Alana Claims Her Birthright
by Justin Taylor
She stands wrapped in a wide white towel, hotel-threadbare, droning blowdryer aimed at her wet head. Her flight from Ft. Lauderdale landed at four o’clock yesterday; she dropped her bags and went to the city for dinner and drinks with a friend she hadn’t seen since college, stayed out later than she should have, but made up for it—more or less—by cabbing back here instead of trying to navigate the trains. Sixty bucks up in smoke but at least she got some sleep. It’s five-thirty in the morning now. In fifteen minutes she will be downstairs, dressed and checked out, on a shuttle bus to JFK. She’ll meet the tour group at the terminal entrance and they’ll check in together, go through security together, get fast into the habit of spending all their time together, togetherness being largely the point of it, or so she’s been led to believe.
Together on a bus tour across Israel for ten days.
Alana puts the dryer down on the marble-patterned plastic counter; leans in close to the mirror; wipes fog with a washcloth she then lets fall. She parts her hair in small successive sections, looking for a gray that she hopes she won’t, and almost doesn’t, find. But there it is, over on the far left side (right side in the mirror), unmistakable, and bright rather than dull in the halide light.
They don’t come often, the grays, only more often than they used to. She knows she isn’t as young as she used to be, but also that she is too young to entertain such a neurotic and obscene thought as I’m not as young as I used to be. She’s twenty-six years old, God’s sake. Slamming the heel of her frustrated hand down onto the counter, flat smack in the humid room, towel shaken loose by the force, oh hell with it let it fall. She takes a step back from the sink and regards herself. An unashamed woman, leaning on her left leg, elbows out and hands on hips, a classical nude or almost, half-phantasmic in resurgent mirror fog.
She picks up the wash cloth and wipes the glass again, then isolates the long strand, the gray, and pinches it at the root. Her fingertips flush against the seam of exposed scalp.
Alana enjoyed Hebrew school, though she never finished it; wasn’t Bat Mitzvah’d either. She attended JCC camp every summer growing up—her parents’ decision, of course, but she liked it enough to return, of her own volition, as a counselor during college. The pay wasn’t much but then she hadn’t really needed the money, and anyway enjoyed the familiarity and tradition, or whatever. Her basic stance toward her heritage is one of vague allegiance glossing a fundamental lack of interest, itself both unexamined and disavowed. Everyone she knows has, at some point, taken one of these so-called birthright trips. Sacred land and raging parties. Olive-skinned black-eyed soldiers—male and female; eighteen, nineteen—smoking hot and smoking cigarettes in their Halloween-costume-like army fatigues. Her friends have hiked Masada, snapped selfies atop lumbering camels. They come back storytellers, exuberant babblers, gab-gifted, claiming renewal and dedication; Alana eternally sipping her drink and rolling her eyes, déjà vu lapping at her like ocean surf.
But the half-life of exuberance, Alana has learned, isn’t much. They go over and they come back and they swear how everything is different and then they go back to their secular American lives—medicine and finance, wealth management and contract law—and everything is the same. Alana is the only person she knows from high school who isn’t engaged, or else already married, to someone else from high school. She has an English degree rolled up in a cardboard tube in her closet. She works as a paralegal for now and is developing a knack for it, though the thought of actual law school makes her a little sick. All of which is perhaps another way of saying that exuberance, lasting or otherwise, is a rare commodity these days. Recently paroled from a longish-term relationship, she struggles each month to swing the rent on the apartment she now occupies alone—and is doing it, mind you, with barely any help from her parents. This is no small point of pride.
The Birthright trip is ten days of international excursion, nearly all expenses paid. A vacation! And one which has earned her the unqualified approval of all those adults in her life whose approval she still reflexively—guiltily—seeks. Her parents feel that she has “turned a corner” and only wish her grandfather had lived to see it with his own eyes. Her boss, Mr. Michael Beckstein, is so pleased to see her “taking an interest” that instead of objecting to the two weeks she’ll be out of the office, he has hinted that a raise may be waiting for her when she gets back. Won’t that be sweet?
“The Dead Sea’s harsh,” her knowing friends said, “but not as harsh as they say it is; just keep your eyes closed.”
“Make sure to get one cute picture with your soldier or you’ll be sorry.”
“You’re going to love love love it, Al; oh em gee.”
And then, of course, the universal warning. Sudden hushed tone, winning grin in brisk contraction:“Just be careful.”
The cut-off age for Birthright is 27. If Alana doesn’t go now she will “age out” of the program. Small wonder that those scare quotes have culminated in this gray-hunt, or the once-more-over in the mirror she’s giving herself now to confirm that, yes, she is a beautiful woman, or, in the likely parlance of her trip-mates, a hot chick. She can tell herself this without vanity. She has known this body all her life and can observe it, she feels, if not with objectivity then certainly with a subjectivity that is judicious and invested, and which enables her to determine that this, right now, is the best shape it—she—has ever been in. She kept herself too skinny in high school, bad skinny, what all the girls had wanted and their mothers should have intervened to save them from, only their mothers had wanted it (and mostly had it) too. All that patriarchal body image shit South Florida forces on you—she shed the worst of it in college, gave herself over to the campus cafeteria and nightly boozing; to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and the twenty-four hour pizza place. Now she cooks brown rice at home and does Pilates; hasn’t read Marx or bell hooks in, well, a while; can hold her own with any twenty-year-old, or even eighteen, not that it’s some competition, and not that getting laid is even on her agenda anyway, though it isn’t exactly not on it, and God knows how many times her mother has mentioned that this could be a chance to “meet a nice boy.” Though her mother, come to think of it, opts for a pronoun rather than an indefinite article. Not a chance, but your chance. As in, Aly, honey, this is your chance.
Alana is pretty sure she’s older than the trip leader, a bullhorn brunette in unfortunate white shorts and an oversized sorority sweater, a name tag that says her name is Bree. Bree meets everyone at baggage check and herds them together toward security. Now Alana’s standing in the x-ray line between her first two new friends. Ahead of her is Alex, a jitterer, his oily face agleam beneath a Jets cap, the brim folded so the cracked plastic shows through a hole in the green fabric. The first thing he tells her is that his mother told him not to be shy. His mother, Alana feels, would be very proud of Alex, who talks nonstop all the way to the gate, and then keeps going. Eighteen years old, born and raised in South Jersey, where he still lives with his parents. He confesses, unprompted, to having had an energy drink with his bagel at breakfast at the hotel.
The other boy introduces himself as Fish. Dylan “Fish” Fishbein is 22 and has a prominent strawberry scar on his left cheek, just below his hipster glasses. He buys two liters of Jack Daniels from the duty-free, because he’s been warned that Israeli bars are expensive and that whiskey is hard to find. He also loads up on cigarettes because he’s heard Israeli tobacco is shit.
The flight turns out to contain several Birthright trips, and plenty of unattached commercial travelers. Alana finds herself seated next to an older couple. She considers trying to negotiate a switch to be with her group, but doesn’t know who even is in her group, other than Alex and Fish of course, and with all due respect to their geniality, she’s not prepared for eleven hours with either of them. Anyway she’s going to have nothing but company—indeed, companionship, camaraderie—for the next ten days, as she forges lifelong relationships and explores her roots and does all the other things the brochure and her friends have promised she will do or have done to her. Best to preserve her solitude while she can.
She wakes as the plane lands, 5:00 AM Israel time, an entire day effectively evaporated from her life. By 6:00 they’re loading their luggage into the underbelly of a charter bus, a local guide awaiting them on board. He’s dressed as if for safari and greets them warmly, each one of them individually as they edge past him in the aisle: the boys get great pumping handshakes and it’s hugs for all the girls. Uri, his name tag says. Alana takes an open seat next to a boy wearing black skinny jeans and a black T-shirt and a jean jacket he must regret already, this being Israel in July. Sparse stubble on his face, short tousled hair, a wide mouth partway open, his head against the window: asleep. He knuckles his eyes, then sits up and looks at her. In the confines of the bus seats they’re practically nose to nose.
“Oh hey,” the kid says. “I’m Eddie.”
“Hi. You wanna ride with me?”
“You’re offering me my own seat on this bus?”
“I’m being a gentleman. Or whatever.”
“It’s appreciated. Where are you from?”
“SUNY Binghamton. You?”
“Hollywood—not Hollywood, California. Hollywood, Florida, like near Miami. I’m from Miami, I guess.”
Fun in the sun,” Eddie says, turning to face the window again. The bus is moving, the trip has begun.
They ride for the better part of an hour, first on highways then on smaller roads that wind past run-down houses; up a hill. The bus stops on a steep incline at an empty intersection. Alana can hear the motor whining as it idles. Uri, tall and lanky, probably in his early 30s—a small mercy, and registered with gratitude—stands up front by the driver and looks out at them. She imagines what he must see: twenty rows of young American faces, bleary and caffeinated, upturned with expectation or else slumped down in sleep. He claps his hands above his head and says to them, “Okay! Now this, what we do, a little unexpected. But you will trust me.”
Bree rises to clarify. “It’s a trust exercise, guys. You know? Like an icebreaker game. And there’s a surprise at the end so no peeking!”
Uri and Bree pass out black bandanas and instruct them to blindfold themselves. The cheap material is rough against Alana’s face. Her right hand clasped in Eddie’s left, they stumble along the aisle and are helped down the steps of the bus. Her free hand is taken by a stranger as they’re formed into a human chain, making their herky-jerky way through what must be a parking lot, a patch of grass and then onto something solid, maybe more asphalt, maybe stone. Hot riffling wind in Alana’s hair.
“Steps coming up,” comes a call from ahead. Eddie is behind her in the line, but after they get past the steps he moves to her side as Uri and Bree adjust the chain of them into something like a row. A tinny, distorted rendition of the Hatikvah fills the air, though the recording seems to deserve better than whatever it’s being played on: full choir, orchestral swells. Alana notes, as she always does, that she has known this song phonetically for twenty years but has absolutely no idea what the words mean. The melody alone is enough to give her goose bumps. She’s humming it under her breath while she stands there, holding Eddie’s and some other stranger’s hands.
“You can let go now,” Uri shouts over the music. “Your blindfold you can take off and look.” She pushes the scratchy fabric down so it hangs around her neck. She opens her eyes to see that she stands on the Mount of Olives, the Old City with its low white buildings laid out below her, the Dome of the Rock a gold hump, but duller than she’d expected, more earth-tone than luster. It sits just off-center in the iPhoneable moment, though her phone doesn’t work over here; she has a pocket-size digital camera she unthinkingly left in her bag on the bus. Gray-yellow desert sweeps out around the city like a frozen sea.
“Welcome home!” Uri shouts.
They turn from the city to see him standing in a patch of shade, a crappy blaring boombox held in triumph above his head.
The Hatikvah, set to loop, finishes and then starts up again.
Sub sandwiches for breakfast. Alana, skeptical about any fish that has been on the tour bus for longer than she’s been in-country, passes on the tuna and asks for the vegetarian option, which turns out to be pickles and swiss cheese.
The bus takes them back down the Mount and drops them at the gates of the Old City, where they’re met by a rabbi—an American in beige Dockers with a crisp white shirt tucked into them. Salt in his beard and a rich phony laugh like a pediatrician’s. Hand-knit blue yarmulke on his mostly bald head; no jacket or tie.
It’s ten o’clock in the morning and ninety degrees—no worse than Miami this time of year, and without the humidity, hell, it’s almost nice.
The rabbi leads them through the Old City past Roman ruins, down narrow roads paved with ancient stone. Alana is shocked to see cars on these roads. Whenever one appears, the forty of them have to press themselves against the side of a building (all on the same side) so the vehicle can squeak by. The rabbi is so un-phased by these episodes that he does not interrupt his monologue for them, or for anything. He has a practiced storyteller’s cadence and a story, equally practiced, to go with it. He’s some kind of New Age Zionist, a reconstructionist-orthodox hybrid—which doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s like some kind of lab-grown monster: a zebra with a lion’s head or an octopus with wings. She saw him give Uri a manly backslapping hug but greet Bree without so much as a touch of hands. Yet his soliloquy is peppered with reference to his dissolute hippie youth—the long strange trip from Chico State to Jerusalem—and he has a pop cultural fluency which makes clear that even if he keeps strict Shabbat every Saturday, he keeps up with Buzzfeed and Twitter the other six days of the week. Walking through a courtyard where schoolchildren kick a soccer ball he blithely describes the scene as “the divine unfolding of a 2800-year plan.”
Eddie leans in close and whispers in Alana’s ear, “He’s like one of those crazy Christians who preach on street corners.”
“Yeah,” she says, keeping her own voice low. “Except he’s one of ours.”
Fifteen minutes later they’re back on the bus, en route to a shuk—an outdoor market, Bree explains—where Eddie gets a shawarma and a straw cowboy hat, proud of himself for bargaining the hat guy from 20 shekels down to 15. Alana has a fresh ginger-carrot juice and an order of fries, half of which Eddie eats, not that she minds. He has long graceful fingers and grubby bitten-up nails. They mingle with some of the other trip-goers. Just as she suspected from the get-go, Alana is the oldest person here.
Nathan has a heavy Southern accent. He is from West Virginia, he says, and didn’t know he was Jewish until he was fifteen, which is pretty amazing, everyone agrees, though all the salient details of the story—by what method his true nature was revealed, how he was raised before then, how said revelation changed things for him, etc.—are left unmentioned, and after a few demurred inquiries, people mostly leave him alone.
Jessica from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a junior at Tufts, where she took a writing workshop with a teacher who’d written a novel set in Mandate Palestine just after World War I. That’s what started it for her. Kevin from New Haven, sophomore at U-Mich. Danny from somewhere Alana doesn’t catch; Elena from San Fran stayed local, will be a senior at Berkeley come the fall.
They’re all so impressed by Alana—out of college now longer than she was in it, living in her own apartment, holding down a job.
“I got fired from my last like three internships,” Jessica says, not sounding overly broken up about it. “I guess I’ll end up working for my dad.”
“What’s he do?” Nathan asks.
“Our family’s in consulting.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I honestly have no idea.”
A butcher walks by with a cow’s head, skinned and eyeless, cradled in his arms.
Dinner at Ben Yehuda street: a tourist area. Eddie’s annoyed but Alana thinks they can’t get too snooty about it since they are, after all, tourists—indeed, on a tour. Their group is forty strong plus guide and leader and security. They move as a pack, a platoon really, with two shouting people at the front and a guy with a rifle bringing up the rear. Everyone wearing the same shirt except for Uri in his safari gear.
They eat at an Italian place. Pounded-flat chicken breasts lazing in a thin orange sauce. A girl named Jessica—not the one from the market, a different one, though that Jessica is at their table, too—asks for grated parmesan, but it’s a kosher Italian place, and here they are eating chicken, so. Out the window, down at the corner of the block, they can see Israeli high school kids smoking cigarettes and messing around on skateboards. Eddie wants to go check out what they’re up to but Bree tells him going off by himself is against the rules.
“You’re gonna what, call my parents?” Eddie says. He’s grinning, has pushed his chair back from the table and now stands up. “You gonna put me in time out?”
“Eddie,” Bree says. Her tone is resolutely chipper. She’s smiling big as he is. “Are you going to be my special headache this trip? Are you going to be the kid I tell my next group a a story about?”
“Is there always one?”
“You wouldn’t think there’d have to be,” Bree says. “Because it’s not a fun story. It’s a story about never getting to hike Masada and having to pay for your own plane ticket home.”
“When you put it that way,” Eddie says. He sits back down and loads a fork with chicken. Bree is still beaming. Sorority wattage, Alana thinks.
Back at the hotel they get their room assignments. Alana’s with Elena, which is nice, and another Jessica, the third one she’s met so far. Jessica 3 says there are a few other tour groups staying at this hotel and everyone’s partying downstairs and they should go, so they do go, but Alana takes one look at the writhing mass of teenagers and turns back. She lays down in the room, glad to be alone awhile and unable to believe that everything that has happened so far—landmarks, meals, new friends—has happened in a single day. She wonders if every day will be like this, and hopes and slightly dreads that it might be; her speculations blurring into dreams as she sinks into sleep, only to be awoken, who knows how much later, by retching in the darkened room.
She sits up. There’s a razor of light beneath the bathroom door, and enough ambient gloom to make out Elena asleep on the foldout cot, which means that the retcher is her own bedmate, i.e. Jessica 3, who flushes the toilet and then spills out of the bathroom, backlit because she’s left the light on, completely naked and holding a trash can liner open with both hands in front of her. She moves with seasick determination through the small space, sets the liner carefully on the nightstand by her side of the bed. A lock of her auburn hair smeared with something the color of their dinner. The liner in place, Jessica 3 flings herself onto the bedspread and is still. Alana closes her own eyes and concentrates, trying to hear whether Jessica 3 is breathing. She can’t tell. She opens her eyes and watches the girl’s chest and stomach, both almost concave when she lays flat out like this. Alana cannot verify a consistent rise and fall.
She puts a finger below Jessica 3’s nose and holds it there. A few beats pass before she feels air trickling across her skin. Jessica 3 will breathe better for being on her side, probably. Alana wants to roll her over but doesn’t want to risk waking her; doesn’t, truth be told, want to touch her at all. But here’s the question: is she more squeamish about the necessity of laying hands on this insensible puke-covered stranger, or about the prospect of waking up next to a naked corpse? It is, Alana recognizes, a quintessentially undergraduate question. This is basic college party math she’s faced with here, or maybe Philosophy 101.
Jessica 3 sits up abruptly, knocking Alana’s hand away and leaning herself out over the can liner. She throws up into it, wipes her mouth with her hand, ties the bag shut with a loop-knot and lets it fall to the floor. A minute later she’s curled up on her side and snoring, vertebrae and ribs fully articulated, skin taut as Saran wrap over her bones.
Today is Yad Vashem.
They meet after breakfast in a conference room in the hotel basement and Uri and Bree look very serious and issue warnings about what to expect and how to behave. Jessica 2 is sent back to her room for a long-sleeve shirt to go over her halter. Eddie is instructed to remove his political buttons from the lapel of his jacket: a peace sign and a small circled A. He is warned to leave his straw hat on the bus. Then everyone is invited to share personal stories about the Holocaust.
The conference room has no furniture so they’re all sitting cross-legged on the floor.
A girl named Nancy talks about a great-grandfather who she never knew, a rabbi killed at Dachau with his entire family except her grandmother, a little girl at the time, who was successfully spirited away to English cousins: the only reason Nancy herself exists today. A guy in an Æπ tee shirt has a similar story about a great-uncle. Alana is sitting next to Nathan. He whispers to her in a choked-up voice, “Wow, I just, like, don’t even know. I really don’t. That could be my story, my family, and I’d have no clue. No dang clue.” Alana gives Nathan’s hand what she hopes is a reassuring squeeze. She likes being the girl into whose ear the boys choose to whisper. Nathan, Eddie. In college she was a one-of-the-guys girl, so if this trip is shaping up to be a retro-college nostalgia thing—for her anyway, since everyone else is actually in college—it makes sense for her to reprise this role, albeit as a kind of elder statesman now. She can look after these boys, laugh at their jokes and figure out which girls like them—she can see Nathan maybe with Jessica 3. He’s a real Southern gentleman, Alana thinks, someone who will hold 3’s hair back and not try anything when she’s too blacked out. And Eddie? Well it’s too soon to tell about Eddie. He was quick to approach her in the breakfast buffet line this morning and renew their seat partnership for a second day.
Burnished gray concrete and shining black steel. Cantilevered on a hillside, with a tunnel- or tomb-like entrance, you pass through the solemn horror and boggling history and emerge, finally, onto an open platform that looks triumphantly out over green slopes, Eretz Yisrael, as far as the eye can see.
The tour itself reminds her of the one at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. Also of an exhibit she saw once at the Jewish Museum in New York, and various films and film strips—countless lessons instilled and repeated over the course of childhood. Never again. Only this is a bigger, better version—the biggest and the best, she guesses, though isn’t it awful to say “better” and “best” in this context? Though you can hardly use “worst” as a superlative, can you? Even though the thing that makes it the best is that it has the most comprehensive coverage of the worst thing that ever happened to anybody ever—well, more or less.
“What about slavery?” Eddie says. They’re on benches out in front of the museum, eating floppy kosher pizza in the shadow of their bus. “What about the gulag? Stalin. The Khmer Rouge. Fucking colonialism, like, overall.”
“I don’t think we need to rank world tragedies,” Elena says. “We’re not competing for some oppression prize.”
“Though we’d win it,” interjects Jessica 2.
“Hoo-ah!” Æπ says, extending a hand toward her. They slap five and do a finger snap.
“I’m just saying,” Eddie says, nominally to Elena, though really he’s talking to all of them: orating, or trying to. “It’s all fucked up ideologies. It doesn’t have to be like one thing or another. The ideologies are what it’s always about.”
“Yeah, true that,” Alana says, feeling another year slide off her age as she deploys this no-doubt archaic slang to validate her new friend’s babble. Which makes her how old now, exactly? 24, maybe 23 by dinner. It’s only day two. At this rate she’ll be 18 by midweek, will return to Miami a 10th grade virgin with a restricted driver’s license.
“Well I think six million is a pretty solid figure,” Nathan says. Alana notices his eyes are still red from before. She heard him stifling sobs in the Children’s Memorial, a pitch-black room filled with tiny lights that twinkle like stars when you cry when you look at them. They had needed to form another human chain to find their way out of there, and if Alana hadn’t been able to stop herself from feeling that the messaging here was a bit melodramatic, even cynical, she at least had enough decency to hate herself for having thought so—and anyway she’d also cried.
“You know what I think?” Nathan continues. “Y’all are so used to this stuff you’re numb to it. You see it but you don’t, I mean you really don’t.” Nathan, with his mysterious backstory, stands up from the pizza circle and walks away, past their bus and deep into the parking lot, where the air swims with heat. Elena gets up and goes after him. Alana, impressed by the swift fealty, thinks, Well so much for Jessica 3.
They have dinner at the hotel and then are taken back to Ben Yehuda street, to a bar where they’re given a few drink tickets apiece and set loose, albeit forbidden to leave the premises, or step outside to smoke without a buddy—not that you need to go outside to smoke, but American habits die hard, or maybe some people just want some fresh air with their smoke.
Alana doesn’t smoke. Pot, sure, if only anyone had any, but tobacco was never her thing.
Elena’s loaded halfway through her second martini and storms the dance floor, sticks her ass out, gets both fists pumping, and there’s poor Nathan, skittish and attentive, orbiting her like a moon. Eddie whines about the music; he wants to hear something punk. Alana chucks his shoulder and tells him to quit being a baby—you can’t dance to punk. “Who’s dancing?” he says, and goes to bum a smoke from Fish, who Alana realizes she hasn’t spoken to since back at the airport. Alex either. Weird how things go in a big group like this; you really have no choice but to cluster into subgroups. So when did Eddie met them? She spent the whole day by his side. Maybe they’re rooming together. Alana watches her trip-mates as they drown the long emotional day in rounds of shots and what, in an all-Jewish bar, passes plausibly as booty dancing. All-Jewish and all-American, Alana notes; there are no Israelis in this place except for Uri, seated at a small table near the back, drinking water and looking over tomorrow’s itinerary.
The guy in the Æπ tee shirt walks up to Alana and asks her to dance, takes her by the hand before she answers. Big smile, this kid; short spiked hair, scary-straight teeth, boozy gleam in his eye. They’re playing a Beyoncé song that was huge in the states two summers ago. It’s nice to let herself be led like this. She puts her hands up like Elena and doesn’t flinch at Æπ’s hands, warm and firm around her waist. A new song comes on, one with a harder pounding beat to it, some old school gangster shit off a movie soundtrack she was forbidden to own in middle school. She gives herself over to her drunkenness, to flop sweat and hip shake, to the body inscribed in space. They are getting down and dirty, Æπ’s cock hard inside of his J. Crew khakis and fast against her ass as they grind to the song and when her eyes flutter open she sees Eddie—gape-mouthed, arms crossed—at the far end of the bar. She waves at him. He pouts the whole bus ride back to the hotel.
They leave Jerusalem at daybreak, rousted half asleep from their rooms and loaded onto the bus, Eddie and Alana seat-mates again, the arrangement at this point feeling permanent, undiscussed, surviving even the fact that he’s clearly still put out about last night. The bus is chilly, A/C and engine both droning, the hot desert world like an in-flight movie, a nature show, projected against the big tinted windows rather than seen through them.
They drive along the West Bank border fence for a while, past a security checkpoint that Uri, over the loudspeaker, mentions leads to Bethlehem. “Bethlehem,” a Southern voice repeats a few rows behind them, dreamy and un-self-aware, caught off-guard by the very word. Alana has always imagined these “checkpoints” being like the ones at U.S. airports—metal detector, maybe a conveyor belt or the x-ray thing you have to stand inside. Couple of dour agents. Bored people snaking through a backlogged line. What she sees instead looks like a small industrial park or factory. The main building is a windowless hulk. Look-out towers spread around the grounds of it. The fence itself is a twenty-foot-high stone wall, several feet thick.
“Nice fence,” Eddie says, and there is, in fact, a chain link fence wreathed in barbed wire topping the fortification like a crown.
Over food court Chinese at a highway-side mall, Alana lets Eddie rant at her, in part because she can see he needs to let off some steam and in part because she feels guilty about last night at the club, though at the same time she’s indignant about having the guilt, because laying emotional claim to someone without making a move on them is such a shitty, bullshit, teenage boy way to be. She doesn’t owe this twerp anything! She can sit with anyone she feels like on the stupid bus! She isn’t hungry for a husband to fill her with Jewish babies for her own mother to frame pictures of. She came here—well, why did she come here? What is she doing? What does she hope to gain or clarify from this bizarre exercise in generosity and propaganda? Or is that itself a shitty way to think about all this? She understood what Birthright was when she signed up for it. Nobody tricked her. The trip is, if anything, more exactly what she’d expected than she’d dared to expect.
Alana wanted to take a vacation and these people offered her one. That’s the length and breadth of it. And if they—the Birthright people—have ulterior motives, well, who doesn’t? And anyway “ulterior” isn’t the right word, since they’re totally upfront about what they want: for you to fall in love with Israel! Maybe fall in love in Israel! What does Alana want? She wants to have a good time, learn something about her heritage, make her miserable parents happy, not get sucked into the black hole of “the conflict.” One cute picture of herself with a significant landmark in the background, in which she looks neither flushed nor sweaty, but athletic and exhilarated (a little bit of sweat would be okay). Something Facebook profile-worthy: that’s what she wants. And if that’s a bad reason, so be it. It’s her reason, and she is willing to own it, if not with pride, precisely, then certainly without shame. She is taking the trip in order, in large part, to have taken it. In case it might mean something to her later to have been here now. In case she ever does get married, have a daughter who might ask to hear about it. Some hypothetical tween in the backseat of a Prius, jamming her Bat Mitzvah study guide into a frayed purple book bag and rolling her eyes at everything her mother says.
Eddie, meanwhile, wants to save, or destroy, or otherwise—somehow—change the world.
"It’s like everyone’s against ‘the situation,’ ‘the conflict.’ Everybody is opposed to violence of all kinds on all sides in theory but then any time you say, ‘Yeah, okay, I’m with you and this was the last thing Israel did that was fucked up, so if we want Israel to be, you know, I don’t know, better, then we should say, I mean we have to say, ‘Hey! stop doing that fucked up shit,’ that’s when they bust out with how we’re ‘misinformed’ and ‘don’t understand’ because we’re not here all the time. It’s like, they tell us ‘welcome home, this is your people and your land’ and you don’t even want to believe that but then, okay, say you believe it, and it’s like ‘Yeah, this place is mine, I want to be part of it, here’s what I think’ and then it’s ‘Dude, you’re not part of this, it isn’t yours, nobody gives a fuck what you think.’”
“Who have you been having these fights with?” Alana asks him, flabbergasted.
“Nobody,” Eddie says. “Why would I? I’m just saying that’s the way it would go down if I ever tried.”
After lunch they are taken to visit a famous cave. It’s called Bar Kokhba. Everyone has to crawl on their hands and knees through a narrow tunnel. Some people hang back: nervous, claustrophobic, fat. Alana wriggles along on her belly, conscious of Eddie behind her, his head near her sneakers; her ass and thighs basically in his face.
They emerge one by one from the dusty passage into a chamber where there’s room to stand. Bodies shifting in close space, leaning against walls and each other, quiet strained breathing, a coolness in the still and fossil air.
There is no natural light here. People sweep their flashlights over the walls and ceiling, flick lighters, hit glo buttons on digital watches, light their phones up if they thought to bring their phones. Uri asks everyone to shut off everything. “Put it all away, anything glowing, and we must allow for the dark to be restored.”
Uri’s voice booms and echoes as he tells of the heroes of old. A small but rugged band of insurgents who waged guerrilla war on the occupier; they made the Roman legions quake with fear. “In the end, of course, we lose,” he says, slipping into both the royal and the present tense. The fighters’ lives and the lives of their families end horribly, after long and horrible years eked out in these very caves. But the point, Uri continues, is not so much victory or defeat but rather the fact of resistance. That they held out as long as they could. That they fought from a sense of inherent righteousness, and a dignity that must never, and shall never, yield. “It is little-known today,” Uri says, “but we Jews invented, how you say—”
“Asymmetrical warfare!” Bree offers, her sorority voice cleaving the dark like a cotton candy battle axe.
“Terrorism,” Alana whispers to Eddie. She’s standing behind him, her lips against the cup of his ear, her voice the barest dribble of sound. This isn’t a joke anyone else will think is funny, but she knows it’s what he’s thinking, what he’ll say to her later first chance he gets if she doesn’t say it to him now. Call it a peace offering.
They hike Masada. They float in the Dead Sea. Alana leaves the gift shop with $85 worth of special mud and Eddie chides her for the bourgeois excess of it: all that stuff Alana pretty much agrees with, though rather than admit he’s right she tells him calmly, even pleasantly—almost sexily—that he doesn’t know the first thing about women, and at this rate never will.
They stay a night at a kibbutz in the Negev, the one where Ben-Gurion is buried. It’s cool, Alana thinks, that he didn’t choose the national cemetery. He chose his kibbutz. They stand by his tomb and Uri reads the Balfour declaration, then brings out his old friend the crappy boom box and plays a tape of the Balfour declaration being read on the radio, the original broadcast, scratched and crackling history alive in the cold desert night. The largest closest clearest moon Alana has ever seen. It is easy to see how this place raised up three religions.
The cold white fire of the moon sends a holy tremble through her, scalp to bones, something on the cusp of blossoming open—then Bree makes them all hold hands and sing the Hatikvah again.
Alana hangs back by the grave as the group starts making its way toward the dormitories. She can see Eddie receding ahead of her, walking with Fish, their cigarettes bobbing like ship lights on the ocean of the night. Without exactly meaning to, she waits for Bree.
“So how’s it going?” Bree asks her. They start walking. “Are you having a good trip?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I think so. I guess—well, I don’t know.”
“Come on, chica,” Bree says. “Spill it.”
“No, no, there isn’t like a thing, you know. It’s great. All the history. Culture. I guess I’m sorry I didn’t go when I was younger, with all my friends or something. It’s like summer camp on steroids—”
“Haha yeah totally, that’s like so totally true. But listen. There’s always a few people on the trip who have trouble making friends but it’s, I mean not to put it all on you but, it’s mostly you holding back and not them. Like you can just go for it, you know?”
“I’m not saying I feel left out. I’m just…observing. How many of these trips have you led?”
“Like five or six now. No yeah this is six. Anyway you’ve got Eddie and you guys seem really cute together. A little summer love never hurt any—”
“Oh we’re not, I mean—”
"Well no offense, girl, but if you’re not even boning him what are you putting in all that time in for? The trip only lasts ten days.”
What, Alana wonders, should she say to Bree here? That it isn’t about that? That she likes how Eddie is earnest and cerebral—the way she’d like to believe she herself was once and maybe could be again? That she is bizarrely drawn to the sadness pulsing below the surface of his punky angst? That she likes the way he just blurts out things she’d never have the nerve to say even if she believed them, which she isn’t sure whether she does or not, because she’s never thought much about any of this stuff before? Or she could say, “Hey Bree hey you’re actually right and I already passed up what was probably the last frat boy I was ever going to bag in this life and now I’m going gray here waiting for this pischer to man up and make a move.”
“Well who are you boning?” Alana asks.
“Oh em gee, chica, I’m the counselor, I can’t—”
“Yeah but c’mon—it’s your trip too, amirite? Girl talk here.” Alana is amused with herself, her mockingbird argot, and glad, even eager, to give some shit to Bree—presumptuous bitch that she is, with her condescending life lessons and camel-toe shorts—but then Bree goes, “So okay can you like totally keep a secret?” and without waiting for an answer continues, “So okay, you know Nathan, right?”
“The hick with the secret past?”
“It’s not secret. He was adopted. His family were like Catholics or Witnesses or something but then after his parents got divorced his mom got over it so when he was sixteen she let him order a DNA kit from 23andme and he found out he was Jewish.”
“See, kid? People are easy to get to know.”
They come to a stop in the sand near the dorm, not yet ready to go inside. Bree absentmindedly tugging on a lock of her own long hair. Alana says, “Well so how well do you know Nathan?”
Bree tee-hees. Then she actually says, “Tee-hee.” Then she says, “He’s not circumcised yet.”
“Yeah they never did it when he was little, because whatever, and now that he’s getting in touch with his heritage he wants to do the right thing. So he’s thinking about getting the surgery after he goes back to the states. That’s how the whole thing started.”
“The you and him thing? Over surgery?”
“Well he was asking for guidance.”
"So you fucked him to show him that he’s okay just the way he is?”
“Hell no! I told him to do it. It’s a mitzvah, duh. But in the meantime, well, it had gotten late while we were talking and he’s such a Southern gentleman, and I’d never seen an uncut one before, so—well like you said, it’s my trip, too.”
“You’ve never seen an uncut dick before? How is that even possible?”
“Oy gevalt, girl. You really are a bad Jew.”
They’re running late to Herzliya, where all of the Birthright groups concurrently criss-crossing the little country are to converge for dinner and dancing at a beachside resort. An event referred to, not colloquially but officially, as The Mega Event.
The Mega Event is essentially a long narrow field with an amphitheater at its far end. They find themselves the captive market for a host of fast-food vendors, Zionist outreach groups, and masters degree programs. The extent of the facilities appears to be a row of port-a-potties. The grounds themselves abut the beach, but it’s fenced off and they are forbidden to go down to it. There is no exit or re-entry. It looks and feels like nothing so much as a county fair.
In the open area by the amphitheater, cliques and tour groups and new-formed factions chant, cheer, and sing. Wave flags they’ve gotten from who knows where. They blast music and dance in the grass. Great circles of people clapping hands and shaking bodies. Orgiastic exuberance and unity, this wild gift, to be alive and young and thriving, to be free and Jewish and here. Fellowship and inheritance. The diaspora in-gathered. Faith, belonging, immersion. Fullness of experience, depth of commitment. Strength. Eretz Yisrael.
We are here we are here we are here.
Eddie is crying. Tears run down his face and his chest heaves, jaw clenching back sobs he’d sooner die than release into the world, this wicked son, his faithless faith only and forever in the error of his very presence, wracked with horror at this vision of blood-pride and the fear of being found out for a fraud, scapegoat, infiltrator—whatever it is he believes he is. Or maybe it is the self-made myth of his non-belonging that has been shattered, and he is swallowing the glass of it. All of this really is his, whether he wants it or not. Eddie mourning for the part of himself that could abide in simple fiery lies.
She takes him wordless by the hand and leads him away from the roaring crowd back through the dark part of the field, vendors all packed and gone now, cast-off pamphlets riding the night breeze. They walk along the fence at the edge of the dunes, hoping for a gate and finding instead a small section that has been pulled down. Stray cats all over the beach. They step out of their Birkenstocks and wade in up to their knees. Alana dips her hands into the water. She brings them up wet to Eddie’s face and he closes his eyes. There is a full moon and the Mega Event feels distant, dislodged not so much in space as in time, like something so far in either the past or the future that it cannot possibly have jurisdiction here. Every place is its own place, self-created, and every experience is original, ahistoric. She washes his tears away with water from the sea.
His breath has stopped hitching but his heart remains a jackhammer. She can hear it, she can feel it, with her head against his chest.
His arms around her middle, loose first then tighter, his breath in her hair and then her face as she cranes her neck upward to meet his awkward, smokey kiss.
In his unstifled eagerness his hands find her breasts almost before their lips touch. She maybe won’t mention that part when she tells the story to her girlfriends back home. Or how he whimpers like a newborn, grateful, when she unzips his shorts and takes him in her still-wet hand. Those long fingers, inelegant and welcome, searching down the stubble on her mons. They are 8th graders slipping out of a bar mitzvah reception hall; camp counselors furtive behind the boat house while the kids eat lunch. But this isn’t 8th grade or any grade, and nostalgia—thankfully—is not the same as déjà vu. He knows what he is looking for and finds it. She presses her thighs together around his hand until the knuckles are nearly flush.
The ocean moon is beautiful but it is nothing like the desert moon.
Though of course this is only a manner of speaking, there being only the one moon, luminous or hidden far above the world—though of course “far” is a relative concept, and “above” is just a figure of speech, too.
Desert moon. Ocean moon.
Soon the Mega Event will end and with it this time outside of time. There are still, impossibly, four more days of ruins and kibbutzes and sing-alongs and malls. But these minutes here on the hot dark stoop of the Mediterranean are what she will remember, what will survive the fogged-out grammar of archetype that awaits them. All the attenuation and frenzy of so-called summer love. Arms around shoulders in photos; conspiring for privacy, bargaining with bunkmates for alone time; slumped against each other out cold on the return flight; weepy in the taxi line promising to keep in touch. There is release in the preemptive bittersweetness. A leaden contentment that is almost hope and remains hers to refuse.