Israel is full of hope, not violence


Our birthright israel tour bus came upon Eyal just south of Jerusalem. He was serving as one of our group’s two armed guards for a run through Israel’s Negev desert, and certainly came prepared for the job. Slung over one shoulder was his antiquated assault rifle, the wood of its butt worn and chipped, while his opposite hand carried a black guitar case. Of course, the rumors immediately started to fly between us birthright participants. That guitar case must have been concealing an even more devastating piece of artillery. This was, after all, Israel — land of the wild Jews, where one could set his watch by the hourly explosions and pitched gun battles that engulfed the nation.

But we were wrong on both counts. Israel wasn’t a war zone. And Eyal’s guitar case, inexplicably, contained a guitar.

He first produced the instrument in the lounge of Club Ramon, one of the procession of dingy and eccentric hotels that we passed through on our birthright pilgrimage. The guitar’s wood panel surface shined cheerily, shaming the other, deadly tool that Eyal carried. Beforehand, myself and a few of the other tour members had been pattering away at some of the many hand drums that decorated Club Ramon’s lobby. But the guitar commanded our respect, and our choppy rhythms dropped off as Eyal began to play. He first attempted a tongue-in-cheek reading of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, muffed the lyrics, cut the tune short, and then changed tactics.

“This is a song I wrote after the Lebanon War,” he said.

Earlier that evening, during a group discussion of life in the Israeli Defense Forces, Eyal had mentioned serving in the conflict. He hadn’t chosen to elaborate on his experiences in the field then. Instead, this song would be his testimonial.

The tune itself I can scarcely remember. Eyal sang in Hebrew, and although he gave a rough English translation afterward, I’d be doing the lyrics a disservice by attempting to piece them back together here. What lingers in my memory, however, is the song’s sentiment. A peculiar mix of sorrow and defiance bled through the hard-strummed chords and foreign stanzas. We all sat and listened: myself and the other would-be percussionists, a few of the other young Israelis (all active soldiers) who accompanied our birthright group, trip organizer Rabbi John Franken of Temple Israel, and the hotel’s curious desk manager. Even the English speakers could grasp the message: things may be bitter and absurd today, but tomorrow yet holds hope for something greater.

Thinking back on that song today, it strikes me as a fresh variation on the ancient melody of the Jewish people. You can hear it in all of our folk songs, from Shabbat services to Hatikva: Hope, improbably preserved through years of Diaspora anguish and tragedy. My birthright experience was partially about discovering the origins of the Jewish song and how it developed over time. I did all of the things that one might expect on a tour of Israel: sunrise at Masada, fumbling prayers at the Western Wall and journeys through the awesome, solemn silence of the Negev. But it was interacting with young Jews, Israeli and American alike, that provided a more valuable lesson. The Jewish people’s history is still being written. And as much as I have attempted to evade, trivialize or ignore my involvement in this unfolding tale, seeing the vibrancy of the Jewish State today and hearing the echoes of its past reminded me that today’s rising generation of Jews has a role to play. We’re all a part of the song, little notes in its infinitely complex and mysterious progression.

Jeremy Goldmeier was a participant on the recent Temple Israel/St. Louis birthright israel Pilgrimage.