This Rosh Hashanah I remember hiking in Israel when I still believed the myths

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It was a beautiful fall day here in Chicago this year on Rosh Hashanah, so I did what I do during most of these pandemic days–I took a walk around the north side of Chicago. On this crisp, cool day, the light turning from summer yellow to fall white, I remembered missing days like these when I lived in Israel.  I used to write letters to my mother explaining how much I missed the fall.  In a loving gesture, she sent me photos of fall days like this one in a care package along with peanut M&Ms, soap opera updates from the Sunday paper, and a 20 dollar bill. 

Walking in Chicago on the Jewish New Year, I began to think about the first time I took a hike. It was 1986 on my first trip to Israel.  I was 16, with dozens of other young 16-year-olds on the same high school summer program, walking in northern Israel over a span of several hours.  “You’re going to hike the width of the country!” our enthusiastic leader told our eager group.  Donning faded cut-off jean shorts, a pink fanny pack, and my canteen–“You’ll need the water for the hike,” we were told before the trip– I forged a bond with the ground with each step I took across the tiny country.  My teenage feet sunk into the earth, mud sticking into the ridges of my shoes. 

Some teens on the hike later removed the mud from their shoes with a stick, but not me.  It’s embarrassing to admit now, but that day, I fantasized about licking the holy dirt from the bottom of my shoe with my tongue when no one was looking, for we had been taught for weeks (and for years back in the U.S.) that it was holy.  At age 16, I was a virgin, but I felt drawn to the Israeli earth like a lover.  Later, I fooled around on that earth camping in the Israeli wilderness, a menage-a-trois with a man and the dirt. I had grown up with parents who often said that “Jews don’t camp.”  My father used to tell me that the closest we’d ever get to camping would be spending a weekend at the Holiday Inn Holidome off Highway 94 in Wisconsin.  So the hiking I did in Israel, while obviously a Jewish ritual given where I was and who I was with, felt exotic and different. 

When we removed the mud from our shoes with a stick on that hike at age 16, I put some of the earth in an empty wine bottle, corked it, and brought it home to Chicago–a souvenir and holy relic at once.

The walk we did is called a tiyul, which also means a hike or a journey, in Hebrew.  Throughout the several-hour tiyul across the nation-state, we walked up and down hills, climbed through forests, paused at the hot springs, pushed each other into the Jordan River.  We teenagers flirted, some hooked up, and a couple got married a few years later and made aliyah, returning to the place where they first fell in love.

The ground itself we young Zionists walked through on the tiyul had been altered to appear native, carefully designed precisely to feel primal and spontaneous and organic, the actual indigenous Palestinian land destroyed to make way for this false, fake appearance of indigenousness.  Forests and parks we teens hiked through used to be Palestinian villages: Amuqa, ‘Ayn al-Zaytun, Fir‘im, Mughr al-Khayt, Qaba‘a, are just a few.  Pine trees now grow where the villages once stood. 

On the tiyul, we walked outside all day with sweat dripping off our bodies, absorbed by the holy dirt.  Some took a piss on the side of the path like dogs claiming their territory.   One teen had filled his canteen with lemon vodka–relishing that there was no drinking age in Israel–but once he was hot, he dumped the liquor on the ground, which quickly drank that, too.  The entire experience was designed to feel like we were discovering it ourselves, but of course, these encounters took place against a manufactured backdrop–a Zionist playground created entirely on top of Palestinian life and culture. 

As I walked through the forest on the tiyul, I remembered the allowance money I put in the Jewish National Fund (JNF) blue box at a young age.  “We made the desert bloom,” my mother said when I was ten years old.  “How did we do this,” I asked from our home, “from the other side of the world?”  My mother pointed to the blue JNF box full of loose change–a pretty sky blue, I remember, and in the foreground of the box a tall, good looking man held an ax and stared towards the sun–while I sat on our 1970s green kitchen counter.  “That’s how,” she said.  And then I felt a selflessness in me, learning to give to others who required help, like Israel, who I believed–because my mother believed–needed money to help make the empty forest grow.  Only five cities are listed on the blue box, the only cities that matter to young Zionists: Haifa, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, and Eilat.  The hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948 don’t enter a Zionist’s consciousness.

JNF blue boxes.

The tiyul became a forced consummation of years of foreplay spent dreaming of walking across the land.  Later, I read about this colonial tactic masked as a light-hearted walk in Orit Ben-David’s essay, “Tiyul (Hike) as an Act of Consecration of Space,” in Eyal Ben-Ari and Yorum Bilu’s 1998 book, Grasping Land: Space and Place in Contemporary Israeli Discourse and Experience.  There, l learned that the tiyul is “a declaration of territorial claim,” and a means “for the legitimization of personal and national identity.”  The hikes are just another territorial method to get young Zionists to fall in love with the land, a way to claim national possession:

Hikes and tours were basic constituents of the Zionist ethos, and were popular from the 1920s.  The aim of these excursions was to develop a close familiarity with the landscape and to encourage a concrete bond to the features of the homeland…The Zionist hike was therefore constructed as a ‘return’; a search for the familiar names and places from the Jewish past.

This tiyul is a fabricated experience that felt real to me, designed to reconnect me to a Jewish past. 

It worked, for unbeknownst to me, the epiphanies I had about Israel had already been anticipated by political leaders, conditions already created to sexualize and fall in love with the land,  purposefully manufactured, deliberately outlined by other, older Zionists sitting somewhere in large offices with millions of dollars to ensure young Zionists fall in love with the country.  I believed, as I was taught, that it was a legitimate country–fought for and defended, needing my help. 

On Rosh Hashanah the other day in Chicago, I walked through the campus of Loyola University and sat on a bench near Lake Michigan.  I received my Master’s in Education there in 2000.  It’s a beautiful campus along the lake.  “Black Lives Matter,” “Vote Trump Out,” and “Justice for the Indigenous,” messages dotted the cement path in pink and yellow chalk.  The lake that day was a still, brilliant blue.  I needed to return home soon, to plan my remote classes that now consist of students logging onto Zoom from their homes.  Some of my students are homeless, and they try to connect to our class on their phones.  They keep their video off.  Others sit in their backyards or on the roofs of their homes.  Some are in bed.  Most evenings after dinner, I walk along Broadway Avenue in my neighborhood.  Since April, the amount of homeless people on the street has steadily increased. 

On the tiyul up north in Israel in 1986, I rested at one point during the long day.  We teenagers were tired.  I needed to refill my canteen with more water.  The teen whose canteen had been filled with vodka was drunk.  I ate lunch on a wood bench in a park that looked like it had always been there.  A structure with limestone on the bottom and glass on the top stood out.  “What a beautiful fusion of old and modern,” I said to the enthusiastic leader.  It was a bathroom for the hikers who ate their lunches on the wood benches in the park that was designed to appear native.  I asked what the building used to be before it was a bathroom–clearly it was something before it was a place to pee in.  The leader of our tiyul told me, “Ancient ruins,” with a faraway look in his eye, “with a modern update!” 

Leaving any political system behind is also deeply personal.  For years, my mother and I suffered an ideological alienation from each other.  The values I was taught as a child were, when taken to their logical conclusion, precisely what caused me to abandon the Zionist ideology.  Even now, I feel a twinge when I return to my mother, who is aging–I am aging, too–because things have never quite been the same between us since I separated Israel’s myth from its reality.  We’ve been confused by each other, my mother and me, for it was she who taught me to be selfless and to help others when I put my allowance in that pretty blue box. 

I still feel nauseous when I remember when I sat, in love–for it felt as authentic as a real love could feel–on a wood bench in a park that used to be a Palestinian village, where Zionists on a tiyul took a piss and snuck alcohol and fooled around near the building of glass fused to limestone that used to be a Palestinian home. 

But these are just memories and musings–stirring, I suppose, during these Days of Awe when we are asked to reflect.  Here on a fall day in Chicago, the leaves have not yet turned brown or fallen.  Zionists in synagogues all over the U.S. are asking–over Zoom–for donations to Israel.   Little Zionists fill their JNF blue boxes to help the forests grow in Israel, looking up to and learning from their mothers. 

On my walk through Loyola, I saw some boats out on Lake Michigan, clustered in a group.  The water was calm and peaceful, the blue not unlike the color of the JNF blue box.  I thought of the beginning of one of my mother’s favorite books, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

I remember seeing this book around our house when I was young.  My mother, also a teacher, was using it in her classes.  She had discovered Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida, in the 1970s, when we lived in Gainesville.  For decades, she recommended that I read the book.  “I promise you’ll love it,” she said to me many times.  I scoffed with a youthful bravado, not wanting to be told what to read, tired of seeing it all over the house.  I finally did, in college, in one of my literature courses.  “You were right,” I wrote her in a letter after I finished. 

On Rosh Hashanah, as she and my father participated in their temple’s services on Zoom, she sent me a text wishing me Shana Tova.  She also sent a photo of her computer screen of the Rabbi and Cantor up on the bimah without the congregation.  They were separated by plexiglass.  “Lonely clergy,” she wrote in her text, “but at least it’s one of those nice fall days you used to miss when you lived in Israel.” 

I got up from the bench, but wasn’t ready to go home.  I decided to walk a bit longer along the path.

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Beautifully written!

i always love your writing Liz. I think about this sometimes “purposefully manufactured, deliberately outlined by other, older Zionists sitting somewhere in large offices with millions of dollars to ensure young Zionists fall in love with the country.”

one last thing. growing up beneath a mountain, it’s strange to imagine any child taking their very first hike at 16. 

“’We made the desert bloom,’ my mother said when I was ten years old. ‘How did we do this,’ I asked from our home, ‘from the other side of the world?’ My mother pointed to the blue JNF box full of loose change…” For the record: The Zionist claim that Israel quickly and dramatically increased the amount of land under cultivation within its borders is a fabrication as is Shimon Peres’ assertion that such land was ‘redeemed from swamp… Read more »

I wish there were more who would walk by the lakeshore with you Liz.

After the pandemic I plan to visit Israel. In the late summer of next year. Jerusalem of course, Tel Aviv, Eilat, the Golan. I want to spend some money at the restaurants. Maybe hike. A truly magical place that makes me feel alive and connected.