I had trouble sleeping again the second night in Israel. The "dwarf" beds and sheets were no help, along with the extremely cold air conditioning. I at least was smart enough to wear a sweatshirt this time, but by 4:00 or so I was pretty lucid, and I spent the next two hours lying in bed only half-asleep. By 6:00 I decided to get up and write for a little while on the roof deck where we'd spent the previous evening.
Breakfast was the same on day two, and we were off by just after 8 to see the holy city of Tzfat. I was immediately struck by the much more nuanced and cared for architecture of the small hillside town. It is a relatively young city in light of the region's historical scale, dating back only 400 years, but the town had a charm that I've yet to see elsewhere in Israel, where so much of the development has been in the past 70 years and is much more economical. Everywhere the structures were built with limestone using blue trim, reminiscent of traditional Greek architecture.
Our first stop in the town was to an artist—the town itself is an artists' colony—who moved to Tzfat from Detroit about fifteen years ago. He had grown up as a not-very religious Jew, but discovered his passion for the spiritual side of the religion through reading passages of the Kabbalah in college. Before long, he was traveling to Israel on a regular basis, eventually finding that Israel felt more like home, and it was America he was visiting in between. He was very engaging, and got the whole group thinking about who we were, where our names came from, our interconnectedness on this planet, and the miracle of us coming to Israel at all, fulfilling a prophecy that our forebears had been trying to complete for 2000 years. This above all resonated with me and many of my peers. While Israel does not feel like home to me personally, the experience of visiting it on behalf of all of my ancestors who could only ever dream of such a day gave the trip of greater feeling of relevancy to me.
We next visited The Ashkenazi Ha'Ari Synagogue, which I found remarkable for its contrast to the grand churches I've seen across Europe. While there was definitely some beautiful art to the interior, I found the temple to be quite subdued in character—certainly a mark of the Jewish traditions by comparison to Catholicism—with little to distinguish it besides its heritage. Perhaps what I found even more surprising was the small size, which I imagined would be a squeeze to fit much more than thirty people in it, with the lectern sitting at the center of the square room rather than against one wall.
After dining on a gigantic "shwalafel" (shwarma/falafel), we drove 90 minutes south to a small farm community, known as a Moshav, where we got to visit the home of one of the Israeli soldiers who would be joining our group over the weekend. Sigal, our host, was a third generation dairy farmer who invited us to have this unique experience, seeing where she grew up milking cows in rural northern Israel. Her father moved there when he was about eight with his family from Britain, so he spoke quite fluently to us with a great English accent. It was a special experience we were afforded, which most birthright groups do not get the opportunity to see, because Sigal, who would join us in a few days, wanted to show us a different side of Israel.
As we were told, a Moshav is different than a Kibbutz in that each of the farmers runs their own private business rather than pooling all resources together. There is a community board that oversees the allotment of homes, and the 300 or so families share a grocery store, school, and synagogue, but each works their own small part of land for personal profit. Each farm was hardly bigger than the backyards in a lot of suburban communities, just big enough for the job at hand with another different farmer abutting their property. We saw Sigal's cows, adjacent to a neighbor's olive orchard; got to taste fresh yogurt and milk at a neighbors farm, alongside a turkey farmer; and concluded by visiting the last of the rose farmers in the Moshav. All in all, it was an enlightening experience, and Sigal was so pleased that we were interested in her family's way of life.
By contrast to the winery, I felt these farmers really represented the agricultural potential of the region. As I described to some of my peers, the Golan wine was like supermarket milk compared to the wonderful fresh tasting milk we sampled on the farm. As I found in the small farm communes of Sicily, you could taste the cow itself in the milk.
From the northern countryside we headed another two hours south to Jerusalem, getting ourselves settled into a new hotel and home-base for the next four days. Along the ride, we passed Megiddo, supposed site of future Armageddon. It seemed to stick out on the skyline before Einat mentioned it because out of the plains are a cluster of trees. Einat pointed out these were not intentionally planted but rather the result of a group of soldiers camping on the hill and spitting out their date seeds there.
At the end of the evening we had a group discussion reflecting on our time so far in Israel. I was pleasantly struck by several members of the group, who described a feeling of being at home in Israel in a way that they hadn't experienced before. Even though they may not have been to Israel before, it felt more comfortable than America. It was a sentiment I could relate to, as I listened to person after person describe my emotional reaction to living in Italy. I was able to connect with Italy through its foundation as the birthplace of modern Western Civilization during the Renaissance and embrace of music, art, food, and life on the whole. I am happy my peers found that in Israel, and I value the opportunity I've been given to learn about my heritage and its current iteration in Israel, but their epiphanies solidified for me that I was not meant to have that experience here myself. It is my heritage but no longer my culture, and I will enjoy the rest of the trip as a pilgrim/tourist learning about a people I do not so strongly identify with myself.