of her days off, Michal furtively explained, she had snuck the uniform to a tailor who converted its standard pant legs into a skinny cut. While not a complete transformation, the alterations improved the situation. By making this one small change, Michal was able to feel attractive and retain some of the femininity that had characterized her before her military service.
After divulging this secret, Michal glanced up at me. Her expression was a mixture of fear and pride; fear that I might scorn her actions as immoral, but pride that she had successfully taken the situation into her own hands. Of course, she was soon relieved as my face broke into a huge smile that burst into laughter. I understood why she had been so adversely affected by the uniform, and could picture myself doing the same thing in her situation (presuming I had the audacity to do so).
My approval encouraged her to continue with the juicy tales. She explained that the military also stipulated that girls could not wear makeup or straighten their hair. While her efforts to bypass these rules had been fruitless, she had found a different silver lining: At least now her boyfriend, whom she had met on the military base, could not see her as any worse. Michal joyfully revealed that she didn’t have to worry about looking perfect when they went out because she would always look better than she did on the base.
The bonds these stories formed between us may seem superficial, but I don’t believe they were. I was finally able to relate to Michal. Before then, all I knew was that she performed a job I would never be brave enough to do. This was awe-inspiring, but incomprehensible. Concerns over boys and appearances, on the other hand, I could understand. Michal went from a stranger living an unfathomable life to just another teen experiencing similar hardships and emotions, albeit in an extremely different way.
Two days later, we toured Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, after spending the previous day discussing and emotionally preparing for it. I didn’t know what to expect, but I yearned to feel a connection to the Jews involved in the Holocaust, a connection that I had yet to truly experience.
I was mostly disappointed. As I walked through the museum, I felt horrified by the death toll statistics, the stories of the ambivalence of non-Jews and other countries, and the tales of immense suffering. But I did not feel any underlying connection to those involved. The Holocaust seemed almost unreal, or at least like something that could never happen again. Perhaps it was our off-putting tour guide, or maybe it was simply too difficult a task for American students with lives so removed from the event relate on a deep level.
Again, the redeeming experience was distinctly feminine. One of the final exhibits contained a video of a woman telling her story on a constant loop. She described how she had somehow managed to survive the Holocaust and move on with her life, soon after finding a husband among the other survivors. They, along with hundreds of other couples, quickly got married, eager to regain normalcy in their life. However, it was not that easy. She soon became pregnant and, instead of being overjoyed, she was hor- rified. She did not want to bring a baby into a world that allowed such atrocities to occur. She dangerously attempted to give herself an abortion with an iron but was unsuccessful.
While I haven’t experienced marriage or childbirth, this story made the Holocaust seem more real. I thought of my mother, who would have had the exact same fears. I could even imagine myself feeling the same way. Somehow, these stories, Michal’s and the survivor’s, penetrated the emotional barrier I had unconsciously built toward Israel, its inhabitants, and its history. The tour guide was wrong: Israel is not my home. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand it.