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Becoming Jewish in America - Travel Journal

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Day 1: We left Michigan on a foggy, heavy rainy day and landed at 10 am in New York. The New York of New York. While waiting on the van to come to pick us up, the group had gathered, chatted in a circle, and it seems as if each is trying to find his role in this group...  I, Michal, am standing and listening to what people are talking about... On my left, there is Mia, a soccer player for EMU who is a history major and has a step-dad that is a Palestinian refugee from Gaza strip. I wondered what her approach for this trip is. She seems very tough and quiet. She observed everything that people were saying while staring at them with her judgmental eyes. On my right, there is Madeline, a "very Christian" law student who is almost too sweet to believe. Very talkative likes to be included and laugh a lot. What is she on this trip for? Interesting. We got to our hotel. A few blocks up from Times Square. The group complained about the cold in NY, and Marty, the professor, yelled at us saying - "Relax. You are in New-York!" We had an hour to get ready before leaving for our first destination. The East Village Side of NYC, the home of thousands of Jews that immigrated from Eastern Europe. Took the subway down and stopped at a Jewish bakery. "It's the best Bagels in NY," Marty said and recommended us all to try bagels with cream cheese and lux, which is a fancy Jewish term for salmon. Everyone was pleased with their bagels, but we were waiting on Chris. Chris's order took over 20 min to be done. But no one was anxiety, we were ahead of time anyways! But at some point, Mart comes out after checking in of Chris who was quietly waiting inside, came out and told Jeff – "We need to have the talk." Chris came out with a rapped up bagel, inside there was a perfect yellow layer of bacon omelet. I mean, yes, you are not keeping Kosher. But this is a Jewish class! I wondered what did Chris came to look for in this trip. I later realized he a highly diverse intelligent young man who encourages in a highly open-minded approach to life. The dynamic between Marty and Jeff is interesting to me. They presented to us the first day, the differences between them. One is somewhat religious, and the other one is secular. One was born many years after the Holocaust, the other one was born not so many years after. Both are Israeli supporters, and both are absolutely hilarious. I was looking forward to what this trip will being next. As we walked down the streets, it felt like we walked into a different life chapter... We started walking to the Tenement Museum, passing by a Jewish pickle store and small clothing fabric stores... What makes a pickle so Jewish? I wondered. The museum is based on the Jewish immigrant's apartments and demonstrated the terrible struggles they had to face while working in sewing and cloth making (to create a piece of clothing they won't even be able to afford). Raising a family while working all day long at 15-hour labor work for a minimum wage and nearly 8 people living in one room space. Not a fun life... But, hard work pays off in the end. Thanks to their parent's, the next generation was able to move out of the tiny tenement apartments in Manhattan into nice houses in Brooklyn. The tour was especially interesting because they would do a good job explaining the stories of the families ... After the museum, we continued to the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The largest synagogue in New York, that actually, looked like a church. Not by accident, the people who were hired to build the synagogue at the time were two Christian brothers who had no idea what they were doing so they just hoped for the best. Anyway, the synagogue is just stunningly beautiful. As a visitor, it felt very appropriate to go there after a visit to the tiny apartment and understand why this synagogue was so popular. It was an escape from the small apartment and the hard life that the immigrants faced. Escaping from reality to a social place where they can feel like mannered humans again. All the prayer areas of the synagogue had a lot of small holes on the floor, as a result of thousands of "kneeling" and body movement that the praying men did during prayer. The process of kneeling back and forth with your body a million times on a wooden floor, slowly there are holes in the floor. Try it. Today the synagogue serves as a kind of museum and hardly as a place to pray. People no longer pray as much as they used to... After the synagogue, we met for dinner at one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in New York. Katz's Deli has been existed for over 100 years, and although it is not kosher, it is considered Jewish because of its nature and the atmosphere. They have three types of finely sliced meat served on bread (or without) - tasty and delicious! There's a very famous scene shoot in this restaurant, the movie "When Harry Met Sally" - a love story about two friends who, after years of platonic friendship, moved into romantic relationships. There's a fun reference because of this movie. Every time there are friends, who are getting into a relationship people say, "Oh! finally, Harry met Sally." In the scene, they sit in a restaurant in New York, Harry tells Sally that he can always tell when a woman fakes an orgasm, and Sally tells him confidently that he can not really tell. Harry insists that he does and that he can always pay attention. Then, Sally decides to manipulate him and fakes an orgasm in the middle of the restaurant in front of everyone in a very vocal way that attracts the attention of all the restaurant guests. Harry remains surprised and realizes that he will never be able to notice when women are faking. At the end of the scene, the woman next to them says, "I'll have what she's having." In the spot where the couple sat there's a sign, "Here Harry met Sally, we hope you'll have what she's having..." Aaron and his friend came to visit and met us at the restaurant. The rest of the group went on a short walk to take the ferry to Staten Island. The professors agreed to release me from this tour because of my knee and because of Aaron. Not before they asked Aaron to photograph the group, while they try to embarrass me, "Good luck with her, call if you need bail money," and "She doesn't like many people so you must be special. " Everyone laughed. Later at ten p.m., we met at the hotel to talk about everything we had seen. We talked about history and the distinction between Jewish identity and American identity. There is a tension felt between the two characters bringing together the idea of "Jewish- American." Time and time again, the Jews in America prefer to define themselves as "white" and not as "Jews." Because of anti-Semitism, and because of all the events of the attacks. The antisemitism events are things I did not really get exposed to in my experience - but I learned that people in the United States accuse the Jews of shocking things and develop strange conspiracy theories in which they blame the Jews. The first day was long. It started at four in the morning and ended almost at 11 when they released us to bed. Very interesting but also tiring! This day was very hard on my knee. Day 2: I started my day at the gym with physiotherapy. This was a day with a crazy wind (50 miles per hour), and of course, that was the day we went on a ship to the Statue of Liberty Island. It was awe-inspiring to see the statue from up close and go inside. The part you enter the statue's skirt is a bit disturbing, but the tour around was really cool with a great view of Manhattan. It was tough being outside because of the mighty wind, I could not walk steadily, so I got some help from Maddie. We walked with our hands crossed and stabilized each other (or more so, I balanced myself with her, and only made it harder for her). The Statue of Liberty is a gift given to America from France and is one of America's most iconic symbols. I can see why. After the Statue of Liberty Island, we went on to another island not far, called "Ellis," to which almost all the immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s stopped in. Inside the museum, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and literature - about the contribution of Jewish artists to American music, poems, and books ... It was fresh thinking about how the pieces were influenced by the transition periods and how the messages in the literature pieces reflect on what happened. It was exciting... After we heard all sorts of stories about famous immigrants, we went to the area where the immigrants were waiting for absorption. "So now imagine their journey..." said Marty, "The immigrants spent weeks on this ship peeing in a bucket and not showering, imagine the long weeks in which they were transported on the boat like animals - and then they came to this building on this island," Marty opens the double doors of the station ... Wooooooooooooow! I could actually get into the head of those immigrants who come to America for the first time through those doors. From the sticky ship to the bright, high-ceiling beautiful area of the Ellis Island. They must have felt so hopeful to finally arrive in America. The land of opportunities. We headed towards the ship back to Manhattan.  The weather was so bad and made my body ache from the strong wind passing right to my bones. It was undoubtedly the worst day to choose to travel to the islands-but the professors had no control over it. In Manhattan, we went downtown to the office building of the Jewish Federation of North America. There, I had one of the most exciting discussions ever. As soon as I walked in, my Israeli radar was ON. I saw a guy sitting in front of us, and I instantly knew he was Israeli. Ha! he was! And his name is Doron. I felt like he knew I am Israeli too just by looking at me. We sat in a circle with five other leaders from the organization.  They told us about the org, their day-to-day operations with anti-Semitism, and what they do to promote the Jewish communities. This discussion was a fabulous closure for my story as an Israeli Jewish living in America. Doron was a foreign professional from Israel and had an accent, but he spoke in such a moving way. Without a single "umm," he pictured a vivid vision for us with a detailed speech about the actions he takes in times of crises. Doron told us about how he dealt with the shooting in Pittsburgh, which happened a few months ago. He explained how he walked into the synagogue, blood spattered everywhere, the victim's bodies were on the floor and in their hands Torah scrolls. He also told us about the beautiful sides of humanity, how an Arab community came to a synagogue in Pittsburgh the day after with muffins, and how Jews from the world who sent their support. Doron wants people to know how to defend ourselves, especially minority groups (LGBT, Jews or blacks). What do people must do at the moment of danger? When someone comes with a rifle and starts firing in all directions? He explains that the world is highly dangerous, not only to Jewish communities. The thing that touched me the most was when he talked about humanity on a moral level. He said that a person is not what happened to him but what he contributes to society. A person is measured by what he does with what happened to him. When I put it in the context of dealing with all the terrible anti-Semitic incidents that I suddenly see before my eyes – it’s compelling. Jeff told us that a friend of him said he will vote to an anti-Trump candidate, even if he is a BDS supporter. “Voting based on Israel, he said, is a luxury he cannot afford when the US is in such desperate straits.” I don’t know much about politics, but this statement strikes me. To me, obviously, one of the main definitions of being Jewish is being Zionist. That means, being able to have a Jewish state in the territory of Israel. Being very biased with my feeling and being very uneducated with all American politics I believe that Trump is good for Israel, but so as Clinton. It doesn’t matter who is really at the leadership, there are always good things and bad things at each government. I refuse to believe that Trump is the one managing America, it is a collaboration of many advisors and representatives. So, I would oppose a BDS supporter candidate by all cost, knowing that Trump's period will eventually pass… After the meeting, we had some time off, and I met with Aaron at a fancy Italian restaurant. I told him, "let's go to TGIF, they got a really cool salad bar," but then he said he already got a reservation for this super excessive restaurant on Times Square, what a spoiler! Day 3 We went to the 9/11 museum. I wondered why they were taking us to a museum that is all about an attack over America. This wasn't related to Jewish history. I asked Marty how it was associated with Judaism, he said  - "That's why you are paying me the money. We will talk about it later." The museum is moving and emotional. Mainly because of all the footage demonstrating the attack. This was my second visit and this time I focused more on Al Qaida's rising power, and on a new exhibition celebrate America's recovered from the disaster in terms of sport - New York's first game after a month of a strike. One of the 9/11 victims kid smiled for the first time when the Knicks won their first game back. The showed the president of the United States starting the first ball hit, and showed the New York marathon, just a couple months after the attack where a lot of people felt they had to participate for all those who registered but died at the attack. The reactions of the people were moving. They talked about the attack in verbs that show recovery, strength, optimism. I walked through the exhibit with my pal Aleksandr who spent 9 hours when the museum had just opened. It was cool getting all these nerdy little details about the events. We also visited the memorial wall of the fire department. In moments of fear and danger, when hundreds of people are running out, 300 people ran into the fire, and saved other people, killing themselves. Even when they knew they had no chance and knew that some of the people the firefighters were saving had no chance of being rescued, they still ran in. Climbing up over 50 floors of stairs with gear, take people out, choke from the fire smoke... We returned to the hotel and met in the theater studio across the street. There, we had a widespread discussion for almost two hours about the Israeli-Arab conflict. It started with the professor explaining how the museum is connected to the American Jewish experience, saying that their movements of people accusing of the bombing of 9/11 by al-Qaida. There is also a theory stating that many Jews got a message that day telling them not to go to work. What? Some people believe that the reason America was bombed was that the U.S was "a friend" of Israel. Maybe you'll come up with a more insane theory? Perhaps make up a more interesting one, such as aliens landing on the planet, transferring the obsession for those terrorists. It makes just as much sense to me. The students said that Jews are being blamed for much worse things in this country, such as the reason that JFK was murdered. From that discussion, I understood a few things. I realized that I had quite a lot of knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,in contrary to how little I thought I know. I understood that other people could describe the situation very well even without being in Israel and growing close to the fire zone. Mainly, I was struck by the fact five Christian students, and two Jewish students were comfortably sitting and holding a conversation about the conflict. All of them were highly intelligent, and all of them cared! Even though they had no real connection to the conflict. They cared, they were desirable, and they knew a whole lot. I understood that what we (Israel) "do to the Arabs" is no worse than what many nations did to their minority people back in the days. For example, what the US has done to its minority black people groups with slavery. Something that was a big shift in my thinking is that I understand the importance of American Jews living in America and not in Israel. For the longest time, I felt that those who complain about anti-Semitism are missing the point. I always felt that a real Zionist should live in Israel, that’s it. However, I finally realized that in reality, the American-Jews represent us in the international arena. They are the ones that “swallow” anti-Semitism for us, Israeli Jews so that we won’t feel it. American Jews force the world to pay attention to Israel, and to its needs. Alexa left the room crying, Marissa was very emotional too. Alexa is such a smiley person, it was very hard watching her get so nervous and sad like that. She is a fighter for justice and a leader in student governments. This discussion gave me the opportunity to watch how other, objective, people react to this matter. I got the chance to see it from someone else's eyes. It was a very intense session and one from which I’ve learned so much. Jeff summed up the discussion by saying that it is only possible to conduct a debate about the matter with people who are interested in two things; the security of the citizens of Israel and the humanity of the Palestinians. We want Israel to be safe as a Jewish country, and we want the Palestinians to be happy, as human beings. We finished the discussion and welcomed Ari Axelrod to the front of the stage. Ari is a highly talented singer, actor, and performer from Ann Arbor Michigan. Nowadays, he is one of the rising Broadway stars. Are has a fantastic dynamic we could sense as soon as Ari walked into the room. He has a lot of energy and a beautiful voice. “Why are Jews important to Broadway you ask? Ari said. “What’s your favorite musical?” Almost all of them were directed, written or produced by a Jewish person. He told us about his experience that led him to be the Jew he is today and his definition of an American Jew. He said us his journey as a highly un-inclusive college and the challenges he had to face while redefining his identity. 90% of the musicals were written, produced or directed by Jews, yet Jews are only 6% of the world's population. Isn’t that something? Cole is the type of person you want to get into his head and take a tour. He always asks the most original thought-provoking questions. From his stories, Cole is a not-so-Jewish Jew who is trying to reconnect to his roots and to his community. Cole would be the type of person that can easily "hide" if he wishes, behind his “American” identity. It feels like only now he is “coming out” as a Jew. Is it because the Jewish community in America is in crisis? I wondered. We had some free time before going back to Broadway to watch a musical called "The Band's Visit." A story about a musical group from Egypt who came to Israel and got stuck in “Beit-Hatikvah” (The house of hope) instead of attending their show in Petach-Tikvah (Open hope). This musical was one of the most shocking and boring performances I have ever seen. It won 10 Tony Awards!!! 10!!! More from Hamilton!!! What??? How?! It was full of foolish jokes about Arabs, who confuse P & B because they can’t pronounce P. Full of jokes about Israelis and there, so-call, barbaric behavior. It also had, in my opinion, terrible music and a plot that has no continuous connection between the cases. The Israeli accents were awful, and the messages about women in the show were highly wrong! The show demonstrated that women would just give themselves away to every person telling them they have pretty eyes. Apparently, it is just that easy. I was shocked. This is Broadway! People paid $ 160 to see this show; it’s been running for two years, how? I felt embarrassed. It annoyed me that this is what people learn about Israel through this horrifying and embarrassing show. This musical is based on an Israeli film. I am probably never going to watch. The only thing I could enjoy in the musical was how well they played the instruments live on stage. They did an excellent job and were highly skilled with their instruments. Day 4 Road trip day! We drove to Philadelphia, a state in Pennsylvania. But first, we stopped for breakfast at ”Zabar’s,” a food store. The professors said that "New York is Zabar’s, and Zabar’s is New York." The shop is adorable, authentic, and expensive with a huge variety of food, especially bakery. It is considered Jewish, although it's not Kosher, because of the type of food they serve. Mart said that if you hang out long enough at Zabar’s you will see celebrities buy there. To be honest, it did not impress me much, and I got mad at the coffee guy because he refused to pour coffee for me in my sustainable travel mug. (It is my waste-free month). The people who work at Zabar’s, have never heard of “the customer is always right,” they expect everyone to align themselves with their snobbery. Oh well, that’s New-York. It was a bumpy two-hour drive to Phili. We entered a fascinating museum about the history of American Jews from 1600 to the present. What I liked about the museum was that it didn't only focused on Jewish history, but included the way Jews were influenced by the various movements. For example, the black movement, the women march, the Vietnam War, the technological changes, and the presidents change in the U.S. The museum is decorated in a very cool modern way. The periods were divided into floors and were very open in a balcony setting. It felt like, even though you were standing on one level – the other periods were there, influencing you. I got a wheelchair there so I could actually look at things carefully and enjoy my time without the pain. For the assignment, I picked two beautiful masks representing Purim because it is my favorite Jewish holidays and it's coming soon! This holiday is a day to thank the lord for saving the Jews in the Persian Emire from the genocide that Haman planned to perform. The mitzvah of the holiday includes reading the book of Ester from the bible (which is a chapter I find very interesting), give gifts to the poor and have a festive Purim meal which includes drinking till you cannot remember who are you. That is why we put on costumes and masks - so that we won't recognize ourselves. You also eat Hamentashens and make a lot of noise. When Jews first brought Purim to America, it was often mixed with Haloween, because of the customs. I think these beautiful traditional masks are essential because they are unique and related to a cool story. We continued to Liberty Bell. It cracked me up! The native Americans rang the bell when America was declared for its independence. YAY America. We went back to our VIP bus, and the professors announced – we have a surprise for you. “Check out the link I posted on our Facebook group,” Jeff said. It is Rocky! They took us to the Philadelphia Art Museum, but we didn’t go inside. We did climb the stairs where the boxing champion from the famous movie "Rocky" climbed at the end of the movie with the iconic music! I gotta see the film, Rocky! The students were very excited! Everyone ran up in leaps and bounds. We returned to the vehicle for two more hours driving to Washington, the capital of the United States, which does not actually belong to any State, but it definitely should be. All the critical government stuff are in Washington; the Congress, the Treasury, the Pentagon (military), etc. We arrived at the Harrington Hotel, we were well prepared for this. A “cheap,” hotel with doubtful functioning essentials. In other words, gross. However, it was in an excellent location! My roommate was Mia, she such an interesting girl mainly thanks to her thick skin. She does not care what other people think of her, she only sticks to her values and operates as she wishes. Her stepfather is a Palestinian immigrant who was expelled from Gaza. I was really interested in hearing what are the motives made her come to this trip, what are her approach for the Palestinian- Israeli conflict? We had fascinating conversations about cultures, Americans, Canadians, and Russians. We also compared notes about dating women in comparison to dating men. She agrees that Jews deserve their own country, and admits that other Arab countries hadn't shown any support for the people living as refugees on the Gaza strip. She agrees with the 2-state solution, but it is always problematic when it comes to Jerusalem. That evening the professors took us to the Pentagon. This was one of the locations where the plane crashed on September 11, 2001. The memorial is imposing and very beautiful. It is outdoors and feels a lot more personal than the one in New-York. Because here, there were "only" 160 people killed, on the contrary of 3,000 in NY. The memorial stones looked like little planes with small fountains under it. Very moving picture. The girls and I took a nice walk around the block to get dinner. We are so supportive of each other and uplifting each other in a respectful way. Marissa, who is a sorority girl and a very energetic person seems like the type of person who has many insightful things to say, but to often she is keeping it to herself. Or, in many cases she will start by saying – “I might be wrong but.” We told her she should be confident with what she is saying, and what she thinks. And honestly, she is mostly right… Day 5 This was really the last day of the trip. We first went to the American Holocaust Museum, the most visited museum in the US. We were asked to think, why the Holocaust museum in America is essential. After all, this was an issue happening in Europe. The Jews in the U.S were somewhat safe from the Nazis. I really did not like this museum. The topic is unpleasant of course, but I felt that the display was subjective. The first floor you walk into – all you see is blood, misery, murders, horror. As I walked into the museum, the objects presented very hard to watch and not clear. The museum did not provide explanations. The Holocaust didn't just happen out of nowhere. The “final solution” wasn’t the first primary thought the Nazis had as they occupied the leadership. It was an intensified movement that only grew and became worse and worse. First boycotting Jewish businesses, then showing violence and protest, and the end goal was the mass murder of 6 million Jews. As an audience, I was left wondering, why did the Nazis do what they did? I want to understand, or at least know more, about the brainwashing process. About the intensified actions that led saint people into killing so many. To be fair, one of the museum’s slogans is – this is not a place for answers, it is a place for questions. So, it definitely raised questions for me. Another thing that ruined my experience was the many people attending, especially the 8th graders. The children were making noise and disrespectfully treated the exhibits. We met with one of the museums' workers Andrea Bertand, she is one of the research cooperators and has been working there for about 10 years. She told us about projects that the museum is engaging in both in the U.S and internationally. It is quite amazing. After listening to what she is doing for living every day, Jeff had asked her a question; how do you manage to work every day dealing with the most horrifying tragedy of humankind, and still remain optimistic? Andrea said that one of the cool things about her profession is the fact that she gets to see the "switch" in people's mind when they realize something, or when they open up to an idea. It is quite beautiful, she says. Of course, some days are worse than others. I learned that some people are devoting themselves to deny the Holocaust. That's a fun hobby, I guess. They take advantage of the Holocaust survivals testimonies and merely looking for errors to dispute the entire thing. Moreover, one of the most prominent researchers of the holocaust denials is coming to the Holocaust Museum in DC to conduct his research. If that ain't irony, I don’t know what is. To answer today's journal, I believe the museum holds a vital role in reminding visitors from around the world, and Americans especially about the lower possible level of humanity. To show, explain and educate – so that visitors can be inspired to become better people. After the museum, we went to Congress. If “pro” is the opposite of “con,” what is the opposite of “progress”? In Congress, we met there with two congressional representatives from Michigan. Austin Girelli of Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin's office, and Catherine Rowland of Congressman Andy Levin's office. The congresspeople were both Jews. Their representatives were both such diplomats I could die. They did not speak from the heart. That’s why I don’t like politicians. Politicians always talk in the correct way, but never concrete. I was not impressed. In the evening, we went to another art museum to check out some cool art and Obama's portraits. It was beautiful. I loved the museum, and I wish I had more time there. We had the perfect ending to our trip with a delicious dinner and a bedtime story from both professors. The stories took a lot longer than it should, only because everyone kept laughing and cracking jokes about the book and its content. We summarized some of the trips and talked about the things we saw. I really had a fantastic trip. I learned a lot and enjoyed it very much.


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