(From my Israel journal, started on 12 March, completed on 14 March.)

I get separated from my group at Banias, past the plausible site of Caesarea Phillipi, walking out towards the waterfalls.

The agents of separation are high school kids.

School kids in Israel appear to travel a lot – and appear to travel well, since tour buses here are so readily available. (Top industry in Israel? Tourism. I don’t think there’s a close second.) At any of the national parks, it’s not uncommon to find several school groups wandering around. On this day, it’s groups of early teenagers – girls preening and posing for digital pictures as if they’re supermodels, boys playfighting with each other as if they’re WWE wrestlers, exasperated teachers and parents trying to maintain a semblance of order.

In other words, not that much different from American school kids.

Except for this – every group we saw, we saw one or two – not appearing much older than school age, if they’re older at all – carrying rifles, slung over their shoulders, very visible.

A couple of remarks between us American travelers, when we first saw them, were about how much these guys looked like kids playing soldier. Honestly, I hope you’d forgive me for that. There was no way either of those guys was a day over 19, not even with the beard that one of them was sporting.

But now I’m separated from my guys, and I find myself behind this group of high school kids, and I wind up walking aside these two rifle guys, and we exchange pleasantries. The bearded guy asks, “Where are you from?” “Northern Georgia, in the United States. Do you know where Atlanta is?” He does, but he’s never heard of Rome. We get some doses of each others’ geography.

I find out that the bearded guy, the guy who’s most eager to talk to the Georgia redneck, is named Odi. His job is to provide security for the school kids. Every school group has to have security provided for them when they’re out. It really doesn’t take much imagination to see why.

Now, I do a lousy job of putting on airs. I don’t know if it was politic or not to tell Odi what we thought he was when we first saw him – just a school kid that’s too eager to join the military. But when I say this to Odi, it’s clear that he doesn’t think I was out of line at all. He just laughs. “I am eager to join the military!”

“Well, doesn’t everybody have to serve in the military in Israel?”

“Yes, but that does not matter. Everybody wants to serve. See, America is a wonderful country. Everybody wants to serve in the American military, no?”

Oh, wow, that line of questioning blindsided me. I stammer something like “well, you might think so, but these are strange times.” All I can think in my head is this: Now is probably not the time to bring up Iraq..

Odi looks at me strangely. “I don’t understand. American military pays well, no?”

“Well, yes, but…” but I suddenly realize that Odi’s not listening to me. “The Israeli military pays only 700 sheqels a month. But that does not matter. Israel is a wonderful country – but we cannot know what might happen tomorrow. We have to be ready. I want to be ready.”

Odi is stiffening, standing straighter, as he talks. He is talking passionately. When he looks at me, I see only one thing in his eyes:

I love Israel, and no one will take Israel away from me.

I say a few things about how admirable his passion is, and how sometimes I wish we felt as strongly about America as he feels about Israel. But at this point his group is stopping, and I have no clue how much farther my group is ahead, and I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to get lost in a strange land, so I say my goodbyes.

As the week has gone on, and as we’ve seen the military gather this place or that, the one thing that stuns me is how often the soldiers are having fun, how often there are smiles on the soldier’s faces. There are sometimes serious looks, in the stressful places, but never weary or fatigued looks, and only rarely is there a flash of anger. It seems this is a military that genuinely enjoys serving and longs to serve. I may not know much about war, but I do expect it’s much harder to defeat an army that wants to serve than an army that doesn’t.

Tel Aviv

(From my Israel journal, 10 March 2008.)

Tel Aviv doesn’t care.

Yeah, there were people shot and killed by Muslim extremists in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem on Tuesday. So? Yeah, conditions in Gaza are worse today than they were in the 1960’s. What’s that have to do with me? Yeah, we have a conflict between Arab and Jew that goes on and on and on, maybe since the beginning of time, definitely for the last century.

Tel Aviv says this: “Look, you and I aren’t going to solve these problems today. Today, we party.”

The saying in Israel, I was told before arriving here, goes: “You go to Haifa to work, to Jerusalem to pray, to Tel Aviv to play.” I chuckled at the idea before I touched down in Israel. I finished the day feeling like, for the first time in my life, I’d been on Spring Break. It was all there – the beach, the youth hard at play, way too little clothing for the coast in March, the cramped housing and hotels on the coastline – why ISN’T that the Florida Gulf Coast? The fact that it’s the western coast of Israel on shabbat is of no consequence. I feel no more threatened here than I would in Panama City. Honestly, I feel less threatened.

Leave the beach, go into the city, not much changes. The streets are packed – far more packed than you’d expect for the Sabbath. Only everyone’s headed to the parks and public places, so deliberately you begin to wonder if they’re just cruising. Picnics and cookouts abound. Games are everywhere. Even as the plane touches down, deafeningly close to the taxiway – football! Goals are being scored, with NARY A NET TO THE GOAL. RIGHT NEXT TO THE TAXIWAY. You wonder how loud the laughter will be if the ball rolls into the runway.

There’s soccer everywhere. Basketball hoops. Volleyball nets. For crying out loud, teenagers on roller skates. Four wheels in blocks, not the inline kind; I’m talking the kind that went out of style in 1979 and that my daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in. But just fine for Tel Aviv.

And then tennis. And paddleball. And more tennis. And more paddleball. And still more tennis. And paddleball EVERYWHERE.

The Israelis have a name for it that I never learned; for our purposes, let’s just call it “paddleball” and be done with it. When you arrive at the beach, it’s the first sound you hear. Close to the buildings, to the beachfront shops, you find the people who take it most seriously, but even they show no evidence of playing formal games – they just hit the ball back and forth, with forceful abandon, as if they’re playing ping-pong over ten times the space with no table, oversized paddles and where the point is only lost if you’re the one who allows the ball to hit the ground. The games are energetic, passsionate, and seemingly endless.

On the beach, more casual games. Some between boyfriend and girlfriend, gently lobbing the ball to and fro. Some between brothers, showing off for one another (and attractive female passersby) in typical brotherly fashion. Some between random acquaintances, maybe even strangers, volleying back and forth at first, but now swinging their shots towards one another with brute force. One or two clearly could play with the serious athletes on the pavement, but they choose to be on the beach – more accessible to their friends, maybe to the opposite sex, maybe to the bongs that seem to start popping up as the day gets later – some emitting tobacco smoke, some other grasses of the land, and some…well, you just wonder about their content…

And this is JUST the beach. This is JUST the paddleball. Tennis is, of course, the more respectable game, better organized and properly competitive. So the tennis courts are everywhere as well, and the games show that same range of activity – from husband and wife simply knocking a ball back and forth to fit competitors desperately wanting to win the game.

Our first site visit in Israel was to an old Philistine city, Tel Qasile, under the auspices of the Eretz Israel Museum. The archaeological site sits on a hill. It’s been restored somewhat, but has fallen into disrepair in turn – “it’s a ruin of the restoration of a ruin”. All the while, while we’re at this poorly kept site, you can look off the hill at the well-kept courts and see the tennis games go on.

It’s only as I get away from Tel Aviv that I begin to really feel like I’m in another land, and it’s only as I am within site of the Sea of Galilee that it really starts to hit that I’m truly approaching hold ground. Tel Aviv may just be more Americanized than anything in Ontario. As relatively young as the city is, it stands to reason. But it’s still at once comforting and sad.

Not that Tel Aviv cares.

After all, there are still games to be played.


From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, March 16, 2008

So, I’ve been in Israel this past week.

How’s that for surreal sentences? Hey, let me keep it going: “I stayed in a hotel with a view of the Sea of Galilee this week.” “I studied at the ruins of Dan this week.” “I walked on the 1st-century street outside the Temple walls this week.” “We had Palm Sunday worship on the Mount of Olives this week.”

Compared to that, “I rode a camel this week” sounds positively mundane.

We come home tonight (well, Monday night, since I’m typing this late Sunday night Eastern time…I just woke up over here). I kind of purposely haven’t live-blogged the trip, because I didn’t know what my time on a computer would be like. As it turned out, there were three days where I had quite restricted access, and two days where we had no access at all. So I’ve scribbled stuff in a notebook when I’ve been able to, and when my brain hasn’t been so overwhelmed and overfull that I just mentally shut down (which has felt like pretty much all of our time in Jerusalem and surrounding environs).

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’ll type up some of what I’ve scribbled down and post it here.

This is an amazing country, a diverse country, a historic country, a spiritual country, a tragic country. I will never be the same again for having been here. But the ways I have changed, I could not have even remotely predicted a week ago.

Stay tuned. I have a story to tell.