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October 21, 2014 | 27th Tishrei 5775

Wandering Jews

Galilee Diary #428, February 8, 2009
Marc J. Rosenstein

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. Jonah however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's service. He went down to Jaffa and found a ship going to Tarshish.
-Jonah 1:1-3

Ran into a neighbor this evening, whose daughter left last week on her Big Trip – After Army Before University. She is doing fine, and has already been tubing on the Mekong River (for my generation it is still a little difficult to get our heads around the idea of floating down the Mekong River, for recreation); meanwhile, she reported that everywhere she goes in the region she hears Hebrew being spoken. We exchanged notes, as our daughter had called in yesterday from Ethiopia, just back from a trek in the Simien Mountains – having had a beer in Addis Ababa a week ago with the friend of a friend who was passing through. Which was nothing unusual – our younger son, on his Trip a few years ago, was sitting in a pub in a small town in southern Chile, on the way to Tierra del Fuego, when in walked the daughter of another neighbor. And in case you were wondering how these kids pay for all these excursions, just walk into any shopping mall in North America and say "shalom" to the first pushcart vendor you encounter.

There are some kids who travel to Europe, and some who buy a car and drive across North America, but by far the majority direct their sights to the third (or formerly third) world – South America, Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia. There was once a very strong focus on India, but as the numbers of kids traveling has grown, so has the variety of destinations. It's interesting that travel has become a rite of passage for middle class Israeli young adults – the way it once was for upper class Americans and Europeans. However, unlike the aristocrats and nouveau riches of the 19th century, these travelers are not going to imbibe the high culture of Europe, to get in touch with the classics; rather they are seeking physical challenge, exotic experiences – the very cultures that are the most foreign to them, where they have no roots or collective memory whatsoever. On the other hand, I imagine that what they do have in common with young travelers of a century ago is an urge to "get away," to deal with the unexpected and the uncomfortable, to demonstrate self- reliance

Israel, being small with somewhat impermeable borders, can feel pretty claustrophobic. Even combat soldiers come home almost every weekend, bringing their laundry with them, and going back Sunday morning well stocked with home cooked delicacies. If you really want to get away from the embrace of family and community, you have to leave the country. The army may be for some a maturing experience, but it is not exactly a place where you get to test your independence (and those who try get to spend their weekends grounded on the base instead of eating Mom's cooking at home). Moreover, for all Israel's being an ingathering of exiles from the four corners of the earth, it can feel like a pretty homogeneous and conformist place, where we don't really encourage people to look at the world from different cultural perspectives. So we hit the road before locking ourselves into the next phase of the rat race.

Having observed my own children – and friends' and neighbors ' children – go through this rite, I really see it as a positive experience. They learn and grow, and it's fun to track them on Google Earth, trying to imagine what they are seeing. At the same time there is some irony in the fact that we live in Asia: not in European or North American culture – but in the middle of the Middle East; I can walk in twenty minutes from my house to a community where the dominant culture is one that has been seen by the West for centuries as the epitome of exoticism, where I don’t speak the language, where the social mores are a world apart from mine. This is a remarkably interesting and complicated place. I guess I am currently in the 19th year of my Big Trip.

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