If you're a tourist in Israel, as I was for the past two weeks, you're probably going to spend a fair amount of time at various tourist attractions jostling for space with groups on Birthright. There they were, wearing bright orange lanyards and chattering in English about cheap souvenirs in Carmel Market, or making it impossible to read the somber explanatory placards at the Holocaust museum. I even ran into them in Shalom Meir Tower, an uncharismatic office building in Tel Aviv. I was browsing the little exhibits, wondering how exactly I ended up there, when a group filed in and their guide started asking basic questions, like "Where is Jaffa on this giant relief map of Tel Aviv?" and "What does Tel Aviv mean in Hebrew?" The crowd of young people seemed more interested in sitting in each other’s laps than paying attention. One kid guessed that Tel Aviv meant "mountain spring," and then was mildly ridiculed by the guide. (She was all like, "MOUNTAIN??" Tel Aviv sits 16 feet above sea level.) By this point I was hovering around the edges of the group, trying to look inconspicuous but also feeling smug. I'm not eligible for Birthright by pretty much any metric, but obviously Tel Aviv started out as a suburb of the ancient port of Jaffa in the early 1900s, when the Jews living in Jaffa wanted better living conditions and bought land in the sand dunes to the north of the city. Their settlement would eventually be named Tel Aviv ("hill of spring"), after the Hebrew title of Altneuland, a novel written by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Who didn't know that?
Everything I know about Israel I learned about three weeks ago, from reading a 560-page history book with the word "concise" in its subtitle. I still know practically nothing about the country; I definitely don't know enough about the Israel-Palestine conflict to have anything close to an informed opinion. Still, while I was in Israel, I had the thrilling sense that I was seeing winking references everywhere to an obscure canon I was familiar with, except the canon was literally just history itself. I went around enthusiastically taking pictures of street signs named after historical personages whose names I now recognized, from Balfour (British foreign secretary; wrote a letter back in 1917 declaring that Britain would support a Jewish state in Palestine) to Bar Kochva (led a Jewish revolt against the Romans back in 132 CE). In museum gift shops I spotted cheesy figurines of various people important to modern Israel's history. Oh look, Rachel the Poetess! Natan Alterman! Chaim Nachman Bialik! (These are all poets, by the way. Apparently early Zionists were really big on poetry.) If I wanted, I could buy ironic, gaily painted mini-busts of Theodor Herzl; David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel; or Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion's militant political rival. Some of the stuff felt kind of propaganda-y—can critical thinking about past political leaders really coexist with slickly designed knickknacks?—but mostly I was just tickled to see all these people I had read about in my little history book as honest-to-god collectibles. (Though I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would want a sticker with Ze'ev Jabotinsky's face on it.)
My book couldn't teach me everything, of course. Before the trip I read that David Ben-Gurion had “autocratic tendencies” but was nevertheless essential to laying the foundations for Israel's civil society. In Israel I learned that his hair made him look like a cross between a clown and a great horned owl.
But the scale of the history is what really got to me. It covers such vast swaths of time and yet even the ancient stuff still seems so emotionally charged, which makes the whole thing feel compellingly absurd, particularly for an American calibrated to think that 1600 was pretty much the beginning of time. To understand anything at all about Israel, I was given to understand, you have to go back literally thousands of years, and at least to the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. On multiple occasions I was given rundowns of all the empires that have controlled the land of Israel throughout history, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians to Alexander the Great to the Romans to various Muslim empires to the Crusaders to the Ottomans to the British. And that doesn't even include modern Israel's history as a state, which, to be fair, mostly seems to have been a series of extremely depressing wars. (Though I guess getting conquered by the Babylonians was no picnic either.) Learning about all this history was illuminating, though. I read a single book and it felt like I'd finally arrived at a party—a really intense party—that people have been gossiping about for more than 70 years.
But it's also possible to be completely, blissfully unaware of Israel's history while in Israel, especially in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is named after a fictional utopia, which seems fitting: there are parks everywhere, idyllic thoroughfares shaded with trees, whole streets lined with crisp white Bauhaus buildings. I spent one late afternoon reading in a sunken garden that quietly played crowd-pleasing classical music (Grieg's "Morning Mood," Dvorak's Ninth Symphony), surrounded by intrepid babies. If Jerusalem is identified with religion and tradition and the crushing weight of history, Tel Aviv just kinda wants to live in the moment and have a good time. Its defining features, according to all the travel guides I read, are its unbearably hip restaurants that stay open until midnight, and its stretch of beaches on the eastern Mediterranean filled with scantily clad babes of all genders.
It's no wonder, then, that my boyfriend loves Tel Aviv and finds Jerusalem vaguely threatening to all of his most deeply held values. He's been to Israel seven times before this trip (all for work, including this one) and somehow has managed to retain practically none of the country's history. When I gave him a potted history of the Jewish people before we left, he asked me what “diaspora” meant. And he's Jewish! Then, at the Israel Museum, we were walking around a 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple era (around 66 CE) when he asked me why I was so interested in old stuff. What followed was about ten minutes of mutual incomprehension, as I tried to explain why I thought history was cool to someone who generally assumes that everything about life in the past was strictly worse than life in our enlightened present. "I guess it's important to see how far we've come," he said musingly. Then I tried to explain to him why so many people are so nostalgic for the past right now, which he genuinely did not seem to understand. He's a software engineer, can you tell?
Admittedly, we went to a lot of places that seemed to trade precisely on a fascination with "old stuff." Events that happened nearly 2,000 years ago, it turns out, can be particularly valuable commodities and/or state-building tools, which is probably why some of the ancient sites we visited resembled theme parks. After watching a cinematic introductory video, we took a cable car up to the mountain fortress of Masada, where we saw, off in the distance next to some Roman encampments, a tiny stand of stadium seats. Our tour guide informed us that they were for the sound and light show the park projects on the mountain at night; it depicts the Romans' dramatic siege of the heroic Jewish rebels, who eventually decide to kill themselves rather than face slavery. The City of David, an archaeological site just south of old Jerusalem, also has a light show (the "Hallelujah Nighttime Presentation") and what's essentially a water ride—a long, dark, ancient tunnel filled with a couple feet of water you can wade through. Just outside the entrance we could hear kids shrieking and the sound of rushing water, and I was forcibly reminded of that part in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride right before the drop.
The longer we stayed in Israel, in fact, the harder it was to tell what actually counted as history and what was simply very old myth, or if there even was a difference. Was this really the port where Jonah set sail before being swallowed by a fish, or where Andromeda was chained to some rocks by her dad before Perseus flew over on his winged sandals and decided to marry her? Was this really the desert where Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days and nights? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in Christianity because, since about 324 CE, Christians have believed that Jesus was crucified on that spot. But like, that spot was chosen because it was where Emperor Constantine's mom Helena found three crosses in the ground, one of which apparently either healed someone with a terminal disease or brought them back from the dead. It was awe-inspiring to visit the church, but part of me still kind of wanted to know where Jesus had actually been crucified.
On the second to last day of our trip, we drove out into the Judean desert to float in the Dead Sea. The water of the Dead Sea is very counterintuitive: It leaves this weird oily feeling on your skin, and it’s so salty that it actively resists your attempts to put any part of your body below the surface. (It’s also not recommended to stay in for more than 20 minutes, presumably because after that point you turn into a pickle.) You really can’t swim in the Dead Sea—all you can truly do is float on your back. Which, it turns out, I find very difficult. I’d lie in the water clenching every part of my body, then start flailing around because it unnerved me, all this weightless bobbing without anything to hold on to. I ended up clinging limpet-like to my boyfriend, who seemed to have no problem consigning himself to the waves.
I tease him a lot about how little he knows, but my boyfriend is the happiest, most carefree person I know, and endearingly optimistic about the present and the future. I can't help thinking that this is somehow related to his complete lack of a sense of history, his ability to just let things go. Meanwhile, I am capable of holding on to a grudge forever. And if there's anything my brief, glancing foray into world history has taught me, it's that history is made up of grudges held for an extraordinarily long time.