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••• The International Writers Magazine - Travel Stories in hacktreks

Shalom and Cosmopolitans: Loosely Jewish
• Ian Stark
Traveling to Israel


Peaceful farmland tempered with the threat of at-odds religions and potential missiles, the Golan Heights provide a stunning view of Israel and its neighbors. There’s little desert, but acres of green space. The steep, rocky slopes contrast with the lush flats of no-man’s-land; it’s almost beautiful. But tainted. From these heights, I look across invisible borders, down on the Arabic countries of Syria and Lebanon as some Israelis do– but with my eyes instead of my heart.

The night before our sunrise hike, my tourist group attends a geopolitical seminar about the area. Primarily accompanied by nearly twenty New Jerseyans and New Yorkers, I’m the only Southerner from the States. I expect the group to be at least as liberal as I am. They aren’t. A semi-honest presenter arrives before us with a disclaimer: the information we were about to receive was curated by Israel. We’re encouraged to form our own opinions, though bias is evident in their handouts. Parsing through documents and filling-in interactive maps of the 1949 armistice agreement and the Six-Days War, we Americans are led through Israeli history by our guides. Unsatisfied by their lack of territory– as most empires are– Israel sought to use the Suez Canal; worse, Israeli maritime shipments were blocked by Egypt. The details of war are gritty and need-to-know; we grasp for details despite the presenter’s limited perspective. Our conscripted peers proudly boast of Israel’s shift from defensive survival to commanding four times the land allotted in 1949. Little thought is given to the displacement of the Arabs which our Israeli Defense Force (IDF) accompaniment passionately fantasize about killing.

Some of them had killed. Some of them are younger than me. They’re 18. Militant. I’m 20. Privy to higher education. Itamar works with a cave-exploring dog, both sniffing out and burying ‘terrorists.’ Gitam constantly shows the meathead Jerseyans his Krav Maga training. How he gave one enemy soldier a concussion with a unique hold. The Americans spar and talk like they’ve been in a fight: “If someone swings from the left, I attack their right leg and knock them off balance.” Even if they fought, they haven’t spilled blood in a centuries-long Holy War. With blood comes someone to clean it, however. There is redemption. Yuval, a navy medic, describes how blood is precious to Israeli burial. If someone’s blood gets on his uniform during a failed rescue or resuscitation, the uniform would be buried with the deceased. Yuval doesn’t kill. Yuval is a messiah.

Before sunrise, the group wades through a section of the Jordan River. The water starts shallow, barely covering our ankles, and progresses until chest high on my 6-foot frame. Walking through, we encounter many children in the creek. When they see the American girls in their two pieces, they splash aggressively and rapidly, and Yuval confirms my guesses about the slurs I imagine them exclaiming. I keep close to him, learning Hebrew as we go. The children are yahudeem hava. “Shitty Jewish children.” I wonder why a Jewish man would call them that.

“Their orthodoxy makes them hateful,” Yuval explains. He practices Reform Judaism, which is less restrictive.

“In that case, Yuval. I’d like to be honest. Ani lo yehudi.” I’m not a Jew. My admission doesn’t surprise him. Many Americans go on trips to Israel under the guise of potential aliyah: the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land.

“You may not be Jewish, but today you are Israeli… It’s okay, I will guide you.”

Yuval is appointed my team's captain. When the waters become too high, we move to a different area to begin rafting. With the experienced naval soldier, I paddle down the river astutely following his loose bilingual instruction. I hope to impress him. The ride is engaging, with drops carrying us into new sections of shaded riverbanks. We feast on freshly grilled steak with watermelon, a whole tray gifted from loitering families enjoying the unfamiliar persons drifting down their river.
Arriving at the Golan Height’s standout peak, Mt. Herman, we’re briefed. It’s the tallest summit in Israel– and the highest manned U.N. location worldwide. It acts as a buffer between Syrian and Israeli conflicts. The no-man’s land is cultivated, replacing death with life. I start up the rocks. The initial climb is laborious. Many members of the group lag behind, unequipped for the harsh angles waiting before the peak. I fling rocks and sand with forceful strides as I lunge and stretch my limbs upward, determined to see every second of the sun rising over three countries. The sunrise takes over, turning the dirty browns into shining gold and illuminating the nature below. As more groups make it to the peak, it becomes a hotbed for pictures.

I search for Yuval, who had stayed behind to help the less inclined climbers but arrived in time to enjoy the moment with me. He loves mountain views, as he doesn’t see Israel’s land as much as its sea. I gaze over the landscape with him, trying to eye which field of tomatoes or corn is Jewish and which row is Arabic. Which field the U.N. has their scopes aimed toward. Then, abruptly, Yuval explains we wouldn’t be there much longer. We had a long drive to yet another landmark, where our hostel resides.

The Sea of Galilee, or locally: the Kinneret, rests in the opposite direction down the Jordan River, enchanting me with more sublime feelings. Nearby tourists remark that it is rumored to have around thirty years left before it’s entirely gone. Israel refilled the lowest freshwater lake in the world a few times, but climate change desiccates it.

“They say this is where Jesus walked on water,” I muse as Yuval settles beside me. “and not far, Magdalene, where his mother was born, and Capernaum, where he fed the thousands with fish and bread.”

Yuval raises his brows at the Christian beliefs. “You know we are Jewish, right?”

“Yes, but is the lake?” We sit in silence, wondering whether to call it the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret, Lake Tiberias, or Lake Gennesaret, named by each culture that claimed it as theirs.

Later that night, I leave my hostel to smoke despite being heavily jetlagged. I wander down the hostel sidewalks until a Bengal cat joins. Israel has an overpopulation problem when it comes to felines, and many locals are hostile toward tourists who try to feed them– and to the animals themselves. My furry friend needs kindness. The little guy and I make our way down to the water, and he drinks while I smoke. We talk with the silent understanding that comes with two individuals experiencing a holy site alone together. I toss him some of my Bamba, a peanut-flavored puff snack. Ignoring my offering, he nuzzles my hand before dipping his paws in the water. I, too, submerge my paw. It’s exceptionally chilly. The moon reflecting on the calm sea, I scan for the Holy Ghost treading the surface. Confirming our seclusion, I finish smoking and begin to strip to my underwear. I know it will be cold, but I need someone’s God to touch my skin. Closing my eyes, I wade in with my Bengal friend. Under the lake, I feel the world’s embrace: Jewish, Christian, Arabic, Israeli, American, Syrian, Roman, Grecian, Egyptian– they’re all hugging this miracle they birthed, and I’m wrapped up in it, and it is the whole world.

Reflections on the Sea of Galilee

Walk out there into it.

Touch fingertips with

the moon while it kisses

the water. Does it feel

us? I know it makes me

feel. Wait moments,

sit in the stillness, and then dive

under the sea’s embrace. Does

it deja vu and move you like harpsong?

Watch city lights and stars twinkle, maybe

wishfully, maybe dutifully. Ask them all

where they are from, and they may say

“God made me.” Some might say “The sky.”

None of them will name a country.

© Ian Stark May 2023

Ian Stark is a graduating senior at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. They have been published in Vermilion Literary Magazine as well as Miscellany.

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