“Long Island, what the fuck?” Had the video emerged on the Internet at the time, that scene from “Pursuit of Jappiness” — a video produced by University students that went viral on the Internet this semester — would have popped into my mind at a moment when I couldn’t imagine anything else at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. The reminder of self-aware hedonism would have elicited a chuckle when I was experiencing an inability to empathize with my grandfather’s experiences. Not a chuckle symbolizing genuine laughter, but cynicism as I compared the opportunities of my grandfather’s generation to mine. Had I left the exhibit and boarded that Birthright bus two years later, I would have questioned: Are “Jappiness” and Jewishness mutually exclusive? How much do I want to be associated with either? Is it even fair to make that dichotomy?
To realize something so raw and humbling — that I’ll never be able to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes — and then to be on a bus (unsuccessfully) living the lifestyle that was portrayed in the video was unsettling. That video brought my Birthright trip back to life perhaps because it wasn’t really a parody. That lifestyle seems so incongruent with what I believe to be the Jewish values I grew up with. I didn’t share my discomfort during the Birthright circle discussions because it seemed like the trip leaders wanted to hear affirmations, not uncertainty. In the future, I would tell others that I loved my Birthright experience, just not in the way I was supposed to.
After Birthright finished, I stayed in the country and visited family. I told my cousin stories from college, answering questions about nightlife but qualifying that there is more to college than what he’s seen from movies. He told me about his army experience, recounting stories of unimaginable training missions and friends who lost limbs. Family members offered (blunt) sentiments as to what I should know about Israel. With my cousin leading the way, I experienced a less edited version of the country my father grew up in.
They say a conversation with two Israelis will lead to seven political parties. Although I didn’t know much about the country’s conflicts at the time I was in Israel, I sure acted as if I did, reiterating pocket arguments I’ve heard from Israeli adults all my life. In time, I would learn about the White Papers, the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the settlements. In doing so, I realized that some young Israelis — people undergoing rigorous army training — knew little history or only knew it from one side. Personally, the more I learned about the conflict that defines the everyday for some of my family, the less I knew. When pressed for a concrete opinion, I often said some variation of “I don’t know, man. It’s complex.”
But I didn’t experience ideological diversity on Birthright. I partied five nights and told others that I felt “more Jewish.” I didn’t really feel a genuine sense of belonging until I explored Israel on my own terms. But perhaps I’m expecting too much from a free 10-day trip. Although I believe the trip panders to spring break getaway whims, I understand that the organization’s motives — to connect American Jews with Israel — are prudent. I’m grateful that it exists. I just don’t think the trip has to be branded as a vacation in Cancun with some spirituality.
When I go back to Israel, I’d like to engage with people who have experienced firsthand what we learn in our history textbooks, as well as those who have different perspectives on those historical events. The end goal of a trip like Birthright should be for American Jews to have a multifaceted understanding of the significance of and complexity inherent in having a Jewish nation. Participants should have a better understanding of Israeli culture and lifestyle and how certain historical events have defined it. They should also have an amazing time in a variety of different settings. Birthright gives a taste of all of these, but it seems to focus on the latter.
My cousin and I came up with a generalized hypothesis to explain some of the dissonance we noticed between Americans and Israelis of our generation: Israeli kids grew up with the justified narrative that their country was always under attack. They serve their country out of duty, as a measure of self-defense. Many have responded to that narrative.
American kids grew up with the narrative that life is short, post-college work life is boring and opportunities for experimenting at college are limitless as well as numbered. They’ve seen the movies; they’ve seen their older brother’s photos. Their parents reminisce about carefree college life, and they want to be able to do the same. They, too, have responded to their own narratives.
Erik Torenberg can be reached at email@example.com.