Shalom! I write this from balmy and bustling Tel Aviv, where I landed last Thursday morning, marking my first-ever visit to Israel. I made my first-ever pilgrimage here after years of promising "Next Year in Jerusalem!" at Passover seders; God will only let you off the hook for so long. So here I am in the midst of a millenium of history to sightsee, get in touch with my People, and eat hummus. Seriously, whoever said this was the Land of Milk and Honey forgot to mention the hummus.
It's also the land of tension. Even in the jet-lagged jumble of my wide-eyed whirlwind-toured first few days, it is apparent that this place is in a constant state of tension - and not just the kind that brings people fruitlessly to Camp David. No, the tensions here are many-fold: Between history and modernity; religion (and religions!) and unabashed secularism; the official Jewishness that underlies this nation's raison d'etre; the changing, polyglot demographics that are ushering in an unmistakable shift; politics and security; culture, tradition and innovation.
Roger Cohen wrote last weekend that Israel was in danger of losing its "exceptionalism," and I'm not sure I agree, changing demographics and fading urgency of the Holocaust notwithstanding. This country is exceptional all right - even excepting its exceptionalism! - as noted by the upcoming book Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer and Dan Senor as they explore how Israel, with its 7.1 million people, heightened violence, and hair-trigger existence on the edge of war, somehow mints more start-ups than places like Japan, China, India, Canada and the UK. That has nothing to do with Israel's original "exceptionalism," or its historical exceptionalism, either.
Or does it? "You can't unentangle things here," my friend Jeremy, who has long worked on issues relating to the complex conflicts of the region, remarked one night last week, from our hotel roof in Jerusalem. By then I had toured a school integrating immigrant children from 48 countries, including refugees from Darfur; seen the arresting, prizewinning work of Israeli war photographer Ziv Koren, graphic and bloody and real; met asylum-seeking immigrants who spent months languishing in Israeli detention centers; been hissed and spat at in Mea Shearim; wrote a note of prayer for my family at the Wailing Wall, and collided with centuries of both history and sexism as I approached it to pray...on the skinny slice allotted to women; looked over Bethlehem and the West Bank, and seen our group waved through a checkpoint en route to Jerusalem that probably would have taken a Palestinian significantly longer; heard three different versions of what happened at Ein Kerem; buried my feet in the glorious sands of a Tel Aviv beach; buried my face in a delicious, tangy shawarma. This country will keep you busy, that's for sure.
I'm pretty sure that "Thou Shalt Turn Your Vacation Photos Into Pageviews" was written on a stone tablet once — so to that end, here's a slideshow of my first 24 hours of Israel (including the El Al trip - and that airline is definitely a trip!). I will be posting a few more dispatches from the trip, with a few more pictures — this country has inspired centuries of storytellers, and as I scribble notes furiously and take a truly ludicrous number of photos, I can see why. There's a lot here to be shared — about tradition and ritual, conflict and sacrifice, shadow and light. After a week, my understanding of this place is still evolving...much like the country itself.
The other book that I've been toting around during this trip, incidentally, is Rich Cohen's Israel Is Real — a wonderful book with, I initially thought, a terrifically goofy title. You know, I don't think so anymore.
SLIDESHOW: WELCOME TO ISRAEL!
This post is a modified version of one that appeared earlier at Mediaite.com