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October 31, 2014 | 7th Cheshvan 5775

Israeli Culture V

Galilee Diary #249
September 4, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

The beginning of the Jewish people/religion, according to the Torah, occurred when God gave Abram his marching orders in Genesis 12:1:

Go out of your land, your homeland, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and magnify your name and you shall be a blessing.

Leaving home marked an important break, a new beginning, a new culture, a new belief system. In a world where people stayed put forever, cutting loose and setting off into the unknown was a radical – and daunting – idea. Of course, the goal was to be settled in a new place, from which we would not be setting off again, but in which we would establish a stable and permanent existence. History, however, turned out otherwise, and mobility in the face of a dream of stability became a central feature of Jewish existence.

Zionism came to reestablish geographical permanence, to end Jewish wandering and to fulfill (again) God’s original promise of stable settlement in a blessed land. And indeed, Zionism succeeded, and here we are. It is therefore interesting to note the degree to which travel abroad has become an important element in Israeli culture. Israel is, of course a beautiful country with many tourist attractions – even to those who have no particular historical or spiritual connection to the land. Much foreign tourism to Israel is neither Jewish nor Christian pilgrimage, but rather charter flights for beach vacations, or cruise ship day excursions. And there is a strong tradition in Israeli culture of conquering the land by hiking its length and breadth: there are dozens of hiking clubs, and excursions offered by field schools and informal educational organizations for every age group.

And yet, the statistics on travel abroad by Israelis over Sukkot, Pesach, and summer vacation periods are mind-boggling. There are shopkeepers all over Turkey who have learned Hebrew as a capitalist imperative. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete and other Greek Islands, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary – are all hugely popular vacation destinations, with inexpensive deals – even just for a weekend – that are attractive to the whole spectrum of the middle class. Everybody’s been somewhere.

Beyond the vacations of the middle class are the travel adventures of the young – an exotic travel experience is a kind of rite of passage after one finishes the army. Recently our son, who is himself planning an excursion through Argentina, reported opening his email and finding letters – with digital pictures, of course – from friends in India, Bolivia, New Zealand, and Vietnam. Seeking to attend a lecture at a camping supply store on trekking in South America, he found it standing room only. These trips can last from a few months to a year or more. They tend to be in third world countries, both, it seems, to save money and to experience cultures that are maximally different from home. Kids who go to more developed countries (like the US) tend to do so in order to earn money to finance their trips elsewhere. There is a large industry, employing hundreds of Israeli young people (illegally, usually) in pushcart sales in shopping malls all over North America. A Christmas season of selling in a mall in rural America can finance several months of touring in southeast Asia.

We worked so hard to get here; why are we so anxious to get out? Some of the fascination with travel abroad is, I assume, based on status and social pressure. But beyond that, I think that this place can be confining and provincial. Maybe it is the physical smallness, the feeling that you can’t get away, that even the wide open spaces can be traversed in an hour’s drive. That and the pressures of conformity, and the intensity of the cultural and political conflicts that are always “in your face” make us long for a different climate, different faces, a place where everyone doesn’t know us and where every decision is not fateful.

Maybe this is really the Zionist dream: to have a place we can leave freely, knowing we can always come back.

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