This post is the second entry in a series of my experience in Israel on an LGBTQ+ trip. Because of how much content we experienced, I’ll be breaking down this series into three parts to best convey the “what.” I hope you enjoy reading “Queering up Israel!”
(Header image from Alex Stein-Tremblay)
We headed to Jerusalem in the evening of Day 2, settling into our hotel around 7pm that night.
Before we could rest, we met with the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Ofer Erez, who also become the first Trans officer in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). The work of the Open House is to serve the LGBTQ+ community of all of Jerusalem, which meant that it was a space where all the sectors & cultures could enter. Open House also hosts the Jerusalem Pride, which I hear is arguable vastly different than any other Pride parade around the world. (Someone fact check me please on this too haha)
My roommates became Bar and Patrick for this time, Bar was also our Israeli peer and Patrick was from LA. I was tired from the day and my cold was starting to really get to me so I opted out of that night’s activity and slept early for a full day the next morning.
By morning I was still exhausted, and it was beginning to be a stormy day but that wasn’t going to stop us from exploring the city. In the pouring rain we went to Mount Herzel, the memorial site for fallen soldiers. The rain felt appropriate, as if the sky shared our sorrows seeing this place. It was too wet to see actual cemetery, but we were able to enter the new monument there - which deserves a design award to be quite honest, it was stunning as ti was harrowing. The structure is a curved cone shape, with the inside spiraling through it and lined with bricks carrying names of fallen soldiers.
One of our peers knew someone who was recently killed in action and hadn’t seen her name yet until we were at the memorial, which left them emotionally charged. To be quite honest, we were all left emotional. To witness someone we love (and by this point we already built love for each other) go through raw pain is enough to make me feel like I’m experiencing a part of it with them.
The bricks were set up chronologically so we walked through the many time points of IDFs history, experiencing over 50+ years fallen soldiers and their stories. Additionally, every day, the soldiers that work there will do host a remembrance ceremony for all soldiers fallen on that particular day. Again, a moment of beauty and a lot of pain.
Our guide challenged us to think of what this cone structure symbolized. “A gateway.” “Heaven,” and other existential theories escaped our lips, but the guide’s clarification of “womb,” left us speechless. Life is created in the womb and when soldiers fall, they’re called back to it. I found it uniquely calming to hear that, a peaceful approach to fate. My pictures don’t do it justice, and I felt weird taking any at all but I needed to share just a glimpse at how beautiful it was.
From the memorial, we went to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. A desire I don’t share much (until now) is that I’ve always wanted to be a exhibit designer for a museum or gallery. I want to be involved in the process that creating immersive experiences for visitors, from the writings on the walls to the medium of the art. I feel like that would be such an creative and incredible experience as a storyteller. So when I say that the design of this museum was stunning, I mean it.
It was deeply painful to walk through everything, achieving a fuller grasp at the effects of Antisemitism while also realizing that people around still feel the same way they did 70 years ago. I didn’t take pictures at all, especially because it was crowded and our tour guide was too amazing of a storyteller for us to not give them full attention. She herself was Queer and tied many moments of the Holocaust to Queer history, particularly the story of Fredy Hirsch, an opely gay man in an internment camps who worked to helped secure better lives for families and children. He was revered for building structures and curriculum that furthered education for youth in the camp, being led to believe that they wouldn’t be subjected to death because of all the progress he was making, in cooperation with the Nazi’s. However, it was revealed that even the “special treatment” of those in his camp, they were all still subject to death when the Nazi' party began “liquidating” their camps when they realized that they were losing the war.
I might unpack my experience more of my experience in later posts, but for now I want to tell you that the museum is a necessary and meaningful experience. If you ever have the opportunity to visit it, please take it. Also, if you have more of an understanding of Hirsch, please share that with me so that I may update it further here!
On a personal note, this visit made think of how I often feel that I shouldn’t exist because of my identities. I sometimes feel like I embody a lot of what our society hates and that’s crippling to deal with. If you empathize, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.
That evening, we embarked into Mahane Yehuda, the market of Jerusalem. In the day time, it’s a bustling center of different eateries, gifts and grocery necessities like meats, spices, etc. However, on Thursday evenings, it becomes the party center with sprawling outdoor bars, a variety of music and lots of people.
Because of the nature of the trip we were only allowed to stay in a designated area - the parameters of the market - and this wasn’t a scene I was normally used to.
I love dancing and I like drinking, but I’m more attuned to Queer-friendly spaces now and being in a new country made me much more apprehensive. However, three shots of Arak deep and Cardi B playing from the bar in front of us, I was moving. We took a full length table la vie boheme style while music blared from the bar’s top speakers. At one point, we were all dancing and blocking the walkway, ultimately causing a lot of the locals to dance with us. Somewhere deep in my Instagram group chats there’s videos of us getting wavy.
In addition to the dancing, my friend Andrew and I embarked on a foodie moment, on the hunt for the best knafeh in the market. We found it at a little cart, along with a delicious crepe and some other treats that I can’t quite remember - mainly because proudly gorged myself on the Knafeh AND Andrew’s crepe (love youuu Andrew!)
After the night’s shenanigans, we had to hustle back to the bus in the rain! I tried to turn in early but my developing cold kept me up and I couldn’t fall asleep.
The next morning I took packets-full of emergen-c, hella pills for a decongestant and two 2-liter bottles full of water with me. Why? Because it was Shabbat, and this day was the day to see the Old City of Jerusalem and really explore more of this ancient, beautiful place - all while racing the clock to be back before Shabbat begins.
The Old City is one of the most iconic places for religion, arguably the centerpiece for it. It has Temple Mount and the Western Wall for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Christians and the Dome of the Rock for Muslims. The city itself is divided into four quarters: Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish. The architecture is relic, filled with so much character as it’s only made with stone. Everything is a color of beige that feels as new and energizing as it does ancient and calming.
We first found ourselves on a rooftop, overlooking much of the Old City, within minutes several other birthright groups came up as well. Soon the rooftop was full and we celebrated this moment together by dancing the Hora together. This moment was one of the mot beautiful of the trip, connecting other Birthright people for only a few minutes to sing, dance and laugh together. With the song finished, we dispersed and went on our own ways, but I know that many of us will carry that dance in our hearts whenever we think of Israel.
From Horah, we are led through old corridors, told stories of the spaces that held people, Benzi telling us who used what, where and why, painting us pictures of bazaars and flourishing life. As we made our way through the relics of the past, we were brought to a relic that intersects the past with the present, and even the future. The Western Wall.
To be quite honest, it wasn’t the wall itself that amazed me, but it was the way people were drawn to it that pulled me in. I know that it’s a place of worship and holds so much meaning to a lot of people, and that lens was the most fascinating. It sounds slightly voyeuristic, but there’s something about watching people live their different lives at the same time kind of satisfying, a settling reminder that life is always in motion. Even when you stop.
It’s important to know that the Western Wall separates men and women, with the women’s portion being significantly small than the men’s side. It requires orthodox practice, but there is an egalitarian platform for pluralistic prayers and it doesn’t enable segregation. I have to admit that I wasn’t mindful of this in the moment. It was a moment where I didn’t recognize how much privilege I carry being in a male-presenting body. We had Trans family with us and I can’t imagine the work that it takes to be put in the position of questioning your safety because you don’t know if people will question your gender. I vow to be more mindful of how my privilege can play into the oppression of others.
This all said, the wall’s energy held me in a lasso. The closer I got to it, the more I needed to get in front of it. You have to wear a kippah when you go the Wall and you can’t turn your back to it. At the Wall, everyone’s encouraged to pray and to put small notes in the cracks of it, wishes for people or the world. It’s said that the Divine sits on the wall and can help make those wishes comes true.
I didn’t spend much time there, the energy felt necessary but heavy. I placed my note in a crevice and I did something I don’t do often. I prayed. I prayed to God, I prayed to Gods, I prayed to The Universe. I prayed and felt something from it. I still don’t know what, but I’ll have to explore that in therapy haha.
After our time in the Old City, we took a quick trip to Mahane Yehuda to experience the market in the day time since we only say it at night. Now, the gag is that went before Shabbat, which is THE busiest time to go. The market wasn’t crowded, it was congested. From each alley and tip of the street, people were scrambling. I happened to run into my old Hillel director from Long Beach there (she was leading a trip too!) and thankfully she led through some the best shops, like Marzipan bakery for a chocolate rugelach that will make your entire life, and some corner carts with the best schnitzel and knafeh. Shout out to YOU Rachel! It was interesting to see Mahane Yehuda in it’s true form, and it’s more intense. So many people shopping for items to fill their Shabbat menus, rushing to finish before the evening.
It was at this time that we realized we had to say “so long” to our Israeli peers. On most trips, they’re only allowed to come for half the trip (either beginning or end), though some do allow the entire week. It was a sad goodbye, but for some it was a see you later because we go to see some of them again (especially those of us who extended our trip!)
Because it was Shabbat, we went back to the hotel early for dinner, held our own Shabbat service (which was beautiful) and spent the night talking and playing games, mainly reminiscing on our experience thus far and missing our Israeli family.
It’s Shabbat, which means we relaxed at the hotel all day. Some of us went to temple in the morning for service, which I kind of regret not doing, but I really had to rest up more to recover from the constant movement we had all week. Quite a few of us were getting sick at this point and Saturday was the day to recuperate. One of our activities from Birthright was creating a list of Jewish values with each other. We split up into groups and each had to pick our top 5 Jewish values we felt the most necessary to carry into the future. I appreciated doing this as a Queer person because that informed a lot of our conversations in our groups - how these values interacted with our identity and which of them uplifted us (and in some cases, how they oppressed us).
After that, we relaxed the rest of the day, getting ready for the next day’s adventure, which was going to be hiking Mt. Masada. We’ll tackle that next post! For now, I’ll leave you some pictures from these past few days. Also, I’d love to hear from you. What’s something you’d like me to talk about more? What am I leaving out from this experience that you’re interested in? (If at all!). Let me know via comments, text, email, DM, etc.) Following photo credits include Alisa Brown, Alex Stein-Tremblay and Chelsea Osterweil.